This is the first post in a series on the basics of utilizing visualization, with focus on working with pen and paper.
Have you ever seen someone sketchnoting? Or a well-crafted flipchart? These visualizations draw attention that in most cases surpasses any fancy PowerPoint-Slide. It’s fascinating to see how people enjoy great visuals. I also had some wonderful moments with people that approached me about my own visual notebook, from simple compliments to deep conversations.
So to phrase the introduction to this post shortly: Visualization gets people excited!
So why is this not incredibly popular? If there is so much potential in making visuals, shouldn’t everyone be doing that instead of contributing to the legendary death by bulletpoints?
Surely a number of reasons can be found. I would argue that one of the most prevalent root causes is that a majority of people simply does not believe they can draw: Drawing (or creating a well-crafted visual) is something left to the few extraordinarily talented.
“If I wanted to draw something from scratch, the process would be arduous and stressful. Most probably, I would not be satisfied with the results. So why even bother trying?”
YOU can draw.
The first thing I do when supporting others in learning about the visual language is breaking this mental barrier. Only if someone believes that they can actually achieve wonderful results will they be open to learning all the things that in the end will make them achieve greatness.
So, please let me show you that you can draw. Maybe both me and you will not become famous painters, but we already have the basics needed to wow ourselves and others with our visualization work.
If you can draw the letters of the alphabet, you’re already pretty much set. Check this out:
If at this point you are still not sure that you have what it takes to make great visuals, please try it out yourself. If that didn’t do the trick, I highly recommend Graham Shaw’s highly entertaining and insightful TEDx talk “Why people believe they can’t draw – and how to prove they can”. Don’t just watch it; grab a pen and paper and participate. It’s incredibly rewarding to draw actual comic faces in a matter of seconds. Really anyone can do this!
The UZMO example comes from the brilliant visual facilitator Martin Haussmann from Germany. He shares his approach to visualization with pen and paper in his book of the same name “UZMO – Thinking With Your Pen”.
Visualization is NOT art
The UZMO light bulb nicely symbolizes a key concept of visualization: You do not need to create amazing, photorealistic drawings in order to convey meaning. Quite the contrary. Simple drawings work better in most instances when it comes to visualization:
- Simple drawings are efficient to draw. They normally take way less time to make than realistic ones.
- Simple drawings are easily repeatable. They can be used multiple times to convey a similar message at different times.
- Simple drawings are interpreted more easily. A majority of symbols have a rather clear meaning in the right context (like a light bulb for ideas/innovation).
Although visualization leaves lots and lots of space to be creative and work artistically, visualization is definitely more of a craft than an art. Whereas in art your work can fulfill any subjective purpose you want it to, visualization has a clearly predefined purpose: I want to make information visually accessible to everyone. I need people to understand something. Because of this very clear purpose that visualization has, a lot of the process can be streamlined and a lot of objective guidelines can be set.
Visualization is design
Visualization – the way I view it – is a big field of visual design. You have a very clear outcome in mind when you start planning out and creating your visuals: You want people to understand your message as clearly as possible.
When a designer approaches a task like this, they will most probably be conscious of all the different elements that together would make up the visual – be it on flipchart or on a slide. Concepts like contrast, balance, typeface, layout and many more would probably be considered and optimized to make the message as clear as possible. A designer can easily spend half of their life learning about all the theories connected to visualization.
When it comes to making visuals for learning processes (like training, facilitation and more), I don’t think everyone needs to work as meticulously as the stereotypical designer. As long as people get the gist and understand the message, the visuals are generally fine. No need to overengineer your flipcharts and PPTs.
And in order to achieve this sweet-spot of not too detail-oriented but also not lost due to lack of structure I experienced the best results by planning out your visuals based on three different elements:
This is the bread-and-butter element for most people. Text has the advantage of putting specific words in the reader’s mind. Therefore, text can be considered as rather objective information.
An image says more than a thousand words. That is true – for better and for worse. Images create rather ambiguous meaning, as the same image/symbol can be interpreted differently by different people. On the flip side, images evoke emotions in a way that text simply cannot. Images tend to deliver more subjective impressions.
How is everything – all the text and image elements – composed to a consistent whole? In the way you structure your content, you can convey a lot of meaning by describing relationships between the different pieces of text and imagery.
And this is it. If you understand how to use the two basic elements (Text & Imagery) effectively and how you can compose all of the elements in a suitable structure, you have all the basics you need in order to visualize yourself!
Within an hour or two of learning and doing, you can easily grasp all of these fundamentals and from then on out create visualizations that can change the way your presentations work, how people work with you in a training session, or simply how you keep your personal notes.
In the following blog posts, I will introduce how I work with the three different elements in order to create a comprehensive, practical introduction to visualization.