Visual CoCreation

Visual CoCreation— by Eileen Clegg

Having a metaphorical image helps catalyze conversations. Everyone has the ability to communicate visually. Being ‘an artist’ is not the core capability of the visual journalist. Visual communication involves images and words, entwined in an intuitive yet intentional way that makes more of each. Visuals work. They are archetypes. We see not only our own point of view: we also make a picture of the connections. Everyone sees something different while agreeing that it looks the same.

A Short Episode: The Spider Web Weaves Its Own Story

A conference room is filled with 3,000 people. To the right of the podium a woman is facing a wall. In front of her is a blank 4 foot by 8 foot paper taped on the wall. She is thinking, ‘I may be out of my mind.’ Lights glare from a video camera, making the paper whiter, brighter, reflecting her shadow. Tabula rasa. She goes through a mental checklist questioning her own rationality: (1) She is about to create a mural that will be projected on a giant screen visible to everyone in the room; (2) She is not a trained artist; (3) Although she admires the speaker, Peter Senge,i she has no idea what he will talk about; and (4) perhaps most irrational of all, she is full of joy and excitement and is convinced that whatever she draws will create a transformation for those who experience it.

It is late October, 2002 at Elliott Masie’s Tech Learn Conference.ii The woman standing by the piece of paper is not out of her mind. But neither is she, precisely, in it. She is in an intuitive place that is hard to pinpoint. The right brain? The whole body? Something from outside invading both? Her internal critical voice starts to speak: What ARE you doing? She is creating a giant spider web. Senge is talking about learning in organizations. Too late to draw the typical images for organizations: buildings, landscapes, roads, etc. But the critical voice stops suddenly and she returns to the certainty that her intuition will guide her. The spider web is taking up most of the blank space, so she is using it as a container for words. Inside each section she writes key quotes: Senge’s words of wisdom about organizations and learning. The spider web is being projected on the screen, so there is no going back. Very close to the end of his speech, Senge delivers his conclusion: The most critical concept for the future would be social networks. Gleefully, she writes in giant bubble letters ‘It’s all about Social Networks!’

Later, conference-goers gather around the mural and more than one says, ‘now I really see what this means’.

Thought: Catalyzed by Images

The spider web, in many venues, has come to symbolize social networks. Having a metaphorical image has helped catalyze conversations (e.g., what is the role of trust in keeping a social network together and is it different at the outside or inside rungs of the web?)iii The spider web metaphor may have been in use for social networks before the episode described above. Senge had certainly spoken or written about social networks before then.

But the power of this episode was the fact that the visual journalist did not know any of this beforehand, and probably few in the room would have predicted how significant social networks would become over the next few years. Anyone using traditional logic, scholarship and/or reporting methods would have had many small images and icons illustrating the many ideas discussed before the words ‘social networks’were spoken. They would not have had a giant spider web taking up the whole page – that was an alternative language, a visual language.

There is a story behind this episode that I think of as a fairy tale, but before telling that part I want to say that I think everyone has the ability to communicate visually. Being ‘an artist’ is not the core capability of the visual journalist. Most important are letting go of traditional thought patterns and tuning out certain arcane notions, such as there is a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’way to depict ideas visually and that some people are ‘artists’ and others ‘don’t have an artistic bone in their body’. Visual communication is not just wall decoration or performance art – it may provide an essential communication short cut in this era of increasingly fast-paced and abstract information exchange.

Scholars and popular writers have described the cognitive reasons why combining words and images in provocative ways enables people to quickly disassemble old patterns and create new onesiv; enhance their abilities and performance, particularly in groupsv; develop the core future competence of thinking conceptuallyvi; and deepen their thinking abilityvii. Writing on the walls during meetings is becoming more common, visuals on the World Wide Web are becoming more sophisticated, and think tanks around the globe are trying to figure out how best to mesh ‘live’ resonant images with technology. But how and why visuals are so powerful is just beginning to be understood – or, more accurately, re-discovered.

A Big, Spiraling Story: Visual Communication = A Shared Universe of Meaning viii

The episode of the spider web is part of an ancient story going back thousands of years – the story of the way imagery can precede formal thought as we know it. This larger story is as old as human culture, and as vast as the universe whose shapes and movements inspire the shapes and symbols humans seem to instinctively understand. There is, of course, no way to tell this elegant, complex story within a short article. For the last three years I’ve been working with anthropologist Bonnie DeVarcoix to research the international and timeless story of why and how shape influences our thinking, communication and human history in ways that are at once obvious and elusive. What we have discovered is so profound that sometimes we lose our breath during conversations. It’s a challenge to convey because it involves an alternative language, but here is some of what we understand: Visual communication involves images and words, entwined in an intuitive yet intentional way that makes more of each. It is also related to dance, sign language and even music – all the ways in which an idea can take a certain shape so that when people see/hear/feel it, they resonate. It helps them think in a different way.x That’s the big, giant, ancient story that has given me a fairytale career.

A Personal Fairytale: How Creativity Introduced Me to the Universe

I had worked as a traditional journalist, mostly for a midsize paper owned by the New York Times Company for more than 20 years. I was stuck. For my birthday in 1998, someone gave me a card that had a picture of Cinderella. I stuck it up on my cubicle and glanced at it each time I had to cover a dull meeting or grisly crime. Like most disheartened reporters, I thought that writing a successful book would turn my decomposing pumpkin of a career into a chariot hurling me into exciting new worlds. Indeed this did occur, but not in any way I would have imagined.
The third book I wrote, Claiming Your Creative Self: True Stories of the Lives of Everyday Womenxi, brought the fairy dust. It wasn’t the result – the publication of the book – that transformed me. It was the process: collaborating with three other writers and interviewing a whole range of people who had a creative spark that seemed to shine beyond their talent or work: an artist, a gardener, a mom, a teacher, a mystery writer – ordinary women doing extraordinary things. I learned so much about creativity, about learning, about collaboration. I learned that there is a wellspring of creativity that we all have and it’s our job to not inhibit. I started questioning so many assumptions I’d made over the years. I felt simultaneously ignorant and liberated.

Figure 1: Mural from the Congress on the Future of Engineering Software. Organizers encouraged participants to ‘think different’. In retrospect, it seems like an argument in favor of visual as a way of communicating in an innovation economy.xii

When I had an offer to work as a research affiliate, I left my one and only career as a journalist to join a think tank, the Institute for the Future (IFTF), where graphic facilitatorsxiii helped forecasters develop future scenarios by showing unexpected patterns and connections visually. We were actually able to ‘map’ the future. Quickly it became clear how the mapping of information on a single page could convey relationships and emerging concepts so much more effectively than mere words, illustrations, or a deck of slides. This was beyond newspaper info-graphics: it was metaphorical navigation of ideas so new they had not yet come to pass. It was so exciting! My Cinderella career began!

Troubled Times: Then the Wizards Appear

I fell in love with visual language and wanted to learn more, so I enrolled in a course. I did pick up some tools, a determination to learn and I practiced at every opportunity including my various volunteer jobs in education. Yet I was, without question, the worst in the class. I tried not to let it bother me that one of the graphic facilitation instructors, in polite words, had advised me not to quit my day job.

And then one day I had to quit my day job. The ‘dot.boom and com.bust’ of 2001 hit and my contract for Institute for the Future ended. I was unemployed, but the fariytale kept unfolding. I had started meeting wizards who helped me see my next career. The founder of Educational Object Economy (EOE), James C. Spohrer, was one of those. In my work as a volunteer for EOE, he encouraged me to ‘write on the walls’ during his meetings however I wished.

That brings us back to where this story started – with webs, social networksxiv and metaphors. You may have figured out that I am the person in the beginning of this article. Futurist and writer Jay Cross xv ‘discovered’ me in early 2002 after seeing my work at EOE. He introduced me to universities and corporations because he understood the value of metaphors and non-traditional thinking. With Jay’s encouragement, organizations began finding out about me by word-of-mouth and I started my business, Visual Insight.xvi Every time a company hired me, I bought stock. It always went up. Not because of me, per se, but because I believed that any company willing to take a risk in bringing in a visual truth-teller must be confident and ahead of the game. The power of visual communication is being discovered or, more accurately, re-discovered.

Enter another wizard, the one with whom I am now walking along the long path toward understanding the value and meaning of it all: Bonnie DeVarco. An anthropologist, former archivist for Buckminster Fuller, and an early designer of 3D educational online worlds, Bonnie took me aside one day in early 2005 and whispered, ‘I’ll tell you why your visuals work.’ They are archetypes – shapes found in nature, in ancient tapestries, in architecture.xvii

The deep guidance from all of my ‘wizards’xviii helps me go deeper and have confidence in the amorphous inner knowing that the visual is a key to the kind of communication that brings us together. Writing on the walls is ephemeral, messy and impermanent – helping keep perspective that everything is in flux. Thus, as I’ve learned from working with another wizard, computer-age visionary Douglas Engelbart, the best hope for taking correct action is to get the best possible picture of how things are right now.

Your Story, My Story, Our Story: We Connect With One Another in the Visual

One of my passions today is to help others tap into their internal knowing: the visual, intuitive parts of themselves that can ‘show’ more than mere words can ‘tell.’ All of my students emerge from the workshops equipped and confident to express themselves in visual language. We always start out by doing physical exercises, rhythmic songs and movements from childhood games. We remember how to use our bodies to communicate – the marker and pastels become extensions of ‘talking with our hands’ that leave a mark for others to see.

Visualization is expression of feeling, energy, movement – as well as ideas, and that is perhaps the greatest gift of this great discipline. The off-limits or misunderstood ideas of the physical, the energetic and the emotional suddenly can come into the room in ‘stealth’ mode. People can see the real story: the resentments buried (at the bottom of the mural, under the grass), the shared hopes (a bright sun, every ray a possibility), the resistance to change (a brick wall). We are not seeing just our own point of view, but making a picture of the connections. The story that is us. Once a negative factor is up on the mural, it’s out of our hands: it’s visible and loses its power. Once a shared positive feeling is up on the mural, it’s out of our hands: it’s visible and gains power.xix

One day perhaps we’ll figure out how to migrate the power of large-scale visuals onto the web. But for now we can be grateful for the moments when visuals work. They are pure. They can’t lie. Every line is correct. Everyone sees something different while agreeing it looks the same.

Footnotesi Peter M. Senge, considered the originator of the concept of ‘the learning organization’, has written many books including The Fifth Discipline published by Currency Doubleday, New York. in 1990.

ii Masie, of the Masie Center, is no longer affiliated with Tech Learn. He now produces the Learning conferences; e.g., Learning 2008.

iii Institute for the Future, Thought Leader Network Meeting on Social Networks in 2004 included Jim Spohrer, director of Service Science for IBM and Howard Rheingold, author of Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (Boston: Perseus. 2002).

iv Edward DeBono, Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step, New York: Harper and Rowe, 1970

v Kristina Hooper Woolsey, VizAbility, Boston: PWS Publishing Co. 1996

vi Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind; Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, New York: Riverhead Books/Penguin Group, 2005

vii Arnheim, Rudolph Visual Thinking Berkeley: University of California Press. 1969. viii The information within this section draws on a book in progress by Eileen Clegg and Bonnie DeVarco, The Shape of Thought: The Story of Visual Literacy.

ix Bonnie DeVarco is former archivist for Buckminster Fuller’s collection and is a designer of 3D online educational worlds

x Clegg and DeVarco, Shape of Thought

xi Eileen Clegg, Margaret McConahey, Susan Swartz and Deborah Sweitzer, Claiming Your Creative Self: True Stories of the Everyday Lives of Women, Oakland: New Harbinger, 1998 xii Mural reproduced courtesy of Joel Orr and Brad Holtz. xiii Graphic facilitation emerged in the early 1970’s to improve meeting process. One of the pioneers, Christine Valenza of Art for Change, is developing the most comprehensive history of the discipline. This will soon be available through a practitioner site at

xiv The social network that includes many Silicon Valley explorers of learning and technology is facilitated by a character who calls himself ‘human glue’ – Bill Daul of an informal community of practice called Next Now. www.human-landscaping. com

xv Jay Cross, who began using blogs as far back as 2001, is the author of Informal Learning, San Francisco: Pfeiffer, 2007. xvi

xvii Clegg and DeVarco, Shape of Thought

xviii Clegg and DeVarco, Shape of Thought