Developer Doodles

February 01, 2012 / Culture

Drama in Davos

This year’s meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos is once again delivering drama from both within and outside its security fence. From the naked ambition of topless activists protesting in the alpine snow to the theatrics of the International Monetary Fund’s managing director suggesting that the developing world contribute to save the relatively rich eurozone, 2012’s edition is making a tabloid splash.

But it’s still too early to tell whether this year’s antics will break the high-water mark set in 2005. Just seven years ago at Davos, then-Prime Minister of Britain Tony Blair appeared on a panel with Bill Gates, Bill Clinton and Bono. After the panel, event workers when tidying up came across some papers left behind on the platform near Tony Blair’s seat. The papers were covered in doodles: and the discovery sparked a wave of scandalous excitement in the press.

The infamous Davos Doodle

Handwriting experts were drafted in by the media to relate the drawings to the psychological state of the prime ministerial mind. Newspaper headlines delivered verdicts such as "struggling to concentrate" and "not a natural leader, more of a vicar". Alongside the heavy artistic scrutiny, pundits also sought to retake the measure of Blair’s focus. What was the world leader doing sketching in the first place? Doodling when the world’s elite are taking turns at the podium to grapple with serious issues was seen as trivializing the entire enterprise.


Days later it would transpire the page of scribbles in fact belonged to Bill Gates.

Doodling in August Company

Bill Gates doodles. Frank Gehry doodles. Thomas Edison doodled. Sylvia Plath doodled talking hot dogs and marshmellows. Fermat famously doodled his last theorem. Google doodles. John F. Kennedy doodled his favourite sail boat just below a ringed note to blockade Cuba. It seems nearly everyone doodles and contrary to our cultural biases studies are now beginning to show that sketching in the margins is anything but trivializing the complex.

Jackie Andrade, a professor at the University of Plymouth, published a study finding a 29 percent increase in knowledge retention by doodlers. And a recent article in the research journal "Science" proposed that drawing in education helps to accommodate individual learning preferences and motivates students to explore content in more meaningful ways. The popularity of the Doodling in Math Class series by YouTube publisher Vi Hart (recently hired by the Khan Academy) and the RSAnimate lecture transcripts are a great indicator of the interest in this new visual approach to learning through doodling.

Ecentricarts Doodles

In a nod to Bill Gates and to prove that everyone has an innate talent for doodling, I asked those willing of the developers at ecentricarts to donate their notebooks to the cause.

A compilation of doodles taken from the notebooks of various ecentricarts developers

Adding to the Findings

Inside each book scattered in and around the bulleted action items, curved along the paths of circled deadline dates and jotted on the endpapers, I found lines, dots and drawings that offered an unguarded glimpse into the owner’s wandering as they processed high densities of information. From system architecture to Moomin trolls, it’s apparent that developers doodle for a variety of reasons: it’s a way of maintaining a level of cognitive stimulation to stay engaged in information exchanges but it's also a tool to get clarity around a concept or to communicate and collaborate on ideas.

From my own jottings I know that doodling can also simply be an opportunity to relax, to take a line for a walk and see what shape it takes. And as I thumbed the pages of the notebooks I felt quite privileged to be working with other such regular walkers; it seems even those you least expect to express themselves artistically have the talent for fantastic visual literacy and imagination.