Category Archives: Visual thinking

Talk is Expensive. Drawing is Cheap.

By Rich Moore, Senior Designer

Talk is expensive

In an interview at Columbia University, the architect Frank Gehry was asked how he reacted to criticism about his buildings. He said he likes to “try it on” like a jacket. If the criticism “fits,” he “wears it.” If it doesn’t fit, he puts it “back on the hanger.”

I learned the value of “trying on” criticism in architecture school. I felt like I had three options when receiving what I thought was a stupid suggestion: 1) dismiss it, 2) begrudgingly follow it, or 3) try it on and see if it fits. Trying it on, I reserved the right to reject it, but I also took advantage of the opportunity to see something new and challenge my own preconceptions. My approach was always to find a fast way to try it on, while also exploring my own ideas for how to move forward. Sometimes I discovered my professor was right; sometimes l became even more convinced that I was right. The interesting thing was that it never seemed to matter much who was right.

Even when there were serious egos involved, it was easy for us both to forget about petty arguments and engage in finding the best solution. Even if it is purely by distraction, visuals are remarkably effective at clarifying an idea and making apparent what works and what does not

Mark Zuckerberg describes what I believe to be the same principle when he says, “code wins arguments.” His developers could talk back and forth forever, but, by coding something, they can quickly test their ideas.

The problem is that speech is too amorphous, and it is too easy to rationalize our own ideas. I heard a professor interrupt a presentation and say, “You can rationalize anything. We rationalized the holocaust.” He would tell us, if something is designed well, we won’t have to rationalize anything. I agree that too much talk is not conducive to good design, but I think it is also a huge waste of time. We often wind up arguing about “air” as a colleague once described it. Talk is expensive because it can exacerbate arguments when there is often an inexpensive way to test and evaluate results. When the conversation gets heated, remember that testing an idea can be as simple as drawing it — and drawing is cheap.

Triggering Change using Three Words

by Maia Garau, Senior Consultant AMS

Our work at XPLANE uses visual thinking to help people drive change in their organisations. In a recent Amsterdam Visual Thinking School (VTS) event we decided to explore how visual thinking could apply to personal change.

Visual ThinkingVTS participants, Amsterdam

Early this year we were intrigued by a series of posts by Chris Brogan describing his annual practice of starting each new year with a “three words” exercise. New year’s resolutions are phrased in the form of goals that are often abandoned or, when achieved, don’t give us much to strive for the rest of the year.

The three words are different—their purpose is to serve as positive triggers for daily action. In our understanding, they give us direction rather than focusing on a precise destination. They help us decide what to do and how to be as the circumstances around us change.

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Inspired by this idea we added a few steps and visual twists of our own. Here was our process, should you wish to try this at home:

  • Draw a circle with six “slices” (we nicknamed this the “Change Pizza”)
  • Label each slice with something you want to focus on improving in your life.
  • Colour in each slice according to how well you’re doing in that area—the more area is filled in, the better you’re doing.
  • Choose the three slices where you have the most white space. Maybe this is where want to focus.
  • For each of these labels, write down any word that comes to mind. Free-associate and don’t edit.
  • Look for patterns and overlaps. The best words carry multiple meanings.
  • Choose the three words that “shine.” You should feel drawn to them. They should capture the essence of where you’re trying to go. Remember that these words are just for you and don’t need to make sense to anyone else.
  • If you feel like it, try drawing the words or creating a coat of arms.
  • Return to them daily.

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Our VTS participants found the exercise very enjoyable. They felt it was a useful tool for introspection and positive change and that it raised interesting questions. Does drawing the words make them more solid and memorable, or are these words more powerful when the images we associate with them can evolve over time? How might this exercise work in a business setting to define a desired change involving many people?

We plan to further experiment with this approach and invite you to do the same.

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Tips for Live Sketching in Virtual Meetings

By Marc Hewitt, Marvin Gaviola, & Tim May

We love technology. It enables us to connect with people all over the globe without even changing out of our pajamas, which is nice when you are on a 6 am client call! And while we can’t control how awake everyone is on the call, we can help make the calls more engaging by using something core to XPLANE: visuals.

In a virtual meeting, live sketching helps people follow the conversation and makes things clear to everyone. Visuals help the client know that we understand and that we are listening and hearing what they say.

It actually has become an unwritten rule here that a designer always has a tablet ready to take sketch notes for external or internal meetings.

To make that process easier for designers, our design team came up with “Sketch Notes 101” training to walk designers through that live capture process. We use WebEx, but most of these tips and tricks could be used on other online meeting networks. Here are some of the ideas considered most valuable by designers who’ve been through the training:

1. Come in with something before you start

  • Create assets before the call. If the client is a helicopter company, draw a helicopter before the meeting.
  • Build your own asset library. If you like an icon you did for a milestone? Throw it in a library for easy access so you don’t start from scratch every time.
  • Open at least 6 different 11×17 artboards in Illustrator. This enables you to have areas for different topics or ideas. This also enables you to easily save them out in a print friendly format to provide to team and/or client.


2. Remember, you are on stage

  • If you can, only share Illustrator. That way your incoming email and other alerts don’t show. Otherwise, close any other apps that can be distracting.
  • If you want a very fancy presentation, hide your AI tools (although some clients like seeing “under the hood”.
  • Use varied brush strokes to provide emphasis and create clearer sketches
    -Create a few brush strokes that have pressure sensitive line widths
    -Save brushes to brush library: Brush Menu > Save Brush Menu > Name Brush Library
  • Set the new brushes as a default by creating a new Workspace



3. Use quick keys so you can work fast
It can be hard to keep up with a conversation. Quick keys enable you to move much faster. Here are some of the essentials:

  • T: Text tool
  • Esc: Brings you out of the Text Tool
  • B: Brush Tool
  • V: Selection Tool
  • A: Direct Selection Tool
  • M: Rectangle
  • Command-Space: Zoom In
  • Option-Command-Space: Zoom Out
  • Shift-O (letter O): Artboard Tool
  • Tab: Hide Tools
  • F: Change Screen Mode
  • Option-drag: Duplicate selection
  • Views: Command-0
    - Fit in Window, Command-1
    - Actual Size
    - Option-Command-0: Fit all Artboards in Window

Finally, have fun. People love to watch what they say come to life. Getting a chuckle or two out of the client is always nice.


Have any awesome live sketching tips? Please share them here.

Business clichés visual find-it poster

In case you missed it, last month we sent out our 2009/2010 holiday greeting. Actually, it was more “greeting” than “holiday” — and maybe more “beating” than “greeting!” Why? because we went ahead and poked some fun at a lot of those empty business clichés that get thrown around in meetings, emails and corporate conversations.

So go ahead and download it, hang it up by the water cooler, leave it on someone’s desk… ;-)

Later this month we’ll be sending out an interactive PDF with all of the clichés identified and defined. Sign up for our email newsletter if you’d like to get a copy.

Happy new year, everyone!

New project: The Carbon Economy

For the second time in recent months XPLANE has partnered with The Economist to create a compelling video on a topic of global importance. After working together on “Did You Know? 4.0”, The Economist enlisted XPLANE\'s visual communication expertise to develop “The Carbon Economy” about the growing importance of climate change and green technologies and solutions.

“The Carbon Economy” will be shown at The Economist\'s upcoming Carbon Economy Summit on November 17 and 18, 2009 in Washington, D.C. The video is three minutes in length and includes simple visuals and a moving soundtrack to clearly convey the troubled state of global climate change and what steps must be taken to reach a positive outcome. The production was created using Apple\'s Keynote software.

For more information on The Carbon Economy Summit, visit

David Allen releases The Ultimate GTD Workflow Map, designed by XPLANE

The David Allen Company: “If you ever feel like you need to get more in control or regain your focus, here is the ultimate guide for getting and staying on your game. The set of productivity best practices which David Allen has researched and synthesized over the last three decades are brought all together into one stunning visual display — the GTD Workflow Map. It’s a rich compilation of the key steps for gathering, clarifying, organizing, and reviewing everything you need to track and manage, as well as an explanation of all of the factors that you must take into account in determining priorities.”

“I spent more than two years crafting and fine-tuning the map, ensuring that it would thoroughly and accurately describe the essential elements of time- and self-management,” says David, “It’s as simple as I could get it, while still embodying the subtleties and complexities that have to be factored in, to make it real and useful. And the visual representation we’ve come up with I think is a highly effective way to make something this meaningful really clear.”

The poster was created by XPLANE, the visual thinking company. Visit to learn more about how XPLANE clarifies complex business issues through visual collaboration.