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The Journey of an Idea: An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Visual Thinking

Written by Marita Herkert-Oakland, co-founder of Relumed

When my co-founder and partner, Eric Oakland, and I were starting to form the vision for Relumed, we often found ourselves getting stuck. Eric, the more vision-oriented of the two of us, would start thinking about all of the possibilities of what we could build, from the highly practical to the…more unrealistic (in my opinion).

When he would start talking about all of these ideas and possibilities, I would start to think about the more practical aspects of what he was suggesting. As you can probably guess, I’m the more process-oriented one.

What often happened was that one or both of us would become frustrated. But we couldn’t figure out when and where the breakdown was happening in these conversations. That is until Eric tried drawing it out.

The quick sketch that he made, using only lines and circles, became a guide for us through these conversations. It offered something tangible for us to point to, to show the other where we were in the process of thinking through our big ideas. For us, as it turns out, Eric naturally spent more time in Stage 2 of our process, while I would test out all ideas by moving them along to stage 3. Now we had a shared understanding of how we were working.

As an entrepreneur, you likely have had similar experiences, where you find that you don’t have the tools necessary to get your ideas out of your head and to share them with those around you. A tool that isn’t often well-considered is something you may naturally use without realizing it – like Eric did. That tool is visual thinking.

Visual thinking is the use of visuals to capture, communicate, and process ideas and information quickly, often in real-time. And using visuals throughout your entrepreneurial journey can transform the way you share ideas and collaborate.

There are four skillsets that you can develop to become a visual thinker:

  1. Visual Skills (unsurprising), or learning to use simple shapes and icons in your work

  2. Adaptive Skills, or developing filtering skills and frameworks for conversations

  3. Sharing Skills, or learning how to communicate with others using visuals

  4. Tools, or finding the right visual medium to collaborate and share ideas

We call these four skillsets the VAST Framework for visual thinking. By incorporating them into your work, you can experience the same clarity that Eric and I had when he quickly sketched out our “Journey of an Idea”.

Let’s Get Visual

Most of us are familiar and content with using words and text to share information because it’s cheap and fast. We write reports and often communicate via Slack or email. But words have their limits. Words alone are more easily forgotten and prone to confusion than visuals. While that idea may make intuitive sense – who doesn’t like an eye-catching infographic – communicating with visuals is not part of many people’s daily collaborative work.

Being more visual in communication and collaboration increases understanding and memory of any topic. This can be as simple as including more found images, snapping pictures, or creating visual aids when you are talking with your team.

Going beyond visuals that are already available to you, I want to challenge you to think about drawing as part of your entrepreneurial skillset. Drawing is a highly flexible skill that many people have innate ability in. It’s easy to learn the basics, and allows you to add a visual layer to a conversation on any topic, anytime, anywhere. In the Journey of an Idea, Eric used only lines and circles to draw out an idea. That’s all you need to get started.

3 Tips to Get Started Using Visuals

  1. Identify the “Minimum Viable Pencil” skills needed for effective visual thinking. This MVP is more basic than you may expect. Find a typical conversation or topic that tends to get complicated and practice drawing out the big idea.

  2. Get a Firm Grip on Drawing Basics. When I say “drawing”, I mean very simple shapes, lines, and maybe icons. Practice making your notes more visual or thinking through a meeting plan in a visual way. Start simple and before long, you will be looking for places to draw!

  3. Develop a Simple Visual Language that Applies to your Work. Find a few icons that you can easily draw that represent key ideas in your work or language that is unique to your business. When you pair a few select images with the frameworks we will discuss shortly, you will have opened up new ways to talk about your business.

Become Adaptive And Ready For Anything

As an entrepreneur, you are used to being flexible. You can pivot an idea. You can switch gears when an investor starts asking about something you hadn’t planned to address. And you can show up as a marketer in the morning, an HR professional in the afternoon, and maybe even a therapist in the evening, depending on how the day went. Visual thinking is just as flexible in the ways that it can support your work.

Being adaptive in visual thinking is about knowing how to visually support a conversation by filtering important information and using frameworks to visually organize it. Filters are similar to goos listening skills – what is the speaker trying to say? What are the main ideas? What questions are raised? Is everything clear?

Frameworks are like visual templates. They can give structure to a conversation and make sure that you are capturing all of the important ideas. In our Journey of an Idea, Eric actually created a template that we could use for future ideas.

Filters and frameworks can be learned and utilized on the fly, or they can be planned out ahead of a conversation.

3 Tips to Use Filters and Frameworks in Your Entrepreneurial Work

  1. Practice filtering conversations for the most important information: On your next Zoom call, try taking some notes. What ideas are you capturing? Notice where you ask follow up questions or where someone summarizes a point. Those are good indications that an idea is important.

  2. Identify One Place Where Visual Thinking Could Bring Value to Your Team: Is there a meeting that tends to get stuck? Or where people don’t leave knowing why they were there? Maybe it is something that you have been wrestling with for awhile and you need a new way to approach the conversation. Any of these could be places where you could try a visual framework.

  3. Make a Meeting Agenda Visual: Create a visual framework for your daily standup. Or make your 1:1’s visual. If you have a standard meeting, try making a visual framework out of the agenda.

Share Your Ideas with Anyone

So far, I’ve challenged you to use a little bit of drawing in your work and to start to hear with visuals. Now, we think about how to use these skills in any setting. Sharing ideas with visual thinking is about infusing visuals into many different areas of your work.

When you use visuals to process your own ideas, you begin to externalize and organize your thoughts. That frees up space for you to see things in new ways or to better articulate questions. If you never share your visual thinking, you will still benefit as an entrepreneur.

But the value that you will experience is multiplied when you use visuals to bring your team together for brainstorming and alignment. In groups, sharing can happen in different ways. It can happen when one person provides a visual presentation of an idea to others. Sharing also happens when someone captures a conversation visually in real-time for people to clarify and respond to ideas. Everyone present benefits from the visualization even if only one or two people are providing the visual support. A little goes a long way.

In our Journey of an Idea, Eric listened to our conversations, drew a visual on his own, and then presented it to me for us to use as a visual piece to our conversations.

3 tips for when to use visuals in your work

  1. Introduce visual thinking to your team with a meaningful experience: This may be through taking a visual thinking course or by bringing in a visual facilitator to get your team started.

  2. Support individuals who want to develop visual thinking skills: When we work with people to teach visual thinking, we often hear about the fear people have about drawing for others or the shame they experienced in the past about their creative skills. So if someone is interested in using visuals in their work, support and encourage them!

  3. Be intentional about applying and reinforcing visual thinking in your operations: When something isn’t reinforced, it will be forgotten. You can build visuals into your daily work with by making your meeting agenda more visual. Or you can develop a habit of asking someone on the team to take visual notes. Start small and see where it goes.

Find the Right Tools

One of the first things people want to talk about with visual thinking is tools and tech. We save it for the end because, once you know the fundamentals of bringing visuals into your work, you can use any available tool effectively. Also, it helps make our VAST acronym work.

Visual thinking tools can be analog or digital. When you think about using visuals at work, you likely think about whiteboards first. A whiteboard can be a great place to collaborate. So can paper.

Digital options for visual thinking are getting pretty good. You can use digital collaboration platforms like Miro or Mural. You can bring a remote team together on Butter. Even Zoom has a whiteboard screen sharing option. Many of these tools will allow you to draw using a stylus or use built-in options like sticky notes and shapes.

Whatever you choose to use for yourself or your team, remember that it takes time and practice to become comfortable with any tool.

When Eric created the Journey of an Idea, he used a drawing app with an iPad and Apple Pencil because he was creating something on his own that he then shared with me.

3 Tips for Finding the Right Visual Tools

  1. People will use what works for them: As you are practicing bringing visuals into your work, pay attention to what you prefer using and stick with that. If you prefer a whiteboard, jumping to a drawing app is going to take time.

  2. Find the right tools for team collaboration: If your team works remotely, find options that allow you to collaborate visually.

  3. Save it! Take the time to set up processes for storing and sharing visuals generated through collaboration.

So the next time you are thinking through big ideas for your startup or trying to get people to see what you see, grab a pen, jump up to the whiteboard, or open a Miro board and let visuals guide you.

If you are looking for ways to develop your visual thinking skills, I invite you to check out our course, Unlocking Visual Thinking, or to join our free monthly workshops, where we test out visual thinking together.


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