Simple pictures for complicated situations

“Solving problems and selling ideas with pictures.”

That’s the subtitle of Dan Roam’s best-selling business book, The Back of the Napkin. Wait, did you say business book? That sounds like a pretty “lite” title for a business book. Well, a book doesn’t have to be ponderous or dense to be useful. In fact, the more accessible, the more likely the ideas will be considered and adopted. Dan’s book is clear and well-organized, teaching how to use visual thinking to analyze business problems and communicate clearly about them.
Political issues rarely get this kind of treatment. Buzz words and emotion rule, with little rational analysis or explanation for the average citizen. Dan and a doctor decided to provide some perspective on the current health care reform debate. He posted a 4-part presentation on his blog, using simple hand drawings, to explain the factors involved, the types of proposals being considered, and how individuals will be affected under each. It was such a breath of fresh air that Fox News had him go through some of it on-air, and Business Week magazine and named it the best presentation of 2009 in a recent contest.
Another example of the power of a simple drawing is the “rich picture.” I learned about these a few years ago. Last week, Dave Lash turned me on to a useful diagramming tutorial site which is part of a university-level systems thinking curriculum. For 6 different diagram types, self-paced Flash movies explain when each is most useful and how to draw them. Transcripts of the narration are also provided.

A rich picture is a sort of hand-drawn info-graphic, used in the very early stages of an analysis to explore the issue and surface assumptions. This diagram examines a controversial situation in England a few years ago. Here are some comments on the diagram by its creator, from the accompanying transcript (I’ve emphasized some points that make rich pictures so valuable, in my view):
I don’t think rich pictures can be used to depict everything in a problem situation, I think they are devices for some kind of discrimination – you are actually saying what you think are the important issues, and you have to decide on what’s important according to the purpose the rich picture is being constructed for, for a particular problem situation.

In this case my purpose was just to try and gain a general understanding about the miners’ situation.

It can be used as a personal device, so you can explore your own understanding. When you begin to put symbols down on paper and to draw the rich picture, you begin to question your own understanding and it can throw up questions for yourself about what you understand and what you don’t understand. It begins to put some structure on the problem situation from your own personal perspective.

It’s probably got a number of faults in it, and I think that’s one of the strengths of a rich picture. It makes you begin to declare assumptions, and because you are declaring and discussing those assumptions, they can be challenged by other people. So your understanding of the situation can be explored, challenged and modified by the debate that ensues. The power of a rich picture is that it provokes that kind of debate, there’s a bit of visual interest there that can spark off thought, you can visit the rich picture randomly, you can move around on it which is stimulating for debate in itself.
I haven’t had a chance to go through all the diagram tutorials in detail yet, because I’m preparing a presentation for the next Elephant Egg night. (In developing this presentation, I’m experimenting with the methodologies of Cliff Atkinson and Andrew Abela, who have both recently published excellent books aimed at helping people communicate more clearly in presentations.) If you’re on Maui, you might enjoy stopping by Moana Cafe on Thursday, October 22 at 6:30 for an evening of serendipity and new ideas!

Are you in flow?

Artists, athletes, researchers, and others with a passion for their work or hobby know what it’s like to be in a “flow” state. They lose track of time, and feel at one with with what they’re doing. The flow state arises under certain conditions – just the right amount of challenge relative to the person’s skill level – pushing it, but not too much. This graph shows the flow state in the upper right, and the feelings associated with other combinations of challenge and skill.

This graph is from this Wikipedia page, which I found in this note in this blog post by Merlin Mann on how to get past the obstacles that stop you from starting a creative or challenging project.

Elephant Egg 3

The third “Elephant Egg” night of pecha kucha style presentations was held at Moana Cafe last Tuesday night. It succeeded in sharing the presenters’ passions with the audience, and giving us some new ideas to think about. See photos on Maui Jeff’s blog.

(Click the mind map image above to view it in a readable size!)

Elephant Egg in Maui!

One night a couple weeks ago, I attended an event called “Elephant Egg,” held at Moana Cafe. Maggie Sutrov‘s invitation promised “Five Presentations by Five Inspiring People.” I recognized the format as pecha kucha, which I’d heard of but never experienced (20 slides shown for 20 seconds each, for a total of 6 minutes and 40 seconds). I was out of town at VizThink for their first event, so I made a point of going to this one. It was defnitely worthwhile!

There were five presentations:

  1. An outrigger canoe trip to Kure in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, by Peter Nice
  2. Photos from a trip to India near Nepal (above 15,000 feet!), by Daniel Sullivan
  3. Likability, by Bob Sommers
  4. Spiral Dynamics, by Ian Blakeslee
  5. The future of newspapers, by Maui News reporter Ilima Loomis

The format kept the presentations short and focused, and gave just enough information to be intriguing and open opportunities for questions. They’re planning to hold them every couple months, so the next one will probably be in late June.