Ruth Rostron
This article was published in ‘The Graphological Magazine’ Issue 24 Winter 2006-7, following a
presentation to the Association of Qualified Graphologists which included many illustrations of
celebrity doodles or ‘autograph drawings’ from the National Doodle Day website.
Doodles are the scribbles, shapes, patterns and drawings we produce while the focus of our
attention is elsewhere. This usually happens when we are listening to someone or waiting for
something to happen. The fact that they appear spontaneously is what makes them unconsciously
revealing - like Freudian slips they bypass our normal conscious controls.
The Collins dictionary gives this definition of doodling: ‘to scribble or draw aimlessly, to play or
improvise idly’. The choice of the word ‘play’ is interesting since it is now widely recognised
that children’s play serves several important functions. One of these is to enable children to cope
with fear and anxiety by enacting situations that worry them. For example, by playing ‘hospitals’
children can take turns being doctor, nurse or patient and gain some sense of control over what
frightens them. Wanting to repeat the same game over and over again indicates that the anxiety
persists, since children quickly let you know when they are bored.
Doodling serves a similar function to play: it acts as a safety valve to release tension and anxiety.
It may appear to be ‘aimless’, almost as if the pen or pencil had a mind of its own, but it allows
problems that preoccupy us to surface, and gives expression to needs and conflicts that we may
hardly be aware of. We may not recognise these issues in our doodles any better than we do in
our dreams, but we can start to interpret them once we understand the significance of the images
and gestures that they contain. Pressing needs and wishes are expressed in a symbolic way in
doodles, just as they are in dreams.
Straight and curved strokes
Let us start by considering the significance of the two most basic graphic gestures: the straight
and curved stroke. Straight strokes are inflexible and convey the ‘hard’ emotions typically
associated with men, while curved strokes are flexible and convey the ‘soft’ emotions typically
associated with women. Straight strokes are linked with mental concepts, willpower, the animus
and the material world, whereas curved strokes are associated with what is physical, spiritual and
emotional, and symbolize the anima. These simple contrasted movements reflect the opposite
but complementary aspects of human nature: male and female, mind and body, willpower and
emotion. Straight and curved strokes represent this fundamental duality, and the overall balance
between them in someone’s handwriting or doodle shows the balance between these polarities.
Fig. 1
Husband and wife, 60s,
doodles in blue biro
and pencil (square)
Fig. 1 shows two opposite types of doodle. The relatively large scribble is made with continuous
rounded movements and light pressure, while in the small square doodle short straight strokes are
retraced with heavy pressure. The rounded doodle was done by the man and the square one by
the woman, who also did the writing.
On the whole men tend to use more straight strokes and women more curved ones, but the bias is
not necessarily gender-related. Men have their feminine side and women their masculine side,
which is a way of saying that we all have a variety of characteristics within us, some of which
have the potential to conflict. The overall rhythm of the writing or drawing will show whether
the disparate elements in someone’s personality are harmoniously integrated or not.
Fig. 2 Male, 40s, blue biro, medium irregular pressure, doodles in red biro
The poor rhythm of the writing clearly shows that the two sides of this man’s nature are in
conflict. He is moody and unpredictable and swings between being loving and aggressive,
overcompensating for a sense of weakness (mixed slant, variable MZ, braced straight strokes +
thready weak ones, loopy etc.). The arrow and circles represent the male and female elements in
his make-up, while the X-ing inside the small circles shows his inner conflict and ambivalent
feelings about women. The arrow pointing down to the left signifies that he often displays a
negative attitude, and that hostility stemming from the past is still festering. Frustration is
indicated by the sharp points and tics, and lack of fulfilment in the high arcaded t bars +
suspendu, low LZ crossings, and low FS. The sexual preoccupation suggested by the arrow
heading towards the cylinder is intensified by the use of red to express his passion and anger.
Fig. 3 Girl, age unknown, black biro, medium pressure. Reduced to 50%
This young girl extends and retraces straight strokes, exaggerating the length of the A of her own
name to an extraordinary degree. This suggests enormous anxiety relating to expressing her own
will, asserting herself, or showing aggressive feelings ie. the masculine side of her nature. Note
the small size, slight left slant, wide spacing and garlands + angles, large capitals and rising top
bar of the PPI. The heavy vertical lines contrast starkly with the coiled embellishments. Curling
inwards they reflect suppression of feelings as well as a self-absorbed preoccupation with a
feminine image. Only the right hand side of the letter A is reinforced. This suggests that her
aggressiveness is defensive and compensates for feelings of weakness, since it occurs when
dealing with others, particularly her father. On the bottom line enormous capitals protect her
fragile sense of self. She is even uncertain about what to call herself.
Doodles give expression to our underlying preoccupations and conflicts, and to aspects of our
nature that we may not be aware of, or may not want to acknowledge. Doodles may consist of
objects, little scenes, scribbles, simple shapes or complex geometric patterns.
Developmental Stages
Scribbles can look just like something a child might have done, as in Fig. 1, and the drawings
often have a childish quality. It is well known that we all go through the same stages of
development as we grow up, however we define these. What is less well known is that scribbles
also show a pattern of development that is universal. All children scribble once they can hold
something to make a mark with and they progress from making arcs and dots to drawing circles,
then squares and then triangles. It takes more muscular control to turn a corner or join two
strokes, and more determination to form an acute angle than a right-angle. This progress from
circles to squares and triangles maps the path of childhood development through the oral, anal
and phallic stages.
Geometric Shapes
With these shapes in their repertoire children start to reproduce things that are important to them,
such as members of their family, their house or their pets. With these shapes and their
characteristic movements they also express how they are feeling. They make angular shapes
when angry, rounded shapes when contented, lots of movements when active, and light strokes
when sleepy. In other words, their feelings at the time will affect the pressure, movements, type
of stroke, size of objects, arrangement on the page, colours chosen etc. We can interpret these
features in handwriting, so we can use the same approach to try to understand doodles and
Circles and Spirals
The geometric shapes that often appear in doodles make a good starting point. Circles and spirals
are very common, as they are in young girls’ writing (see Fig. 3). The circle carries a great
weight of symbolism in all cultures. It represents the sun, rings, wheels etc. and symbolizes
cosmic harmony, unity and love. Jung believed it symbolizes the self, and it appears during the
period when a child is discovering that he and his mother are separate people. The circle defines
the ego by marking the boundary between self and others. Circles relate to someone’s sense of
identity, and people who draw circles are motivated by the need for love.
Fig. 4 Age unknown, black biro, medium pressure, spirals in purple biro
The centripetal spirals show self-centredness and a regressive tendency, wanting to find love and
security within the home and family. Note the dominant MZ, left slant, close spacing and
copymodel style.
The square also has great symbolic significance, being linked with the earth (we still refer to ‘the
four corners of the earth’) and the perfect city. A square church with a dome symbolizes the
unity of heaven and earth. Squares are static and signify balance, stability, rational organisation,
permanence and security. Squares relate to material objects and to mental constructs, and people
who draw squares are motivated by the need for security. Squares in doodles are often turned
into boxes.
Fig. 5 Male, 40s, dots are due to dark background
Stacking up boxes shows constructive ability and planning for the
future as well as desire to accumulate possessions. This man has a
logical and practical approach to problems and likes to be in
control, but the precarious balance here betrays his insecurity.
The spider’s web tucked away suggests that he is calculating his
way out of his current situation without drawing attention to
himself. This man doodled stacks of boxes repeatedly. He was
bored with his work but is still in the same job many years after
this doodle was done. A fast red sports car perhaps compensates
for being stuck in a rut.
The triangle is the most dynamic of the geometric symbols, conveying more tension through the
acute angles. It has symbolic links with the Trinity and other three-fold concepts, and a universal
link with sex. Pointing up it represents the male, fire, sun, prosperity etc. Pointing down it
represents the female, earth mother, water, moon etc. Triangles relate to mental concepts and
universal drives, and people who draw triangles need to release aggressive energy directly
through sex, or indirectly through work and achievement.
Fig. 6a
Boy, age unknown, light pressure. Date: 24.5.2000
The doodle in Fig. 6a shows a lot of tension in the control of the forms. It appears that he started
with the square, then added more squares and triangles. This shows that he is on the defensive
and conceals his need for security with an aggressive stance. The chequered contrast of black
and white reflects the highs and lows of his moods swings, as well as some ability to analyse and
break down a problem. Note his words, also the small size, left slant and wide spacing. Perhaps
he has lost someone and this has increased his anxiety and insecurity.
Fig. 6b
The same boy, heavy irregular pressure. Date: 4.7.2000
This writing shows what a turmoil of feelings were being suppressed in the doodle drawn two
months earlier. His hormones are causing havoc (variable slant, spacing and MZ, heavy irregular
pressure) and aggression is now being acted out but still compensates for neediness (angles and
braced strokes + cradles LZ).
Fig. 7
Glagolitic script from Croatia. Circa 1100
Alphabets and scripts have evolved from combinations of geometric shapes and through these
shapes all the complexities of communication through language can be conveyed. Geometric
shapes and letter forms relate to basic needs, so by recognising the symbolic significance of
different shapes we can start to understand the complexities of human motivation.
Needs and coping strategies
As babies we all share the same need for the food, sleep and air that are essential for our survival.
As we grow up other needs develop: for sex, security, to feel loved and that we belong,
to be recognised and respected, and to realise our full potential (Maslow). Children repeat the
behaviour that gets their needs met and these become their coping strategies. If doing what they
are told gets them what they want they learn to comply. If screaming and fighting get them what
they want they carry on being aggressive. When a strategy becomes habitual it shapes a child’s
way of thinking and attitude to life. Symbols of the circle, square and triangle relate to these
strategies for getting needs met, and a child’s most pressing need shows in the style of the
schema he or she uses to represent people.
Fig. 8
Girl, age 5. Removal day. Reduced to 50%
This girl uses a lot of rounded shapes when she draws people and her need for love is emphasised
by the very large heart. She draws herself at the top left with a thick band of hair (need for
protection) and draws her mother very small to the right. The small size and distance from each
other shows the lack of a loving bond between them. Her father and brother stand in between,
with the removal men underneath. The initials H and D (hers and her brother’s) on the boxes are
encircled, again showing her need to be loved, to protect herself, and to be noticed. Her negative
feelings towards her mother also show in her attempts to write ‘Mummy’. The angular letters,
reversals and crossing out all show increased tension, even though she was happy that day
(smiling faces). Five years later the relationship between this girl and her mother has deteriorated
Fig. 9
Boy, age 5. His family. Reduced to 75%
This boy’s schema shows some preference for square shapes, indicating his underlying need for
security. He draws himself on the left with his younger brother next to him, then baby in her
pram and father and mother on the far right. Mother is again the furthest away, but her
diminished size could be due to his attempt to show the relative sizes of everyone. He appears
confident because he has drawn himself quite large and smiling, but all the figures lack feet and
the parents appear to be in mid air. This reflects his inner insecurity and precarious relationship
with them. He is an artistic, sensitive and moody boy who has felt uncertain of his parents’ love
since his younger brother was born. His home is always full of people since his mother is a
childminder and also loves to invite friends to stay. He once drew a picture of his house packed
full of people and himself standing outside.
Fig. 10
Girl, age 7. Card for the Tooth Fairy. Reduced to 50%
Children seem to understand symbols quite easily and include them when they write and draw.
The card for the Tooth Fairy (Fig. 10) includes a star, hearts and spirals, and also various patterns
that look like arcades, angles and garlands. Her instinctive juxtaposition of symbols and patterns
that resemble forms of connection is particularly interesting.
Shapes and FOCs
Geometric shapes or parts of them often appear in doodles, and a preference for a particular shape
will show in handwriting in the form of connection. Each represents a different kind of habitual
response to situations that has evolved from a childhood coping strategy to get needs met. ‘Fight
or flight’ are man’s instinctive responses to danger. The ‘fight’ response that drives someone to
confront or challenge appears in writing and doodles in angles. The ‘flight’ response that prompts
changeable and evasive behaviour shows in threads and wavy lines. Arcade and garland writers
both need affection and approval, but one is careful to conform while the other shows a caring
and conciliatory attitude. Shapes in doodles and FOCs in handwriting relate to people’s needs,
motivations, responses and attitudes.
Types of doodles and drawings. Circles
Doodles and drawings can be grouped together by the type of shapes they tend to use, and by
subject matter. Emotional people who want harmony and love tend to draw: circles, spirals, the
sun, flowers, hearts, faces, lips, eyes, small animals, cups, jugs, balloons, rings, shoes, wheels,
clocks, loops, fluffy clouds, rounded trees, hills, fruit, waves etc. i.e. things with circular or
rounded shapes, or symbols of love and femininity. People who doodle circles and spirals have
an amiable disposition but they often have a regressive tendency, wanting to return to a time
when they felt loved and secure.
Fig. 11
Girl age 10, same girl as Fig. 8. Reduced to 50%
She says these are the objects she likes to doodle. Her ongoing need for love is clear. She also
has a logo which consists of an eye with long lashes, a signal that she wants attention.
Fig. 12
Male, 70s, Danish. Reduced to 50%
This man’s name is Ole and the child’s
song ‘The little Ole with his umbrella’ is
his ‘signature tune’. It was incongruous
to have such a large elderly man singing
in a childish voice as he gave me this
autograph. His emotional nature shows
in the sad face he has made of Ole and in
his loopy crossed through signature, with
the need for love and attention
emphasised by the circle i dot.
Down to earth, practical people who feel secure when they are in control tend to draw: squares,
boxes, houses, walls, fences, ladders, stairs, tables, chairs, chessboards, books, forts, fireplaces,
money, numbers, letters, punctuation marks etc. i.e. things with square shapes or flat surfaces, or
symbols of material security.
Fig. 13
Male, 40s. Blue biro
This man links circles with straight lines to form squares and boxes. He has some problem
connected with Christopher going round and round in his head and is trying to think logically
about how to deal with it. The diagonal lines show how he is trying different tacks. The circles
inside each other suggest that he feels trapped by the situation but hesitates to bring the problem
into the open, perhaps fearing self-exposure. His constructive attitude and mental capacity also
show in the writing (garlands + angles, tall UZ, high t bar)
Determined people who need an outlet for their mental or physical energy tend to draw: stars,
arrows, zig-zags, diamonds, stick figures, crowns, weapons, trains, planes, motorbikes, speed
boats, warships, dartboards, lightning, kites, birds with beaks, mountains, Christmas trees etc. i.e.
things with triangular or pointed shapes, or symbols of masculinity.
Fig. 14 Female, 50s, green ink, medium pressure, doodles in blue biro, heavy pressure
This self-reliant but eccentric lady lives alone with five cats. Her determined nature shows in the
rightward triangular patterns, but the crossed, retraced and pointed strokes betray her anxiety and
underlying frustration. The sword stroke pointing to the left under ‘Mary’ indicates hostility
towards the past or her mother, so cherishing her parents’ memory is perhaps an unconscious
compensated reaction. Her house is full of inherited possessions (including 28 thermos flasks),
she is trying to read every book in her father’s collection, and she pedantically recalls obscure
information she learned at school. Her tendency to hang on to things is reflected in the hook
shapes, and her self-protective egocentricity shows in the many inward curling spirals.
Fig. 15 Male, 40s, black biro, firm pressure
This man is the father of the girl in Fig. 8. The drawing was made in
the top left corner of an A4 landscape sheet. This is the position of
yearning and repressed goals (Dafna Yalon), which is evident in the
haunted eyes, gloomy expression and rigidity of the drawing. The
figure is outlined firmly, the waist is pulled in tight, and the skirt has
an arcade shape. This shows great self-control and suppression of
feelings. The squares underfoot give a hint of his underlying
insecurity as he looks to be on pins, unable to relax. The large
angular tie and horn-shaped hair look incongruous with the frilly skirt,
showing the uneasy coexistence of the two sides of his personality
and difficulty handling dual roles. Once a professional soldier he now
tries to be both father and mother to his children since his wife fails to
look after them. The arms express his feelings of helplessness.
Fig. 16
Presumably male, age unknown
The fluent pasty writing shows this man’s sense of humour and physical well-being, and the ink
filled ovals also reflect the sensuality that is evident in the drawing.
Triangular shapes often appear with circular ones since we have masculine as well as feminine
qualities and the need for sex goes hand in hand with the need for love. In doodles and drawings
opposite but complementary aspects of our nature are reflected in straight and curved strokes or
angular and rounded objects. Combinations of shapes may reflect the lively versatility of a
creative person if the overall effect looks dynamic and rhythmic, but a lack of fluency or
homogeneity indicates anxiety, tension, inner conflict or lack of personal fulfilment. Assorted
shapes and objects reflect various needs, motivations and defences, but with an understanding of
the underlying symbolism we may start to unravel these complexities.