Putting Visual Thinking to Work

October 16, 2012

Much like other crossover sensations from the creative world such as design thinking and information design, the visual thinking phenomenon has sustained interest for some time now. From the most staid corporate institutions to the most enlightened young startups, visual thinking techniques are being sought after as part of a new business toolkit in the quest to create “cultures of innovation.” Post-its, whiteboards, and flipcharts are infiltrating once stodgy conference rooms and work spaces. Unbridled creativity — not industrial-era efficiency — is the key to better products, smarter services, and increased profit.

But behind the glowing promise of the vizthink movement, a challenge persists for many in the business world: how best to harness the power of visual thinking to achieve real results?

There are already countless answers to that question tied to specific practices. Some would argue that free-form “doodling” (now scientifically proven to aid attention and memory) is integral to more engaging meetings because it ensures participants are actively tracking along with the conversation. Others might champion visual facilitation methods such as graphic recording, the mural-style translation of words to pictures, as the key to making strategy sessions memorable. There’s also the smorgasbord of activities known as gamestorming, meant to enrich collaboration by incorporating elements of play into the workplace. But for the beginner unsure of where to get the most value out of visual thinking, the variety of options can be difficult to navigate, and the time and energy it takes to reach a conclusion on one’s own can be daunting.

A number of guiding lights provide practical instruction and systems for learning core visual thinking principles, yet there is still room to close the gap between the vision of vizthink and everyday workplace realities.

Thinking First, Visuals Second

It’s easy to think that beautifully penned sketchnotes or delightfully illustrated graphic recordings are the hallmark of good visual thinking: they demonstrate great technical skill and creativity, and they certainly appeal to the eye. In reality, they might only succeed at just the visual part while providing little insight or fuel for the thinking part. Quite often, the artistic production of these visual artifacts takes precedence over the process that they support and the outcomes they are meant to deliver. To be blunt, if a visual fails to convey an idea clearly, enhance understanding (for oneself and for a group), inform decisions, or drive toward a goal, then it benefits no one. Visual thinking is more than just drawing for the sake of drawing, capturing something for posterity, or aiding memory. It boosts our capacity to process information and create new knowledge by enabling specific cognitive tasks. In a business context, visual thinking facilitates knowledge work in teams by dissolving communication barriers and allowing many different minds to work together towards a common goal. It is the glue of human collaboration.

Different Modes for Different Goals

At a fundamental level, visual thinking operates in three modes, with corresponding tools and techniques:

GENERATING

Visual thinking is generative — that is, it relies on the output of ideas and content in tangible, visual form. It may sound simplistic, but without the externalization of thought in some representational form — text, drawing, symbol, etc. — visual thinking cannot happen past the mind’s eye.

Doodling is the most common generative activity since it channels stream of consciousness thoughts in an unstructured form. The lack of inhibition and freedom to put pen to paper that doodling affords, rather than the quality of visual output, is perhaps of greatest value when solving problems. Related activities such as graphic recording and sketch-noting are also generative in that they convert spoken and written thoughts into pictures, with the intent of making key ideas resonate in memory. Mind mapping and visual brainstorming also fit in this category since they allow many ideas to be generated rapidly.

ANALYZING

Visual thinking can also be analytic. It breaks down raw content to uncover patterns and define relationships. Tied to the generative function, analysis cannot occur without something to analyze, such as meeting notes, PowerPoint decks, and other documents.

Analysis seeks to create order and includes non-drawing-based methods that take advantage of spatial relationships. Pinning up, clustering, and color-coding materials are classic ways to organize content into categories for analysis. Visual frameworks such as axis plots, charts, and graphs help capture and distill the findings of analysis into a usable form.

SYNTHESIZING

Finally, visual thinking can be synthetic by combining previously disparate or disconnected ideas to create newer and clearer ones. Synthesis typically feeds off of the findings of an analysis and produces tighter pictures of a situation than previously known.

Synthesis can take the form of diagrams, concept sketches, and visual stories, among other methods. Multiple iterations strengthen synthesis: trial and error with different formats, configurations, and graphic approaches ensures that all essential elements of an explanation work together to communicate effectively.

All three modes of visual thinking are essential to problem solving, but I find that the real power of visual thinking lies in the second and third modes. This is where the thinking side of the equation really shines — where “aha” moments happen.

Finding the Right Mode for the Job

With a basic understanding of visual thinking’s distinct but related functions, it’s easier to diagnose common work situations and take action. Here are six common scenarios and some possible approaches:

Do you need to get a quick grip on a situation?

GENERATE: Draw a very simple picture of what you know and don’t know — who’s involved, what their roles are, where the situation is happening, etc. Add to the picture as you learn more, even if the picture gets messy. You can take a more considered approach once you know what you’re dealing with.

Do you need to dig deeper and learn more?

GENERATE: Ask probing questions to capture as much information as possible verbally, using visual frameworks as needed when words get cumbersome (eg, organizational structures, process flows, etc). Just stick to generating facts without making assumptions or drawing conclusions.

Do you need to sort through research or extract the most essential information from a pile of documents?

ANALYZE: Read through the content in several passes until you see a pattern emerge. Pin up, number, color, stack, label — use whatever means necessary to clearly distinguish one category from another. Track your findings along the way to synthesize later.

Do you need to put all the facts together and see the big picture?

SYNTHESIZE: Explore multiple different ways to put together the key findings from your analysis until the story or message comes through clearly. Aim for balance and visual harmony rather than superfluous detail to refine the picture.

Do you need to come up with ideas for something?

GENERATE: Try visual brainstorming. Take a stack of index cards (or post-its) and draw one idea per card, using only enough visual detail to get the idea across quickly. Go for quantity and pin them up or arrange on a table for analysis only when you’ve exhausted all possibilities.

Do you need to explain a concept to colleagues?

SYNTHESIZE: Sketch out the three to five important points you want to highlight in your story, then draw and redraw until your pictures are both complete and easy for your audience to understand. Rather than jump to PowerPoint, consider presenting in storyboard format or in a sequence of flipchart drawings. This format saves time and invites additional comments and feedback.

There are many more techniques (and entire systems) available to accomplish the above tasks depending on the situation, time/location constraints, and whether you are working solo or in a group. As a general rule, I find that simpler is always better when it comes to doing visual thinking in a business setting. Setup should be easy, tools and materials should be readily available, and visual methods should maximize inclusion and understanding — always keep everyone engaged and the process flowing. With experience, one comes to realize that almost any challenge can be made manageable with a keen situational awareness, a few workhorse pictographs and frameworks, and a bare-bones toolkit.

 

Technical note: I’ve started using Bamboo Paper on my iPad more frequently these days. It’s tremendously helpful in creating natural-looking drawings and outputting them digitally. The visuals in this post and the last were created with this method.


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.


Thinking in Sketchbooks

April 2, 2012

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23 years, 36 sketchbooks (stacked in order by size)

Back in 2008, Michael Bierut wrote an excellent post on Design Observer about his collection of notebooks — how he started, what kind he uses, what purpose they serve. His reflections on note taking and the habit of recording thoughts regularly on paper stuck with me, not just as an insight into his creative process, but as a motivation to reflect on my own relationship with my sketchbooks.

I have been drawing my entire life. As a child, I drew on whatever paper I could get my hands on: notepads, copy paper, legal pads, napkins, envelopes. Cartoons and comic books were my inspiration and my “goal” as a young artist. I would spend hours recreating scenes from my favorite shows, like Voltron and the Thundercats, or tracing panels from Fantastic Four and Wolverine comics (among many others). Over time, I accumulated a lot of paper of varying sizes and types, which I eventually kept in a portfolio. But I came to realize that this method would prove inefficient if I was to take my drawing more seriously.

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Superhero drawings, 1989-1992 (yep, I was a Marvel guy)

I started keeping regular sketchbooks around the age of twelve, but exactly how I came into possession of my first one escapes me (it is likely that my mother or my cousin may have bought me my first official sketchbook, which I no longer have). My earliest sketchbooks were large, back when scale mattered more than portability, and they were usually cheap Aquabee drawing pads with coarse-tooth paper. When I got tired of pages falling out from constantly folding them back, I switched to higher quality Strathmore and Canson sketchbooks with smoother, brighter paper and sturdier binding.

I’ve never stuck exclusively to one particular brand or style of sketchbook. I like holding a different book in my hands every now and then, perhaps to make me feel like I’m producing new thoughts and ideas. My only lasting criteria for a sketchbook are that the pages be free of lines and that the paper accept ink well. I make exceptions only under special circumstances: when I want to do guilt-free experimentation, when I find a handsome sketchbook that inspires me, or when I receive a sketchbook for free or as a gift. My preference lately has been for the Moleskine Classic Large Plain Notebook because it’s just the right size for my needs, it withstands daily abuse, and it closes securely with the trademark elastic band.

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Two favorites: a generic newsprint pad (left) and an Italian notebook covered in medieval imagery (right)

Anything goes inside the pages of my sketchbooks: if I can think it, I draw it. My early sketchbooks were playgrounds for my imagination, full of bizarre creatures, invented landscapes, idealized superheroes, and impromptu drawing lessons. Sometimes pages would be crammed with lots of little ideas, and other times a single small idea would occupy a page on its own. I would try out mixed media, watercolor, and collage on occasion, but I typically work in pencil or ink out of sheer immediacy — never in ballpoint pen. These days, my medium of choice tends to be a Pilot Precise V5 Rolling Ball, fine point, although any good rolling ball pen with rich black ink will do.

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A small watercolor sketch for a potential children’s book, 2002

Drawing from life is one of my favorite activities, especially while traveling. I always try to carve out time to just sit somewhere and fill my sketchbook with observations of my surroundings, to impress them on my memory. Museum visits also allow me to engage in sustained, active seeing. Ancient artifacts, modern masterworks, and even museum spaces reveal hidden lessons only after lengthy analysis with pencil and paper. It often takes several tries and many pages for me to really understand what I’m looking at.

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Selected sketchbook pages from a trip to England, 1999

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Christian Science Mother Church, Boston, MA, 2000

In college, I started out as an art major, so my sketchbook was an invaluable learning space and work space. As in my childhood, I found myself recreating works by other artists, but with a deeper appreciation for volume, space, and proportion. I planned out compositions for paintings and occasionally took notes for other classes and assignments in my trusty sketchbook. (The pages below are from my best college sketchbook, which I nearly lost in a flood after moving back home from school. Luckily, I was able to remove the saturated cover and let the damp pages dry. Thankfully, all of the sketches survived.)

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Studies of heads after masterworks by Watteau, Fragonard, and de Ribera, 1997

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Life drawing sketch to establish correct figure proportion, 1997

From the end of college up to the present, my sketchbooks have become less artistic and expressive in nature, more functional and diagrammatic. My information design and graphic design sensibilities took shape in the late 1990′s and early 2000′s through logo studies, thumbnails of page layouts, and sketches for personal portfolio projects. I mainly use sketchbooks now for project work, to capture notes from meetings, construct concept models showing relationships between ideas, or figure out how to represent data.

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Logo studies, 1999

My most productive work moments typically happen during my morning or evening train commute, and only occasionally at the office. With headphones on and a block of uninterrupted time (usually 20-30 minutes), I am able to dive into a problem in my sketchbook and rapidly explore every angle. I enjoy looking back at old project sketches and seeing how my thinking evolved on a particular diagram. My first attempts are never successful.

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Sketches to figure out concept diagrams and layout for a work project, 2008

My sketchbook also serves as a journal when my mind needs an outlet for non-work thinking. I rely on words for the most part, but I also try to create simple pictures when it helps me put different ideas together. Sometimes ideas will carry over from one sketchbook to the next as new ideas emerge, in which case I rewrite or redraw the relevant bits.

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Random quotes and thoughts, 2009

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A brain dump on content and the digital world, 2011

The role of sketchbooks in my life has evolved considerably, although I long for simpler times when the only purpose I had was to let my mind wander. Creative freedom took on a much different meaning in my childhood than it does today. For all the latitude that design work affords me, I still feel that my most recent sketchbooks and drawings represent a form of commercial art — artistic production in the service of business. That, fundamentally, is the nature of my work (though not it’s sole purpose), and yet it has led me further away from what compelled me to start drawing in the first place.

The tension I feel between “formal” art and “functional” art is something I hope to explore in my current sketchbook. I want to revive old ways of seeing and creating and allow them to coexist with and even inform my more structured design work. For me, truly fulfilling art work is a convergence of deep concentration, visual reasoning, and artistic production — without the pressure of time, intent, or anticipated outcomes. The state of flow, as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, came naturally to me in my childhood, but as school and work grew to dominate my life, it became harder and harder to evoke. Collage, for instance, is one means of rekindling flow: it allows me to experiment freely, make spontaneous associations, and assemble my thoughts easily with a minimum of craft. Through this form of “play,” I can break conventions that have become ingrained in my drawing habits and open up more possibilities in how I synthesize information visually.

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Sketchbook #37, customized with a hand-painted network pattern, 2012

As comfortable as I’ve become with ink on paper, I am very curious about the role of devices and software in extending or redefining the sketchbook. I have tested countless drawing apps on my iPad, and while a handful come close to simulating real-live drawing (Bamboo Paper, SketchBook, Procreate, and more recently, Paper), the experience is still rife with shortcomings: the clumsiness of using a nubby stylus, crude recreation of different media, and unnatural control of the page/canvas (never mind the lack of tactility). Still, those don’t deter me from continuing to test them out and finding ways to fold them into a digital design workflow.

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Test drawing on iPad 2 done with Sketchbook app and a Targus stylus, 2012

Technology will eventually open up new creative possibilities beyond what we can imagine today, but for the time being, I’m quite content pushing the boundaries of a good old-fashioned bound paper sketchbook.


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