How to Think and Communicate Visually

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Originally posted on Edelman Digital

Visual storytelling is nothing new. We only need to look to the earliest signs of humanity for proof—simple paintings on the walls of caves tell the story that people are a visual tribe.

Today, it seems, communications must be visual in order to be compelling, as well as to compete with the massive amount of information available to us at any given moment (even Google acknowledged this in 2001 by introducing image search). Whether it’s a web video, infographic, or illustration, visual assets can communicate a wealth of information rapidly, and in ways that our brains process differently than other, more traditional mediums.

The secret to producing these compelling, yet bite-sized morsels of information is having “visual literacy,” or being able to think in pictures. Don’t confuse this with being an artist or designer. Anyone can think visually—or learn to look at the world through this type of lens—and then work with a visual communicator (a designer or producer) to craft a digestible visual deliverable, which earns our time, attention and encourages us to take action.

As someone who thinks visually, I want to share five tips that I believe will work for anyone who is looking to communicate and influence through a medium that transcends the written word:

1. Empathize: See the world as a child

Most of us drew pictures before we began writing. But now that words dominate our communications, it’s possible we have to do some neurological re-wiring to take our brains back to that point where simple, elegant pictures help us tell stories. I recommend three steps: 1) Observe everything, especially the minute details. 2) Ask questions; especially the ones that make you feel unenlightened. 3) Resurrect your sense of exploration; in other words, re-ignite the curious portion of your brain. Children have a way of noticing the little things we take for granted. They are immensely curious and never lack for questions. Putting yourself in a more “child-like” mindset will set the stage for all kinds of thinking, including visual.

2. Memorize: Commit thoughts to memory

Words can be fleeting—they can at times be like the wind, but images often sear into our memory. To start the visual thinking process, it’s helpful to capture thoughts not just in words but also by simple pictures. Stick people and basic shapes are your biggest allies in this stage of transforming yourself to become a more visual communicator and we should never allow our fear of “drawing” get in the way. My friend, Dave Gray, a great visual thinker, draws better than I do, but I still scrawl down messy shapes when I do my most strategic thinking. What’s important is capturing a visual thought in the moment, not the artistic quality of what you are documenting visually.

3. Analyze: Take a step back

The first two steps are meant to open your mind and get you capturing visual thoughts while getting some creative juices flowing. If you’ve done this right, you’re going to be attached to your visual subject. This is where you need to take a step back. Look at the visual story you’re developing objectively. Are you focusing on form over function —is it compelling and worth sharing, is it objective or opinionated enough? Take a step back and think of yourself as the end audience–get feedback from others, but analyze that objectively as well.

4. Synthesize: Filter signal from noise

If you’re a word person, you might relate to this process as “editing,” but for really effective visual thinking I think a better word would be “synthesis.” Good synthesis involves taking a lot of information and distilling it down to a core set of thoughts fueled by an insight into what will connect with your viewer. This is where the “art”—for lack of a better word—comes into play. A word of warning: this takes practice. Being able to synthesize complex thoughts and boil them down to an essence means finding that “nugget” which will resonate. The only advice I can give here is that you’ll know it when you see it, and sometimes it’s more obvious than you think.

5. Visualize: See it, then do it

The final step is to think of the right visual model to help tell your story—and to execute it well. Focus on visual metaphors to tell your story. See the idea in your mind and then direct it so that that it comes to life. If you need help, hire a creative team and work with them to improve your visual thinking.

When I created the “agency ecosystem” (above) several years ago, the visual thinking started as circles in a four way Venn diagram. I thought that the circles looked like leaves, so I used the metaphor of a plant, which made the story even better because the roots served as a powerful metaphor to communicate foundational needs.

Final Thoughts

By now, the little voice in your head might be saying, “That’s great, but I’m not creative, I don’t think that way.” Ignore that voice. You may be on a path in life that has rewarded other parts of your brain, but we are all born with the ability to create. If you want to communicate visually, you have to think visually. You don’t need to be able to execute those ideas yourself, but you can practice the above steps to start the visual thinking process. I am not going to recommend you read any books to get you started—the reading may distract you from actually doing. My suggestion is to start by “drawing” out the things that you see as obstacles to thinking creatively (i.e., think clock if you don’t have the time), then develop a strategy for overcoming them.

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