6 Surprisingly Simple Ways to Kick Start Your Visual Thinking (or how to talk to strangers on a plane)
On a flight last week, I was doing a graphic note for a presentation I am giving soon. The person sitting next to me took a side-ways glance (ok, a couple), over my shoulder at what I was doing.
After a minute or so, he asked – Excuse me, how are you drawing on that?
Well, a conversation followed that went something like…
[me] I use drawing apps – this one is “Brushes 3”- so I can create pictures and images that support the messages in this case, for a talk I’ve got on next month.
[my neighbour] So what do you do for a living?
[me] I run a consultancy called Curious Minds Co. and I teach professional people how to reconnect with their creative talents and draw out their ideas… (ok, it was my 30 second biz spiel, but I was testing his level of interest before putting my nose back into my screen).
[him] I bet you’d have no luck with ME!
I think that was supposed to be a big full-stop. BAM! No argument could follow that!
[me] ….Really? How much?
A startled pause.
He knew that even though I was smiling, I was serious. I don’t think my flying buddy in 11b had considered anyone would be up for that challenge. He obviously thought it was flat-out un-doable.
I gotta tell ya, I LOVE that response to the work I do (which is kinda lucky cos I get it A LOT in my business. See my ambit claim for a vintage Carmen Ghia -did I mention I’d like it in eggshell blue- in exchange for exclamations of disbelief in “…But I Can’t Draw“).
So here’s what I said in reply to his surprised expression…
[me] I’ll teach you how to take visual notes at your next meeting in 5 minutes but you have to promise me something. Deal?
Wary nod of the head. (Funny – I don’t think he asked what the promise was).
[me] Next time you are in a business meeting, take your note book, and turn it sideways (#1). Here’s my hot tip: get one with blank pages from the stationery shop next time. But if you have one with lines, that’s ok. Just ignore them.
Write a couple of keys words in the middle of the page that summarises the topic up for discussion or the name of the meeting (#2). Then put a big ol’ circle ’round it.
As you hear important things being said, write these in the space around this central heading (#3). Give each one its own bit of the paper. If you have an important point, make it stand out by WRITING IT IN CAPITALS… the more detailed points can be in a smaller font. Put a circle or cloud bubble around each separate point to frame it and link it via a line to the central one and any other sub-points it relates to.
Try adding some simple drawings (#4) – they are all just made up of a couple of basics shapes – which if you can hold a pen and write your name, you can do! For example, if you want to draw a face, start with a circle for the head, then add two dots for eyes and two lines – one for the nose and one for the mouth.
Have a look over the notes when you’re finished and add any words that you may have missed on the run that helps you remember the detail of what was said (#5). When that’s done, put a line border around the page (#6).
Taaadaaa! You’ve done your first visual notes! You are no longer a visual note-taking virgin!
– At this point, I still had my neighbour’s full attention –
Do you want a quick lesson in drawing for understanding and recall?
[glutton for more] Yeah, that would be great!
[me] Ok, all you need to know is everything you want to draw is made up of a few basic shapes. The five I use are: line, circle, square, triangle and blob. How easy is that!
Nods in response.
[one who loves an audience for drawing lessons] To draw a standard face, just do what I did before – draw a rough circle, add two smaller circles for eyes, a straight line for the nose and a curved one for the mouth. By playing with those basic elements you can draw any number of faces… If I want to make the face look more female, I draw a smaller nose and give the eyes some lashes and curvier lips… I draw a man’s nose larger. If you want to draw a child, make the forehead larger, so draw the eyes, nose and mouth at the bottom of the head…
Now to draw a figure… Here’s a really simple one – draw small circle for the head, a larger oval for the body and then some lines for arms and legs. You can add circles for hands and feet. Give your person some character – hair, tie, briefcase, clipboard – whatever you like.
Adding drawings to your repertoire is a process. My advice is always start with a couple of basic things – let’s say you pick three. Don’t try to get too fancy right at the beginning. Focus on those so that you can do them without thinking. Then add a couple more and repeat.
My new-found friend commented that I made it look easy. I acknowledged that I’d been doing it for a wee while but that making it look easy comes with practice. I also warned that people in my courses make huge improvements in just a couple of short hours. It’s very do-able!
I find that many people get stopped from drawing because
we don’t want to look like a ‘numpty’ (aka novice).
We are all serious professional people, I get that.
It can be very hard to look at your own work and not judge it harshly. But I let my friend in on a little secret – other people think what you’ve done is fantastic and so cool (even when you’ve rated it at a C- in your own head).
Why? Because it’s different, interesting and novel.
And there are other BIG BONUSES.
Taking notes this way helps you concentrate on what’s being said
it helps you retain the information.
Up to six times more info retained a couple days later compared to writing text info alone!
If, like my flying buddy in 11b, you would like an easy way to get started, join the Curious Minds community by clicking on the red banner at the top of the page and you’ll also get a copy of my ebook, “Building Your Visual Language Library: 12 Great Icons” as a gift.
If you are interested in delving deeper, you can jump in on my public training courses where I show you how the pros do it!
Click here to find out more info on what’s happening and when. The “Essential of Visual Thinking & Graphics Practice” course is my premium program and a great introduction to the skills and techniques for you to apply immediately.
So… DON’T LET YOUR BELIEF YOU CAN’T DRAW STOP YOU!
We live daily in an info-blur world. Communicating the complexity of our ideas is often challenging to do well.
Organisations are looking for ways to cut through that blur. The requests to help distil wheelbarrow loads of information onto a single page is on the increase. The resulting graphics are dense with information yet easy to read and understand. Their sexy title of ‘INFOGRAPHICS’ has become common lingo. Whole books are now dedicated to them.
I am not attempting to do a deep dive here on this subject – others have done it better and with more authority – but a recent project has made me reflect on how I go about developing them. It would be fair to say, my ideas have evolved on a long-ish road… with small-ish number of lightbulbs!
The main challenge is often helping people convert their technical thinking and ideas into a clear picture. The complexity – and my clients’ intimate knowledge of it – can be a big stumbling block.
So, how to cut through?
I now use five design steps to guide the collaborative thinking I do with my clients to build their infographic:
1. Big picture outcomes:I start by asking: what are the overarching goals that you wish to hit with this infographic? If it did everything you could wish for, what would you have achieved? What would you have/not have?… feel/not feel?… think/not think? How will it be used by you and your organisation?
2. Synthesis and visual conversionof main points: After we have identified the big picture outcomes, I request material that will point me to the important concepts that are relevant to the graphic. I then convert these key points into visuals and summarise all the different elements into one graphic. This ‘one page summary’ chart is a starting point for our discussions at the first meeting. I also develop a visual style reference – where examples of style characteristics (e.g. hand-drawn Vs computer rendered, formal Vs relaxed, colourful Vs monochromatic) are represented in a second graphic.
3. Meeting 1: At the meeting I cover several critical things – 1) CONTENT: What must be included? what would you like to be included? 2) METAPHOR: is there any image or metaphor that works well with the message e.g. a road journey, a landscape or a tree form? and 3) STYLE: for each of the characteristics, where do you want this graphic to sit on the spectrum?
I make sure that by the end of this meeting there is some clarity about the image I am producing – I don’t end the meeting before that has been agreed.
4. Draft infographic: With the outcomes of the first meeting, I develop a draft (or drafts) of the graphic and send that with notes about the meaning of the elements that I have included as a ‘back story’ for the graphic. I want to check that the images and their meaning resonate with the client. I seek their ideas – this may mean a second meeting to ensure feedback is understood and possible solutions can be discussed and agreed together. Hopefully, if I’ve done a good job in steps 1), 2) and 3) this stage will be straight-forward.
5. Final graphic: With the refinements incorporated, I send a high resolution image/ set of images to the client.
One final hot tip from me – I often find individual graphic components in PowerPoint can allow the client to easily edit text boxes for specific contexts rather than rendering the entire graphic in a design software that can’t be manipulated by the client at their office.
So, there you go! I hope the above gives you some useful ideas about how you would go about distilling complex sets of information into a clear and engaging visual. While there are drawbacks and challenges lurking in every field – e.g. overuse – I think infographics have an important role to play in communicating our complex messages.