Posted June 30th 2010 at 3:08 pm by
in Collaborating like a Designer

Communicating Better by Making it Visual

Designers are in the habit of making their thoughts visual, but you don’t have to be an artist to employ this methodology. Visualization through simple sketches can add credence to your thinking whether you need to communicate about something abstract or concrete, and whether your purpose is to generate or sell ideas. For example, the poster above illustrates the project focus, also called the project point of view, for one of Design that Matters‘ current projects. The text equivalent of this visual representation is:

The focus of this project is to design a phototherapy device for district-level hospitals in Vietnam that provide in-patient health care, have either a lab or a trusted clinical assessor to diagnose jaundice, and want to reduce newborn patient referrals to overloaded national-level hospitals. These district-level hospitals need a safe, robust and inexpensive tool to use at the mother’s bedside to provide infant phototherapy and allow warming for otherwise healthy newborns at risk of developing hyperbilirubinemia.

So, what are the benefits of creating a visual representation of this statement?

The images dissect the text into its root components creating digestable bits of information for easier understanding.

The pieces also function as a checklist to explicitly verify agreement between ourselves, our client, and other project stakeholders.

The simple sketches allow the project point of view to be referenced at a glance. We keep this image up on the wall in our office near our project workspace so we can continually ensure the project is on track.

Sketching on Post-its allows the point of view to be easily updated with new information.

Visual depictions of thoughts tend to be more memorable for everyone including the internal Design that Matters team, the legion of volunteers that cycle in and out of the project to help, our client, and even our donors.

Lastly, depicting thinking in a visual way engages additional parts of the brain, helping you and your colleagues break out of old thought patterns and move onto new horizons.

And this is only one example!  So, how might you integrate visualization into your work habits and introduce it to those who work with you? My best suggestion is to devour Dan Roam’s The Back of the Napkin. He addresses why, how, and when to use myriad visualization techniques in-depth. Until then, give the group you are working with this warm-up exercise at the beginning of your next meeting: Ask everyone to pick one partner, a pen (preferably a thick, highly visible marker), and a piece of paper. Tell everyone they have fifteen seconds to draw a portrait of their partner. When time has elapsed, ask each person to share their drawing with the group. Everyone will have a laugh and will be much more comfortable bringing out their inner sketch artist.

Elizabeth Johansen is the Director of Product Development at Design that Matters, creating new products and services for the poor in developing countries. Elizabeth’s passion to create a positive social impact through design have led her to facilitate more than 20 design thinking workshops and speaking engagements. Prior to DtM, Elizabeth worked for 8 years as a product designer at IDEO.

5 responses to “Communicating Better by Making it Visual”

  1. Libby McDonald says:


    This visual representation of the Vietman project is fantastic! I am now inspired to do a visual map for all my projects. i hope your series helps me to understand how to best do this.



  2. Christina says:

    Agreed, I cannot wait to hear and learn more from you Elizabeth on this great topic!

  3. John A. says:


    This is great! Welcome to CoLab Radio! I look forward to reading your posts. I like the focus of this series, especially since it shows the powers of non-trained designers to still be visual (i.e. not having to be an artist or architect in order to be creative). Your posts prove that anyone can apply visual representation. It’s just another form of communication, but a really important one.

  4. Stefanie says:

    Agreed, welcome to CoLab Radio! I’m loving this photo/sketch diagram– it’s an interesting way to get everyone on the same page with ideas that otherwise feel abstract. Dan Roam’s site is also great, with the stick figures on napkins. It definitely makes me think about how I could use sketching during group brainstorming. I’m wondering more about how this process works. Do facilitators sketch out ideas that arise from conversations or does it work like a brainstorm activity where everyone sketches out their ideas individually and then shares?

  5. Elizabeth Johansen says:

    I am so glad you have found the post interesting! I wanted to elaborate on some of the topics in Jimmy Guterman’s article, but even so, I still only scratch the surface on how to collaborate like a designer. The best way to start putting these techniques to use is to look into some of the more in-depth resources I will mention in each post. The book, “Back of the Napkin” is even better than the website!

    As for how to use the visualization techniques, they are there to be used however you deem fit! I personally like to encourage each person in a discussion to sketch their own thinking because it will allow each individual to express themselves better and will engage multiple parts of the brain. However, it can be difficult to get new people immediately comfortable with sketching, so I will also use simple sketching when I am moderating a discussion to help capture thoughts and also verify that I really understood what each person was saying. I hope that helps!

  6. Communicate More Effectively By Making it Visual « Design Changes says:

    […] on improving communication by making it visual. It was featured on MITs CoLab Radio blog. Check out Elizabeth Johansen’s photo on the post and you can clearly identify the project focus right […]