The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. –Marcel Proust
This post should not be written.
It should be depicted. A video. A slideshow. Sketches on a cocktail napkin. Charades. Anything other than letters, words and sentences. Why? Because, according to the nearly 400 people who gathered at the first annual VizThink conference in San Francisco, we comprehend better, learn faster and communicate more effectively when we do so visually. Writing about a visual thinking conference is like singing a P&L statement, or designing an integrated circuit using mosaic tiles. It’s not the right medium for the message.
But, having no immediate access to a camera and lacking the drawing skills to make even a stick figure look like a stick, words must suffice. Or, here’s an idea. Stop reading right now and visit www.vizthink.com. The website, wiki and blog have plenty of visuals. Lots of color. Even some video.
The timing of VizThink, a first-of-its-kind conference for visual communication specialists that launched in January, is non-coincidental. It didn’t just happen because a bunch of visualistas wanted it to happen. It had to happen. Its rationale is so obvious it almost sounds silly when spoken out loud: to promote a global community of visual thinkers.
If you feel the urge to say, “duh,” you are not alone.
After all, are we not visual thinkers by design? Did we not rise up on two feet with stereoscopic orbs set squarely in the front of our face backed up by a layer of gray matter that is dominated by visual processing activity?
Was there a person e’er lived who dreams in text? Just imagine nodding off and instead of experiencing a lifelike world of images, you find yourself looking at pages and pages of words. Imagine falling asleep and reading: “I am sitting in class, and the teacher is passing out tests, and in a moment of heart-pumping panic I realize I have not studied at all. Oh, and another shocker, I am wearing no pants.”
Of course, the idea of dreaming in text is absurd. It is impossible to read even those few lines without developing a mental picture. We can’t stop our minds from thinking in images any more than we can stop Yanni from releasing another CD.
Which is not to say the organizers of VizThink should not pat themselves on their infographically illustrated backs for taking the initiative and giving form to the underlying reality that human beings are visual thinkers. They should be proud of calling attention to the fact that visual language is the language of the 21st century. They should take credit for pointing out that most formal business communication is non-visual–even PowerPoint presentations, which are supposed to enable visual communication, are typically more textual than graphical.
Even so, the VizThink founders surely know they are not creating a new trend in visual communication the way, say, an influential couturier establishes the elevation of a hemline. They are instead the industrious and ambitious few who have the courage and the vision to draw attention to the elephant in the room. And by a stroke of good fortune, they happen to have the skills to draw a picture of the elephant.
The issue is not that everyone is subconsciously ignoring the elephant because they don’t want to acknowledge its presence, the way the button and zipper people tried for years to ignore Velcro. No, the paradox is that the elephant is so big, so ubiquitous, he is nearly invisible. [The other obvious, and equally cliché, visual analogy is the story of the five blind men and the elephant, but that is, like, way too hard to draw!]
We are visual communicators by nature, but we somehow forgot the fact and lost the skill, or at least let it go dormant under the influence of Gutenberg and the international printer paper cartel. Perhaps we should blame all those first grade teachers and their incessant ABCs that far too soon muscled aside our beloved finger paints. For whatever reasons, we have neglected our visual communications skills for centuries.
If you are a finger-painting elephant hunter looking for a group of qualified people eager to discuss the theories, techniques and implications of being visual, a great place to start would be VizThink. But if that is what you’re after, sorry, it already happened. And that is far and away the most significant news about VizThink–it happened.
The elephant farted and it is going to be very hard to ignore from this point forward.
History might very well record January 27th and the Westin San Francisco as the time and place the visual communication revolution began. Okay, probably not, but the gaggle of visual thinking gurus who gathered in that place at that time can rest assured that they will at least be a lengthy footnote. It remains to be seen if, as the organizers intend, VizThink S.F. will be the first of a series of worldwide conferences, regional associations, websites and networks. As mentioned, the idea is so obvious the biggest question is why it didn’t happen before this.
Rodolfo Carpintier, whose Spain-based business incubator, Digital Assets Deployment (DaD), underwrote the startup costs of the conference, thinks the timing is right. Carpintier paints a picture of a global network of visual thinking practitioners, theorists and academics. He sees market opportunity in the fact that the largest companies serving corporations with visual thinking techniques and processes generate no more than about $15 million in annual revenues. He sketches out a future landscape in which all organizations have adopted a visual thinking culture and $100 million-companies offering visual communications services are commonplace. “The sector is very, very young,” Carpintier said during a visual encounter at the event. “The same thing is happening now that happened with the internet in 1994.”
Testifying to the global emergence of what might become a visual thinking movement, out of the 390 VizThink participants, 21 percent were international, including visual thinkers from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, South Africa and Scandinavia. According to VizThink CEO Tom Crawford, roughly 50 percent were artists of some sort (graphic designers, presentation designers, graphic facilitators, visual process consultants, and so on.) The other half were from the corporate side, including managers, executives, trainers, and corporate communications people from a wide range of business and non-profit sectors. Clearly, visual thinking is industry agnostic and functionally nondenominational.
Crawford is quick to point out that the VizThink sessions were conducted by “facilitators.” The goal–partly realized–was to pattern the conference activities after the visual, non-linear way our brains work. The sessions were designed to be interactive explorations, not lectures and presentations. The 34 facilitators, among them many of the leaders in the field of visual communications, were told to avoid show & tell and instead concentrate on show & try. To that end, tables were draped in paper with a cornucopia of art supplies spilling out of plastic baskets in every session. It was a doodler’s paradise.
There was an air of destiny in many of the keynotes and breakouts:
Dave Gray, the founder of XPLANE who conceived the idea for VizThink, kicked off the event by teaching a lesson in basic illustration. “Five-year-olds do not draw to represent the world. They draw to explore the world,” said Gray in a not-so-subtle suggestion to the attendees that they are not merely picture makers; they are pathfinders.
Bob Horn, the visiting scholar at Stanford University whose landmark book on visual language is sure to be found on the shelves of most of the attendees, told the rapt audience that visual imagery is indeed a form of language and that they are the linguists and grammarians of the 21st century.
David Sibbet, founder and president of Grove Consultants International and a pioneer in the art and science of graphics facilitation, asserted this mantra, which could well have served as the conference theme: “Shared representation creates shared understanding.”
Cliff Atkinson, founder of Sociable Media and author of Beyond Bullet Points, said, “This conference is articulating the need that we collectively have to learn and teach the vocabularies of visual language.” But, its most important dimension is social. “It is about all these people together in one place exchanging ideas, knowledge and information–people sparking creativity.”
If there was an overriding theme to the fledgling conference it was that we need visual thinking skills and services to do business better, oh, and also to survive as a species. We need to communicate more deeply and more rapidly with more people in more places. We need to convey concepts and understanding across distances and cultures. We need to deal with the raging complexities that are the byproducts of our exploding world population, burgeoning knowledge base and juggernaut technologies. Visuals to the rescue!
“In today’s times, we don’t have much time,” said Carpintier. “People have to make decisions very fast. Reading documents is time consuming and very often not very clear. Every day companies have more and more to say. To say it in writing is complex. It takes a lot of attention and people misunderstand it. Visuals allow you to align people to make decisions faster.”
Crawford explains in his online interview with Carpintier that most companies have some form of visual communications capabilities, but “they are in pockets, often very small pockets–one person in one division applying visual thinking skills. It might be in the design group, marketing group, strategy departments, learning, organizational development or training. There are very few [companies] that have a culture that uses visuals as a primary mode of communication.”
Like most of her colleagues at the conference, Cynthia Lait, an independent market research and presentation consultant, fires off a list of visuals’ virtues like a six-gun artist in a quick-draw contest. Visuals enhance memory. They work at a visceral level. They make a stronger impact than text. But Lait also shares a Cassandra complex with many of her peers. She knows the value of visuals, but often has a tough time convincing her clients and would-be clients. “I am like a salmon swimming upstream.” The trick is convincing people to try visual thinking techniques, she said. “The minute you show a picture, boom, it replaces piles of documents.”
Ray Guyot, principal of Recurrent Solutions, flew from Winnipeg, Canada to bond with others of his imaging ilk. He, too, tells tales of being dismissed or misunderstood when attempting to introduce his consulting clients to visual thinking techniques. An avid proponent of mind mapping and graphical communication processes, Guyot sees visual thinking as a way of “aligning the message with the vision.” Words are not bad guys in the business melodrama, he said, but they are notorious for causing confusion and weighing down processes. Graphics, images, mind maps and other forms of visual thinking, on the other hand, when deployed appropriately and professionally, close the gap between the meaning and the message.
Also prevalent among the VizThink attendees was the something’s-happening-here-what-it-is-ain’t-exactly-clear-but-I-don’t-care-because-it-feels-so-right-it-can’t-be-wrong theme.
“The conference is signaling something,” said Ricardo Marquez, a user interface designer for Intuit in Mountain View, CA. “I think that finally people related to graphic facilitation, user experience design and graphic design, are taking a seat at the strategy table. This conference is one of the signs that is happening.”
Tony O’Driscoll, a professor of the practice at the in the College of Management, North Caroline State University, conjured up the image of a newborn trying to make sense of the world, “We are all groping around for what this means…but, I think this is the beginning of something new. The buzz of this conference is huge. The energy is high. The alignment and the focus haven’t really resolved yet, but to me that’s a good thing.”
Like many at the event, idea mapping maven Jamie Nast, co-founder of NastGroup, Inc., was taken by the instant sense of camaraderie and purpose. “I think that there are now enough of us that know and understand the power of visual thinking that we can come together and link arms. We can share experiences and the different tools. There have been enough business applications and successes in the field now. It is time for us to share what we know because we know it makes a difference.”
“The complexity of the world demands that we synthesize and visualize in a way that makes it understandable,” added social entrepreneur Dave Davison. “The world is far too complex to deal with in a linear way. Visualization allows us to share with people and make them understand how complex the world is, it also shows us how we can change it and move it in the right direction.”
In their quest to move the world in the right visual direction, VizThink’s planners say they will shortly announce the location of the next conference, which will be held in Europe, most likely Geneva. And that, they say, will be just the beginning. There are 14 billion eyeballs on the planet. That’s quite a target market.
As some sage once said, timing has an awful lot to do with the outcome of a rain dance.
VizThink might best be thought of as a herald of a new culture of communication whose time has come, or better yet, it can be seen as the ear of an elephant that is materializing before us. VizThink–the conference and its global networking ambitions–represents one of the early manifestations of an awareness that we are heading back to the future. It is a future, now happening, in which our ancient and primary ways of visual communication are coming back into their own via technology. The image is ascendant. The cave wall is back. It is high-res, 24-bit color and jacked up on 110 volts (220v in Europe.)
Is VizThink on the right track? Look at it this way, if our dreams were text, we would probably get bored and stop having them.