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Visualization is Genius, Not Juvenile

Cool news, you guys! Word about the power of adding visual components to traditionally picture-less processes is making its way around, albeit slowly. Recent examples include Springpad, an Evernote-ish mobile app that makes digital notebooks and personal project planning smarter with imagery. And I just learned that Facebook has chalkboards, white boards and writable glass installed throughout its offices to encourage visual note-taking among its employees.

It seems like an obvious shift for the workplace. We’ve always heard that a picture is worth a thousand words, so now that we’re virtually drowning in words (hey, information overload!) you’d think companies would be jumping at the chance to condense data using this well-known method. Unfortunately, one very stubborn obstacle keeps it largely at arm’s length.

Visual Gets a Bum Rap

Haven’t we always been taught that artistic renderings belong outside environments of work and learning? Test your own biases by imagining a person doodling in their notebook margins. What appears on the page? I’m going to guess it’s something similar to my own visualization, which I’m only mildly ashamed to admit is my name is swirly letters next to boys’ names in swirly letters, bulbous hearts and Dr. Seuss-style arrows pointing every which way.

Perhaps if I’d been encouraged from the start to accompany my notes with images, I would have pictured something more profound. But like most everyone else, my initial reaction to classroom sketching equates it with wasting time or, even worse, doing nothing at all.

In the wise words of Sunni Brown, leader of The Doodle Revolution: “No wonder people are averse to doodling at work. Doing nothing at work is akin to masturbating at work! It’s totally inappropriate!” (Check out her TED talk here for more fun quotes.)

Improving with Time

Journalist Eva Fernandes joins the conversation from the United Arab Emirates. “I don’t have high hopes for the success of ‘visual note taking’ in UAE offices,” she writes. “I still remember the look of disappointment a manager gave me when she looked at the notepad I was taking notes on; after a long meeting, my notepad read notes amidst a jungle of scribbles and doodles. I thought it looked beautiful, but turns out it was a reflection of my ‘inability to concentrate.'”

(Understandable) bummer.

We certainly can’t overcome cultural biases overnight, but we can and should continue to fight the good fight. Along with her crew, Brown works to prove that doodling doesn’t mean doing nothing; that it is in fact the only process that involves each of the four modalities by which we absorb information: visual, auditory, reading/writing and kinesthetic. And Austin Kleon (pictured in the image up top) pushes for what he calls cartoon journalism. “I listen for the stories and ideas worth stealing, then I turn them into images that are fun, instantly digestible, and easily shared around the web.”

Circling Way Back Around

Scientific proof and data-related phrases like “instantly digestible” are way attractive, and contribute a great deal to my personal belief that the benefits of visualization will eventually gain better momentum in the workplace. It’s the one method of communication that is universally accessible, and as teams become even more virtual and geographically dispersed, so will grow the need to simplify the presentation of information. What better way to do that than by reinvigorating a style that dates all the way back to the earliest of times (cave drawings)?

And if that’s not enough to convince you, consider Albert Einstein. That guy’s notebooks are full of visuals, and nobody can say he was a time waster or a nothing doer.

If you’re currently finding any sort of visual process to be useful in your own work day, tell us about it in the comments below. This is a message that both needs and deserves to be spread.

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