The visual thinking revolution is here!

Written by

Lisa Solomon

We are in the midst of a “Visual Thinking Revolution” and leaders in all types of organizations are embracing visual thinking as a literacy of the future.

Visual map for Innovation and Design

Source: MBA Career Service Professionals (click to enlarge)

This revolution’s “tipping point” came earlier this year at the International Forum for Visual Practitioners annual conference, which drew 100 visual practitioners from across the globe. The panel I moderated with Business Models Inc. CEO Patrick van der Pijl and Doodle Revolution’s Sunni Brown kicked off the conference with an expansive discussion on the future of visual thinking. Captured by three different graphic recorders in real time, we explored 10 significant external forces that are fueling the Visual Thinking Revolution:

  1. We live in an increasingly VUCA world. Vulnerable, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. Each day we’re bombarded with too much noise and not enough signal. Visual thinking helps us break down complex problems into simple pictures (Thank you, Dan Roam for showing us the way to make ideas come alive on the back of a napkin!)
  2. Advances in neuroscience and fMRI technology demonstrate that our brains are more creative and imaginative when operating under reward vs. threat conditions. If you want to create reward conditions that encourage participation, use simple, welcoming, hand-drawn pictures that everyone can understand. Want to create threat conditions? Hefty text-driven, data-filled, bullet-pointed PowerPoint presentations should get you there in no time.
  3. Best selling authors are codifying their “magic”. Thanks to Nancy Duarte’s bestselling Slide:ology and Resonate, Dan Roam’s Back of the Napkin books and Blah, Blah, Blah, and Alex Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur’s Business Model Generation we’re creating a whole new leadership discipline around visual storytelling and visual modeling in service of business and innovation.
  4. Technology gives us exciting new tools. Wide adoption of touch screen tablets and accompanying apps enable easy, real-time, visual capture and sharing of ideas. Some app recommendations include: Adobe Ideas, Sketchbook Pro, Bamboo Paper, Penultimate, Art Set.
  5. Viral channels spread the word—and pictures. Millions of animated RSA videos were watched and shared in 2011, with the TED talks by Sir Ken Robinson and Dan Pink on creativity and innovation converting even the most left-brained thinkers to the power of visual communication.
  6. Mainstream media catches on. Beyond traditional supporters like Fast Company, 2011 saw coverage in mainstream journalism, with stories on visual thinking featured in Harvard Business Review, The Washington Post and CNN.
  7. New sources of talent and training proliferate. Sensing a growing demand for visual skills, new kinds of training are popping up, ranging from one-day workshops, such as “Introduction to Graphic Recording” to online seminars and virtual learning.
  8. “Design Mania” becomes a movement. With no end in site for the excitement surrounding design as a strategic competence, visual thinking is riding the coattails of IDEO and Stanford’s d. school, which have pimped the value of Sharpies and post-its.
  9. New investors and incubators emerge. Design-based angel funds and start-up incubators are catching the visual-thinking fever, realizing that superb customer experience may trump over-hyped technology. It’s no secret that a napkin sketch is the ultimate low-res prototype.
  10. New audiences arise. Perhaps most significant, is the demand and excitement expressed by new audiences. Visual thinking is NOT just for artists. It’s for business people, entrepreneurs, NGOs, government leaders, teachers, kids. Nor is it just a Western phenomena; visual thinking is going global, from Asia to Africa to South America. Wherever you find good ideas and stories to tell, you’ll find visual thinking.

If you’re still not convinced that the Visual Thinking Revolution has arrived, what could be better proof than the Saturday Night Live parody of the visual thinking-inspired UPS commercial.

Looking forward, we can expect that each of these emerging trends will only get stronger. The world will be more complex and overwhelming. Adaption of new technologies will accelerate. Companies will continue to chase growth in the midst of new competitors and customer demands. People will seek out communicative leaders who can help us feel safe, grounded, understood and inspired in the midst of all of this noise and uncertainty. The question is who among us will be the first to embrace the full potential of visual thinking as individual and organizational catalysts for leading innovation and change, helping make our work more meaningful and productive.

At this time of year when we when we have made promises to do things differently— eat healthier, hit the gym more— how about also resolving to wield a marker in service of communicating new ideas and possibilities? It doesn’t matter if you think you “can’t draw;” visual thinking isn’t about artistic ability, but about passion for innovation and change. The revolution is calling: pick up your pen and change the world!

Lisa Kay Solomon is a guest contributor to the Duarte Blog. Lisa is an adjunct professor for the California College of the Art’s new MBA in Design Strategy. She teaches visual thinking as a mandatory literacy for innovation leaders of the future as part of her Innovation Studio course.