“I’ve had the experience of walking into a client’s office a year and half after we did a session with them and finding that the giant foam core boards containing our single frame visuals are still up on the wall, and still being referenced. I have seen clients hang our scribing in their offices as memento of great design session. I know of cases in which clients are able to reuse a presentation we created to deliver talks over the course of a year or more. These visuals have staying power.“

People might see visuals as flashy and fleeting and might assume they are a dime a dozen in an era supersaturated with images. So what would make an organization take up valuable office space with a 4ft x 8ft image for months and months? What leads to this kind of lasting resonance?

The anecdote above is from Erin King, Creative Director at Collective Next. I have heard stories like this before. I wanted to talk with her about the company’s visual tools in light of our series on aesthetic experience and change.

Marsha Dunn: Can you tell readers not familiar with Collective Next’s work about our visual tools?

Erin King: The genesis of our approach to visual tools is scribing. Scribing is a way to capture and display content in a visually compelling way. Part of the magic of scribing comes from the improvisational, real-time manner in which it is created. Scribes create scribing on the fly, capturing the salient points of a speech or conversation as it unfolds. It’s powerful for the audience to witness scribes thinking on their feet; representing ideas visually in real-time. Plus, it inspires play.

We have other visual tools as well, such as high impact presentations, single frames, and videos. All involve extensive processes of editing and planning. But we hope that the vitality we have learned to capture in our scribing is present in these visual tools as well. Plus, in the case of these tools, improvisation occurs when the presenter and the audience interact with the visuals. We are always thinking about when and how human beings interact with our visuals.

MD: If a skeptic questioned the importance of visuals how would you respond?

EK: Visuals ground our thinking, especially when we are trying to internalize abstract concepts and masses of data. All of us, to varying degrees, are visual learners.

MD: The visuals make a presentation accessible on a human, sensory level.

EK: Yes, and it goes both ways. If the story is already a very human or personal one—about loss of life savings, medical conditions, or death—we need to be sensitive to that. Visuals can detract from or trivialize content.

MD: On the one hand, we talk about using art to help us wrap our minds around ideas, but sometimes the goal is to make content less graspable. Sometimes we want people be washed over by the enormity of the feeling associated with a story.

EK: Yes, absolutely. For instance, recently we had someone speaking about poverty in India. It was important that the visuals did not exploit the subject matter.

We need to respect the tremendous power that visuals have and use them judiciously.

MD: I want to shift gears and talk about the process of creating visual tools. Is there editing? Is there play?

EK: Speakers are not involved in the creation of the scribingit unfolds behind them. But when we create presentations, single frames, or videos, it is a collaborative process. We work with a small subset of people in an organization to help them think about creating a piece of “art” to display their information and ideas. I think people can have a really good time playing in a world they don’t usually get to play in. We immerse people in the creative mindset. Sometimes our client is inspired to create sketches overnight. The sketches may not be the final answer, but they are insightful and they get us to the next thing.

MD: If it changes how the client works, do you think it also changes how they think about the issues? Are you giving the client a visual language to use going forward?

EK: I hope so. For instance, introducing a simple Venn diagram can radically reorient the way a client thinks about overlapping issues.

MD: Why is working in a visual format fun or playful compared to dealing with prose or bullet points?

EK: Most people don’t think they have artistic abilities. As a scribe or designer, I can be their “hand”, so to speak. They can be part of an artistic process they may not have felt involved in since childhood. A client can give us a vague image—maybe they see an island with four bridges connecting it to the shore—and then we realize that image for them in vibrant lines and colors.

MD: I’ve noticed that this process creates strong connections between our designers and clients.

EK: I do think it creates a human connection—they feel like “you heard me, you manifested my idea.” The visual we create will often make even more sense to them than the way they saw it in their head; they may have had a concept but needed a visual to bring it to life.

MD: We often think about the impact of the completed visuals on an audience, but you describe a micro-process that happens upfront, when the clients become co-artists.

EK: Yes. Then, as the message is communicated through visual tools to the rest of the organization, there are ripples of understanding.

MD: You describe client’s holding onto the visuals from a session long after the fact. What allows them to have this kind of staying power?

EK: They become artifacts or mementos for a crucial turning point in an organization’s success.

You can constantly re-engage with the visual stories they tell—even as the story keeps unfolding. For example, we created visual for an organization and they requested updates to them every six-months for two-years as their circumstances evolved. Now they have requested a new series to reflect the new system they will begin using. The visuals allowed them to tell a story about what was going on in their organization—and to maintain a sense of continuity in the midst of change.

MD: Earlier you referred to the visual work we do as “art” in air quotes.

EK: I think everyone at Collective Next would answer this question differently, and it may vary depending on whether someone has a design background or a fine arts background. We sort of exist between design and art, and that may be part of what makes our work special.

MD: I am interested in the idea that we create things between the worlds of art and design. In this series, we have engaged aesthetic theorists in order to expand our thinking about what we do, but as you suggest we are doing something different, something that may require its own kinds of theorization.

EK: When I think about being the hand through which the client “draws” their idea, I think about my experience in a band. There is moment when we first play a song our lead singer has written. You see the pleasure on his face. There is something similar that I feel when I “get the picture right” for a client. They know that now they can use this visual to be understood by a larger audience. And in both cases you need collaboration to make these moments happen.