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Envisioning Ideas


The Design phase is all about creation. To aid idea expression and development, designers use non-verbal and non-text-based communication to show their ideas and thoughts in addition to talking and/or writing about them. We use these because it can be difficult to express the fullness of ideas verbally or in text, especially collaboratively, when the idea is still emerging, vague, or unfinished.

That being said, alternatives to verbal and text-based communication channels, like drawing, collaging, or model-making, aren't better than verbal- and text-based communications; they're all different from one another and can be used in unison.

Four photographs of people holding up handheld models of robots made out of lego parts.

Four participants in The Lab's Participatory Design class show and explain their models of robots.

Each communication method answers a specific set of needs, according to the strength of that method. If talking about the changes you're thinking of making to an existing system is confusing, why not draw it? If you can't really describe a better visual-impairment melody for a system to play when people log in, why not hum two or three options, record it on your phone, and email that instead?

You might feel silly at the time you're making the drawing or recordings, but your team will understand what you're thinking faster, and you'll be able to more forward on the project rapidly. In this way, drawing, building, collaging, and/or recording our ideas is faster, more clear, and more actionable than just talking or writing about them.

Advantages to Showing & Telling Ideas in the Design Process:
  • Showing as well as telling allows vague or complex ideas can start to take shape rapidly. These concrete items, like drawings, models, or recordings, retain their shape while words fly about and sometimes get lost, forgotten, or misunderstood.
  • Making a collage, a drawing, or building a model of an idea brings the idea away from the individual into a stand-alone space so that it can be evaluated without attaching evaluation to the individual.
  • By layering showing and telling, designers can communicate more complexity than if they stayed with either showing or telling.

Communicating Abstract Concepts

When design teams need to talk about abstract concepts or convey a feeling, they often use any of those alternate forms of communication to do so. These photos, drawings, recordings, et cetera, are called "references" because you should "reference" them when reading the text or listening to the presentation that accompanies them. They function the same way that metaphors and similes do in written and verbal language. Instead of saying "happy" and expecting everyone to know what we mean, we often say things like "happy, like a sunny day". In design, we bring our metaphors into visual, audio, and tactile forms so that we can communicate meaning, form, and emotion all in one place.

Using References: Communicating Happiness

In this example, a team member would like to describe a product or service that should have a happy, sunny feeling. To do this, the team member has collected images to help them communicate what they mean when they talk about a happy, sunny feeling.

basic outline of two people's heads with open mouths indicating talking sunny logo sunny beach text reading I'm walking on sunshine in a font that is squishy like toothpaste.

As you can see, none of the images in this section are actually images of "happy". One is a line drawing of two people talking to each other with stars around them. One is a logo that uses a sun-like form that seems like it might be quite happy and optimistic. The third is actually the words "I'm walking on sunshine", but in a font that looks happy and fat, sort of like it's written in toothpaste. And the fourth is a photo of a beach on a sunny day, which many people associate with happiness.

So none of these images are actually images of happiness, and none of them is particularly sophisticated. In fact, they look homemade or pulled off the internet. And that's part of the point: references shouldn't be polished; they're a quick way to communicate your thoughts, not your final presentation. But what is a picture of happiness, and how could your final idea be just "happiness"? First, there isn't one picture of happiness, because it's different for all of us, and secondly, this is not the time to have a final idea; you're still envisioning and communicating your first draft ideas. This is why using references is so useful when talking about abstract concepts like happiness and when working at the early stages of your design phase.

Using References is Just Show And Tell

In grade school, many students in the United States play an in-classroom game called “Show and Tell”. In this exercise, students bring in an object they think is interesting, show it to the class, and then tell the class a story for which that object is starting point or an integral part.

One of the purposes of this exercise is to teach students about how tangible objects can represent abstract concepts or events that have already occurred.

For example, although a student cannot bring to class the hike in the woods they took over the weekend, they can bring the cool rock they picked up on that hike as a representation of what they did. By connecting the tangible rocks with the intangible hike, students are able to make generalizable connections about the elements of a hike, where to find rocks, and what future hikes or rocks might be like.

As adults, images and objects function in the same way: an object or visualization allows us to give shapes to ideas. From that starting point, we can then talk about a desired experience, substance, process, etc. that cannot be present. For this reason, the old game of show and tell as useful in meetings as it was in your grade school’s class.


Much of this section was drawn from two of The Lab’s educational courses: Visual Communication for Everyone and Visual Eloquence. Please follow the link below for sign up opportunities.

The Lab Education Courses
Visual Eloquence
Visual Communications for Everyone

To read more about the interaction of words and pictures, please see Scott Mccloud's excellent graphic work.

Scott Mccloud
“Understanding Comics”

Important to Note: Understand that different cultures assign different meanings to shapes, colors, gestural forms, and groupings, the same way different parts of the US assign different meanings to words (try ordering a pop in a restaurant in the South. No one will know what you're talking about.) For this reason, if the design work is to be shared across languages or cultures, some research is required to ensure that the work retains the intended impact across all audiences.