Under The Loupe #5: Visual Thinking
After a brief hiatus, Under The Loupe is back. This week we will be flexing that lump of worms between your ears. One of the biggest things that can separate a good design from a great design is a strong concept. Strong concepts don’t always just come to us; sometimes they take work. Perhaps not real physical labor, but a process of bypassing the obvious ideas to get to the hidden ones. Some people call this “Creative Thinking”, but when I was first introduced to this concept, it was presented to me as “Visual Thinking”. I tend to prefer “Visual” as opposed to “Creative” as it helps to shift the focus back to design specifically. Let’s define “Visual Thinking” as: A process of idea-finding and formulation, typically with simple tools like a pencil and paper, where the cumulation of ideas influences the whole.
This might sound very familiar to you, because yes, Visual Thinking is a close cousin to Brainstorming. And for the purposes of this discussion, we will be talking about how this generally applies as an extension of keeping a sketchbook, all part of a healthy breakfast… er… design process.
I was first properly introduced to Visual Thinking during, interestingly enough, my Visual Thinking class in college. One of the most intriguing projects we did for the term was an exercise my professor called “100 boxes”. It went something like this: each student picks a simple topic; things like “car”, “love”, or “cat”. For no particular reason, I picked “telephone”. Next, we took a big piece of paper and drew out 100 1” x 1” boxes on it. Over the course of a semester we were to re-imagine our topic in as many different ways as possible, the only rule being to not repeat any of the ideas. We would draw on our paper for about 10 minutes at the beginning of each class, though the gravity of the project didn’t immediately strike any of us. We all started out with some of the first, and usually most obvious, ideas that popped into our heads. After about the third class, everyone seemed to suddenly become less productive. It was at that point in the semester where we actually had to start thinking, really thinking about something different. The first few sessions had been the equivalent of a warm up. It was also at that point where everyone starting coming up with truly inspired ideas.
It very quickly became apparent how powerful this process could be. If I were to sit down and try to come up with five visual representations of a telephone, they would probably be very similar to any one else’s. But, the more time I spend progressing those ideas and building off of past concepts, my brain has no other course to take but to look for something less obvious. When I was doing the 100 boxes experiment, I would have to challenge myself not to repeat any ideas. One of the best ways I found to do this was to start asking questions of myself. How would Picasso draw a telephone? How would a deaf person use a telephone? What could power a telephone besides electricity? These random thoughts may not seem applicable, but this is how the creative mind functions. Generally, you will only expend enough effort to solve the problem at hand. So, it stands to reason that the more difficult the problem gets, the more creatively your mind will have to work to solve it.
It’s fairly common to see this approach taken in specialties like logo design, where there is a great need for companies to distinguish themselves. When paired with things like metaphors, irony and juxtaposition (very powerful tools, and potentially good topics for later), symbols and iconic representations become substantially more memorable because you are adding a level of meaning and depth. This can create intrigue and garner attention from viewers… which often translates into brand recognition and awareness.
Design is not always about technical prowess or skills with laying out a page. A lot of thought needs to go into the message behind the design. This is precisely why design is not merely decoration, but a guide to aid users to understand a message. In these early stages, there really are no wrong answers. Visual Thinking always begins with understanding your problem. The thinking basically becomes the game plan to visually solve the problem. In the instance of my class, the problem was simply to find unique ways to depict a telephone. The drawings that we were coming up with didn’t need to be polished renderings, because we were just working through a fast iterative process of idea gathering. Some people have trouble breaking themselves of the need to thoroughly render an idea before moving forward. Many times, this is effort that can be saved. If this is a problem for you, introduce some lighter constraints such as only working in ink (think big Sharpies), or strictly limiting yourself to 30 seconds per drawing. The most important part at this point is just capturing the idea. Finished designs have their place in the process, and it isn’t here.
I realize it’s not always possible to eliminate requirements and limitations when designing; these are the cold facts, as design isn’t always a blue sky endeavor. Someone else is paying the bills and they probably came to you with particular needs. This is just another way I find helpful in stimulating ideas. One thing needs to be emphasized here, all of the techniques I write about are merely possible options. There is no one-true-process. We all work and think differently than one another, so it should be plain to see that different types of techniques suit us best. The key is finding the arrangement that works best for you.
Here are some more resources on Visual Thinking:
- Kevin’s Doodle Association Game
- Books: A Whack on the Side of the Head and A Kick in the Seat of the Pants
- John Langdon’s Ambigrams, some of this stuff clearly takes lots of sketching and trial and error.
- Heads of State posters, I realize that I point to them a lot, but that is because their work does a great job of presenting imagery in an unexpected way.