Are You a Visual Thinker?
ASSOCIATIONS NOW, August 2009, Feature
By: Mark Athitakis
|Summary: From brainstorming alone to collaborating in groups, visual thinking tools can unlock new ways to approach problems, remember conversations, and find solutions. (Titled "Look at it This Way..." in the print edition.)||
If you're like most people who follow the news, you can probably come up with a few of the basic reasons in a minute or so. Given an hour or so and access to The New York Times' website, you could probably compile a list—a long list—of all the relevant causes. But would a list give you a clear sense of the depth of the automaker's woes? And would that list serve as any kind of useful guide for fixing the problem?
When designer Jess Bachman decided to study GM's problems in January, he tried a different way. First, he broke out the major issues into two main categories—internal and external factors—then illustrated them using stacks of shipping containers crushing a Hummer, with each container representing matters out of the company's control (such as rising healthcare costs), those relating to its union (like an enormous pension burden), and leadership flaws (like bloated executive pay). "Conversations around GM were always sort of skewed toward one side or one particular angle," says Bachman. "But I felt like it was so much more comprehensive than that."
The image that Bachman came up with—available at his site, wallstats.com—is magazine slick, with artfully rendered machinery showing the powerful levers ready to smash that Hummer to bits. But Bachman himself has no formal design training, and that same basic image is well within your power to create—all it requires is an ability to think about the essentials of a problem, a certain capacity to think metaphorically, and a willingness to put some of the doodling you honed in long, dull meetings to good use. Software and whiteboards help, but pencil and paper do the job just as well.
"Visual thinking" is a broad term that encompasses any effort to use images to work on a problem or capture a discussion, either individually or collectively, and a vast array of methods are available to make use of it. Indeed, many of the most popular ones have been around for decades. But it's caught increasing attention recently, thanks to what you might call text overload. "In the past few years, with the internet, in terms of the amount of information we're dealing with, it's become more and more critical to find more efficient ways to convey that information," says Ryan Coleman, chief community evangelist for VizThink, an organization of artists who specialize in the form. "And people are looking for faster ways to take in that information. That's why we're seeing a push toward the visual."
Making a Map
There are literally dozens of visualization methods—one tongue-in-cheek "periodic table" online lists 100 of them—but among the earliest, simplest, and most durable is "mindmapping," a process that first became popular in the 1970s as a brainstorming tool. The mindmapping method is straightforward: Write a core word at the center of the page identifying a problem or issue, then start drawing out "rays" of possible solutions, broken out into smaller trees of issues related to the a solution, necessary stakeholders, and more. The final product usually looks something like a cloud of words, compressing the core concerns and potential fixes in one place, and making that information easily relatable to others. "Visual thinking does not mean 'no words,'" says Coleman. "You're using images and words together. It works well in discovery-process stuff."
More sophisticated modes of visual thinking have emerged in recent years, driven perhaps most prominently by Dan Roam's 2008 book, The Back of the Napkin. Roam's approach uses maps—mindmaps and otherwise—as just one of six visual tools to consider, depending on the type of problem that needs fixing. But while the range of images he uses is more sophisticated than words in circles—incorporating doodle-style people, bridges, arrows, buildings, and more—finding simple objects that you and your colleagues can agree on is critical to making visualizations effective. "The goal isn't to be Rembrandt," Roam writes. "In fact, an overly elaborate or cute picture inevitably draws too much attention to itself and distracts from the essence of the idea to be conveyed."
For Mike Rohde, a Wisconsin-based graphic designer, the words themselves play a strong visual role in his note-taking and recording process—how big he makes them, how he stresses them on the page in relation to other words, and how darkly he shades them all makes clear the relative importance of ideas. In 2007, at a conference for strategists and designers called UX Intensive, Rohde began tinkering with the idea of mixing images and prominent text in the notes he took during sessions. The point was to spend less time hurriedly scribbling down words and more time listening for core ideas. "I intentionally said, 'I'm going to write less and I'm going to draw more, and try to capture the concepts and see how that works. Is it difficult to do? Can I do it?' And it went really well." (See an example with Rohde's tips in the sidebar below.)
Rohde's "sketchnotes" became a hit once he put them online—and gained another layer of utility there thanks to Flickr's ability to let others annotate images. Emphasizing big words was one way to get at the crux of an idea or focus on an issue that he needed to refer to later. "A lot of the sketchnotes that I do actually feature typography more than drawings," he says. "I'll use that for emphasis, either a boldface or large font or some kind of whimsical font, putting text on a curve or mixing it with drawings."
When it comes to images, he says, the trick is to listen for the objects that people mention, often metaphorically, and find ways to put them in drawings instead of words. If somebody talks about hammering home an important idea, a drawing of a hammer might do a better job of making that statement memorable than a verbatim transcript. And even somebody who flunked art class can draw a recognizable hammer. "As you begin to do that, it starts happening more naturally," he says. "You think, 'Oh, that would be interesting as a drawing,' and you just draw it. You don't think about it so much."
The Art of Collaboration
Words, like people, often play favorites. The statements we make, and the way we make them, often shut down certain important but essential discussions, argues Kevin Hoffberg, U.S. managing director of Group Partners, a firm that helps organizations use visual thinking collaboratively. "If you're talking with an ad agency, all their lenses on the problem are going to have to do with marketing or advertising," he says. "If the next person to walk through the door happens to work for an accountancy, they want to talk about numbers. In visual thinking, there's a neutral context."
Group Partners' approach to visual thinking in group meetings is elaborate—the walls of meeting rooms are surrounded in whiteboard material, mapping of ideas is facilitated, and the resulting images are later rendered and tweaked digitally. "The next obvious steps beyond [visual notetaking] are to impose business logic and structure and to advance the art in terms of the pattern language to be able to deal with sophisticated transactions, solving really hard problems, and dealing with complex change," says Hoffberg. That kind of graphic facilitation can help get differing factions on common ground. But the very act of bringing people into the same room and working with visuals can also improve the mood of a meeting. "When you incorporate visuals, you inevitably engage people more," says Sunni Brown, owner of BrightSpot Info Design, an Austin, Texas-based firm. "You include more people because they can be part of the co-creation of something."
Brown's approach to capturing a meeting or conversation is rooted in mapping principles: Her drawings place the speaker or idea at the center, then capture the meeting as it goes along, placing suggestions in circles, important points in boxes, and metaphorical images whenever they come up. The benefit of those visualizations is that they both help attendees remember a session and make them more likely to work with what was discussed. "If you have a meeting and somebody takes minutes, and they send the minutes around, it's very improbable that those are going to be looked at," she says. "However, if you have it in a format where people, one, saw it being created and, two, saw that the content is actually theirs, and, three, has visuals and color and spaces, people are much more inclined to look at them." (See an example with Brown's tips in the sidebar below.)
What Do You Need to Know?
Even those who work as professional graphic recorders or graphic facilitators point out that visual thinking doesn't have to be an outsourced process. "Our mind is actively seeking to make meaning through processing visual information," says Brown. "So when people come to me and say, 'Well, I'm not really a visual thinker,' my response is, 'You have to be. You're a human being.'"
Adds Ryan Coleman: "What's more important for people is to acknowledge the visual thinking that they're probably already doing. You may find that there are already people who are using whiteboards, or using system maps, or putting up flowcharts."
What matters is finding a shared, simple visual vocabulary that everybody in an organization can relate to and inviting as many people as possible to pitch in. "It becomes very clear who's not involved in a process where everybody's working on a whiteboard and collaborating," says Coleman. "It does and will change how people will work."
Mark Athitakis is senior editor of Associations Now. Email: email@example.com
|Shapes as Statements: Sunni Brown|
Last December, Sunni Brown followed a meeting of staffers at a social-networking site. The image below showcases some of her approaches to capturing collaborative brainstorming sessions.
1. Treat it like a document. "In my experience, people usually take these large-scale murals and hang them up on wall space they have," says Brown. "People will talk about them, they'll blog about them, they'll share them with each other, they will even argue over them. And they'll print them out and hang them up in their own cubicles."
2. Keep it simple. The shapes in her visualizations are "very, very simplistic—circles and squares, basically. And anyone can draw those, but it still creates visual fields for people that permeate their memories better."
3. Layer information. Using visual thinking for problem solving means mapping out processes, and Brown's illustrations give a strong sense of direction, emphasizing arrows that make clear the subsets of discussions. "With these illustrations, at first you can get a good overview, but what's powerful is that there are layers of images," says VizThink's Ryan Coleman.
4. Let everybody be heard. When brainstorming collaboratively, the key is to get down the idea presented by everybody involved, not get a transcript. "It's not that we want to sacrifice details or more substantive conversations about things. It's just that you make that more likely to happen when you engage people from the onset."
Read Sunni Brown's Tips for Visual Note-Taking.
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