The power of the mind: Visual thinking in innovation | Visualization (Graphics) | Design Thinking

The power of the mind: Visual thinking in innovation

Erik L. van Bergen Miguel A. Melgarejo Fuentes

This paper addresses the role of visual thinking in the context of innovation, with the aim of uncovering how visual thinking is currently being utilized, its level of acceptance, and what future opportunities are. For baseline understanding, we reviewed pertinent literature. We then conducted a series of interviews with people involved in innovation. Five interviews were conducted, comprised of three different visual service providers, one of their clients and one new business development manager from a company that currently does not apply formal visual thinking techniques. Research and interviews provided us with different perspectives on how visual thinking is, or can be, used by organizations that are looking to innovate. A resulting model helps describe our findings. We then argue that the visual techniques are not of utmost importance; rather developing visualizations leads to both powerful communication tools and helps to define ideas and achieve consensus between varied innovation stakeholders.

Innovation, visual thinking, sketch, boundary objects, communication tools.

Table of contents
1 2 3 Introduction Literature Review Research Method 1 2 5 5 5 7 7 8 8 8 9 10 11 12 12 13 14 15 16 16 18 18 18 19 20 20 21 22 22

3.1 Overview 3.2 Participants 3.3 Data Collection Approach 3.4 Data Analysis Approach 4 Analysis and Results

4.1 Organizational profiles 4.2 Visual thinking in action 4.2.1 Dynamic visualizations 4.2.2 Static visualizations 4.2.3 The purpose of visual thinking 4.3 Who is using it and for what? 4.3.1 Acceptance of use 4.3.2 Why organizations use it 4.4 Visualizations as boundary objects 4.4.1 As a process 4.4.2 As a result 4.5 Visual thinking and innovation 5 Discussion

5.1 Meaning for practice: visual thinking and non-designers 5.2 Meaning for practice: using facilitators 5.3 Meaning for practice: thinking and sharing vs. high technique 5.4 Comparison of our results to literature 5.5 Limitations of our study 6 7 8 Conclusions Acknowledgements References

1 Introduction
The Dutch branch of the Product Development and Management Association (PDMA-NL) challenged us with investigating innovation practices in product development companies in the Netherlands. Our particular focus was directed at researching ‘content tools,’ which refers to tools used to simulate innovative thinking within organizations. As this is a broad topic, we narrowed our research focus and decided to investigate the use of ‘visual thinking’ in these organizations. To direct this effort, we developed an initial research question, “How is visual thinking being used inside companies to promote innovation and how effective is it as an approach?” We define visual thinking (VT) as the process of analyzing, organizing and developing information through visual cognition. Tufte (1990) states that it is necessary for us to envision information in order to reason about it, communicate it to others, and document it for future reference. These visuals can encompass everything from a simple napkin sketch to detailed digital images. Our interest in pursuing VT was two-fold. Firstly, as we (the researchers) both have backgrounds in industrial design, we already had familiarity with the topic and a general interest in seeing how a variety of organizations might incorporate it. Secondly, VT is a process or ‘state of mind’ which on some levels is connected to ‘design thinking.’ Design thinking is a concept that has grown and become adopted by many business organizations and is being promoted in business schools. The connection with VT was evident in our exposure to businesspeople that reference the VT book ‘Business Model Generation’ by Alex Osterwalder. We therefore thought VT as a content tool would be evident in a broad range of organizations, from small design agencies to large multi-national corporations. During our preliminary research, we found various types of sketches to be the starting point of most visualizations. Therefore sketching, and how sketches are used in innovation, served as the starting point of our research. As innovation team members have varied multidisciplinary backgrounds, we were curious to investigate whether skill level or visual aptitude had any major impact on its effectiveness in innovation teams. Furthermore, we allowed the research to uncover additional visualization techniques used within organizations. The paper is structured as follows: first we review pertinent literature regarding the use of visual thinking, and then we describe our research methodology aimed at filling some of the gaps in the current state of understanding. Next we describe our findings and draw conclusions for how visual thinking can be used effectively in innovation. We conclude the paper by discussing our study’s implications for future research.


2 Literature Review
Visual thinking is about tapping into one’s visual cognition skills to explore, understand and communicate concepts (Tufte, 1990). In exploring the topic of visual thinking and its relation to innovation, we focused our literature research on three primary areas outlined below. Our interest was in determining effective techniques, as well as an understanding of why visual thinking might benefit the development process through advantages over traditional written documentation. Firstly, we found that sketching is frequently discussed as a significant component of VT. Several researchers have set out to define what comprises ‘a sketch.’ Fish & Scrivener (1990) state that sketches are tools that help the human mind translate information, from descriptive propositions into depictions. Sketches can be categorized as being one of three types: thinking sketch, talking sketch and storing sketch. These groupings are based on the roles they serve in the design process, and how they affect the mindset of the designer. To define what makes a ‘sketch ‘, several researchers have described both the act and the primary objectives. Scrivener and Clark (1994) state that in sketching, the act of drawing is not an attempt to represent a solution, but is rather a means of notation that helps its creator to wrestle with complex thinking. This line of reasoning is shared by other researchers as well. Tang (1991), describes that by sketching, the author is not only creating a means of communication and attracting attention, but is also generating a medium for information. Furthermore, several researchers presume that ideas are more able to inspire additional concepts, if they are visually depicted (van der Lugt, 2005). As Schön (1983) points out, perhaps this is because a drawing allows an individual to eliminate features of the real world and experiment with ideas and concepts without their constraints. These definitions illustrate some variations in what are perceived to be the goals of sketching. Sketch authors appear to utilize the sketches for different purposes. To better organize the definition of sketching, researches have created categories for shared sketch objectives. Ferguson (1992) concluded that there are three primary types of sketches used by designers and engineers. ‘Thinking sketches’ are used by designers to support their individual thinking process, ‘talking sketches’ are drawings that help support concept evaluation during group discussions and ‘storing sketches’ are a means of recording or archiving ideas for future reference. Secondly, different techniques used in concept generation sessions have been studied to uncover which approaches are most effective. These techniques include both the use of visual thinking and traditional verbal/written approaches. The most commonly studied concept generation session is the ‘brainstorm.’ Visualizations help individuals to move between ‘descriptive symbols’ and ‘depictive symbols.’ Descriptive symbols are generic representations of the world, such as spoken language, which themselves do not contain qualities of the represented objects. Depictive symbols are such elements as sketches, which contain characteristics of specific objects


and locate them in space. It is argued that this oscillation between kinds of symbols ultimately stimulates idea generation (Fish & Scrivener, 1990). Different studies have investigated the role that sketches play during concept generation. For example, McKim (1972) stated the importance of building and maintaining a ‘collective graphic memory’ to encourage group creativity through an accessible concept database. Goel (1995) identified two operations, which occur between successive sketches during concept generation: ‘lateral transformation,’ which is the movement of one idea to a slightly different idea, and ‘vertical transformation,’ where movement is from one idea to a more detailed version of the same idea. Van der Lugt (2005) investigated the use of a brainstorm technique called ‘brainsketching.’ In this approach, the participants sketch a concept on a large sheet of paper, post it on the wall, explain the idea and then switch it with someone else. The idea is to foster the building of concept connections, promoting participants to generate new ideas from what they see. It is felt that sketching drives the act of re-interpretation, and therefore could increase the output of ideas. Research has confirmed that during brainsketching, designers make significantly more ‘supplementary connections’ than they do during traditional brainstorm sessions (van der Lugt, 2005). While van der Lugt’s 2005 study corroborated this linking effect, his research also uncovered that significantly more ideas were actually generated in typical brainstorm sessions. Van der Lugt also noted that non-designers were challenged by the brainsketching technique, and were inclined to immediately accept the initial concept sketched on the paper as the one which should be developed further. These non-designers did not expand and move away from the first idea. Van der Lugt suggests that a series of ‘warm up’ exercises or other techniques might need to be utilized to help the non-designers overcome their difficulties. Lastly, the human brain, and the way that it processes information, has been the subject of research. It has been determined that the brain uses visuals like symbols to make associations and comprehend data. Traditional teaching and notation techniques based on written (‘sentential’) information are coming into question. This line of research may be valuable in helping to determine how visual communication techniques may be used to communicate and share information across disciplines as an effective boundary object (Bechky, 2003). Large collections of data require complex systems to analyze and understand what happens in reality. Drawings and visualizations seem to be effective at helping people retain information, recognize and categorize it in more effective ways. This can help facilitate the discussion of complex situations between individuals (Simon, 1995). As McKim (1972) notes, human beings have the capacity of thinking visually in a number of ways which occur outside the realm of language thinking (dreaming for example). However it’s only when visual thinking meets a graphic language that we can express ideas in graphical symbols, which have the capacity to stimulate the creation of new associations


in an individual’s brain. This then promotes new means of seeing, analyzing and solving a given situation (Buzan and Buzan, 2006). Under the perspective of visualizations as a knowledge transformation tool, we can analyze them also as boundary objects, meaning “flexible epistemic artifacts that inhabit several intersecting social worlds and satisfy the information requirements of each of them” (Star and Griesemer, 1989, p. 393). Visualizations, considered as containers of information, can also be used inside organizations to create common ground. They create the “sum of mutual, common, or joint knowledge, beliefs, and suppositions” to facilitate communication and understanding between the different stakeholders and communities of practice involved in a new product development (NPD) process (Clark, 1996, p. 93). If we think of conversations as “a complex, information-rich mix of auditory, visual, olfactory and tactile events” (Cappella and Street, 1985) and also take into account that “Conversations are and provide the very texture of organizations” (Ford, 1999), then is possible to consider visualizations as conversational triggers. Visualizations therefore serve as one of the most important constituents of a company’s brand and culture. Creating a common ground inside NPD teams and organizations can be an important driver for better corporate performance. On one hand it facilitates the understanding of the company’s values and objectives to employees. On the other it’s an important factor for effective knowledge transfer between individuals with different backgrounds inside multidisciplinary teams (Bechky, 2003, p.326). The area of shared meanings and cognitive understanding has direct connection to the rise of design thinking as a business mindset. As Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO states in 2008, business leaders understand that innovation is now the main differentiator and source of competitive advantage. They have an appreciation of how implementing design thinking in their organizations can help them achieve this level of innovation. Furthermore, Brown says that “The increasing complexity of products, services, and experiences has replaced the myth of the lone creative genius with the reality of the enthusiastic interdisciplinary collaborator” (2008, p. 3). In order to collaborate across these disciplines, VT helps bridge communication gaps.


3 Research Method
Based on our findings in literature, we constructed a new research question to guide our continued investigation. Our updated research question became “How is VT viewed by nondesigners as a tool to stimulate innovation?” The literature provided us with a foundation for understanding VT techniques, how they are used in innovation sessions, and why using visuals helps the brain in conceptualizing possibilities, constructing solutions, and communicating ideas with others. Yet as it pertains to product innovation, the literature appears to focus heavily on visual thinking and the designer, placing less importance on the other key stakeholders in the NPD process. Perhaps this is due to designers’ comfort and natural tendency to use these types of techniques. Yet business schools are now also placing emphasis on design thinking. As part of that mindset, VT can play a significant role. We feel that there is a big opportunity to explore visual thinking beyond the designer’s mind and to focus more on how that ‘language’ speaks to the world in which the designer lives. This is part of what has motivated our interest in exploring the topic of visual thinking as it relates to innovation. Furthermore, in literature there has been a great emphasis on how sketching by hand is used as a visual tool. Yet hand sketching may not be a comfortable method for ‘non-designers’ to utilize. With the push for design thinking across multiple industries, we think there is a void in the research regarding the tools being used. This was one of the factors which contributed to our selection of participants for interview. We wanted to investigate VT practitioners with varying backgrounds and ‘artistry,’ as well as receivers of VT services who might not have any formal training in its use. It was hoped these interviews would provide us with a better understanding of what is typically occurring in general business settings.

3.1 Overview
To gather more insight into the practical use of visual tools in product development organizations, a series of five interviews were conducted. Participants were selected based on three different categories of interaction with visual thinking: facilitators of visual thinking (consultants), clients (product development companies) and ‘nonusers,’ which are product development companies that do not consciously or ‘formally’ incorporate visual thinking into their process. By interviewing a range of participants, it was expected that there would be a wider variety of opinions and experiences of use. For deeper insight, we searched for non-user participants who are from companies that are aware of visual thinking tools, but have not incorporated them. The goal with this category was to determine if these companies have found any limitations with visual thinking, leading them to not utilize it.

3.2 Participants
All the participants were from companies in the Netherlands. This choice was not only

one of practicality for in-person interviews, but also ensured a uniform business culture. Cultural differences were therefore not a factor in whether visual thinking is acceptable or how education and social factors might influence its use. Our first interview was with a provider of visual thinking services (Facilitator 1 or F1). F1 represented a seven person company with strength in visual brainstorming and illustrating concepts, business operations, corporate vision etc. F1’s clients are often non-physical product companies such as financial institutions, whose corporate leadership recognize the effectiveness of visuals to describe complicated information. Typically, F1 has a ‘traditional’ brainstorm session where Post-It™ notes are used to categorize information and generate structure for ideas. F1 then uses sketching to help convey that information. As a final deliverable, often clean, computer-generated illustrations are provided to the customer in the form of slide presentations or physical printouts. Our second interview was also a provider of visual thinking (F2). F2’s company consists of four people with backgrounds in Industrial Design and Management. Among their services, visuals are often used in helping companies understand their brand values. F2 has worked with a range of customers from fashion, to foods, to industrial goods. Among the VT tools used are rough ‘napkin sketches’ during working sessions with clients, creative toolkits and visual ‘games’ to promote innovative thinking. The findings are then compiled and refined in computer illustrations, provided to customers as large posters and booklets. Interview 3 was with a receiver or ‘client’ of VT services (C1). C1 is a manufacturer of greenhouse environmental control equipment. C1 was selected as an organization to interview because they had worked with F2, and we were interested in learning how services from a VT provider were received. Furthermore, C1 represented a company without designers as a major component of the organization. Our interviewee was trained in industrial design and design strategy, and was in a newly-created position within C1 focused on driving the brand. The fourth interviewee not only provided insight from a VT research perspective, but was himself a provider of VT consulting services (F3). Having researched literature on the subject, we felt it an interesting opportunity to discuss VT directly with a researcher in hopes of further insight. Furthermore, it was hoped that F3’s experience in researching VT techniques would lead him to adopt what he found to be effective approaches in his own consulting practice. The fifth interview was conducted with someone from a large, international construction and civil engineering company. This interviewee fell under the category of a nonuser (N1). N1’s company designs, builds and maintains cable, pipeline and control systems for various applications such as telecommunications and traffic systems. The company exhibited a more traditional engineering process and did not actively use VT techniques as part of their process. Our interviewee was leading the new business development group within the division.


3.3 Data Collection Approach
Interviews lasted approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour and were conducted face to face using audio recording. In each case, there was a single participant representing a larger company. The interviews were conducted by the two authors of this paper, using interview guides that were slightly modified to each participant category. The interview guide approach was used to ensure a level of uniformity in the data while also allowing for free flowing conversation. As this research was an initial effort at uncovering new insights and possible areas for further research, it was decided to allow the participants some freedom in how the topic was discussed.

3.4 Data Analysis Approach
After the interviews, the audio recordings were transcribed. Using ATLAS.ti qualitative data analysis software, the initial transcript was analyzed for conversational themes and codes were created to form a code book. This book was then applied to the remaining transcripts and the code book was adjusted to incorporate new thematic insights. The transcripts were then recoded using this uniform code book to ensure consistent data. Thematic Analysis was employed to allow us to uncover themes consistent across different participants. Codes were printed and sorted manually, and codes were grouped based on their themes. Each participant was color-coded, so we could easily keep track of the frequency with which certain participants mentioned themes. Further groupings were made, to connect similar themes into larger collections.


4 Analysis and Results
After coding and examining our results we came up with the following analysis. Our objective was to clarify and understand the way visual thinking is being utilized in the context of innovation. We finalize this section with a model that summarizes our results, in order to clarify and provide a reference for further discussions and research.

4.1 Organizational profiles
Though C1, and to a lesser extent N1, develop their own product solutions, the great majority of organizations described by our sample had the commonality of not using design as a central value within the company. This allowed us to examine how non-designers perceive visual thinking and how they can use it in the future. F1 for example, described his company’s work for a large international financial institution, which wanted to have tools for describing process. F3 said that his clients are very diverse, such as a company that provides “the ICT services for academic companies or academic organizations.” He continued by saying “I have done a lot with the tax office, ministry of transport, you know, those kinds of things… very broad. Anywhere where they need some help with getting over a creative obstacle that they have.” Although being from a very large civil engineering, infrastructure and construction company which does not formally use visual thinking approaches, we were surprised to see how N1 used visual tools for planning purposes. This served as a reference point for the diversity and flexibility of visual thinking approaches inside different teams and organizations in our analysis and research.


Visual thinking in action

During our research we found diverse applications of VT inside companies and organizations. Sketches, mindmaps, cartoons, graphs and others were used as tools in both small meetings and in large-scale research exercises. Sometimes consciously, sometimes not, the use of visuals seems to help individuals inside organizations express, understand and share knowledge. We were able to detect two different approaches to visualizations; both of them can coexist in a VT process but can also develop independently. Visualizations as a process (dynamic role) refers to practice in which facilitators incorporate, in one way or another, their clients to participate in the sketching stage of visualization. It is in this process where thinking and talking sketches occur. Different approaches were utilized by the facilitators that were interviewed, specifically on who is the responsible for sketching and how the process takes place, which will be discussed later. Visualizations as a result (static role) refers to the stage in which a visualization is finalized and presented to a target audience. This is the process where storing sketches (or visualizations) take place. The format, style and platform in which they are presented differ depending on the final purpose and the approach that clients and facilitators have to the problem.



Dynamic visualizations

Regardless of differing levels of expertise and abilities, we can distinguish two different kinds of individuals; the ones that have the confidence and ability to draw (even at a basic level) we name ‘the illustrators,’ and the ones that do not, ‘the non-illustrators.’ The different design consultancies that we interviewed showed varying approaches towards the interaction between illustrators and the non-illustrators. During the dynamic process of visualization some preferred to encourage people to draw and others preferred to listen to them and record their ideas and needs. The reasons behind these techniques differ depending on the approach that facilitators have to the purpose and impact of their service. We distinguish three different approaches and results under the dynamic process. ‘Visual appreciation’ occurs during the method in which a facilitator or a trained illustrator visualizes a client’s ideas and conversations. ‘Visual understanding’ happens through the process in which the clients are encouraged to express their ideas in a visual way without the intervention of a trained illustrator. Finally ‘visual transformation’ results when clients work together with facilitators and illustrators to exchange their ideas in a visual way. The visual appreciation approach results in a mostly iterative process between the facilitator and client. The facilitator’s role is to translate what he is hearing, seeing and experimenting in a creative session or meeting into a sketch or visual representation. The client’s role on the other hand is to reflect and approve or deny the image as a visual expression of what is being discussed. This normally ends up being a back and forth process, in which the client, making use of verbal comments, actively helps to refine the visualization while appreciating his or her ideas in a visual way. This approach is orientated more towards hearing and discussing ideas with people without necessarily encouraging them to sketch. F1 said, “We listen and we create visuals that are right in this time in the conversation, and when they actually get something to say and you show them and you share them, then it becomes a part of the conversation.” Though F1 thinks that in the future people might be more comfortable with using graphic language to express their ideas, he finds that right now it might be less efficient for their clients, stating that “If I go to the board of a bank, I’m not going to waste their time, that’s why I’m there.” Encouraging non-illustrators to draw then becomes a challenge that could have negative consequences. We found different approaches to this issue in our research. F3 for example starts his sessions asking attendees to draw something they did on that day that the others don’t know about. Once they realize that they can draw and express themselves by visualizations (even at a very basic level) he explains that his research shows that it really doesn’t matter how beautiful a sketch is but the actual cognitive processes that happen when drawing. According to F3 this approach is often successful. Such are the kinds of techniques employed by facilitators to encourage non-illustrators to engage in a visual understanding approach, the process in which clients express and exchange


their ideas in a visual way. Through this means, the clients (usually non-illustrators) start

activating different cognitive processes, which allow them to see concepts from a different perspective and make idea connections at diverse levels. This approach was used specially by F3 during creative idea generation sessions. We also noticed in our research that non-illustrators seem to be more reluctant to draw when the risk of being embarrassed by an actual illustrator is high. F3 mentioned: Once in a session with an international mobile phone manufacturer they had flown this designer over from the States and he had this certain way of making arches and anything that he touched became a beautiful sketch and everybody was so overwhelmed that they didn’t dare to put any ideas of their own anymore. A similar yet different approach is the visual transformation, in which both clients and facilitators sketch together in order to achieve consensus or discuss an idea. However this exchange might prove difficult, especially for non-illustrators, who might feel intimidated by the sketching quality of the facilitator. In relation to this F2 pointed out that he is not a very good sketcher himself and that this fact helps non-illustrators to be confident enough to sketch their ideas with him. “When I step up to the blackboard and make a crappy sketch of a model, people stand up as well and start filling it in and drawing with me because is not about the drawing, it’s about thinking visually.” We find visual transformation processes to be highly powerful because they activate the visual cognition of the clients and combine it with the visual and creative experience of the facilitator. The mentioned approaches (visual appreciation, understanding and transformation) allow for achieving dynamic visualizations in different ways. The effectiveness of such approaches depends on the stakeholders involved, the context around them, and the problem that is being solved. Such considerations will be explored later in this paper. 4.2.2

Static visualizations

Static visualizations refer to the final images that result either from an individual or a group dynamic process. They are static because they are meant to be appreciated, observed and discussed; they are no longer sketches that could be edited or commented in the way dynamic visualizations are. Their form and format are as diverse as their purpose. From huge posters to power point presentations; from simple sketches to highly processed digital images. They are entirely related to the scope from the service provider and the requirements of the client. Some tendencies however could be appreciated in this respect. When the visualizations are used for an internal process inside a given department of an organization, they might end up in the form of a report. In one extreme the report can be just a simple compilation of the realized visuals to which employees can refer to when needed. In the other extreme the reports might end up being more like toolkits, comprised of a set of tailored gear that represents visually and physically the solution to the client’s need. For massive communication purposes visualizations might end up in the form of posters or printouts. The scale of such visualizations can differ greatly, from standardized formats


to big scale cartels. The formats in which visualizations can be delivered, especially in the context of the digital era, are countless. However the most important thing is to find a fit between the need and the deliverable, as F1 pointed out, “There’s a million ways, there’s maybe more successful ways. There’s also boring ways, and there’s motivational ways… But that’s usually [why] we ask what the goal or the purpose or the visuals really are.” One of the main advantages of static visualizations is that the same image can be used for diverse purposes and applied to different formats. One of the visual projects acquired by C1 ended up being a tool for internal as well as for external communication. Since the visuals described the company profile, it served the same function for employees as for suppliers or clients. Though static visualizations are not dynamic in their form, they can be highly flexible in both their application and their purpose. 4.2.3

The purpose of visual thinking

During our research we detected some areas and tasks for which companies are currently requiring visualization services. In general we can cluster them into idea generation, research, communication and consensus purposes. Abstract processes such as idea and concept generation can be improved using visual techniques. Though in this context, it was noted that the effectiveness of some approaches might be reduced due to the lack of confidence and practice of non-illustrators. To compensate for this possibility, F3 uses what he defines as “sketch jamming.” The idea is to form pairs between participants of a session, have them work on a sketch that represents their idea for a certain amount of time and then they switch to another pair in the session. F3 says that “you get into the kind of talking sketch.” Visuals can also be used to stimulate and guide creative sessions such as brainstorms; they can help to point participants to a certain theme or area while keeping a level of abstractness that stimulates creativity and provides flexibility. Visuals are also used as a research tool for the company itself and for its customers. Companies such as F2 use sketches and different kinds of visualizations as tools to explore the company’s very essence. The representative power of visuals helps to define and represent abstract ideas such as the mission, vision and processes of a company and the relations that exist between them. The same approach can be used to research user needs, value propositions and processes as well as product concept lines and service touch points. The use of visualizations as a communication platform such as presentations and keynotes is already a common practice. Normally standard graphs or stock photos are used to reinforce an idea, process or concept. However during our research we found that customized visualizations generated by service providers are also being used to explain and convince different stakeholders inside organizations. Meetings are an important activity of an organization. Large amounts of information is discussed and communicated, and relevant debates around important decisions take place.


The environment and the amount of information being considered might make it difficult for

participants to generate a common idea of what and how decisions were made. The power that visualizations have to represent information in its context makes them an ideal tool for recording and summarizing meetings. Some VT providers such as F1 offer the service of going to a meeting and visually summarizing what its taking place. In such processes visualizations generally constitute the final deliverable, but depending on their purpose they might end up as a booklet or as large printouts showcased in the company. The constant transition between language and visualization helps people to think in different perspectives about what they want to express. This transition opens an opportunity for the facilitator and the other stakeholders in a session to question and help define concepts and ideas. In this sense we could think of visualizations as a tool to achieve consensus. As we have discussed and elaborated, visualizations are often used to express finalized ideas, processes, products or concepts to other people. Such are the visualizations that end up being used in posters, presentations and other material. The power of these kinds of visualizations rests on their ability to sensitize huge amounts of information in a relatively simple and easy to understand way. As an illustrative example of this matter we could take maps, as they manage to explain massive amount of data in a much simpler way than pure verbal language.

4.3 Who is using it and for what?
Through analyzing the interview transcripts and clustering themes, we gained insight into both the participants of VT and the motivations behind why organizations use it. Almost all of our interview participants were themselves ‘champions’ of VT; they were either providers of VT, or were advocates for its use. This perspective gave our participants an added level of awareness regarding how (and why) VT is accepted as a tool within companies. The interview subjects described varying levels of acceptance for VT within organizations and provided insight into who is driving the use of visual thinking approaches within companies. We discovered that the decision to use VT comes from both ‘the core’ and ‘top’ levels. As it relates to our research, we define the core scenario as one in which middle-level management and employee groups actively use VT. We define the top scenario as upperlevel management looking to convey information to the company employees. Furthermore, the interviews revealed that VT is being used by a variety of different types of companies and for different purposes. The interviewees indicated that their customers are generally not product development firms, but range in industry. 4.3.1

Acceptance of use

One cluster of themes from the transcripts related to how well the idea of VT is accepted in organizations. Generally it appears that there is not a uniform acceptance of the approach across companies. The interviews indicated that this may be due in part to variance in mindsets of the people in the organization. For example, C1 said that at her company she: recognized two kinds of people: people [who] want to have order and people who


want to have freedom, and the people [who] want to have order are always skeptical and they want to see what’s the result, why do we do this, what is next…and people who want freedom more are most of the time less critical [and say] ‘ok we will experience this.’ N1 described some of her challenges in promoting new approaches to innovation and communication at her company, stating that they have to take “small steps.” She said this happens “Because the directors, they are the technicians, the engineers, the academic persons as well but with the traditional education. I think that’s the difference.” C1 also stated there were significant challenges getting complete team buy-in. C1 described a case where managers were given the task of visualizing a problem and that some people thought “‘I am so busy I am not going to spend any time on these funny things.’” In contrast, when describing the profile of his clients, F2 stated that they don’t have a traditional mindset. His client’s background is: not necessarily someone with a design background but is more people who understand that design thinking and a more human centered approach can help them get out of their, sort off, that trap of, you know, more business thinking where that obviously does not work anymore. He also stated that his clients are “people who do understand that there is more than sort of the classic MBA way of business thinking.” A notable theme in several interviews was about the process by which acceptance of VT grows within an organization. Several statements were grouped under the theme code of ‘believing after experience.’ F1 stated that there are “people, I’d say maybe old school people, who do not see the relevance, but they always see the relevance afterwards. They always say ‘oh wow…I didn’t realize…if I knew, then I would have been more cooperative.’” C1 stated that some people “didn’t see it as part of the work…not useful…they were very convinced by the results when we analyzed everything.” F3 said that the clients who hire him for VT “have been involved in other projects or sessions and thought it was cool.” In some companies the use of VT appears to have widespread acceptance. F2 spoke of a case of high level of organizational commitment present in the work he did with C1, stating that “They have a company of 500 people, they wanted to involve everyone. We worked first with 10 people and then 50 people and this 50 people had the task to involve 10 other people.” C1 described how after working with F2 to learn VT approaches, “We worked on it ourselves further...people did it besides their own job.” C1 stated that some in the team were actively utilizing VT as part of their process even without it being demanded by management. 4.3.2

Why organizations use it

We also determined some motivations behind the use of VT in companies. The interviews suggested that the promotion of VT use is primarily driven from certain segments within


the organization because of different goals. Yet to reach those goals, VT may be employed

as a method by a range of groups within the company. In some organizations, VT is primarily pushed by middle management, who use VT as a tool to gain support for projects from upper management. N1 stated, “Okay, I need 200,000 Euros, where do we get it? Which director or unit gives me some money to go further to do some research? Then you have to have a great presentation.” Furthermore, N1 said she is pushing management to add creative types who use VT into the organization: There’s a lot of innovation going on in [our company] but when you are not able to sell it…we have a lot of products…a whole list of ideas but they are in the closet… and I think they need industrial designers or marketers to get the transition possible. And that’s a mindset change. The core of the organization also uses VT as a tool to understand problems and develop solutions. F3 stated that he has been involved in “future research…helping companies to kind of visualize possible future situations and interpret how they could deal with that or how could they prepare for that sort of thing.” F3 said that the people he works with are “not necessarily the people at the top, not necessarily the operational people but very, very often policy makers, kind of higher middle men.” In some cases there is a need to drive innovation in the company and as F2 said, “This innovation requires vision, understanding, it requires a strong culture.” To develop this understanding of culture, F2 works with people who are “sometimes the heads of design departments, but more often they work in marketing, or… working on R&D or they are executives.” While often the core, middle management levels of organizations are driving the use of VT techniques, upper management is also pushing its use but sometimes with different goals. F1 said he is often “working for the board and they want to communicate all their thoughts and all their strategic planning down into the company in such a way they are motivated and understand why things are happening that way.” F1 described that a reason that top management feels the need to use visuals to describe organizational plans is because there is no longer a ‘hierarchical’ character to how companies function. He stated that it used to be that “When the boss said ‘jump’ you said ‘how high?’ and that’s it, you know. But now you say ‘but why should I jump?’” C1 also described a push from the top of the organization. “Our general manager had an advertisement company in the past so she was very aware of the importance of [these] techniques and that was really helpful because when a general manager thinks it’s good, people accept it earlier.” C1 also spoke about a managing director whom had become convinced of VT’s merits after initially being skeptical: “This managing director…says ‘ok I want [F2] to do the project because he can help us with other ways of thinking and other ways of doing this project.’”

4.4 Visualizations as boundary objects
In a way, visualizations transcend verbal language by carrying information in a more abstract


and flexible manner. They become a meeting point for people with different educational backgrounds inside an organization, which are able to see and interpret by themselves the message portrayed by a certain image. Although the interpretation might vary a great deal between individuals depending on the language, context and its inherent complexity, visualizations have the potential to become a meeting point for discussion and ultimately a certain degree understanding. In other words, visuals have the potential to become boundary objects, a fundamental tool for achieving common ground in multidisciplinary teams and organizations. 4.4.1

As a process

The properties that a visualization might have as a boundary object, and its capability to achieve common ground in a given environment, is defined by both the dynamic and static processes that comprise it. During our research we found that the actual process of making visualizations requires a certain degree of introspection and analysis; the approach and methods that service providers use are fundamental in this task. One of the commonalities we discovered between the different service providers in our research was the constant use of preliminary sketches to challenge and question their clients’ beliefs. As F1 mentioned, “Our tool is sketching, and it actually took us a long time to realize that was our tool, because the main service that we provide is actually thinking. But we don’t think for people, we think with people.” The process of developing visualizations normally requires a constant back and forth between the different stakeholders involved. Visualization processes force participants (including the facilitator) to achieve a certain level of consensus over an idea or a process. F2 for example starts his process doing simple sketches to represent what he thinks is the idea that is being discussed with the client. By showing the sketch and asking “Is this what you mean?” he starts a process by which the group, through visualizations, discuss and define it. In this sense the sketches become a boundary object through which consensus and understanding is achieved. As F2 mentioned: [By] visualizing you get a clearer idea of the concepts in your head, if you don’t visualize they can stay cloudy, you don’t force yourself to make decisions, you don’t force yourself to actually be very precise in what you mean…You have to make choices. Building visualizations between people from different disciplines and levels inside an organization can therefore serve as an effective boundary object. Individuals that could otherwise find difficulties achieving understanding over an idea using only verbal language, can use sketches and visuals as a flexible platform to achieve consensus. This characteristic makes it very important to analyze who is involved in the process of developing visualizations. F1 described the importance of involving as many stakeholders as possible in the visual development process. “It doesn’t matter how difficult it is, fly them in, do whatever [it] costs. You have to be there at the start. And even though it’s only two


hours, they have to be there, because it really makes a difference.” The negative perception that some employees and board members might have towards sketching and visualizations, makes the context in which they are introduced a crucial success factor. One of the visual exercises that occurred at C1’s organization required employees to fill a workbook with visualizations. However at the same time as the exercise, some employees had lost their jobs. The playfulness of the workbook contrasted totally with this situation, so the employees that got the workbook didn’t have a positive reaction towards it and just a few of them managed to complete it. 4.4.2

As a result

The ability of visualizations to portray concepts, ideas or processes to individuals that are not familiar with them, represents a challenge. An effective visual is able to portray, in a fast and understandable way, information to stakeholders with diverse backgrounds. The graphical language used is essential to the transcendence of the carried message; it needs to be selected according to the context and purpose of the visualization. An experienced group of engineers, for example, might be able to understand and elaborate around an engineering drawing, while people from other disciplines might not understand it at all. The balance achieved between simplicity, abstractness and purpose of an image becomes then related to the level and quality of conversations generated around it. If an image manages to show the same message to people from different backgrounds, departments and/or organizations, it becomes an extremely useful tool. In the case of C1, the visuals generated to express their corporate identity became the guidelines for suppliers of different services to develop products and interfaces for the company. Visuals and the objects that carry them can then become a tool to express tangible and intangible concepts to third parties. If they are simple enough they might be used to explain things faster to others, as F2 illustrated with an example “… the next time when they do a presentation and we are not there, they would draw that same circle and then they would use only one minute where previously they needed ten minutes to explain what they do.” Yet as previously mentioned, not all the people are suited for these kinds of representations. When questioned about the abilities of employees to reproduce the model that explains their vision C1 replied “Not everyone…there were people that didn’t want to know anything of this because it was strange.”

4.5 Visual thinking and innovation
In coherence with our research, we developed the following visual summary of our analysis. It starts by showing the two different visual thinking approaches that might occur inside an organization (top down and bottom up). This is then followed by the two main stages of a visualization (dynamic and static) and the different ways in which they are achieved and reproduced. Finally it shows the general goals for which they are used.



5 Discussion
Our research question was to understand how VT is viewed by non-designers as a tool to stimulate innovation conversations. We did not define what innovation meant for us, offering us the opportunity to interview people who work with teams in a variety of industries. The intention was to gain a broader view of VT’s possible use or impact. In discussing VT experiences with facilitators, clients and nonusers, several main themes developed: VT is not universally-understood as an effective approach, acceptance of use grows once people have exposure to VT, and technique is not a very important consideration.

5.1 Meaning for practice: visual thinking and non-designers
The VT practitioners had positive remarks about how their VT approaches had successfully contributed to their clients’ businesses and how even upper management in non-design businesses championed the use of VT. Interactive working sessions were described, as were visual tools that were deliverables from VT sessions and were still being used or referred to by their clients. In some cases, our interviewees described how the VT techniques that had been introduced were now used without being prompted by management. Yet in talking to a receiver of these services, it was clear that the concept of VT is not universally understood nor even accepted within business organizations. This seems to be a result of two factors: people coming from disciplines that do not place emphasis on thinking in visual terms, and those who come from ‘traditional’ educations as was described by N1. When reflecting on some of the challenges she experienced in getting team members to adopt VT, C1 discussed the importance of preparing non-designers prior to starting VT exercises. C1 believed that one of her exercises with VT failed in the company because she had not considered appropriate timing or how to prepare people for the exercise. Because some members of a development team do not have visual training, it appears that those managers and engineers have to be sensitized to what VT will do for them so they are more accepting of trying something outside their comfort zone. C1, who is a VT champion, says that now in order “to explain a new thing I first tell what the goal is and the end, and then when they are convinced with what they get in the end then there is a lot more freedom to do the process by itself, to use the visual techniques.”

5.2 Meaning for practice: using facilitators
Sometimes to help instigate the use of VT, facilitators are appropriate. They have been trained in both technical skills for creating images, as well as using visuals to help comprehend problems, develop solutions and communicate ideas to others. From what we uncovered, there are two ways in which facilitators contribute with VT services to companies: as visual recorders or as active collaborators. Both of these services provide clients with the ability to understand information through use of visual cognition. We did not uncover any verifiable data to suggest one approach is more appropriate than the other. While more research needs to be conducted, the appropriateness of the type of facilitator may simply depend on the scope of the project or number of participants involved.


Our research corroborated what we uncovered in literature regarding the types of sketches used, whether by facilitator or clients. Thinking, talking, and storing sketches were all alluded to in discussions, although the style and level of use did differ depending on who was creating them and for what purpose. Facilitators like F1 who serve as visual recorders use the thinking sketch as part of their internal process of comprehending what is being discussed, prior to developing talking sketches which they use to have conversations with clients regarding the subject being discussed. F1 concludes the interactive effort by generating a static presentation document or poster. This activity both stores the conclusions of the dynamic session so they can be referenced later, as well as serving as a means of communicating to a broad audience. Other facilitators raise the level of interaction with their clients by having the clients create visuals along with them. Depending on how closely the facilitators and clients work together, this approach can blend the thinking and talking sketches together. There doesn’t have to be a specific effort of cleaning up thinking sketches in order to then discuss ideas with visuals. It is a highly energetic and informal approach. However, at the end of such an effort, static visuals are typically created to record decisions or outcomes from the dynamic session. This allows others to be inspired by the concepts (albeit to a lesser degree than those who actively participated).

5.3 Meaning for practice: thinking and sharing vs. high technique
Based on findings, it isn’t the technique that is important. The key skill is the use of visuals in the thinking and communication process. Even highly-skilled visual facilitators use simple, ‘every day’ techniques as part of their process. As F1 stated, “When there’s a big, very complex process, we need to map it out with Post-Its before we start sketching. And actually the structure that comes from the Post-Its, allows us to see patterns that we can translate into visuals.” In further describing the working process with clients, F1 said “The main service that we provide is actually thinking. But we don’t think for people, we think with people.” According to F1, the most important aspect of using visuals is to create a shared meaning. “…it’s all about sharing and thinking together. That’s the only thing there is.” He stressed that “Instead of just one person who is responsible in the end, you have to create a shared feeling, shared thought and shared motivation for people.” F2 also emphasized the thinking and sharing aspects over technique. F2 actually described his technique as “crappy” and “ugly,” but placed emphasis on how the act of visualizing concepts and conversations helps both him and his clients grasp understanding. As F2 said, “By visualizing these things all of a sudden people star to understand all of a sudden they have this aha experience.” Similar to F1, for F2 VT is “about a new way of working, about getting people involved, motivating people, getting teams aligned around a central vision.” In the end, it seems it is through the process of sharing and comprehension that acceptance of VT use is increased. F2 described how he was working with a client and had created a simple diagram using a circle. F2 talked about his client, saying that now “When they do a


presentation and we are not there, they would draw that same circle and then they would

use, you know, only one minute where previously they needed ten minutes to explain what they do.”

5.4 Comparison of our results to literature
Our results highlighted an important connection with our initial literature research. While the types of VT techniques varied greatly amongst the organizations, a common theme dealt with the concept of ‘aha’ moments – the point when the brain is able to connect information and thoughts. Based on the enthusiasm of several interviewees, it appears that this moment of making a connection is a driver in the innovation process. The interviews suggest that through the use of VT, team members with different thoughts, different backgrounds, different values, are able to come to a shared understanding about an idea and elaborate on it. Through both literature research and interviews, the notion of ‘boundary objects’ (or tools/ processes for understanding) was described in varying ways. It seems that communication and comprehension of ideas is enhanced through finding the ‘right’ medium to convey those ideas. Yet several of the interviews also described a disconnect between VT champions and certain elements within the business organization. Not everyone in business has an understanding of VT techniques or benefits, even when they have personal experience using them. In answer to our refined research question, “How is VT viewed by non-designers as a tool to stimulate innovation conversations,” the results were rather mixed. The issue of acceptance by non-designers was not a topic covered in the literature that was uncovered. Our literature review found a significant emphasis on hand sketching as a VT tool. While each of the interviewees utilized different techniques and had different visuals as end deliverables, hand sketching was a component of their process. N1 represented a company where the ideas of VT and creative communication are not consciously promoted, although 3D CAD and surface computing are incorporated in the process from a mindset of engineering/technology tools. However, it was evident in the interview with N1 that hand sketching is naturally used to help convey information. To her surprise, it was pointed out to N1 that she was using VT when she started sketching unprompted. N1 then explained that she creates mindmaps to organize her thoughts and convey them to the team.

5.5 Limitations of our study
The major limitation of our research is in the limited number of interviews. While we did interview a range of different of professionals, the quantity should be greater for even more diverse insight. Furthermore, we had hoped to interview more receivers of VT, particularly receivers of services from the providers we interviewed. While we did have one such interview, we were unable to secure another VT client. Additional discussions with these clients would shed additional light on how VT is perceived by non-designers, who form a significant component of many innovation teams. Our hope would be for further insight into specific techniques for both preparing for VT sessions and for conveying information through VT.


6 Conclusions
To investigate VT and its use as a tool for innovation, we began with a focus on techniques. Existing research showed an emphasis on different visual styles and group concept generation techniques like brainstorming and brainsketching. But in the process we also uncovered research into the psychological aspects of VT: cognition and enhanced communication through visuals. This area of research proved to be of greater interest in understanding the effect VT can have for a broader group of stakeholders involved in innovation, who may not be skilled in visual techniques. As described by Schon (1983), drawings and other visuals help release individuals from the constraints of their existing world or organization, giving people the opportunity to express ideas and processes in a fast and relatively easy fashion. However they also present a challenge to the individual, who has to possess certain skills to express things in a graphical way. But it is important for non-designers to realize that the key to VT’s power is not in the technical quality of the image that is produced; it lies in the mental connections that are made. As uncovered in our research, even professional visual providers (facilitators) place higher value on the way visuals are used to think and share meanings as a group. Simply stated, VT harnesses the brain’s natural ability to make analogies, simplify complex ideas and consider possible outcomes through visual references. The visual power of the brain is an effective, yet often overlooked tool for driving innovation. Too often, corporations rely on sentential documents like reports and spreadsheets to describe concepts that could be more effectively conveyed and understood through visual means. For example, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a circle is defined as: A perfectly round plane figure. In Geom. defined as a plane figure bounded by a single curved line, called the circumference, which is everywhere equally distant from a point within, called the centre. But often applied to the circumference alone, without the included space. While this statement does accurately define a circle, we are also able to understand that something is meant to be a circle when it is drawn on a page with one quick motion. In this way, visualizations serve as boundary objects that allow members from different disciplines to easily communicate with each other. When innovation teams come together, they often represent divergent expertise critical for overall project success. Using a common language through visuals, helps these teams effectively arrive at shared understanding, thereby driving the process more efficiently.


7 Acknowledgements
We would like to thank our TU Delft tutors in this project, especially our coach, Maaike Kleinsmann for all the guidance, support and feedback provided to us, as well as to Jeroen de Kempenaer from PDMA NL for providing us with this research opportunity.

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