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How to make your ideas concrete through visualization

Visualization literally forces us to 'fill in the blanks' as gaps in the model become clear

Published: Aug 10, 2015
Jennifer Riel
Jennifer Riel

Part of our ongoing work with MBA students and executives through Rotman DesignWorks entails enabling individuals to explore and improve on their ideas for innovative products, services and systems. One of most powerful tools we use on a regular basis is visualization, which endeavours to get ideas out of peoples’ heads and into the world.

Visualization is not just about drawing; rather, it is a wide-ranging ability to externalize your thinking. Regardless of the form it takes, visualization has some distinct benefits for the value-creation journey:

1. It clarifies your thinking
When developing a new idea, we are prone to focus only on those elements that are most resonant and most clear to us—ignoring the murkier aspects of how it will work within a larger ecosystem. Our mental models make perfect sense to us, so we don’t push the boundaries and challenge the key connections that make weak ideas fail and extend good ideas into great ones.  Visualization literally forces us to ‘fill in the blanks’: as gaps in the image or model become clear, it will be necessary to work through just how the parts fit together and how the different pieces work, in order to create a complete model. With a model visualized in front of you, you will be in a better position to ask: what is the core of this idea? What aspects are still fuzzy? What aspects don’t make sense? What really matters here?

2. It opens up possibilities
Rarely is the first iteration of an idea complete and robust. By providing a concrete starting point, visualization helps individuals and teams explore related and different ideas. When we visualize, we begin to see relationships between the different elements; we start to see interactions between different objects and people; and we start to see new ideas emerge that we wouldn’t have discovered through conversation or thinking alone.

3. It helps us share our ideas with others
When we come up with an idea, we hold a model of that idea in our minds. Projection bias—the belief that others see and understand the world in the same way we do—leads us to think that others with whom we are working hold the same mental model of the idea; but in fact, they rarely do. Our mental models are personal and different, in small and big ways. Visualization can help a team clarify just what each person ‘sees’ and means, and how they see the idea unfolding.

Thanks to ever-evolving technology, a wide variety of visualization techniques exists.  But in our work, we focus on getting people to embrace four types.

1.    Sketching
Perhaps the most popular and straightforward form of visualization, a sketch is a two-dimensional rendering on paper or a screen of the essence of your idea.  It can be a simple picture or a complex system diagram. Particularly for physical objects, sketches can quickly and powerfully convey the essence of the idea.  

We regularly advise our students to turn off the voice in their head that says, ‘You can’t draw!’ The intention behind sketching is not to create a beautiful picture, and as a result, you don’t have to be artistic to draw out an idea in a sharable way.  For the purposes of innovation, the intention is simply to be more concrete and tangible about your idea. According to Dan Roam, author of The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures, we only need to know how to draw five shapes in order to depict anything: a line, square, circle, triangle and a blob. Think of it as similar to learning the letter alphabet and then simple words before you begin to construct complex sentences.

Powerful sketches can be disarmingly simple. In the 1960s, Herb Kelleher, a lawyer originally from New Jersey, moved to his wife’s hometown of San Antonio with the intention of starting his own law firm. One afternoon in 1967, Kelleher was having lunch with one of his clients, Texas entrepreneur Rollin King. Kelleher was exhausted from putting in hours of work to help close Rollin’s unsuccessful regional airline, and the two were commiserating about the failure.

Yet King was not ready to give up the airline business just yet. He started to explain another wild idea, grabbing a napkin and jotting down the names of three cities: San Antonio, Houston and Dallas. He then drew lines, connecting the cities with a triangle and described his idea of an airline that offered non-stop flights between these spots. It would have an advantage over other, bigger airlines that forced travellers to fly long distances to hub airports and transfer. With that simple visualization of the key routes, Kelleher was in, and Southwest Airlines was born.

2.    3D-Modeling
These are crudely manufactured physical artifacts that people can hold in their hands or interact with in some way. However, a 3D model is not a ‘working model’—an engineered, finished-looking and polished mini-version of a final product. Instead, it is a low-resolution prototype of an idea, detailed enough that it forces you to consider more variables than a two-dimensional sketch.  The rough prototype helps teams tangibly and concretely explore ideas, using cheap, everyday materials that can be found around the office to create a shared understanding of the idea. Such models enable real-time feedback that can inform and improve the next iteration of an idea.

In the early 2000s, a team at IDEO, the global innovation consultancy, was working on a project with Gyrus ACMI, a world-leading maker of medical equipment. The Gyrus ACMI team was looking to develop new otolaryngology tools, to help them better diagnose ear, nose and throat conditions. In a brainstorming session, the IDEO team was working with a team of six leading surgeons, to better understand their needs and explore new solutions.

During the meeting, an idea arose that the team started to get excited about. To capture what everyone was describing, a designer left the room to grab a marker, a disposable film canister, a clothespin and some tape. He came back into the room and assembled a rough three-dimensional model of a possible new otolaryngology tool. The surgeons were able to interact with the model, and it spurred new discussions on how the tool could be improved and advanced.

After rounds of iteration and development, Gyrus ACMI launched the Diego Powered Dissector System, which tripled its revenues in the powered instrument product segment, increased its market share from four to 20 per cent and brought significant advances to the diagnosis and treatment of ear, nose and throat conditions.

3.    Storyboards
A storyboard is a series of sketches that run in sequence and describe a situation or experience over time. Long used by animation houses such as Walt Disney and Pixar, it can be used in any industry to visually depict all the elements of an idea in a ‘story’ format that contains a temporal dimension. Like a comic strip, it lets us see what happens first, what happens next and what happens later, and this added dimension helps us to think through a full, holistic experience.

Storyboards can be particularly helpful in helping organizations understand and visualization consumer experiences—both existing and new. Recently, Airbnb, the shared-economy accommodation start-up, used storyboards to deeply understand their customers’ experience and to help figure out what’s next for the company. Over the 2013 holiday break, co-founder Brian Chesky was watching a biography of Walt Disney and became fascinated by the way Snow White was created through storyboards. Inspired by this approach, Brian and his team visualized the stories of their most important customers: the traveller and the host.

As the team created the stories, they mapped out the current respective journeys for traveller and host. Using storyboards—created from the team’s discussion by a Pixar artist—the team started to notice key moments of truth, emotional connections and meaningful needs. The more ‘real’ they made the visualized experience, the deeper the team’s understanding of their customers.

The storyboard in question is now a central cultural artifact, shared across the company. Whenever a group at Airbnb is working on a project, they ask themselves: “Which frame of the story are we trying to make better?”
Storyboards can also be a powerful way to visualize new innovations. As David Kelley, founder of IDEO, says, a storyboard lets you “paint a picture of the future with your ideas in it.” You can use the storyboard to embed your new innovation in a future world, to envision and understand how the idea can fit into your customers’ lives and create meaningful value.   

4.    Role Play
Like a storyboard, a role-play adds a time dimension to visualization, bringing in a physical, real-world component. A role-play is similar to when children act out different ‘pretend’ scenarios; but make no mistake, this isn’t child’s play. In the realm of innovation, role-play lets us see and experience a model in real time, often leveraging sketches and 3D models to bring the full experience to life. A role-play is a great way to engage other people in your idea, whether they are watching and providing feedback, or actively participating and co-creating the visualization alongside you.

In early 2014, a team of MBA students was working on a challenge for a major broadcaster. The team generated a solution that had multiple consumer touch points, both online and offline, and realized that the best way to communicate the interactions to potential consumers was to create a live experience.

The team created a role play of its new interactions for potential consumers and asked for feedback. While consumers had reservations about the ideas as presented, they were able to engage with the insight behind the ideas and offer further input to improve and advance the idea.

Role-play is also a great tool for us to put ourselves into other people’s shoes and gain empathy. When done well, sharing an idea in the form of a role-play enables others to see themselves in the ‘new future’ and to provide meaningful feedback that helps us increase confidence in the idea.

In closing
Embracing visualization requires a shift in mindset, from seeing your job as ‘getting buy-in for your new idea’, to ‘getting critical feedback on the idea from others’. As we have seen over and over again at DesignWorks, feedback—ideally from both internal players and customers—can help guide idea development and advance it to previously-unpredictable places.

Regardless of the form you choose, visualization is a tool from the design thinker’s toolkit that will help to ‘fill in the blanks’ and make your ideas more concrete. That’s because once we put pen to paper or prepare to act out a scene, we are forced to make important choices about what our idea is—and what it isn’t.  As we have found in our work, this greatly increases the chances of innovative ideas progressing towards creating meaningful value for customers.

Jennifer Riel (MBA ’06) is Associate Director of the Desautels Centre for Integrative Thinking at the Rotman School of Management.  Stefanie Schram (MBA ‘10) is a Senior Associate at Rotman DesignWorks, which teaches tools from the realm of design to further innovation to MBA students and executives.  For more, visit

[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]

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