Thinking Visually or Visual Thinking?


I became very interested in this when moving from lunch/ free lunch to ‘Global Agency of the Year’ BBDO. The opportunity to work on Marketing and Business Challenges for great brands with some of the very best creative minds in the industry was part of the attraction.

Bounding into a ‘creative’ meeting to explore/explain ideas with my Tinderbox mind map you can imagine my excitement.


Although it started as bemused I don’t think a stare could have ended much blanker. “No, just no” was in essence the response. Okay, my fault to an extent I know – but a brief for an idea – not a line, not a thought, not, heaven forfend, an ad – a brief for an idea – couldn’t start with a mind-map??? We would rather have had 25 slides of market research and strategery (sic)??? Then, like an Art director I had just called a Designer (or vice versa) it struck me.

I had been thinking around the subject for quite some time without realising it. In the league of ‘things patently obvious to others outside of your context’ what is to come may well be the Manchester United if not the Chelsea.

There are (at least) 3 parts to my answer:

1. Reducing complex propositions or relationships (whether emotional or rational) to simple visual representations is VERY different to USING visual representation to explore, understand or even simplify complex relationships. My assumption that one would be used to get to the other was wrong. For an excellent introduction to the latter I can recommend “The back of the Napkin” by Dan Roam. Put simply brand strategerists may be able to reduce a brand and its market positioning to an essence, expression or similar but rarely express it other than in words whilst the Creative Department may be able to express a complex product proposition in a simple ‘idea’ or execution but cant come up with that idea or execution by visually exploring all the elements and relationships involved. But surely a smart group would work this way?

2. A great deal of idea generation within Marketing Communications and “Advertising” in particular, considers itself to be a process of singular genius in the same way that all works of artistic genius are singular. To quote Malcolm Gladwell in his must-read New Yorker article “IN THE AIR – Who says big ideas are rare?“:

“You can’t pool the talents of a dozen Salieris and get Mozart’s Requiem. You can’t put together a committee of really talented art students and get Matisse’s “La Danse.” A work of artistic genius is singular…”

In reality of course the process is anything but and should rather be considered (as Science is in the article) multiple. Therefore in practice what is required is handing over all information in as linear and literal a structure as possible so that it can be contemplated in a tortured garret leading to a masterpiece. Ironically this could be completely the wrong approach.

3. The challenges facing big brands, modern consumers, disintermediation and fragmentation of media (well documented elsewhere) are in my opinion no longer solvable by the gifted individual or even the gifted creative team. This is really an extension of another interesting topic – from the “Smart Crowd” thinking to Russell Davies One Genius or 13 Smart Guys. In short it all adds up to Marketing Communications and Advertising companies being under increased pressure to work together as well as to be relevant.

Of course I could have put all this in a diagram…


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