Bringing Concepts to Life through Visualisation

Have you seen an illustrated journey map and thought “I wish I could do that?” 

In this workshop, participants learnt some ‘no skills required’ techniques that get you started and used these techniques on a real-life challenge: a ‘topic map for forms design’ for NHS Digital.

In this workshop, Tara Land and Caroline Jarret got participants started with some easy illustration techniques that are available for everyone, irrespective of their level of confidence with drawing. 

For this workshop, Caroline played the role of the client, who needs a visualisation of a concept. Tara played the role of the visualisation coach, sharing how powerful sketching can be and showing that it is not about aesthetic skill – there are lots of hacks. The most important part is coming up with the metaphor.

Tara argued that visualisation is powerful because a picture grabs the imagination and allows us to communicate concepts. Humans use metaphors and visual language all the time when we are talking about things. 

Tara provided an example of trying to visualise the concept of ‘viral growth’, which is usually expressed visually in line with the language of viruses – with images of bugs.  Tara wanted a more positive image to express the same idea, eventually settling on the image of dandelion seeds dispersing. She encouraged us to think more widely about the concept we are trying to visualise, rather than just focussing on the words that we use to describe the concept.

Images tend to invite conversation and good visualisation becomes a meme. Often this allows you to build empathy and help clients to understand a process less mechanically. Tara illustrated this by explaining how she created a cartoon character called Geoff, who ended up becoming a persona to help her create posters that communicate ideas internally. Teams can talk about Geoff and everyone can connect with him, and he has become a popular character in her organisation.

To help participants learn how to make use of visualisation in this way, Caroline and Tara issued a practical challenge to workshop participants.  The challenge was to create visualisation that brings ‘the question protocol’ to life.  

The question protocol is a concept Caroline to help users how to make sure every form field is necessary. To create a form, most people come up with a bunch of the questions, put the questions on a web page and voila – they have a form!  However, as part of her work to provide forms advice for the NHS digital service manual, Caroline wants to encourage users to work out the answers they need first, THEN work out the questions and create the form.  She calls this ‘the question protocol’. Her challenge is to get people to engage with the question protocol.

Caroline circulated a storyboard based on the question protocol. Workshop participants were asked to pick one element from the storyboard and come up with a metaphor to bring to life. Participants could either write some ideas on post-it notes or draw something to visualise it.  

Next, participants had a go at drawing their metaphor freehand. The only had to do this to a similar standard to Caroline’s own ‘demented chicken scratching’ style of sketching, so no artistic skill was required!

The next step involved developing the metaphor further. Tara and Caroline shared some hacks to help bring metaphors to life.  They suggested:

  • Using mixed materials, including stickers (so you don’t need to draw anything!)
  • Printing pictures of elements and tracing them
  • Searching online for drawing references to get a structural reference for things like people in different positions
  • Using collage.

In the final practical activity of the workshop, they provided a mixture of materials to help participants develop their metaphor further and create a full visualisation.

About Tara

Tara has been using sketching and visualisation techniques as part of her professional work for ages. For example, she created the only GOV.UK blog post that consists solely of doodles and provided illustrations for many others. Recently, she created an illustrated journey map for Atlassian (proprietary).

About Caroline

Caroline is a beginner at sketching and her sketches frequently resemble demented chicken-scratching, so she is keen to learn. She also happens to need a compelling map right now and thought that attendees would enjoy creating something that will actually be used.