Design writing
Posted by: Drew Joyce

Visual thinking: Working Images perspective

Visual thinking is primarily about resolving complex ideas. What’s interesting is that its role is dual and inseparable – it serves both as a means of exploration; the creation of ideas and also communication; the sharing of ideas. But in essence it’s a way to make complex things easily understood.

From the development side of things we use it in the origination of concepts for every aspect of our work. It enables us to reach in to areas that are dark, unknown and unexplored. Ideas that until that time have no conventional framework around them – no way of easily being understood. Through means of visual representation we can discover the thread of an idea that we think may be relevant to our enquiry. Visual thinking is a way for us to draw out these ideas and to lay them on the table so we can examine them, build very small and brief relationships with them – ask them questions get to know them and test them. Through an iterative process we then can explore ideas that are related. What does this process look like? Typically it involves words and shapes on the page. It’s critical that it is physically expressed and preferably drawn by hand – by someone. Each word might appear not to have any direct meaning but it has a link to an idea that we can’t see yet – buried somewhere in a matrix of meaning, hidden. As a word-idea it comes to mind we record it. We then group words, look for relationships and test these word-ideas. The exploration is not aimless – it is a directed process of inquiry, always guided by the requirements of the brief – the reason we’re looking in the first place. The needs and aspirations of the client, the market, the audience, the positioning of the company/person/product. We are seeking to create meaning through relationships that don’t yet exist. (we must be crazy). We enter into an imagined space and strive to bring some sense to it. It’s a way of making tangible the relationships between things/ideas that have no formal grounds. It allows us to generate depth of meaning in the concepts we use in our work. The depth of meaning that we’re looking for increases the level of engagement, makes a richer story, more compelling and creates greater resonance. That’s not to say that superficial ideas have no value. Design as a language of communication takes all forms.

At the root of this is the pursuit of the concept or the metaphor – a way of expressing a concept that brings clarity to things that exist in very abstract ways such as the values that guide a business or organisation. This is especially the case when we’re working to create a visual identity. Through our initial inquiry we define a set of attributes, characteristics and values – all intangible things that give us a sense of the whole business and its culture, but is difficult to describe as one single thing. The metaphor is invaluable here because we can use a singular idea or object to represent the business and say ” this thing will help you understand the culture of this business and the people. It’s special because of these things etc” Through this understanding people are able to make an assessment around the business – decide whether the business reflects their values, whether they have common ground, will contribute to a positive life experience of that person and contribute to the sense they have of themselves. This association then becomes an expression of them, their identity and so on. What’s absolutely critical at this stage is that we refrain from making visual translations of the ideas – that we keep them for as long as possible in their raw form. As soon as you begin to make an idea into a visual form you formalise the idea, make it solid, permanent, less flexible. It seems that a special relationship exists between the brain and the written word.

Once we have the concepts that we feel embody the right messages and ideas we then set out to translate these into visual form. As designers there is always a person we are creating stories for and so need to be able to relate the meaning of these stories to them. As designers we are adept at navigating these abstract and unformed idea-spaces but the client – the intended owner of these ideas and their end user are typically not. This means that we need a way of rendering these possibly complex ideas.

The simple telling of stories means that the client can grasp the concept in a simple form – like a well designed handle on a pot. The premise is that if they understand the stories they can take ownership of the idea, make it their own and critically retell the story. Often this means a manager conveying the core ideas to their board or a sales manager on the shop floor relating the story to a customer. Without this act of transmission an idea will not live long beyond the first telling. This is perhaps why some brands die a quick death where others have great longevity. So the communication of these potentially complex ideas to the client by the designer is crucial. When we do this (Working Images) we use a very simple and varied visual language. We often repeat messages in different forms that gives a client two ore three perspectives on the same thing. We use words as pictures and arrange them in ways that creates broader meaning and clarity. We may use very formal matrices to map and reveal statistical relevance and practical relationships between things such as stakeholder requirements and service offering. Our presentations to clients tend to be lengthy and very elaborate but also light and engaging. The use of visual thinking in our presentations allows us to compress some ideas into very simple statements such as the relationship between four key brand values but take the time in other areas to step out other types of information. I think it’s important to note that visual thinking provides an evidence of existence. The very fact of seeing an idea written on the page, described in one word or series of shapes or images translates to the client as evidence that it is real. When you think of it like this, what we are asking a client is to believe in something that days before never existed! This is in some way the beginning of the trust in the concept which grows in meaning and value leading to the point it is adopted and becomes instrumental in the client’s whole communication – part of their identity.

Something else that is critical here is to acknowledge that client is instrumental in the design process. So through a simple visual representation of the concepts and ideas the client is given a language that they can respond with. In this way they have the potential to bring immense value directly to the design discussion. It is empowering to the client to be able to speak this simplified language and to negotiate in turn potentially complex ideas directly with the designer. This alleviates the situation whereby the client is struggling to find a way firstly of interpreting the concepts presented and then struggling to find ways of providing meaningful feedback and criticism for the designer to be able to develop and refine their ideas further. It’s also a useful language for larger groups to explore and define the subtle relationships between things such as an internal organisational structure or an organisation’s external relationship with its stakeholders.

What I do find ironic is that as graphic designers the visual is fundamental to the development of design concepts, but for Working Images we hold that the image is incidental. That means it’s not the goal in itself, just a vehicle, a convenient or most appropriate means of expressing an idea. An idea that might in other circumstances be better expressed in movement, a physical form or a word. So for the development phase it is paramount and indispensable but for the final phase just convenient.

You may also like:

Humanising influence
Design writing

Getting all cross
Design opinion