We remember things better when we anchor them to images. We see this in the mnemonics of memory competitions and we also it with the recent info-graphic craze, in which artists illustrate the driest data, bringing it to life in a way that makes it both more digestible and also easier to remember.
A good friend of mine, Christine Chopyak, is a strategic illustrator; in fact, she wrote a terrific book about using images in our work lives. Chris and I met in our MBA class. One day I looked at the notes she was taking (on paper…this was the Dark Ages) and saw she’d drawn the most wonderful images to go along with the lecture – arrows and boxes, banners and elephants trailed across the page. Each was thoughtfully positioned near an important point.
I was impressed. But I wasn’t convinced that it went beyond “pretty” until I went to do my homework that evening. A question jumped out of the assignment about the critical components of a business plan – and into my mind popped Chris’ illustrations of a light bulb (to represent the big idea), and dollar bills (for the financial model)… and others images that were linked indelibly to the concepts in my mind.
Now, as the Monkees famously sang, I’m a believer!
The challenge? I’m no artist. Creative, maybe, but an artist – heck no. That didn’t deter me, however, from signing up for Chris’ Strategic Illustration course.
I was terrified.
The class would be filled with artists like Chris – who could quickly draw complex illustrations that dazzled. And I would look the incompetent fool.
In class, we concentrated on icons – things like the light bulb and stop signs – images that are iconic, and relatively easy to draw. We also learned how to draw text – make words into images and simply label and write so it was readable and interesting. Boxes and banners started taking shape and a few conceptual frameworks extended our repertoire.
My versions were the clumsiest in the room, and I quickly got bogged down in trying to write more perfect-looking words, and struggling to create more accurate images.
I left the class feeling somewhat mortified by my talent (or, more accurately, lack thereof), but I promised Chris to try it out. The next week, I led a strategic planning retreat for a university client of mine. To set the stage, I hung eight feet of artist’s paper on the wall and drew a framework for our meeting (you can see examples of the strategic planning frameworks at www.link2alchemy.com), and then I let the team loose, throwing out suggestions for the starting frame – “Where are you today?”
“We’re slow to market with new programs!” they said. Great, I can draw a snail: a spiral with some antennae; that’s easy.
“Our research isn’t getting the press we need!” No problem: a bubbling beaker with a sad face took care of that.
“The elephant in the room,” said one brave attendees, “is that we don’t collaborate well.” Oh hell. How am I going to draw an elephant?
And so I scratched out an elephant (see top right). It wasn’t pretty and it sure as heck wasn’t accurate. I kept hearing Chris’ voice – “it only needs to be 30 percent accurate – as long as there’s a hint of the actual item, people will see it, and they will remember it.” My inner perfectionist, however, was screaming at me, “that looks terrible, you’ve really embarrassed yourself now!”
On the lunch break, I noticed a group of leaders gathered at the wall, reviewing the points from the first session. When I approached, they complimented my drawings. “It’s amazing,” they said, “it really brings our thoughts to life – I think we’ll use this drawing as the core of our communication to the whole department.”
My inner perfectionist was speechless.
As makers, it’s sometimes difficult to just get started because making is personal. It involves putting ourselves out there, sometimes in public ways, and there will always be a critic, or a bug, or a screw loose. I say – do it. Get started. The beauty of making is that we can do it again and again. We can iterate and if we like, get better at it, (better yet, celebrate the flaws!). Makers also have a wonderful community, so we can get feedback and get help.
Perfectionist be damned — Go get ‘em!
Image: Flickr/Daniel Zeevi cc license