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The age of visualisation

Half the human brain is dedicated to the task of attaching meaning to visual signals, and we've been underusing it. But, says Sorrel Downer, now it's time for pictures and infographics to have their day, as simple text struggles to interpret the huge amounts of data we ingest daily
We're changing the way we work to be more visual
Neil Webb

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It's there for the taking: big data, more than 2.5 exabytes of it added a day, the fuel of innovation, the DNA of the customer base, the key to the competitive edge. But, given the volume, how do businesses find the information they need, process it and communicate it? 

It's becoming clear that text is no longer up to the job. It can't leverage the metrics or make lots of facts look attractive and it can't get its point across in milliseconds. But a well-designed visual...  Now, that can be packed with complex information, brightly coloured, widely shared and instantly understood, even by people who don't speak your language. 

The time we spend online and the way we consume information — rapidly, using nonlinear scanning and following hyperlinked connections — appeals both to the way our brain's wiring is set up to receive it and, according to research, is causing a shift in the way we process information. As a society, we are adapting to a more visual world — or in fact are reverting to a more visual world. Half of the human brain is dedicated to the task of attaching meaning to visual signals, and it's an area that we have under-utilised until now. 

Visualisation — or the visual representation of ideas — is now gaining importance as a tool for building team cohesion, planning strategy, fostering engagement and triggering innovation. And of the many tools in the visualisation toolbox, those proving most indispensable and pervasive across British businesses are creative data analysis, graphic facilitation and graphic recording.

Creative Data Analysis

Increasingly, companies are employing creative data analysts and information designers to pick out the insights and patterns relevant to their business and turn them into graphics that the people who need the information can quickly understand. As a process, says Andy Kirk of, it is "both an art and a science. It is an art concerned with unleashing creativity and innovation, designing communications that appeal on an aesthetic level and survive in the mind on an emotional one. It is a science aimed at understanding and exploiting the way our eyes and brains process information most efficiently, effectively and accurately."

GE, along with Dow Jones, Microsoft, Google and the World Economic Forum are among the organisations making their data sets available to the information designer community of and challenging them to compete to create the best visual representations. The resulting works circulate in the public domain: streamgraphs, tree maps and scatterplots providing insights into everything from the ROI of education to the attitudes of Brazilians to the upcoming 2016 Olympic Games. It's unlikely that such information would be widely shared as text documents, but in graphic form it's easily digested.  

For businesses, this awakened appetite for visuals opens up all kinds of opportunities, not only for sharing visual information internally and with external stakeholders, but also for getting marketing messages under the eyes of potential customers, by wrapping them up in the form of attractive infographics.

"Just a raft of text is not that entertaining," says Michael Agar, whose consultancy, Michael Agar Design, specialises in data design and infographics for businesses from ASG and BearingPoint Institute to Hotwire PR. "We have evolved, and we are used to a visual culture," he adds. "For marketing, a message needs to be visual if that information is to be shared globally."

Something with visual impact increases the chance of a message not only being seen, but also remembered. And there is something inherent in visuals that makes them engaging. "When we understand a visual, the brain sends out neurotransmitters to say 'good job', and we get a rush, and want to understand more," says Agar. 

"We have a side of our brain that gets forgotten," he adds. "As children we draw, but academic life is very text-driven. For a long time business has represented information in charts, but now there's a need to represent more abstract concepts such as transparency, corporate and social responsibility... the human side of business. Visualisation is perfect for that. It presents not just a story of the past but a vision of the future." 

Graphic recording the ModelMinds way

Graphic Facilitation

Graphic facilitation involves a team of people, a big piece of paper and a facilitator, whose job it is to give visual form to their ideas. The ideas can then be mapped out and converged (or rubbed out), allowing the team as a whole to see what they are talking about, whether it's where a business is positioned, say, or a product's route to market. By physically grouping and regrouping ideas rather than describing and discussing them, it is easier to make connections and spot obstacles. Given that the brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, it's also a useful tool in explaining abstract concepts. The bottom line is that everyone sees the big picture.

Graphic facilitation can be a useful way of getting a team to visualise the possibilities and explore the outcomes of a strategy over the course of a day. Brainstorms and workshops can throw up a lot of ideas but leave them in a heap, whereas graphic facilitation provides a framework for putting them in order. Give rough ideas some visual form, and it seems the human brain automatically sets about making connections. One of the earliest proponents, David Sibbet of The Grove Consultants, discovered that "by leaving out the connections and simply juxtaposing information on sticky notes would activate a group's thinking".

A strange kind of alchemy comes into play: "When words and visual elements are closely entwined, we create something new," says Robert E Horn of Stanford University, "and we augment our communal intelligence... Visual language has the potential for increasing human bandwidth — the capacity to take in, comprehend and more efficiently synthesise large amounts of new information.'

Facilitators use various frameworks for representing ideas visually in spatial patterns, such as timelines or metaphorical settings, from outer space to forests and zoos, each one designed to focus thinking towards a particular objective. A mind map, for instance, which looks pretty much like a tree, shows the creative thinking that stems from a single topic (the trunk) and might be used to explore further growth, while something like a concept map (which looks more like a circuit diagram) might be used to show how different parts of an organisation could fit together. However, as John Ashton of Scribing Magic explains, "You can have the cleverest models and frameworks in your meeting design, but poor facilitation can render a meeting ineffectual and pointless. The skill of the facilitator is to use these methods and frameworks as a tool to create great conversations which lead to shared understanding and co-creation of ideas between the participants in the room." 

Every business has untapped potential and, equally, workplace conflicts that are unfathomable. Visual communication can get difficult, abstract concepts out into the open, and then, better still, make sense of them. "A picture up on a wall or on a computer screen creates a visual target for groups of people to explore, debate and challenge," and that results in greater team cohesion, says AllChange, a UK strategy and change company providing graphic facilitation services. Head of strategic consulting, Ian Ure, says: "The higher up a corporation a person is, the greater their tendency to use bigger words and mental models, which creates a level of abstract. Abstract art is good, abstract when executing the corporate game plan or change initiative is not so good." 

A bit like therapy, graphic facilitation is pretty good at digging up differences and grievances, or "creating conversations". Ashton explains how when individuals are asked to each draw a picture of where they see the business going, the results can differ widely. "We go into businesses where there are disagreements and, by surfacing ideas visually, are often able to show that the divergent views are actually similar," he says.  

Visualisation techniques are also flushing out outdated meeting formalities and heralding more of a peer-to-peer, human-centric approach. "Visualisation helps people connect on a more emotional level," says Manuel Sturm of the Netherlands-based ModelMinds, which provides visual skills training and graphic recording services to multinational companies across Europe, including Royal Bank of Scotland and business software company SAP. "Businesses want to be less robotic, to lift the values of the company and encourage open, honest dialogues, and pictures help users connect with their feelings. Visual language has been a big taboo in business — there's an idea that it's silly and childish to draw, and that pictures have no value. Visualisation is breaking that paradigm."

A drawing exercise facilitated by Modelminds for ABN AMRO provided "a chance to get a surprisingly deep insight into each other's perspectives on our collective performance, which then triggered a very useful discussion on our vision and strategy," says innovation manager, Celine Pessers, who is a fan of visualisation methods. "It helps people to connect to different parts of their brain and to their feelings as well, which adds to the effectiveness of internal change projects, for example," she says. "We also use it to explain complex information in a simpler way, or to explain how our innovation processes and experiments work. Other departments of our bank have also adopted visual communication methods. I think we live in a time of transition, and we need new techniques to stretch ourselves to other ways of thinking and acting.

"There's a connection between the high-speed visual online world and the ways in which we want to express ourselves," Pessers continues. "Our brains increasingly work with fragmented, short cycles, rather than hours of deep concentration. We feel the need to align our own output with this tempo. However, I see a risk of losing fantasy and creativity by always being able to let the internet work for us. With this endless source of information and inspiration always within a few seconds' reach, I feel that our brains might get more passive and dependent. Being creative is a form of digging from our personal, rather than the digital realm." 

Graphic Recording

Graphic recording is the visual capture of a meeting as it happens. The recorder is generally a silent witness, and the end result is usually a large scale sheet which, done well, not only reflects decisions, but the thought process that leads up to them. More than an aide memoire, the graphics are designed to help shape thinking during the meetings as well as provide a focus for further discussion after the event. 

"Sometimes we have to convince people that we are not just a bunch of artists who have come in to do something wonderfully creative but not meaningful," says Ashton. His introduction to the facilitation business was as a client working in organisational development. While developing an executive development programme, he approached meeting facilitation and consultancy company, Meeting Magic, to design and deliver a creative but business-focused session that would take participants out of their comfort zone and encourage them to share their thoughts and ideas about the strategic direction of the business in a fresh way.

He was struck by the way the visual elements facilitated honest, open conversation and went on to join the company as a facilitator. With demand skyrocketing in the past two years, Scribing Magic was launched as a sub-brand specialising in graphic recording, hand-drawn animation and visualisation of strategies, plans and processes. 

Sonia Astill, HR director at Argos, is one satisfied customer: "We are a business going through transformational change, which is both exciting and challenging," she says. "My teams are responsible for all the people elements of that — recruitment, development and motivation around our strategies are at the heart. So, when I led our recent HR conference, my challenge was to share a lot of strategic information, engage my teams around that and drive an action plan to motivate the whole business around the change. I needed help to capture that and create something that was tangible and we could refer back to.

 "John from Meeting Magic was great because he stayed with us during the day and captured the essence of what we talked about in both words and pictures. He produced a huge graphic, which we have on display and shows in a very engaging and accessible way what we talked about and what we are going to do next. More importantly, it shows the energy and enthusiasm in the room, which is hugely motivational to us all. It continues to be a catalyst in creating conversations and discussion about the conference two months after the event."

Aside from the advantages of being able to use humour ("steam coming out of someone's ears, an elephant in the room — things you'd be nervous about committing to paper in a written report") graphic recording is produced in real time, and available for playback instantly. "Unlike minutes," says Ashton, "which record the linear flow, the evolving visual allows people to see what's being said and the linkages between diverse pieces of information, and connect ideas raised at the end of the meetings with those at the beginning."

The piece of paper at the front acts like a mirror, says Sturm of Modelminds: "Someone may see they are being too dominant and step back, or being too repressed and become more visible. You get fantastic results by reflecting not what happened in the past, but what's happening right here, right now.";;;;;;

Sorrel Downer


Features, creativity, communication, science
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