Tag: problem solving


Make Crappy Drawings


I am a slow thinker, so I need to draw to make sure I am keeping track of everything. I draw to see what’s in my head and what people tell me, so more often than not, I’m drawing in a meeting at the flipchart or whiteboard, during a conversation, or at least once or twice a day when working alone on a project. Line by line, shape by shape, what emerges isn’t some stunning masterpiece rendered in Sharpie or EXPO Dry-Erase marker that would give Leonardo Da Vinci pause. It’s just a crappy drawing.

Pretty isn’t Everything

Drawing and sketching have received more attention in recent years, although their value as thinking tools is often overshadowed by their aesthetic appeal. When I see certain creative professionals tout the importance of sketching and visualizing ideas, I hardly ever see ugly — but clear — drawings as examples (there are plenty of pretty but unclear ones, though). They often set unreasonable standards for what drawings should look like, with their delicately inked sketchnotes, lush graphic recordings teeming with cheerful illustrations and deft hand-lettering, or architecturally exacting pen-and-ink concept diagrams. Rather than expose the difficult trial-and-error work of figuring stuff out on paper until you get it right, these examples just showcase a single end product and flaunt the creator’s artistic talent, while creating the false impression that “good” drawings have to look just so, and that they happen in one shot on the first try.



I appreciate artistic drawing in certain respects, but my attitude and relationship to it has evolved as my work has evolved. My design journey actually began with a deep interest in art. Over the course of my design training and career, I’ve departed radically from the formal, figurative representation I once sought to perfect. Visual thinking is an essential, irreplaceable part of my information design work, and my drawing method reflects the relationship between the two; fundamental structural and visual principles take priority, like symmetry, balance, rhythm, spacing, contrast, and visual flow. No stylistic illustration or dimensional rendering.



Crappy Drawing Leads to Clearer Thinking

While I do apply my art training heavily to my personal drawing, I don’t approach my drawing as art and don’t aim to put it all on display for the world to see. Mostly, it’s just for me, to help me identify and put together all the pieces of whatever mental puzzle I’m confronted with. My goals are always speed and quantity: I fill sheet after sheet of cheap newsprint paper with messy, crude symbols and shorthand text annotations that quickly map connections, flows, and other relationships that are too many or too intertwined for my simple brain to hold at the same time. Nothing is precious. One after the other, the iterations accumulate until, say, version ten, when the thinking has solidified sufficiently and the message or story resonates. Viewing all the iterations of a diagram or all the dimensions of a story pinned up on a wall helps me see what’s working and what isn’t, zero in on what I want to improve or make consistent, so I can focus on developing the next round of refined sketches. The process can be time consuming, even when the drawings flow, but I’ve come to accept that there are no shortcuts. There is, however, a sense of a stopping point to the cycle of making and reflecting: when almost all of the major conceptual, structural, and graphic problems have been reasonably resolved.



If I’m creating something that needs to communicate to others (a client or their audience), I move to the computer to make use of the precision and ease of production it affords me. I get to work with clean geometric shapes, lines, and curves, as well as take advantage of scaling, nesting, and duplicating elements in a composition (I recall achieving some of these effects ages ago with many redrawn images, tape, and creative use of a photocopier). The digital diagram serves as another thinking tool that enables easier iteration, manipulation, and reuse to get an idea or concept across.

My favorite thing about crappy sketches is that they are pure process and completely disposable. Once they’ve served their purpose, I scan or photograph them for later reference, then shred or recycle them. Most of the sketches shown in this post no longer exist in paper form.



C’mon, Get Crappy

To me, the greatest benefit of drawing is in the support of concentration and focus. It effectively directs attention on visual exploration and investigation — whether in fine art or problem solving — and it can even induce a zone-like state. Working through a progression of crappy rough sketches to more refined ones is also a lot like visiting the eye doctor and testing different lens strengths for new eyeglasses. The blurry image gets sharper and sharper with each new lens, until at last the world is in crisp, clear view. But it takes some work, along with a hefty resetting of expectations.

Drawing to think is within virtually everyone’s capacity, yet its value is untapped because of inhibition, self-consciousness, and intimidatingly high standards popularized in the professional creative world:

  • If drawing skill holds you back, create a language that makes sense to you and that you can draw almost as fast as you can write. Then it’s a matter of practice. (A trick for dealing with hard-to-draw concepts is to write the word, then draw a box around it so it becomes an object among other elements you draw.)
  • If wasting paper is a problem, don’t use an expensive sketchbook or fancy paper. Hoard used paper or buy the cheapest drawing pads (hint: sketch pads for children are cheaper than “professional” ones and work just fine). Or maybe consider a small whiteboard. You’ll feel more free to explore when you have a surface you’re comfortable messing up.
  • If using up pens and markers seems wasteful, just use anything that writes with a nice dark line. Maybe stock up on really cheap writing instruments or use something that takes ink or lead refills.

And if you’re afraid your drawings don’t look like the stuff you see online or in fancy books or that people will make fun if they see them, who cares? Embrace the crappiness. All that matters is that your drawings make sense to you and help you sort out whatever’s going on in your head.


The Game of Knowledge


As the “Information Age” continues to unfold, gaining knowledge has become the central activity in many of our interactions.* Sure, we’re busy shuttling information around, constantly optimizing how we shape and transmit it, but no matter how thought-through, well-designed, and engaging it is, information must still be translated to something meaningful and useful for the situation we’re facing right now. Information informs our problems but it does not solve our problems. Knowledge — readily-applicable “intel” that helps us at the point of need — is what gets us somewhere.

But, as with anything valuable, there are often challenges to gaining the knowledge we need. There are gatekeepers to confront, mountains to climb, mazes to wind through, battles to be fought, and prices to paid before we can earn even the smallest insight. If it sounds a lot like a game, that’s because it is. To those of us who consider ourselves “seekers” of knowledge, it can be a real quest to locate the right source, dig around, and finally extract knowledge that will help us. And for some — the “knowers” — the focus is on achieving credibility or popularity, asserting authority, and/or controlling seekers’ access to their knowledge.

The dynamics between both kinds of players, the seekers and the knowers, are present everywhere, from online platforms to everyday interactions. Across these different contexts, knowledge can be treated three ways:

Knowledge as Commodity

Once upon a time, we relied on those static information repositories called libraries to find out whatever we needed. A library card granted easy access, but hard work of “search” lay ahead, from riffling through the card catalog to scanning the shelves to poring over piles of books. Hours later, after careful study, we had an answer. We gained some knowledge. Maybe. And yet, with the dawn of the Web and all our advances with search engines and algorithms, getting what we need still isn’t a perfect process. Simply searching Google for an answer offers no guarantee of finding one. If we don’t spot exactly what we’re looking for on the first page or a couple of pages of in (out of impossibly millions of results), we’re forced to navigate a maze of dubious, redundant/repackaged, or completely irrelevant content. Frustrating.

There’s so much out there that’s dutifully served up to us in giant batches by search engines like Google — with supposedly the “best intention” of putting the most helpful results first — but for the life of it, a search algorithm won’t really know what we need to know and how to deliver it (beyond weather, news, and stock prices). We may be able to sort, classify, and rank online information, but for the time being, we can’t cut to the chase and zero in on what matters to us.

Knowledge as Influence

When Google falls short and there’s no one in our immediate circle to ask, our next option is to find discussion forums and other question-and-answer platforms where real people can offer help. The online knowledge marketplace welcomes all kinds of queries from seekers (via Wikipedia, Yahoo! Answers, etc) and provides the knowers with platforms for sharing their knowledge (via Quora, Answers.com, Stack Overflow, etc.). In a way, these platforms help us cope with the whole problem of information overload by bypassing it completely: you just go to a knowledge platform, write your question, then wait for an “expert” to answer. Depending on the platform, you can decide which answer best addresses your question or let the crowd decide for you. The answer with the most votes ends up being the “best” one, but whether or not that’s the right answer is another question.

Many knowers may have the best intentions to contribute to greater understanding by sharing their knowledge, but a good deal seek out recognition for their knowledge and aspire to become “thought leaders” in their realm of expertise. The game for them becomes accumulation of likes, followers, tweets, retweets, upvotes, blog comments, or whatever other social sharing gestures build their reputation. For professionals trying to carve out a place for themselves in a crowded competitive marketplace, that recognition is more than just an ego booster — it builds credibility and potentially attracts more clients, more business, more money, new recruits, and so on. Influence through knowledge can certainly help open many doors to new opportunities (eg, projects, partnerships, book deals, speaking engagements, etc), but a sense of responsibility should come along with it as well. Is it more important to be known for knowing and to capitalize on that, or to help others do better with the hope that they’ll pay it forward when others need help?

Knowledge as Advantage

The value of knowledge can be so great that its ownership creates a power dynamic between knowers and seekers. In finance, law, health care, and other professions, seekers hire knowers with substantial expertise in those areas to help solve a problem or take advantage of an opportunity. Of course, with more knowledge and experience comes a higher price tag for obtaining or using that knowledge to get a specific result. When there’s a value-for-value exchange, and the knowledge received/used and outcome agreed upon more or less matches the amount paid for it, all is well. But when knowledge is withheld for personal gain and others’ loss or provided at a higher cost than what is reasonable, problems arise. Information asymmetry, when someone possesses more or better information than another in a given situation, is often used to gain advantage over those with little to no information (or even awareness that information exists). Buying a home or a car, deciding on health care tests and treatments, making investments, and many other everyday situations put seekers at a disadvantage when they place trust in a professional who has the power to disclose or withhold critical knowledge about a transaction that could tip the scales one way or the other (there are varying degrees of severity to this, of course). Every day, people fall prey to “contrived ignorance” (for lack of a better term), until the fraud is exposed, the asymmetry is corrected, and the game of deception is over.

Changing the Game

There’s been plenty of attention focused on the sciences, arts, and crafts surrounding data and information, and for good reason; in the period of time that understanding-focused disciplines have emerged and begun formalizing to the present, much valuable knowledge has been created to guide the process of turning raw data and content into not just a comprehensible/usable form, but a dynamic, adaptable, and personally meaningful form. At the same time, progress in optimizing information for the eye and brain still needs to account for the ways people — both seekers and knowers — think, feel, and behave.

Cognitive neuroscience is shedding more and more light on perception, memory, and other mechanisms of understanding, but the psychological dimensions of communication and the role of information design in human behavior remain under-explored. We’ll always need insights from the sciences to inform the “why,” “what,” and “how” of information, and we’ll hopefully answer more questions about the “who,” but each of us defines our own role and rules of engagement with others in knowledge exchange situations: when faced with the pressure of finding a solution from an outside source or when presented with the choice of how much knowledge we’re willing to share and how to share it.

Despite the reality (that is, intractability and stubbornness) of human nature, life would be a lot easier in many respects if we did away with the game of knowledge. No winners or losers. No wasted time and energy. No status-seeking. No profit-seeking. Just cooperation and collective engagement in advancing understanding.

* The role of data is important to acknowledge, but it’s just a raw material, an input that takes effort and skill to collect, analyze, and make usable. Information, next in the DIKW continuum, still requires some work to bridge what is presented to what is needed. Knowledge, as it is used here, focuses on that which has immediate use, without filtering, processing, or any extra work needed on an individual’s part.


The Things You Don’t See


Information design, by nature, is concerned with making sense of the known: data, facts, observations, ideas. It involves taking existing content and putting it in a format that makes it more readily know-able. But rarely does information design acknowledge the missing, the unknown.

A recent talk by Andy Kirk on representing the absence of data in visualizations rekindled my thinking on how much we underestimate “known unknowns” or completely miss the “unknown unknowns” in a given situation. While Andy highlights the challenges of graphically depicting a zero quantity as well as the visual and narrative impact of emptiness in data display, I see a parallel set of challenges in the conceptual, non-quantitative side of information design: how do you map a comprehensive understanding of a situation beyond what’s readily given and outside of one’s own frame of reference? (To clarify, the “conceptual, non-quantitative” work I’m referring to here isn’t about making infographics but about solving complex problems in organizations.)

Solid fact-finding and content gathering provide the raw material for information design. Asking the right questions and getting the necessary answers, however, can mean different things to different people. In conceptual information design, who, what, when, where, why, and how span a broad range of observable phenomena to be captured and analyzed (people, places, ideas, connections, processes, contexts, comparisons, etc). But the person framing the questions can only do so from their point of view and with the skills and expertise they possess at the time. Biases certainly affect the quality of fact-finding, but a lack of contextualization and systems thinking, among other awarenesses, can severely hinder information design work. Below are just a few blind spots in the early stages of information design work that can constrain understanding and potentially lead a project down the wrong path:

1. We don’t see what’s right in front of us.

We can easily ignore important pieces of information because they may seem too obvious or “common sense” (which isn’t so common at all). Our familiarity blinds us to knowledge that we take for granted but that may be completely foreign to someone else, so when we visualize a current reality and load it with facts, we may omit crucial details that an “outsider” needs in order to build understanding. Stepping outside ourselves and seeing the world from a newcomer’s perspective allows for more inclusion and inroads to unfamiliar territory.

2. We don’t see what’s just outside our field of view.

It’s easy for us to cling to all the facts we know for the sake of advancing a project towards completion, but the resulting picture we create may be far from complete and lack the clarity and accuracy that a situation may require. Gathering input from different perspectives, whether it’s a range of stakeholders, diverse sources of information, or literally a different vantage point, can help ensure a 360º view of a situation (much like we use space probes to see the dark side of the moon, which never faces Earth). And when there’s still a missing part of the picture, we should be able to denote it as “missing” or “other” in a visualization.

3. We don’t see what’s changing.

Change and flux are challenging to reconcile in information design. When something new is about to happen, the very fact that the change will happen may slip through the cracks and go unacknowledged in the shuffle of everyday work… until the change is announced and compliance is expected. Leadership transitions, large-scale reorganizations, technology updates/launches, and other organizational changes can significantly derail an information design project if they’re not recognized and addressed early enough. Anticipating and incorporating discussion of change and synchronizing communications (visualizations, training, etc) to the timeline of change can help alleviate the shock of the new.

4. We don’t see ahead into the future.

Facts and data rooted in past or present observations are the conventional inputs for information design projects. However, certain types of information design work require looking beyond what is towards what could be when exploring a problem. Information design for strategy development, for instance, depends heavily on both a firm understanding of the present and a clear vision of a desired future in order to bridge the gap between them. Thoughts and ideas about what tomorrow might look like, even the most far-flung and imaginative, are critical inputs into the process. Even if some elements of the future vision are fuzzy or undefined, saying so in a visualization enables a team of stakeholders to have a conversation on those elements and define an approach around them.

5. We don’t see what’s unfavorable or inconvenient.

As much as we want to impose Spock-like objectivity on information design work, the simple truth is that humans are subjective creatures strongly inclined to do what they want to do (or what they’re told to do). We may avoid delving into areas that are too difficult to deal with, too personally aggravating, or just not interesting enough, and in the process we sacrifice valuable content for comfort. Sometimes, we may not be aware we’re closing doors on things we don’t like. On the client/stakeholder side, they may evade certain questions or flag some sensitive topics as off-limits (even though they may still be important parts of the picture) or there may be content that is masked off by bureaucratic red tape. In both personal and organizational contexts, the key is to emphasize the value of acquiring the knowledge, however difficult it may seem: aside from deepening understanding of a situation, it may spawn new thinking and improve the quality of the outcome.

These are just initial (choppy) thoughts on the subject, and there is much more to say on the topic of biases, but the main point of this post is simple: There is no such thing as perfect knowledge or perfect information design. Even the best efforts to map a complex space or fill every bucket of content can fall short. Being aware of our blind spots makes us better equipped to handle new and more complex situations by forcing us to see more of the world with different eyes, rather than simply accepting the view from within our cozy little comfort zone.


Rational Thinking Made Tangible


Over the years, I’ve come to understand that information design work is as much a process of reasoning and investigation as it is an activity of pure design decision-making and production. In the earliest stage of my career, I thought information design was only about making graphics that put facts and figures in a clear, understandable format. I assumed that “clear” and “understandable” meant employing graphic techniques like bold color coding, ample white space, good typography, and descriptive illustration. My design education introduced me to the formal principles and standard guidelines for doing design work, like color theory and grid systems, along with the time-honored maxims like “less is more” and “if you can’t make it bigger, make it red.” I believed I had all the ingredients and the tools to do proper information design work, with a generous dose of ego thrown in.

But the more I actually did the work and the more exposure I had to different challenges, the more gaps I uncovered in my own “expertise.” If something made sense or triggered an “aha!”, the graphic designer in me attributed the success primarily to design as I understood it — the skillful arrangement of elements on a page — and little else. What I didn’t fully acknowledge was the “why” behind information design — why does that particular arrangement of elements work. And what do “clear” and “understandable” really mean?

What makes information design work?

The answer to that question stems from a widely-circulated quote attributed to Edward Tufte, from his book Visual Explanations:

Good information design is clear thinking made visible.*

What immediately strikes me about this definition is the order of ideas: clear thinking precedes visualization. It’s a simple point, but a critical one when discussing foundational aspects of information design. The ability to reason and apply rigorous logic to understanding-related challenges is what enables the effective design of information, in any form. In practice, I think “clear thinking made visible” could broadly refer to a continuum of activities:

  • applying a knowledge of principles and rules behind systems to making sense of situations
  • creating and using frameworks for organizing content (thoughts, ideas, data, text, etc)
  • designing interfaces for those frameworks using a variety of methods, tools, and techniques (To clarify, I’m using the word “interface” loosely to refer to visual, aural, spatial, tactile, and maybe even gustatory and olfactory means of accessing and interacting with information, not just technology-based interfaces.)

There’s a lot to unpack in those three bullets, perhaps in future posts. For now, I’m mainly interested in reframing information design to account for the bigger, invisible picture that happens in the “pre-visual” or “pre-artifact” stages. What I hope to see, sooner rather than later, is a shift away from the narrow graphic design-centric perspective that has hindered understanding and growth of the field and towards a cognition-centric perspective that embraces the full scope and potential of what information design is and does below the surface.

With that in mind, I propose a revision of Tufte’s quote to something like this:

Effective information design is rational thinking made tangible.

There are three key words here:

Effective: Given the ever-expanding range of stuff passing as information design these days, it would seem necessary to distinguish works as effective or ineffective at enabling understanding, rather than simply “good,” which has its own subjective meaning. The word “effective” may also promote a greater focus on how information design functions holistically, rather than just how it looks or how it works alone.

Rational: Saying “rational” instead of “clear” thinking helps put a finer point on the type of thinking involved in information design — thinking that subscribes to reason; “clarity” alone may only suggest that thoughts are distinct and well-defined, complete statements, but they may lack any basis in logic.

Tangible: Information design can take many forms once it has passed through the conceptual, “figuring out” stages. The word “tangible” need not only refer to objects or artifacts but to those things that can be experienced directly.

Information design has a long way to go before it will break free from conventional notions of what it is and can — or can’t — be. Greater awareness of the upstream information design process is necessary, as are required studies in cognitive science and logic. Understanding the brain and how it works, from the theoretical to the practical levels, should be the next wave in information design education and practice, not more overemphasis on filling our design toolkit and producing dazzling outputs.

*The full quote is “Good information design is clear thinking made visible, while bad design is stupidity in action.” After briefly Googling the quote for other instances of its use, I came across what could be its inspiration, by Bill Wheeler: “Good writing is clear thinking made visible.” It isn’t surprising that both writing and information design can be described in the same way.


The Real Meaning of Information Design


We’re in the midst of an information design information overload. Blogs, books, courses, and workshops proliferate, covering every hot topic under the sun: big data, data visualization, infographics, “vintage” information design, software, etc. And while there are a few helpful guides along the way to navigate through this space, digging through the layers of content and finding not just the gems of knowledge but the very foundation of information design can be daunting. My goal in this post is to address the gap between what information design looks like today and what it really is by surfacing some of the most important (and interrelated) aspects of information design that are either implicit in a variety of resources or missing entirely.

What information design is really about:

1. Problem solving, not just visualization

Information design is commonly associated with end results: infographics, diagrams, data displays, and other kinds of outputs. This association with finished products can give the false impression that information design is only about visualizing facts and data, while overlooking the cognitive activities that information design is intended to enhance. Effective information design supports problem solving by giving structure to thought along the entire problem solving process, whether it’s in figuring out what problem to solve, organizing facts and data, finding patterns and synthesizing insights, or generating solutions aligned to a particular goal. And the form that information design takes at each step in the process need not be a perfectly polished digital visualization — hand-drawn sketches, color-coding systems, spatial organization schemes, and other sense-making methods all work to enable understanding.

2. People and purpose, not just tools and technology

Many blogs and books focus on the how of information design, like what software to use or how to construct different kinds of charts. Craft and technique are valuable to know and gain proficiency in, but what’s not often discussed in great depth is understanding who we’re designing for and why they need our help. Information design at its core is about helping people achieve their goals within a given context, whether they’re customers, patients, or citizens. How information designers achieve that goal may vary, as the toolkit continuously grows and evolves. What is fundamental and unchanging in all information design work is being highly attuned to people’s needs and defining their challenges in a way that guides the path to a meaningful solution.

3. Guidance and instruction, not just visual presentation

Related to points 1 and 2 above, many works of information design tend to be dense with tightly formatted content, which a viewer is left to deconstruct and decipher. Rather than make life easier, these “rich” visualizations require more time and effort to extract meaning because the information designer plays back the same content they received — without synthesizing it into a more digestible form — and adds a layer of graphic design following some aesthetic conventions of information design. True information design must go many steps beyond pure presentation and find the shortest path to understanding, removing all barriers and minimizing effort. That means guiding a viewer from an overview gradually to the detail, showing a whole and then breaking it into its parts, or connecting a new concept to something familiar. Information design should seek to create an ecosystem of understanding, where a potential gap or grey area is supported or reinforced by another resource, like direct phone or chat links to a live person, or signs and information at critical points of need along a service or experience journey. The idea is to do as much as possible to “be there” to help someone without physically being there.

4. Principles and frameworks, not just creative techniques

Generally speaking, information design thinking is largely absent from information design doing. The widely appropriated aesthetic of information design — pies, bars, diagrams, icons, and other graphic methods for visual explanation — creates a false sense of authority or credibility when applied superficially to content, as is common with the ongoing infographic/info illustration trend. This growing popularization of information design techniques reduces the practice of information design to a “look,” and may free creators of information design from any obligation to think deeply about the content and make sense of it first. What’s more, the emphasis in many websites and publications has increasingly (and maddeningly) shifted from information that is logical and meaningful to information that is beautiful. Part of the reason for this is that foundational practical information design knowledge is scattered across different sources or isn’t clearly spelled out in one place. It takes years of practice and immersion in the literature (past and present) as well as teaching experience to distill the essence of information design work into basic, workhorse principles and frameworks, such as information coding systems and visual frameworks for diagramming. Once those principles and frameworks become second nature, information design can be applied to any kind and scale of challenge, from planning a meeting or learning experience to mapping out a corporate strategy.

5. Systems thinking, not just isolated efforts

Information design does not live in a vacuum — it operates within a context, be it a company or a society. For information design to have real value, it cannot remain locked in a one-off artifact that could potentially get hidden or forgotten from underuse. It needs to connect to people, ideas, and situations. It needs to be part of a living system and align with a broader rationale, whether it’s a corporate vision and mission, a brand, an existing architecture, or a workflow. Information design that exists for itself or only serves one very narrow purpose isn’t information design. Going further, an information designer needs to be mindful not just of the conceptual and organizational context, but also of the physical and environmental conditions in which their work will perform. The idea of a system extends to the lifespan of the solution: how accessible it is to different people, how legible it is in different lighting situations, how durable it is after repeated use, and how often it will need to be updated or replaced.

In time, I’m confident that more sense-making around information design will naturally happen as awareness grows about what it really is. But it will take considerable work: an earnest effort among all stakeholders to dive deep into the history, theory, and practice of information design; a willingness to share learnings and best practices with the broader information design/visualization community; an inclusive, instructive dialogue around unclear topics; and a mindfulness about how information design is represented and understood in the mainstream.


The Other Visualization


We often think of visualization in the most tangible sense of the word: an image or representation of thoughts, data, observed phenomena — something you can look at. Visualizations conventionally take the form of a print document or on-screen display, but they also occupy environments and increasingly live on devices. Much attention these days is focused on the creation of such visualizations to manage vast data sets and enable sophisticated scientific and mathematical analyses. Visualizations of this type help us understand (and perhaps believe we can control) our environment by giving us insight into the dynamics that measurement reveals — everything from the number and position of near-Earth objects to environmental conditions in New York City. We also use visualizations to understand our own behavior, from our physical fitness to our emotions. The skills needed to create visualizations are becoming more accessible, the tools more sophisticated, and the level of detail sharper and more granular. We keep finding new ways to collect data, new types of data to mine, and new ways to see our present world differently, but we’re losing sight of an innate capability to see and create much more than data could ever allow us to.

The other kind of visualization — one that we all practice but often take for granted — requires no special tools except imagination. It is creative visualization.

Some dismiss it as daydreaming or fantasizing, deriding its practice throughout life, but its every bit as valid and productive a visualization method as it’s more commonly accepted counterparts. Creative visualization is all about letting the mind roam free to explore whatever drifts in and out of conscious thought. It is the doorway to new ideas and new possibilities. It is a breeding ground for the absurd, the impractical, and the completely impossible, but it is also a necessary complement to the more structured forms of visualization.

Aside from giving the brain an outlet for bizarre flights of fancy, creative visualization serves a number of purposes. Brainstorming, or ideation, is probably the most familiar practical form of creative visualization, as it focuses the imagination on a specific task or problem to be solved in order to generate many different solutions or possibilities (of course, brainstorming can be verbal as well as visual). Generally speaking, most brainstorming tends to hover around what is pragmatic and easy to execute; even when the activity is at its most fluid, the fundamental encouragement of wild ideas and transformation of ordinary ideas into extraordinary ones (per Alex Osborn’s original intent) tends to go unheeded. For those seeking to “innovate,” the generation of fresh and original thought often gets stifled by premature criteria: cost, time to market, degree of impact, etc. The full potential of visualization as an innovation tool is often lost because “how you get there” overshadows any open exploration of what “there” could even look like.

In the realm of strategy consulting, visioning exercises are a powerful enabler of change for teams, organizations, communities, and society. A step beyond brainstorming specific tactical solutions, they involve understanding a present reality fully and deeply, perhaps through research and data analysis, in order to envision an ideal future where strategic challenges and opportunities of the present are resolved. Such “visions” might include expanding into new markets, launching new products, reorganizing departments, or re-establishing an organizational vision and entire strategic direction. This activity calls upon different stakeholders to collectively build the reality they want to achieve together (and define their time horizon) by building upon and enriching each other’s ideas. Ideally, such future visioning involves a clear vision or over-arching purpose, uninhibited idea flow, diverse sources of input, and skilled visual facilitation to orchestrate, synthesize and refine the group’s thoughts into a clear and actionable picture of tomorrow.

There is yet another kind of creative visualization that gets very little attention, and perhaps draws the most skepticism: the ability to vividly construct an image or entire experience in the mind and have it manifest in reality.

Closely tied to the New Thought movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, and later re-emerging in the New Age phenomenon of the 1960’s–1980’s, creative visualization of this type relies on the full power of the imagination to effectively “create” personal change by tapping into a force beyond rational understanding or present scientific knowledge. The law of attraction, a core principle of New Thought stating that positive thinking attracts positive outcomes (and negative attracts negative), works in tandem with creative visualization: the stronger the image, the associated feelings, and the intent, the greater likelihood that it will come to be. Some who have written and spoken on the subject, like Neville Goddard, Wallace Wattles, and James Lynn Page, refer to the unseen mechanism of manifestation as a spiritual or cosmic energy (often associated with God), while others like Adelaide Bry, author of Visualization: Directing the Movies of Your Mind suggest the force is within the individual — a largely mysterious but consistently reproducible “mind over matter” phenomenon. In his book Thinking Visually, visual thinking pioneer Robert McKim briefly explores how to cultivate imagination and enrich foresight to achieve future goals by introducing Maxwell Maltz’s psycho-cybernetics technique. So, for example, if you want a bigger house, you must see and feel the future state vividly in your mind: walk through the front door, see tall ceilings and bright sunlight pouring through the windows, feel content that you are living in the house you want. With repeated practice of this technique, the general principle holds that it will happen in real life — maybe not down to the exact details, but it will happen. As for proof that this method works, individual experience is usually the testing ground. Scientific studies seem scarce save for one involving Russian Olympic athletes (the source is unidentified).

Visualization — making things visual in physical or mental form — applies to numbers, words, ideas, and even hopes and desires. While some forms of visualization focus on understanding the present and are rooted in empirical observation, they’re only half of the visualization story.  The more subjective, and some would say the more compelling side, is about envisioning and creating the future, whether by our own direct efforts, through group collaboration, or by means beyond our total comprehension. There may be more science anchoring conventional visualization methods and more pragmatism to focusing imagination on generating “real” solutions, but we should also be open to the potential of creative visualization in its different forms to help us solve problems and improve our lives.