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“I Draw Pictures All Day”

“So, you do nothing all day.”

That’s how many people would respond to someone who says they spend the day with a pen or pencil in their hand. It’s often considered an empty practice, a waste of time. They’re seen as an empty mind puttering along with the busy work of scribbling.

But for us designers and artists, drawing pictures all day is integral to our process and to who we are as creative people, and despite the idea that those who doodle waste time, we still get our work done. So, then, why are those of us who draw pictures all day even tempted to think that someone who is doodling or drawing pictures in a meeting or lecture is not paying attention?

What does it mean to be a doodler, to draw pictures all day? Why do we doodle? Most of all, what does it mean to our work? It turns out that the simple act of scribbling on a page helps us think, remember and learn.

What Does It Mean To Doodle? Link

The dictionary defines “doodle” as a verb (“scribble absentmindedly”) and as a noun (“a rough drawing made absentmindedly”). It also offers the origins of the word “doodler” as “a noun denoting a fool, later as a verb in the sense ‘make a fool of, cheat.’”

But the author Sunni Brown offers my favorite definition of “doodle” in her TED talk, “Doodlers, unite!1”:

“In the 17th century, a doodle was a simpleton or a fool, as in “Yankee Doodle.” In the 18th century, it became a verb, and it meant to swindle or ridicule or to make fun of someone. In the 19th century, it was a corrupt politician. And today, we have what is perhaps our most offensive definition, at least to me, which is the following: “To doodle officially means to dawdle, to dilly dally, to monkey around, to make meaningless marks, to do something of little value, substance or import and,” my personal favorite, “to do nothing.” No wonder people are averse to doodling at work. Doing nothing at work is akin to masturbating at work. It’s totally inappropriate.”

It is no wonder, then, why most people do not have great expectations of those who “draw pictures all day.” Or perhaps they are inclined to think that those who draw pictures all day are not highly intellectual and are tempted to say to them condescendingly, “Go and draw some of your pictures.” As designers, many of us have heard such comments, or at least felt them implied, simply because we think, express or do things differently.

Why Do We Doodle? Link

Consider that even before a child can speak, they can draw pictures. It is part of their process of understanding what’s around them. They draw not just what they see, but how they view the world. The drawing or doodle of a child is not necessarily an attempt to reflect reality, but rather an attempt to communicate their understanding of it. This is no surprise because playing, trial and error, is a child’s primary method of learning. A child is not concerned with the impressions that others get based on their drawings or mistakes.

An Example of a doodle
An example of a doodle.

Their constant drawing, picture-making and doodling is a child’s way of expressing their ideas and showing their perceptions in visual form. It comes from a need to give physical form to one’s thoughts. Similarly, an adult doodles in order to visualize the ideas in their head so that they can interact with those ideas.

Visual Learners Link

According to Linda Silverman, director of both the Institute for the Study of Advanced Development and the Gifted Development Center2 and author of Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner, 37% of the population are visual learners. If so many people learn better visually, we can expect, then, that some of them learn better by putting a speech, lecture or meeting into visual and tangible form through pictures or doodles, rather than by being provided with pictures or doodles (which would be the product of another person’s mind).

37% of the population are visual learners

Humans have always had a desire to visually represent what’s in their minds and memory and to communicate those ideas with others. Early cave paintings were a means of interacting with others, allowing an idea or mental image to move from one person’s mind to another’s. The purpose of visual language has always been to communicate ideas to others.

Secondly, we doodle because our brain is designed to empathize with the world around us. According to Carol Jeffers, professor at California State University, our brains are wired to respond to, interact with, imitate and mirror behavior. In an article she wrote3, she explains the recent research into “mirror neurons” which help us understand and empathize with the world around us.

A cave painting
Cave paintings were our first means of communicating ideas to others.

Think of it this way. When you’re at an art gallery and find a painting that intrigues you, what is your first reaction? You want to touch it, don’t you? I thought so.

When I was a ballroom dancer, I used to sit and watch those who I considered to be great dancers, tracing their forms in space with my index finger as a way to commit them to memory. I used to go to galleries and museums and, at a distance, trace the lines and forms that I saw in the paintings and designs. I did this out of curiosity and a desire to physically record what I saw to memory.

Nearly 100 years ago, Maria Montessori4 discovered the link between physical touch and movement and learning in children. Montessori education teaches children to trace the letters of the alphabet with their index finger as a way to commit their shapes to memory. My son used to trace forms that he found interesting in space. It’s safe to say, then, that we doodle to visually commit to memory a concept that we want to both empathize and interact with.

An experiment conducted by Jackie Andrade5, professor of psychology at the University of Plymouth in England, demonstrated the positive effect that doodling has on memory retention. In the experiment, 40 people were given a simple set of instructions to take RSVP information over the phone from people going to a party. The group of 40 was divided in two. One group of 20 was told to doodle (limited to shading in order not to emphasize the quality of the doodles), and the other 20 would not doodle.

The doodlers recalled 29% more information.

Doodling a lightbulb
Doodling helps us retain information.

The study showed that doodling helps the brain to focus. It keeps the mind from wandering away from whatever is happening, whether it’s a lecture, reading or conference talk.

Still, we have become bored with learning.

Professor Emeritus at Cornell University, Joseph D. Novak argues6 that this is because we have been taught to memorize but not to evaluate the information being given to us. In many traditional settings, the pattern is simple and dull: sit, receive and memorize. Many traditional educational systems do not encourage active engagement with the material. Doodling, drawing and even making diagrams helps us not only engage with the material, but also identify the underlying structure of the argument, while also connecting concepts in a tactile and visual way. Jesse Berg, president of The Visual Leap7, pointed out to me in a conversation that doodling is a multisensory activity. While our hand is creating what might seem to be random pictures, our brain is processing the stimuli that’s running through it.

Many of us are the product of traditional schooling, in which we were made to numbingly memorize dates and facts, and many of us continue this pattern later in life. While some of us were avid doodlers (I used to fill the backs of my notebooks with pictures and draw on desks with a pencil during class), some of us stopped at high school, others in college and others once we settled into a job. At some point during the education process, doodling was discouraged. Teachers most likely viewed it as a sign of inattentiveness and disrespect. After hard preparation, educators want nothing more than unwavering attention to their lectures. The irony is that, according to Andrade’s study8, doodlers pay more attention to the words of educators than we think.

In her TED talk9, Sunny Brown goes on to explain the benefits of doodling and even offers an alternative to the definition found in the Oxford Dictionary:

“Doodling is really to make spontaneous marks to help yourself think. That is why millions of people doodle. Here’s another interesting truth about the doodle: People who doodle when they’re exposed to verbal information retain more of that information than their non-doodling counterparts. We think doodling is something you do when you lose focus, but in reality, it is a preemptive measure to stop you from losing focus. Additionally, it has a profound effect on creative problem-solving and deep information processing.”

How Can Designers Use This To Their Benefit? Link

As designers, we have a unique advantage when it comes to doodling. We don’t just doodle to keep our minds focused — we also deliberately sketch ideas in order to problem solve and to get immediate feedback from clients and peers. Designers such as Craighton Berman10 and Eva-Lotta Lamm11 are two of the biggest proponents of the “sketchnotating” movement. Berman states12 that sketchnotating “forces you to listen to the lecture, synthesize what’s being expressed, and visualize a composition that captures the idea — all in real time.”

In 2009, I came across a book titled The Back of the Napkin13 by Dan Roam. Roam is a business strategist and founder of Digital Roam, a management-consulting firm that uses visual thinking to solve complex problems. He uses a simple approach to solving problems visually. Every idea is run through five basic questions to encourage engaged thinking and to ensure a meaningful meeting. The process takes the acronym SQVI^. S is for simple or elaborate, Q is for qualitative or quantitative, V is for vision or execution, I is for individual or comparison, and ^ is for change or status quo. These simple choices are worked through with simple doodles in order to better understand the problem and find a solution. In his book, Roam says:

“What if there was a way to more quickly look at problems, more intuitively understand them, more confidently address them, and more rapidly convey to others what we’ve discovered? What if there was a way to make business problem solving more efficient, more effective, and — as much as I hate to say it — perhaps even more fun? There is. It’s called visual thinking, and it’s what this book is all about: solving problems with pictures.”

After discovering Roam’s book, I decided to doodle again. Once a prolific doodler and drawer, I had become inactive in lectures and similar settings, often forgetting what was said. Taking notes felt too cumbersome, and I often missed words and ideas. I decided to give doodling another shot. Instead of focusing on specifics, I would focus on concepts, key words and ideas.

Since 2011, I have been actively promoting doodling in my design classes, making a deal with my students, saying to them, “Doodle to your heart’s content, but in return I want you to doodle the content of my lectures.” They are skeptical at first, but they soon realize that doodling is better than having a quiz. I reap the benefits of doodling, and by allowing them to doodle — with the requirement that it be based on the class’ content — they become more informed of the topic and they engage in more meaningful conversations about design.

A sketchbook
A designer’s best friend: a sketchpad.

The typographic novices in my classes naturally start to apply the principles of visual hierarchy and organization, grouping ideas either by importance or by category. They will group ideas with lines, boxes, marks and more. Headings and lecture titles might be made larger, more ornate or bolder, and key concepts might be visually punctuated. It is fascinating how natural and almost second-nature the idea of visual hierarchy is to all of us. The learning curve of typography is steep for some of us, but doodling and sketchnotating really makes it easier to grasp. Below are some doodles by students in my classes.

Introduction to Typography lecture doodle by Alisa Roberts
Doodle by Alisa Roberts from my “Introduction to Typography” course.

By picking out concepts, ideas and topics, the students start to establish a hierarchy by making visual groupings and start to use visual punctuation. By the time I assign work on typographic hierarchy, the sketches tend to show more astuteness. Transferring these sketches to the computer is a challenge for those new to typography, but once they naturally understand the relationships in what they are doing, they start to make smarter design decisions.

Identity and Branding class lecture doodle by Aubrie Lamb
Doodle by Aubrie Lamb from my “Identity and Branding” course.

Identity and Branding class lecture doodle by Aubrie Lamb
Another by Aubrie Lamb from the same course.

As we have seen, doodling has many benefits, beyond what designers as visual communicators and problem solvers use it for. Doodling also helps our brain function and process data. Those of us who doodle should do so without feeling guilty or ashamed. We are in good company. Historically14, doodlers have included presidents, business moguls and accomplished writers. Designer, educator and speaker Jason Santa Maria says this15:

“Sketchbooks are not about being a good artist. They’re about being a good thinker.”

Doodling, drawing pictures and sketchnotating are about using visual skills to solve problems, to understand our world and to respond effectively. So, what are you waiting for? Doodle!

Further Reading Link

Unless otherwise stated, images are from Stock.XCHNG22.

(al) (il)

Footnotes Link

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Alma Hoffmann is a visual communication and design educator in Alabama, US and a freelance designer. You can find her at and follow her on Twitter @almahoffmann. She has also wrote the article Finding Alternative Structures for Typographic Layout based on our surroundings, and you can see visit her blog at Temperamental Muses.

  1. 1

    Great ideas to understand the importance of typographic hierarchy and mental maps!

    • 2

      Alma Hoffmann

      August 3, 2012 3:10 pm

      Thank you! I have noticed that when I sit out to sketch, the ideas flow more freely because of the constant doodling, one naturally groups information in clusters. It is really fun!

  2. 4

    I find that whatever I work on, I have to at least draw out something to have a blueprint of what I’m going to do.

    The computer does wonders, but at the same time it gets in the way of ideas. Maybe its all those menus and filters that makes it distracting; I’m not really sure.

    Those who don’t have high expectations of us artists are those who simply don’t understand or appreciate art. My experience has been with those types of people, that the bottom line for them is not quality, but price.

    • 5

      Alma Hoffmann

      August 3, 2012 10:03 pm

      Thank you Jim for your comment! And yes you are right! The most awful moment is that one when you stare at the blank screen! Every time I sit in front of the computer without even a simple sketch, I spend more time staring and struggling with the little old “what do I do” question. :-)

    • 6

      Alma Hoffmann

      August 4, 2012 4:32 am

      I agree with you. :-) thank you for your comment! :-)

  3. 7

    Great article! go Alma!

  4. 9

    Very GREAT article!!

  5. 11

    Well this gives me confidence to sketch any thing on my mind.

    “Sketchbooks are not about being a good artist. They’re about being a good thinker.” < Love it.

  6. 13

    I agreed!
    I started doing a project called 15min exercises. I set a timer to 15min and I sketch… or doodle. I got this idea from a designer, Mig Reyes at HOW Design conference and it helped me a lot to build skills and being able to create something in 15min.
    I am planning to convert my sketches in to vectors graphics soon and share it with the community soon!

    • 14

      Alma Hoffmann

      August 3, 2012 9:41 pm

      That is an awesome idea!! Love it! It gives me some ideas for class projects too! Please do let me know when you make them vector graphics! I’d love to see them! Thank you for your kind comment and this wonderful suggestion!

    • 15

      Alma Hoffmann

      August 3, 2012 10:00 pm

      I would love to see them! Make sure to let me know! Thank you for your kind comments! And the exercise you mentioned, is such a great idea! I need to think how to incorporate it into my classes!

    • 16

      Christian Krammer

      August 8, 2012 8:50 am

      Thanks for the tip, I really have to try that out!

  7. 17

    I love your article, Alma! And doodling in class really does help in soaking up the information! :-)

    • 18

      Alma Hoffmann

      August 3, 2012 9:41 pm

      Hi Aubrie!
      Glad it helped you! Your doodles are so much fun! And so detailed! Please keep doodling!

  8. 19

    Luke Robinson

    August 3, 2012 7:59 pm

    My hero is Danny Gregory,, and his focus on illustrated journals and sketchbooks. He’s authored a couple books on the subject plus shoots videos ( featuring NYC artists.

    • 20

      Alma Hoffmann

      August 4, 2012 4:29 am

      WOW! That’s some amazing work! Thank you for the link! I’ll bookmark it. :-)

    • 21

      Christian Krammer

      August 8, 2012 8:51 am

      Wow, he has an amazing website full of awesome content. Thanks for the tip!

  9. 22

    I have had non-creative supervisors who were just simply baffled by my doodling or sketching out rough ideas for web designs. It has made me a closet doodler – it’s nice to know that this is still a great practice.

    • 23

      Alma Hoffmann

      August 3, 2012 10:21 pm

      Hi Lisa, I know what you mean. I used to draw in everything I touched. But I got self conscious and stopped. The book by Dan Roam convinced me to stop worrying and just do it. Then I came across Andrade’s study a few years later and that made it for me. I carry around my sketchpad (thin so it fits in my purse, markers, pencil, and for sometimes I put my colored markers). I would love to see your doodles or sketches! Thank you for your comments! And you are not alone! :-)

    • 24

      Alma Hoffmann

      August 3, 2012 10:24 pm

      Hi Lisa! No, you are not alone! :-) I used to draw in everything I touched. My mom even let me paint the walls one time. But then eventually I got self conscious and stopped. Dan Roam’s book turned it around for me. It really changed my perspective and I decided to doodle and let my students do it. In the community of designers it is called sketchnotating and there are websites where they share their notes. You might want to check some of the links here and Flickr too. I would love to see your doodles! :-) Thank you for your comments!

    • 25

      I’ve had exactly this problem. Comments stated with annoyance like “bored of the work ey?” made me stop doodling, despite the fact that I personally knew why I doodled, and it certainly wasn’t because of boredom! But screwed if you can explain it to a non-creative.

      This article has helped encourage me to return to it. I’m going to try incorporate it in my process more now, it already feels good just doing a few after reading this!

      • 26

        Alma Hoffmann

        August 14, 2012 11:57 pm

        I am glad to hear it encouraged you! People misunderstand doodling. I am a creative person and I fell into that trap too. It was that moment with a former student that forced to reconsider. Keep going! Thank you for reading and your comment! :-)

  10. 27

    Yes I feel like we all need to sketch ideas and it’s important but I feel like this article sort of plays on the fantasy that designers are free spirited artists and not the business minded professionals I work with every day. That’s one of the bubbles that burst after college courses. In my 15+ yrs of being a designer I am seeing less drawing and doodling from younger designers. There isn’t time. Most go straight to the computer or ipad first. Projects today seem to have much tighter deadlines than I remember years ago when I first started out (I think due to the immediacy of the internet.) I’m seeing those in my career spend less time on doodles and more time on refining final product. I also don’t meet very many designers who draw well, and believe me I interact a lot with people in my field. We hire contract freelancers every month for several projects going on at one time and I’m involved with our local AIGA chapter. Anyone else notice this too?

    • 28

      Alma Hoffmann

      August 3, 2012 9:48 pm

      Thank you Red for your comments! :-)
      I find the opposite to be true though. I am even quoting Jason Santa Maria and other well known designers and/or developers in the article who strongly believe in sketching and the hand/brain connection. In my experience, the majority of designers either doodle or sketch on whatever they have available: iPads or pocket sketchpads. Keep in mind too, that a lot of the design work needs some prep and planning time. Yes, designers are very business minded people and I do not mean to downplay that side of our discipline nor I am trying to romanticize our discipline. I have found that even 5-10 minutes of rough sketching or doodling does help immensely in the process. I carry around a notebook that I pull out at every time there is a quiet moment to doodle. I doodle in meetings. I do doodle the content of those meetings and I have found that my design skills have gotten better.

    • 29

      hi Red, your phrased my thoughts exactly with;
      ‘Yes I feel like we all need to sketch ideas and it’s important but I feel like this article sort of plays on the fantasy that designers are free spirited artists and not the business minded professionals I work with every day. ‘

      My first thought was ‘damn hipsters, thats now how it works!’ ;)

      • 30

        Alma Hoffmann

        August 7, 2012 12:49 am

        Hi Peter! Experiences will always differ but the study Andrade conducted hels us understand those who ate visually inclined and perhaps more kinesthetic than others. Thank you for reading! :-)

  11. 31

    Tiffany Castle

    August 4, 2012 6:21 am

    Excellent article, I personally am a avid doodling designer and do find it soothe and focuses my thoughts when I am having a particularly difficult time clarifying what I want the design and flow of a process to be. In studio doodling is a part of most meetings and always in brainstorming sessions, it help so much in breaking the tension and blocking when a new project is on the table. Love it!

    • 32

      Alma Hoffmann

      August 5, 2012 5:30 am

      Thank you! I agree with you. Sometimes a doodle takes you in a very different path one thought in the beginning. :-)

  12. 33

    Great article! It’s Doodle time!

  13. 35

    Alma Hoffmann

    August 5, 2012 5:31 am

    You are welcome! :-)

  14. 36

    Mahmoud El-Magdoub

    August 5, 2012 8:19 am

    Amazing Article :) Thanks alot!

  15. 38

    Chathura Asanga Kulasinghe

    August 6, 2012 4:42 am

    – Even if I have done this many times, this study seems to be such a new thing for me. Thanks for the amazing article by the way!!!

  16. 40

    Hi Alma, loved the article. But I don’t agree on this one:
    “Consider that even before a child can speak, they can draw pictures. ”

    When I watch my own son and other kids, this is not true. Communication comes before creation.
    Communication is the first thing babies/kids learn. Because they rely on it heavily to satisfy their needs. (Crying because they’re hungry or need a diaper change. Learning ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ to address us.)

    My kid could say his first words at about age 1. He could not draw at that age.
    But maybe you should define ‘pictures’. My kid is 3,5yrs now and he still can’t draw anything recognizable.
    Sure he can color, draw shapes like strokes or circles, but that’s it.

    • 41

      Alma Hoffmann

      August 7, 2012 12:39 am

      Hi Lau!

      Thank you for reading and your comments. I too have kids. In my case though, they reached out for a pen, crayon, brush, or anything to “draw.” no, it wasn’t recognizable but it didn’t have to be or needs to be. It’s about their interpretation for lack of a better word. Perhaps in my case it was a question of imitating me since I scribble all the time. And there’s also the fact that not all children are inclined to express themselves in the same way. I understand your point though. Perhaps I should revise to say “most or some” instead of making a blanket statement. Thank you for pointing that out! :-)

    • 42

      Alma Hoffmann

      August 7, 2012 2:30 pm

      Hi Lau,

      I just kept thinking about your comment and thought about what you said more. The quote you are referring to says “before a child can speak…” You are right, children try to communicate in unintelligible sounds to satisfy their needs, reach out to others, and establish a connection. But they do not speak. They do not have yet the words until they start learning. However, as soon as they can, they scribble also with a crayon, pencil, paints, etc. These scribbles may not and probably will not make sense for a few years. That is okay. It is not about what they draw, it is about their desire to express themselves, which is what I am trying to say in the article. The doodles do not need to be great drawings, and they should not be. They should be free and spontaneous markings to help us think and process information. In fact, many presidents and famous people doodle/doodled. Now, I am referring to designers too who have an advantage because many of us took drawing classes and are visual people. Hope this makes sense. Thank you for reading! :-)

  17. 43

    Great piece! I am creative director at my own app development firm SmartyShortz. Everyone is always pushing me to use the web for storyboarding, new ideas, flow charts, graphics etc…it kills my ideas I swear! I need to sketch everything out in my journal book I keep right next to my computer or I loose half of the ideas. I have resorted to scanning my journal sketches and having them brought up on peoples computers. Sketches have the ability to open up the onlookers minds as well, they see side little notes and sketches that may not have transpired into a full sketch but someone else may be able to run with….
    Again- great piece!

    • 44

      Alma Hoffmann

      August 7, 2012 12:42 am

      Thank you! I’m with you! I have a sketchpad in my purse, on my desk at work, on my desk at home, and a series of smaller ones for tighter purses. I jot down, scribble, sketch, and/or doodle everything that comes to my mind. Thank you for your comments! :-)

  18. 45

    Douglas Bonneville

    August 6, 2012 5:42 pm

    Thanks for linking to my article, “Why Graphic Designers Should Learn to Draw” at in the Further Reading section.

    I would add that a lot of people think that I’m not paying attention during meetings because I’m doodling. In fact, the opposite is true. I can’t pay attention unless I’m doodling. I would either fall asleep or daydream into another universe.

    I think in pictures, and unless a pen is moving while someone is talking, I’m not going to retain much. I will remember the most important gist (because I visualize it by default), but none of the details unless the detail itself had a strong visual I reflexively associated with it.

    One of the keys to memorizing is creating strong visuals tied to mundane facts. The more sensational the better.

    The great Greek orators used to walk around fixed paths while they composed their speeches, and would tie certain facts or transitions to something on their path as they went, and make some association. They might take a fact like the current population of the city and tie it to a pile of rocks they happen to be near when they work on that part of the speech. They would rehearse this many times. This is what enabled these orators to deliver 4 hour speeches with no notes. The would in essence go on a virtual walk in their minds, and talk about it as they went. They would “see” their way through a speech.

    • 46

      Alma Hoffmann

      August 7, 2012 12:45 am

      You are welcome! Thank you for reading and your comments! That is such a great analogy too! I understand what you are saying. I’m that way. Visual associations are strong tools! Keep doodling! :-)

  19. 47


    August 6, 2012 7:17 pm

    Testimony to doodling: My doodle art on a high school notebook divider ignited a 40 year art career!
    Check it out:
    Or go to:
    and scroll down a few posts.

    • 48

      Alma Hoffmann

      August 7, 2012 6:18 pm

      WOW! What a great story! Thank you for the link! I’ll bookmark it and use it as a reference! :-) And thank you for reading!

      • 49

        Well, thank you too! I felt it was apropos since we both posted about Doodling within a couple of days of each other – synchronicity at work!

  20. 51

    Nice piece. I doodle on almost all my design projects when freelancing. If I don’t doodle first, most of my designs fall flat because I over-think them. Ironically, I’ve worked at firms who get annoyed and think I’m wasting time doodling on their dime, yet love the designs that came from those doodles. The horror!

    I agree that doodling is more than just about designing. Like many artists I started doodling as a kid. Doodling is like humming … you can make a great song with no real instruments at all. Doodling for designers is much like the voice-recorder is for the busy executive… it allows you to capture ideas/planning quickly, play around with new ideas, then refer back to them whenever, all on a very simple, personal level.

    There’s something imminently satisfying doing a full page of doodles. Some people prefer iPads, others napkin or sketchbooks. I personally prefer to doodle on onionskin paper… the translucency and texture just works.

    Whether you’re a great sketch artist or not, the free-flow of things totally random to structured experimentation of shapes and elements is liberating. I personally feel my best design ideas come from doodles, because I don’t get hung up on fine details or technical issues in the brainstorming phase. Plus it’s fun to look back on years of doodles.

    • 52

      Alma Hoffmann

      August 7, 2012 12:53 am

      Exactly! That’s the way it should be! Thank you for reading and commenting! :-) Love how you explained doodles work because you don’t get hung up on fine details. That’s so true!


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