Making the Complex clear: visualise the core message


Talk by Dave Gray, Xplane, Visual Thinking in Management

Intuitive visualisations can boost problem solving expertise.

Dave is the founder of Xplane, The Visual Thinking Company. Dave used to be an info graphic designer in the media industry.

Talk by Dave Gray Visualisation Samples

The world has become very complex, hence the need for intuitive visualisations.

Information is available in abundance and hard to consume these days. It’s hard to have people truly understand information.
The most useful information usually resides in people’s heads. It can be visualised in contextual ways on walls, index cards, etc.

Often times an idea is sketched on a napkin: it doesn’t look intelligible, readable, distributable, etc. Sketches must be transferred to documents that can be distributed in enterprises or to customers.

Big ideas must be dissected into smaller chunks. Click-able maps allow for information drill-down, e.g. large production plants visualisations.

Dave Gray Working Sample

Working Sample

Microsoft licences are hard to communicate. Colored info graphics help people understand the involved processes or the product marketing approaches. The story of a concept and the according information can ideally be compiled in a single chart.

Video visualisation can add a timeline to a sketch or story.

‚The presenter’s dilemma‘: Communicate information to other people that have less or different knowledge.
Where do I begin? Usually some slides exist from former presentations. What does the audience want to know? What’s important, what’s not? What am I forgetting?

The audience’s Attention is crucial. Even in a meeting people may be using their laptops, blackberrys, etc.
Retention: What will they walk out of the room with?
Transfer: What information/new insight can be applied to the daily work?

The computer offers a wide range of distractions, same as mobiles and smart-phones. They all distract from the actual message, from an idea that we should think about carefully.

Our attention span is finite. Visual thinking and visualisation rises the attention span: More information can be packed into shorter time and smaller places.

Visual is the fastest route to the brain: Visual processes take 75% of our brain’s attention.

Visual framework

Understanding Chain: Clarity, understanding, decisions, action, results

clarity –> understanding –> fast decisions –> action –> results

But how much of this understanding chain do we actually control? Only the first step, really!

How do you make people understand?
This may not be the right question. Some people’s job depend on not getting it… E.g. change managers lose their job once they achieve their goals.

How do people understand?
The brain can only hold so much in the short term memory. It can hold much more in the long term memory. The working memory is very limited, it is the part that compiles information for the long term memory.

Images should contain not more than 2-5 nodes and 1-3 links. They should convey the mental building blocks.

Words help in the shape of ’sound bites‘, rhymes, alliteration, memorable phrases.

Create presentations based on the desired result: What do you want to achieve? What is the change you want?

RESULTS: Vision drawing is a tool: Visualise the results you want. Also business strategies need to be visualised. If a business strategy can’t be drawn, it can’t be executed, it can’t be done.

Now, picture a result in your mind.
Question: Do pictures increase your ability to understand and apply new concepts?

The drawing ability is not crucial in this context. We need to accept any drawing quality as just fine. Sketches just need to convey the idea.


Who can make the change happen?
Who can actually do the task?

I.e. we need to address the right people in the first place.


  1. Summarise desired result
  2. Define target audiences
  3. Clarify roles
  4. Plan for good action
  5. Sequence the change process

DECISIONS: What are the forces that drive decisions?
Tool: Empathy Map, what are people thinking, seeing, saying, doing, hearing?

Visualisation tool: empathy map

Some people are waiting for the pressure to heat up. In that case you need to talk to the person that creates policies or orders tasks and therefore sets the pressure.

UNDERSTANDING: What questions must be answered? You need to understand other peoples viewpoints.

Tool: Node generation. What questions will the budget director ask, what the head of ICT? Writing things in someone else’s words. Put the Affinity map up on the wall. What are the 3-5 key questions?

Tool: Understanding chain. Some people have no need to change. After understanding the story they may very well have good reasons to walk out of the presentation and start changing things.
Why should I care? What’s in it for me? What is the outcome?

Tool: Visualisation. Index cards with small information bits are the smallest element of the presentation. Can people follow the understanding chain? Is the sequence correct?

Dave Gray on schematic, metaphoric, literal sketches

Drawings usually are or schematically, metaphorically, literally.

Pestalozzi: In order to train people you need a cool head, a warm heart and a firm hand.

Tool: Plus/Delta: What did we learn today? What can be done differently, what was not done at all?

Recommended reading: Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers and Changemakers.

Free Sampler „Gamestorming – Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers and Changemakers available here.

Q & A Session

How to proceed when you don’t know your audience?

Don’t speak for 40 minutes and then find out that no one cares. Do a brief introduction and then change to a more interactive format in order to gauge the feedback.

In projects it’s a good idea to have interactive formats, e.g. use sugar packs as information representation that can be moved around. The right questions may only emerge along the process.

Sometimes it’s a good start to put something up that’s wrong. People will reply and add their viewpoints.

For any decision to take, often times there’s enough evidence for both ways to go, i.e. we’re stuck in paralisis of analysis.

What if people don’t know what they want?

At some point people are looking for guidance. Tell them what they’re supposed to do. Smaller choices such as ’small‘, ‚medium‘, ‚large‘ can give guidance as opposed to any available size. People evaluate their risk of a wrong decision.

Recommended reading: Thank you for arguing. How to frame concepts in discussions.

Recommended reading: The back of the napkin. Solving problems and selling ideas with sketches.

Recommended reading: Make a world. Children book on how to draw the world.

Dave was in Switzerland visiting Prof. Martin Eppler, HSG, Medien- und Kommunikationsmanagement

Martin Eppler führt an der HSG einen Kurs „Klarheit in der Kommunikation“, in dessen Rahmen auch Projekte aus der Wirtschaft analysiert und unterstützt werden.

Der Vortrag wurde von der ZfU organisiert.

Feedback to my blog post suggests that Edward Tufte is another expert in the same realm.

Danke fürs teilen meines Beitrags ;-)

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Walter Schärer bloggt über neuste Internet-Trends im Online Marketing, Social Media, Blogs, Web Analytics, SEO, Mobile und so.

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