I’m so excited to share this interview!
Sunni Brown is one of my favorite people on the planet – hilarious, direct, unbelievably bright, and incredibly talented at working with images and words.
Sunni’s spoken on the TED stage, co-authored GameStorming (one of Amazon’s Top 100 Business Books), been recognized as #56 of the 100 Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company and #5 on the 10 Most Creative People by Twitter, as well as traveled all over the planet, graphically recording world leaders in business and government.
Thanks, Sunni, for sharing your mind, inspiration, and charge to make the world visually literate.
Many people would consider your work ‘art’. You repeatedly state that you don’t define yourself as an artist. How do you define “artist”?
I think my constant assertions that I’m not an artist will eventually come full circle to bite me in the ass. Semantically, I could be considered an “artist” by almost any definition, broad or narrow. The problem is that I don’t feel like an artist. I’ve never wanted to be one; I didn’t grow up admiring artists (please recall: I’m from Huntsville, TX) and I don’t feel a constant need to express myself which is what I think drives many artists’ work. I express myself in small, satisfying ways throughout each and every day, so that satiates any potentially volcanic urge to create art. I consider myself an entrepreneur first and foremost.
What are the most exciting ways you have seen visual thinking used in the last few years?
The explosion in visual thinking—in a multitude of forms—has been absolutely astounding, but not surprising. Give human beings a glut of information to handle coupled with remarkably easy access to tools and apps that allow them to visualize and share content with the world, and the tide will inevitably rise. People will start asking, “How ELSE can we think?” I’ve seen visual thinking go from red-headed stepchild status to being an outright cornerstone in the future success of a business. People across the board are realizing that failing to use visual thinking and design thinking has serious consequences in the marketplace. So in the last few years, I’ve seen companies spend HR resources on training entire departments in visualizing presentations, sales pitches, organizational visions and so forth. I could chronicle the many ways they’re doing it, but what’s important is that they’re doing it!
You graphically facilitate and ideate with global leaders and organizations. In those interactions, what have you noticed makes a great leader? How is that leadership translated into the day-to-day actions of their companies?
Great leaders are people who allow other people to grow and to shine. They’re people who authentically encourage their teams to explore knowledge, push boundaries, fail, make decisions, and ask hard questions, even of their leadership. Great leadersalways have a vision and everything the team does is about arriving at that vision. They transform the team around them by being smart, by listening intently, by being supportive and humble. They include the insights and expertise of their team into the decisions they make. Truly great leaders are tear-jerking to watch. Day-to-day they elevate the performance of everyone around them.
Can you give us a quick synopsis of your new book in the works: The Doodle Revolution? What do you want people to walk away with?
When people read The Doodle Revolution, I want them to walk away with the feeling that they have essentially re-awakened an instinctive tool that will change their lives and work forever. The Doodle Revolution is really about visual literacy. It’s about igniting capacities for thought that lay dormant in the absence of visual language. It’s about giving people permission to think freely, using this incredible portal of cognitive capacity that I call doodling.
What sources of inspiration do you use/read/watch? Any role models that guide you?
Most definitely. I adore Miranda July and want to have her babies. What seems to drive her work is the human connection, including its frailties and its quirks. I don’t call people geniuses often because I think that given the right circumstances, we’re all geniuses, but Miranda July? She’s a genius of the first order. Bruce Mau is also crazily inspirational for me. His use of design thinking to promote massive social change makes me want to do cartwheels. Bruce is making the connection between social context, behavior, design and goodwill an actual, tangible thing. God bless his beautiful, smiling face.
Two experiences I have to know about! How the hell was the legendary Tim O’Reilly’s play ground Foo Camp? And, what was it like to speak on the TED stage?!
Tim O’Reilly says that the point of Foo Camp is to light up the synapses of the global brain and that is, in fact, what happens there. I’m actually at Google’s ORD Camp in Chicago right now (hellooooo, winter), where the same thing is going on. I woke up this morning, had the most perfect idea for an interactive public art project, and emailedRob Bliss of LipDub fame immediately to get him to participate. Lightning does strike at these crazy camps. Even if you have to sleep in a tent to get to the good stuff.
About speaking at TED, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my professional career. In summary: Four months of work on the talk, 51 nights tossing and turning, two bouts of barfing from nerves the day before, and a talk that seems to be resonating with doodlers around the world. I still watch that thing and tear up. First, because I did it!! and second, because that long, arduous mental challenge is behind me. In my mind, I often thank June Cohen, the Executive Producer, for the invitation. She really did take a chance.
Sunni’s work was recently featured on Boing Boing, BBC, CNN, The Washington Post, Shape Magazine, Net Magazine UK, A List Apart and the Arab News.