What is visual problem solving? Truth be told, most of us use it every day. It has been so ingrained in us from childhood that by the time we are adults we hardly notice it. Designers, Illustrators and anyone else who needs to solve problems use visual tools. Visual problem solving allows us to see relationships that don’t often exist on spreadsheets and technical briefs.
I first learned to use visual tools working as an illustrator. As a big believer in processes, I would go through a ritual of turning prose into a word puzzle that would morph into sketches and evolve into a formal idea. By using this visual method it is easy to let your mind make connections and play with metaphor subconsciously. This is the method I still use today – the process is the same but the results are much different.
Most people are aware of brainstorming, and much of the business world is familiar with the mind map. In many cases these tools allow people to grasp concepts and deduce structure well enough to get past simple dilemmas. What are some other techniques that can help us solve more complex problems?
When I was teaching, I dedicated a whole section of my classroom time to Walt Disney. Disney is credited with the creation of one of my favorite innovations of the 20th century – the storyboard. With this way of presenting ideas, Disney created a pre-visualization technique that would allow for a visual audit of a story shot-by-shot before any actual production took place. This created an environment that opened up tremendous possibilities. Ideas and theories can be tested and implemented opening up endless possibilities for animators. Storyboarding is not just for animation. Any process can be broken down into a storyboard; each stage can be moved, edited, and analyzed critically, without much interruption. No idea is a bad idea in well-storyboarded animation, because nothing is wasted.
Like most artists I carry a sketchbook. Not everywhere I go, but there is always one fairly close by. In this we are not alone: engineers, researchers, doctors and scientists all rely heavily on documenting notes by hand in a physical book. The power of the sketchbook lies in its role as both a live document and a historical one: it allows us to revisit data, explore alternative compositions and configurations, add and subtract elements, and review partial thoughts – then walk away. A sketchbook is an excellent way to save solutions for problems you’ve yet to encounter. Like a sketchbook, flip pads or charts are also very useful; this large-format communication tool that allows you to quickly show your idea and its casual format encourages others to add thoughts of their own. It’s a very effective collaborative tool for rapidily sharing ideas.
Everyone’s processes will differ slightly, and that’s a good thing. Some rely on the white board, some like to work digitally. There is no wrong or right way to use visual tools. But I guarantee that the more you use them, the more successful you will be using them, just like anything. If you are comfortable with a tool you will be more productive with it, but your comfort should not deter you from experimenting with other methods. Sometimes these experiments in other mediums lead to unexpected creative solutions.
There are many visualization techniques that support problem solving, and all use images to communicate. Essentially, that is all that you need. Even with rudimentary drawing skills, it is still possible to document and analyze within a group. It is in the group setting where creativity blossoms; suddenly one person’s perspective can be seen by all. Ideas are shared and refined, oblivious roadblocks from one perspective can be helpful solutions from another. Sharing and communication are the keys to solving complex problems, whether it is an illustration or figuring out where your next customer is coming from. Grab your pens, markers, and post-its and I’ll meet you in the break room.
Christopher C. Fick is the Art Director at the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences; with a background in both manufacturing and visual design he is looking to bridge the gap between the creative and technical fields.
Check out www.ncms.org/CreativeSolutions for more information.