Explaining Myself

October 10, 2012

I talk a lot about information design and the confusion surrounding it, but I realize I’ve done very little to demystify what exactly it is that I do. Since my work is a hybrid of disciplines, it’s difficult to map my expertise to an existing, well-defined role or title that anyone might readily recognize. My present high-altitude explanation — helping people make sense of their world in order to solve problems, uncover opportunities, and achieve their goals — conveys the benefit of what I do conceptually. Following up by listing my three skill areas (creative problem solving, visual thinking, and information design) and introducing a new umbrella term (strategic information design) adds more detail but might potentially result in less clarity, as each realm of practice suffers from its own lack of definition and poor widespread understanding. (Besides, who isn’t “strategic” these days?) A perfectly concise and direct elevator pitch still remains elusive; I often find that it takes me more words and some key visual examples to get to “aha” when meeting new people and answering the perennial question “so, what do you do?”

It’s time for me to explain myself a little better. To start, let me unpack what each skill area entails in simple terms:

1. Creative Problem Solving

This is the foundation of what I do. It combines process knowledge, individual problem solving preference knowledge, and group facilitation skill. This can also be described as helping people define and achieve a goal. Not having deep subject matter expertise is an advantage in problem solving facilitation, as it frees me to ask basic questions that often lead to insights hiding “in plain sight.” Tangible results are:

  • A clear roadmap to results
  • Focused meetings and group activities
  • Clear action items along the way to drive momentum

2. Visual Thinking

This skill is focused on modeling ideas visually to speed understanding. It reduces ambiguity in conversation by translating words and concepts into pictures. It also allows real and imagined states to be visualized, such as a problem in the present and solution in the future. Tangible results are:

  • Rapid knowledge capture and synthesis
  • More productive and inclusive meetings
  • Useful takeaways (in the form of clear meeting sketches) to preserve insights from conversation

3. Information Design

This is the logic that governs effective communication. Closely linked to visual thinking, it involves the creation of systems to organize ideas and other content to make them useful to the widest audience. I apply information design in the broadest sense, beyond pre-defined data. I work with people to uncover facts and organize them using visual frameworks, then iterate to produce the clearest, most compelling picture. Tangible results are:

  • Architectures to manage complex content
  • Crisp visualizations of refined thinking
  • Visual stories and communication tools

This blend of skills allows me to walk into any situation, quickly diagnose the problem(s), and help a client reach a new understanding of their challenges even before any actual work is done. Examples of typical interventions:

When a problem isn’t well defined or a situation has many moving parts, I can work with teams to draw out key facts and assemble a picture of the present that allows deeper investigation.

When a new strategy, initiative, or business idea is further along and needs explanation to different audiences, I can construct compelling visualizations that paint the big picture as well as provide detail where it matters.

When a new way of working is needed to address organizational change, I can help design stories and learning experiences that include workshops, training materials, and effectiveness evaluations.

Getting to where I am now wasn’t a linear path. I didn’t learn how to do this type of work at college, even though my journey as an information designer began there. Years of working on traditional design projects allowed me to build my design chops, but it left me wanting to do more with design than just create artifacts. My breakthrough came at Humantific, where I gained exposure to large, ambiguous challenges that pushed my limits as a designer. I realized that, while my skills as a craftsperson and form giver were still essential, my roles as sensemaker and thought partner were of much greater value to the clients I worked with.

Today, as I think about my role in the world, a peculiar challenge exists. There has never been a greater urgency for understanding and clarity across all dimensions of business and society, but awareness that help is available along a whole continuum of needs, especially upstream, is still lacking. Those who can truly deliver that support need to stand out better and communicate the value they bring in a more accessible way. This post, and more to follow, aim to solve that problem.


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