Visual Insight’s Eileen Clegg recently participated in Silicon Valley-based web TV show ‘Just Picture It’ and created this mural for the show. The episode is a fascinating look at visual communication and its importance as more and more information comes into our daily lives. Watch the entire episode below.
We at Visual Insight have been researching how imagery affects imagination in the subtlest yet most profound ways. Even though words are not fit to describe the “alternative language” of visuals, we enjoy the challenge. We also enjoy an engaging conversation, and we’re eager to hear what the folks in our network have to say on this topic. So, we have decided to convene a tweet chat, and we would be honored if you joined us on Tuesday, August 20th, from 10-11am (Pacific Standard Time) to discuss the “Language of Imagination.”
Please RSVP at this link.
What is a Tweet Chat? A Tweet Chat, or Twitter Chat, brings a group of interested people together at a set time using Twitter as their communication platform. Using the hashtag #VIchat, @VisualInsight will pose a series of questions during a one-hour timeframe, which will be answered by participants also using the hashtag #VIchat. Questions will be labeled Q1, Q2, Q3, etc. and corresponding answers will be A1, A2, A3, etc.
The series of tweets forming a conversation can be followed on http://twubs.com/VIchat or when clicking on #VIchat through Twitter’s site. Users will retweet or respond to others’ answers using the #VIchat hashtag. We look forward to a compelling dialogue among peers. We’ll learn a lot from each other and meet others with similar interests from all over the world. For more background on Tweet Chats please visit this link.
Tweet Chat Topic Questions
How do you feel group dynamics change when ideas are turned into pictures?
Visual communicators illustrate the ideas of groups. What if group members were to draw the ideas themselves?
Is it part of a visual communicator’s job to help those of us who don’t self-identify as “artists” express ourselves visually?
Is it becoming more or less natural for us to express ourselves with visuals in a collaborative setting?
I have been involved in an M.A. program in Depth Psychology specifically to understand what we are beginning to call the “imaginal” function of the human mind, and how that creative force works collectively. I know leaders among leaders who encourage the use of visuals for people to share their stories with one another in order to create stronger teams. I am thus certain that this type of visual communication is future-oriented communication, and I am curious about how diffuse it is as a practice.
In my experience as a graphic recorder, it is my belief that visuals connect people on a deeper psychic level, enabling them to imagine possibilities together in a way that cannot happen with words alone. Visual communication is somewhere between reality and dreams. When the images come from the heart, they can help shape our thinking, our feeling, and our reality. In groups, this can be a powerful mover of energy.
Graphic recorders—or as we call ourselves, “visual journalists,” because we are scribes as well as artists—are often brought into meetings as a novel approach to capturing content. But our function is broader than that. We are creating the Big Picture—a story that has coherence not only on a logical level, but also on an emotional and imaginal plane.
– Eileen Clegg, Visual Insight Founder/Principal
At Visual Insight, we have had the privilege to be the “fly on the wall” in rooms with some of the best and the brightest thinkers in the world. The organizations that continue to astonish us with innovations seem to be those with a knack for empowering people. Watching great facilitators and leaders, we have noticed that the most effective are those who are attentive to roles. These individuals might switch between roles, but they cover all the bases and are clear with one another.
Even the best sometimes end up wasting time by being overly nice (“you first,” “I don’t want to be the one to say something negative,” etc.) or overly confrontational (someone dominating, criticizing others). To help people avoid group-think and embrace collective imagination, we at Visual Insight developed a set of cards to help people in meetings remember to cover all necessary roles.
We use the “decks” that Eileen developed last year as part of our Co-Creativity Toolkit. We wanted to share them with everyone to catalyze creativity in our meetings.
The cards themselves tell the story!
You know it’s not going to be your average business meeting when you walk into a conference room and the first thing you notice is that several walls are covered with big, white, blank sheets of paper. The reason for the meeting could be as familiar as ever—“team/leadership building,” “product/service development,” “strategic visioning”—yet this time around, the experience will be different. It will be more inclusive, more memorable, more inspiring.
In this meeting, participants’ verbally communicated thoughts will gradually take shape on these pieces of paper in real time, which, by the end, will have become a colorful, intriguing, idea-rich series of murals. The result? Not only will everyone in the room be able to see—literally see—what one another have been thinking, they will also be able to visualize how their ideas fit together…a perfect breeding ground for co-creativity.
Connecting Words and Ideas
So, you’ve walked into this room with big pieces of paper taped to the walls and joined your colleagues who are seated around the long table in the center of the room, or on chairs in a meeting hall. Pleasantries are exchanged until the announcement that it’s time to begin. The room gets quiet.
The leader explains the reason for the meeting, and the hoped-for outcomes. Cue the visual journalist. Colored markers (and maybe a few pastels) in hand, she introduces herself as the person who will be drawing everyone’s ideas: “I am here to capture the emerging ‘big picture’ that you will be co-creating in the process of your meeting. I’ll capture a little of what’s in between the lines, and how your thoughts fit together. We’ll look at the murals together from time to time during the day, and please let me know of anything I missed!”
Once people begin to talk, she begins to draw. Perhaps the topic at hand is the company’s vision or mission statement, which takes the shape of a brilliant sun at the top of the mural—each vibrant yellow ray containing a word or phrase that represents a core ideal of the company, and each ray is streaming down from a like-colored orb labeled, “Company Vision.” The words and ideas on the mural are solely those uttered by the participants, whereas the visuals are the visual journalist’s interpretation of the connection between those words and ideas.
(We’ll check back in on this scene later on.)
Summoning the Group’s Muse
In our last blog post, we defined co-creativity as we understand it and, in this one, we’re going to delve into the importance of visuals—what we call “visual journalism”—in the cultivation of co-creativity. Since the last post, it dawned on me that although we at Visual Insight talk frequently and at great length about co-creativity, we have yet to explain why it’s a big part of our business.
Co-creativity is the central goal of Visual Insight. It is the ideal end result of muralling the ideas of a group. Or, to put it another way, we believe that the ultimate purpose of muralling a group’s ideas is to facilitate co-creativity.
Visuals are the perpetual catalyst for a co-creative environment: The more ideas there are, the more visuals there are, the more cohesiveness there is among the group, the more leading-edge thinking there is among the group, the more ideas there are, the more visuals there are…and so on. (Think “spiral growing outward and upward.”) Moreover, the muse is omnipresent in a co-creative environment, and the act of muralling can either capture or summon the muse of the group, and thus reveal the group’s collective vision.
The meeting is well underway. Group members are present and engaged—leaning forward, making eye contact, nodding emphatically, feeding off of each other’s energy—while the visual journalist waves pastels and markers across the now-not-so-blank paper spread across the walls, illustrating their thoughts. You glance up at the mural…
An array of scenes are present, in close proximity to one another, each consisting of symbolic drawings accompanied by thematic quotes and phrases: Roots beneath a lush garden intertwined with the words, “Potential for Company Growth,” while the plants in the garden, budding with flowers that have yet to bear fruit, read, “New Products,” “New Talent,” or “New Strategy.” On the opposite side of the paper, a building that is under construction with a distinctly different shape than the otherwise uniform, dense metropolitan skyline in which it is located, is headed by the phrase, “Renovation Through Innovation.” Whether or not it was consciously intended, the various shapes, color schemes, and scale of the visuals are all full of meaning.
But reflection comes later. Right now, everyone is in the moment, reverberating in the eye of a collective brainstorm.
Lighting Up Ideas
Like a fingerprint or personality, each individual has his own unique muse. The effectiveness of muralling sessions, however, reveals that visuals have the power to activate the muse of each individual, or at least depict the results of each individual’s muse at work. It is a pinball game of creativity. The pinball represents inspiration, each time the ball bounces off of a bumper represents a participant’s expression of a new thought, and any time the pinball machine lights up with a congratulatory sound effect represents when a new visual is drawn. And then there’s the machine itself, which represents co-creativity. The point tally display represents innovation. Meanwhile, the collective muse is at the helm, controlling the “flippers” at the bottom of the machine and keeping the ball in play.
Imagine bright blinking lights along with a triumphant jingling sound ringing out every time an intellectual connection is realized within a group by way of muralling. So appropriate! Intellectual connections lead to inspiration, which leads to co-creativity, which ultimately leads to innovation, and thus the next big idea.
That creative connections yield inspiration illustrates that the nature of creative inspiration is receptive and inclusive. Consider this: “Inspiration” is a synonym for “inhalation.” This suggests that inspiration results from taking in something—something that Eileen refers to as the creative spirit.
Since one could dedicate a lifetime to studying and defining the source and nature of the creative spirit, as many have, I’ll only go so far as to put it in the context of the aforementioned concept of the “muse”: The muse is the channel between consciousness and creative spirit. It is what enables one to become inspired. And it’s great for organizations.
Telling a Visual Story
The papers on the wall are now fully developed murals and the brainstorming portion of the meeting has come to a close. It is now time to reflect. The group leader announces that the visual journalist is going to explain the flow of the mural in what is known as a gallery walk.
Participants’ eyes fixate on the walls covered in art inspired by their thoughts as she begins to tell the story of the day. She walks along the multi-paneled visual journal and explains the ideas that the visuals represent, why she chose to depict them as such, and how they all contribute to the “big picture”—the overarching theme of the story of the day.
The murals reflect the tone of conversation on each topic—thoughts and emotions. For example, if participants became passionate and animated when discussing a new business direction for the company, then that dynamic is reflected in the visuals with, say, bright colors and dramatic shapes. Or, if the mural is of a heartfelt and thoughtful talk given by an individual, then key quotes of the talk can be seen interwoven with one another in a fluid, wave-like design, streaming down from a central theme shaded by warm colors.
Up until now, we’ve stayed mostly in the artistic realm, but since we do art for the sake of bettering organizations, it’s time to look at visual journalism and co-creativity from a business-minded perspective. When we first started our visual journalism practice more than ten years ago, some business people were worried about the ROI (return on investment). It was a challenge to explain the intangible value. How do you calculate the ROI for an activity as esoteric as muralling, anyway?
Over the years, the practice proved itself by the results. After all, top leaders of organizations are often the people who attend these workday-long visualization exercises, which means that they are not at work (in the traditional sense, at least) during that time, yet still on the clock. Their time is valuable and every moment counts. Even number-crunchers began to see that muralling accelerates and deepens the conversations, making the most of everyone’s time together. The ROI conversation has been put to rest. I mean, hey, can you really put a price on discovering the next big idea?
From cognitive neuroscience to Jungian psychology, we have plenty of evidence that visuals are the interface between action and imagination, between the inner and outer worlds. They capture not only the content, but the context of communication. To repeat a brilliant quote from our colleague Bonnie DeVarco that we cited in one of our blog posts from last year, “Words capture ideas—images free them.”
The potential of visual communication to powerfully impact our consciousness, perception, and imagination is, quite literally, beyond words. The combination of symbolic images and written words in a mural act as a record of the stream of consciousness of a group—a record that both documents and stimulates imaginative thinking. Today, the field of visual communication is growing and expanding with many practitioners. And together we are fine-tuning processes that enable visuals to unlock co-creativity, the eye-opening transformation that takes place in the mind of each participant, as well as the group as a whole.
Visual Insight’s mission is to both advocate for and cultivate co-creativity in great organizations. In what we have referred to as our “ever-evolving quest” to capture the elusive and essential qualities of co-creativity, the expanding field of visual communication is supporting the new paradigm—that we need more than words to make it happen.
To pick up where we left off in our last blog post, “Baguettes of Co-Creativity,” we’re going to take a more in-depth look at co-creativity and explore why it’s such a compelling and influential concept in today’s workforce. Going about clearly explaining this far-reaching and important, yet unchartered and nuanced subject has proven a tall task for us, as it is such an instrumental theme in the work that Visual Insight does. In consequence, we concluded that the best way to jump into this assignment would be…
Ready? Okay. Here we go…
Let’s begin with the origin of the term “co-creativity.” It was coined as a sort of tongue-in-cheek phrase by Visual Insight founder Eileen Clegg and company in 1999 when they co-authored the book Claiming Your Creative Self: True Stories from the Everyday Lives of Women (out of print). During that time, Eileen, along with co-authors Susan Swartz, Margaret McConahey, and Deborah L.S. Sweitzer, unanimously hypothesized that, as Eileen puts it, “People still thought you needed to be ‘ordained’ (with a Rockefeller grant or some such) to be considered ‘creative.’” They disagreed with this view, and highlighted their stance by coming up with and using the now-not-uncommon phrase, which embodied, and still does, the “Everyone is Creative” movement—a movement that, in recent years, has had an ever-increasing influence on business teams’ cultures in many an industry.
“Back then, as now,” says Eileen, “being creative—as in being fully yourself—was, and still is, a little nerve-wracking. It takes courage.” One of the women in Claiming Your Creative Self, she illustrates, formed a club called the “Danger Rangers,” where people received badges each time they did a creative act. “This inspired us co-authors to take some risks of our own,” she continues. “We relied on each other. We jokingly called ourselves ‘co-dependent creatives,’ which we shortened to ‘co-creatives.’”
And the rest is, well, herstory…
Now let’s fast-forward to co-creativity in the present day. The phrase “co-creativity” is popping up more and more, and in a lot of different places. We’ll even go so far as to say it’s in the zeitgeist cloud. (Yup. We said it.) And even though the concept of co-creativity is not yet clearly defined, leading edge thinkers somehow know that it is the next “edge,” and some of them have even been able to realize its alchemical potential with respect to innovation.
So, what do we know about co-creativity? We know that co-creative groups serve as “innovation factories.” How do we know? We’ve seen it. And we’ve done it. We also know that a group of people who are not only willing, but eager to support each other’s creativity equals co-creativity. How do we know this? By the results. The results are magic.
“I think of co-creativity as this delightful state where individuals are being iconoclastic—together,” exclaims Eileen. “Maybe that sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s really not. In fact, it’s the opposite of an oxymoron. It’s an ‘oxygenius’!” (Yup. We just said that, too.)
The fact that we at Visual Insight—in addition to many leading-edge companies—have been able to identify, cultivate, harness, and now promote, co-creativity without having clearly defined it reveals something else about it: Thus far, it has been successfully employed solely by way of intuition. While such a phenomenon is awe-inspiringly mystifying, it is also daunting in its ambiguity. How can we put co-creativity into precise wording when the only way we’ve come to know it is by doing it and then recognizing its presence? Well, this is where things get a little fuzzy. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.
To better understand what co-creativity is, let’s first look at what it is not…
Co-creativity is not teamwork. The word “work” is the big hint here. Combining the word “team” with “work” implies that a team already has a specific goal in mind, a designated task to complete—i.e. people working together to figure out how to get from A to B. Co-creativity does not involve “work.” It’s a calling. The individual is following the voice of the muse, not the voice of the boss.
This is not to say, however, that teamwork should be viewed in a negative light, or even as something that completely stifles innovation. Teamwork is as valuable as co-creativity. Both are necessary. But each serves a different purpose. Whereas the purpose of teamwork is to problem-solve as a group, the purpose of co-creativity is to feed off of one another and innovate as a group.
Furthermore, co-creativity does not replace the function of teamwork. In a co-creative environment, problem-solving plays second fiddle to innovation. After all, it’s hard to solve the problems of ideas that haven’t been invented yet, right? It takes co-creativity to come up with a new, profound idea, and it takes teamwork to practically refine that idea and put it into action.
Likewise, effective teamwork can lead to co-creativity, but effective teamwork does not automatically yield co-creativity. Although it is not unheard of that a team can be so in-the-zone while problem-solving that cohesive innovation takes shape on each individual’s own terms—a sign of co-creativity—the inherently goal-oriented, A-to-B paradigm of teamwork could likely present itself as an obstacle in the attempt to cultivate a co-creativity-friendly environment.
Now we’re going to throw another “co” word into the mix…
Co-creativity is not collaboration. Or, rather, let’s say that co-creativity is not only collaboration. Collaboration, which we can essentially define as the act of working together jointly and cooperatively, is a key component of co-creativity, but, like teamwork, does not automatically yield co-creativity.
Teamwork and collaboration are different in that teamwork is when a team collaborates, whereas collaboration is not necessarily limited to working within a team. Two or more individuals, teams, or companies working together cooperatively equals collaboration. A joint venture, for example, is a collaboration in which all parties involved remain separate entities, as opposed to fusing into one team, and yet work together to achieve a shared goal.
But enough of this hair-splitting business. Time to move on to fry the bigger fish we had in mind for this post, like…
How do you encourage co-creativity? Perhaps deconstructing this intuitive process will lead us closer to a clear definition, or at least help you come up with your own.
Co-creativity is encouraged the same way that creativity is encouraged, only the emphasis is on the group creating cohesively and equally, and with each individual creating in her own way and maximizing her own strengths and interests. In order to make it possible for such a dynamic to exist, group members must feel free to be themselves, which means that the environment must have an air of safety and comfort.
First and foremost, a safe space to innovate is one that is devoid of harsh judgment and pressure, both of which are what Eileen refers to as “Creativity Killers.” In a co-creative environment, it is important to keep in mind that innovation, like thought patterns, is not linear. You never know what an idea that you think is dumb might lead to. It is also important to keep in mind that by harshly criticizing an idea, you run the risk of knocking the idea’s owner off of the path that may have led him, and therefore the group, to a brilliant and innovative idea, or solution, or both.
With respect to pressure, it is important to remember that your muse, and everyone else’s for that matter, needs some breathing room. The Creative Spirit does not do well with being told to “Produce now!” The Creative Spirit is playful. It is part of the subconscious, which tends to follow only its own rules. Eileen points out that it is critically important to recognize that you do not make creativity happen, it makes you happen. Still, in order for creativity to find you, you have to speak its language, which sounds a lot more like music than spoken word, and looks a lot more like pictures than the written word.
Why are we encouraging co-creativity? Visual Insight has shared the idea of co-creativity with a number of leaders in companies that are what we refer to as “DSI” (Desperately Seeking Innovation). These companies are interested in harnessing the benefits of teamwork and collaboration in order to create breakthrough products and services, but the processes they have used to try to accomplish these things have ultimately let them down.
We believe that co-creativity can provide the spark that will help companies achieve the level of innovation that they have been trying to ignite. Visual Insight has, however, experienced some pushback with this stance because people want us to better explain co-creativity before committing to trying it out.
We understand such skepticism, which is why we have been grinding away at trying to fit a concept as intuitive and holistic as co-creativity into a cut-and-dry definition. We will continue to work at defining co-creativity until we succeed at doing so because we believe that organizations and thought leaders need to understand it in order to move beyond incremental innovation to the kind of disruptive, breakthrough innovation that will truly change the world for the better.
We realize that there is still much ambiguity surrounding co-creativity as a concept and process, yet we have decided to approach this project in a way that remains in line with the nature and spirit of innovation: an ever-evolving quest, a labyrinth that reveals its secrets to you the more you explore it. And with that said, we hope that you will continue to join us, as both witnesses and participants, in this—you guessed it—co-creative adventure.