Mobo Brain – Visual Thinking and Your Portable Brain

mobo-brainMost of us are aware of the growing ubiquity of mobile devices in our daily lives. For author Jenz Johnson, the devices are tools that we can use to turn in to portable auxiliary brains. Jenz’s upcoming book Mobo Brain is a guide to harnessing the power of these mobile devices to augment our own brains and increase productivity.

Mobo Brain is a guide to turning your phone into a portable brain. One that you can fill with notes, ideas, clippings and your own personal maps.

The book is about how to use your phone in different social settings for problem-solving, planning and keeping organized. It is a primer for visual thinking where maps form a quick guide to everything from personal goals to meetings with your boss.

Many of the techniques and tools in the book will resonate with visual thinkers. I had the opportunity to ask a few questions of Jenz about visual thinking and Mobo Brain.

Jeff Bennett: Using visual thinking techniques like sketches, maps and doodles is a key part of mobo. What or who have been your visual thinking influences?

Jenz Johnson: I’m a newbie when it comes to visual thinking. I’ve been influenced by two books, once I started reading more about the subject. The first was Scenario Visualization by Robert Arp (MIT Press, 2008). Arp takes the evolutionary view. Our ability to solve problems visually was due to the evolution of our brains. The reason early man was able to survive was based largely on the fact that our brains dedicated over 30% of their processing power to visual processing, with our eyes have a direct connection through the nervous system to our brains. Arp argues: If you couldn’t visualize how a particular tool looks like, how could you build it? He calls this scenario visualization.

The second book was the classic by Edward Hill The Language of Drawing (Princeton Hill, 1966). He talks a lot about drawing and how it helps the drawer to see the “structure of appearances, relatedness and order.” So, those two books really encouraged me to use maps as a way to solve problems.

Using a tablet or phone is a natural way to brainstorm. It’s so incredible how you can bring out your device and sketch a problem and some potential solutions with your stylus. Then you can pass the sketch around the table. Your friends or coworkers can make changes. OR drop it in a public folder, or on your Facebook page. It’s both collaborative and visual.

JB: Why do you think pictures and visuals are better than text for our mobile auxiliary brains?

Jenz Johnson: Yes, most times. With a picture or visual of some kind, in a split second, we get it. We can completely understand a map for example. We see the left turns, the highways, the loops and forks in the road. We know when it’s too far. We can see the traffic jams. All of this helps us get to where we are going faster.

We understand a map in a blink. The same is true for maps we draw for ourselves, personal roadmaps. We can see our destinations, the twists and turns. In an instant we understand and can stay on course.

What makes a phone into a mobo brain is synching it to the Cloud. When you link up your different devices (your iPad or tablet, smartphone, laptops, and e-reader) you are building a knowledgebase, one that you can refer to anywhere, at any time. When these are formed into visual maps, you have the information you need in a blink.

And of course, now you can share it with friends and colleagues. Pictures are a way for us to digest information and condense it into visual points that are easily understood. So, there is a great deal of visual communication happening on phones. The growth in Pinterest, tumblr and Instagram underscores the growing use of visuals in the mobo world.

JB: The visual that first came to my mind for Mobo Brain was a Venn diagram – with Mobo Brain covering the intersection of visual thinking and the mobile revolution. Can you talk about this intersection of visual thinking and mobile?

Jenz Johnson: You bring up an excellent point. The intersection is growing. There are now more drawing programs available on our phones and mobile devices. It’s easier for us to use these to think creatively and visually about things.

So, it is a natural next step to place more visual information on our phones. We can access it quickly, understand it in a heartbeat and remember content better. The natural next step is to draw our own maps. They can be maps of our day, for example, or of a problem, or of talking points we want to cover.

JB: You talk about using our mobile devices to solve problems like the back of a napkin. Have you been influenced by Dan Roams book Back of the Napkin?

Jenz Johnson: Yes, I really enjoyed Roams’ book.

JB: On page 18 you say “It’s not simply remembering things on your phone. But it is using your devices to help you visualize things more. If you are not sketching out problems or brainstorming on your device, then it will open up a new horizon for you.” Can you give us some practical examples of ways people can use their mobile devices to sketch out problems or use visual thinking with their devices to help them day to day?

Jenz Johnson: In my book, I mention a librarian who finds herself with a pink slip and no idea what she wants to do with the rest of her life. But as soon as she started doodling on her iPad, she began seeing herself–and her future. The whole process of drawing helped her to see more clearly. Hill says “Drawing heightens perception.” Somehow just the process of drawing helped her to shift gears. Then once she begin to see a path, she sketched out a roadmap, a way to get to her future.

The amazing thing was that she carried this roadmap around with her and made it a splash screen on her phone. It helped her keep focus of her next steps.

JB: You use mind maps a lot in the book. Can you talk about why it’s such an effective tool to use with mobile devices?

Jenz Johnson: Once you have a map, you can glance at it and have a clear overview. You will understand the details and the narrative. And of course, as a visual, you will get it right away. So, the speed of comprehending is a bit advantage. And having it with you when you need it, it’s a real plus.

I describe a co-worker in my book being drawn into a heated discussion about Obamacare. He was sitting in the middle seat on a plan, and his seatmate had some pretty strong opinions but was short on the facts. So, my co-worker pulls out his mobile device with a map of Obamacare that he’d put together. He politely mentioned the key points of the actual Affordable Care Act. This cut through a lot of the misconceptions that the seatmate was having. And it also empowered my co-worker to speak up. Conversations these days can be informed with facts from our mobile devices.

I also think the very process of sketching a map, helps you see things more clearly. When my co-worker was putting together this map of Obamacare, he researched it on the internet, read the text and spent time understanding different points of view. This was condensed into a series of maps.

So, maps can be used for many things. They might be a career path, as my librarian friend found out. Or, the structure of a problem or topic, as Hill refers to. We can delve deeper into a subject, taking notes, drawing maps and snipping important content. And you can do this anywhere and at anytime, since you have the tools right on your phone.

JB: What developments do you see for our mobile brains as our mobile devices become more integrated into our lives with wearable devices like Google Glass?

Jenz Johnson: Yes, these new devices are pretty incredible. Instead of having to reach for your phone, you will see your notes and maps in a heads-up display on your glasses. And assuming that we aren’t barraged by advertisements, the access to all of our information becomes instantaneous.

This means that the important things we’ve read, the roadmaps of where we want to be, the reminders and talking points — all can be right there. It’s then a matter of your mobile skills. That is, how do I organize myself? How can I keep current on what’s important to me? How can this information be understood fully? How can I recall all the details that I need when I need them? This then becomes a matter of technique, what we call tradecraft in the book.

The direction of technology is making it easier to use our phones as our mobo brains. When you combine the technology with visual thinking, you’ve got a great combination.

JB: Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions Jenz.

Jenz Johnson: Thank you. I enjoyed your questions.

I’d recommend Mobo Brain for anyone looking to increase their productivity. There’s lots of great techniques and tips to get started if you’re a beginner. If you’re already a mobile device power user you’ll also find some great advanced ‘recipes’ to improve. He covers set-up, hardware, apps, clouds, along with tips and recipes to put it all to good use. Visual thinkers especially will appreciate recipes for learning to draw and sketch on your device, selecting drawing apps, making maps and timelines. Check it out.

Mobo Brain will be published March 5 and available at in both print and Kindle versions, with other digital formats to follow. For more information or for pre-orders, go to

The price is $4.99 for digital and $24.99 for print (through Amazon).

Jenz also has a page on his site with more information: