The Value of Visual Communication

As we continue our design bootcamp this week, there’s still dark patches clouding aspects of the process for me, but I found a sense of clarity today through making vignettes and storyboarding product ideas. Humans naturally appreciate the value of visual storytelling. Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams beautifully illuminates how our ancestors drew vignettes of their lives in the Chauvet Cave in Southern France as long as 32,000 years ago. Drawing doesn’t come naturally to me and I find it quite uncomfortable, but as a visual artist, I’ve previously experienced the value of externalizing my ideas on the page at different points within my artistic practice.

Now I’m discovering how vital creating a visual representation of an idea is to the design process. As the engineer of a big idea, even a cursory vignette of a particular value innovation can bring clarity to defining the product. When I set out today to sketch a vignette of a product we were proposing in terms of how it would fit into the broader context of a person’s life, I was forced to consider the idea from the point of view of the user. It also very quickly highlighted the gaps in my understanding of the product. With a full storyboard, the idea became more than a hazy concept; it sprang to life as a concrete thing that made sense in the context of our problem space.

After each team finished a storyboard of their product concept, we shared them as a group. Suddenly we all got swept up in discussing the details of each product because the storyboards allowed us to get a tangible sense of how they would be used. Today’s experience was further evidence of what a powerful tool visual storytelling can be within the larger design process, and as uncomfortable as it will undoubtedly be, it’s time for me to get to work on some drawing practice.

Gerald Codina shares a storyboard during our design bootcamp.
Gerald Codina shares a storyboard during our design bootcamp.

SINKING IN A QUAGMIRE OF UNCERTAINTY

You know when you succeed, and it feels good. You (usually) know when you fail, and it doesn’t feel good, but at least it feels definitive. Even failure is preferable to where I find myself today, in the murky ambiguity of not knowing how to make sense of this process. I’m stuck in a quagmire of uncertainty.

The origin of my frustration is the stacked, accelerated experience of both learning to execute a definitive process as well as the more obvious goal of extracting valuable insights by actually executing the process. Doubt accompanies every decision. Yes, the rule is to trust the process. But how can I trust the process if I don’t even understand the process? Am I doing it right? Are my teammates doing it right? I’m not sure we’re really getting it today, and I’m also not sure we even initiated the process correctly yesterday, potentially upsetting the entire method from the get-go. Is the data we collected the right data? Is it enough to make intelligent sense of? Are we interpreting in the manner that’s been assigned? I think, quite honesty, sort of.

My teammates and I are figuring out the process as we go along, and while I appreciate defining a process from within, the phrase “blind leading the blind” comes to mind. This made team discussions today achingly time-consuming. Where’s all the excitement about our diverse ways of thinking now? It seems like we couldn’t get on the same page about anything, opting in the end for a mashup of ideas rather than the single strongest. When we finally reached a consensus about a primary topic to focus on, we spun out again as we hashed out what insights to derive from those topics. I’m seeking clarity, and hope that tomorrow brings some measure of relief from these muddy waters.

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Bootcamp Design Project, Day One

Today we listened, and then we did things. And notably, we got involved with real people out in the real world.

After an introductory overview of design strategy over the course of the morning, we divided into teams and jumped into our bootcamp design project. Broadly targeting the improvement of public transportation, my teammates and I decided to focus on how riders of public transport plan their route(s). We immediately tried to hone in on a game plan: Where do we find people to talk to? What do we want to find out? What questions do we ask to get that information? Despite clarifying discussions and preparatory role playing, interviewing complete strangers on the street for the first time – and getting the information we were seeking – was an imperfect and clumsy business. It certainly felt like we were learning by doing.

For example, we thought we’d find people to talk to about riding the bus at bus stops, but possibly due to the time of day and the excessive heat, there were few people waiting at bus stops. When we did find bus riders willing to be interviewed, we were at times so focused on the inquiry that we would forget to ask for permission to record them or to take photos. Our biggest missteps stemmed mainly from a lack of flow, ease, and our inexperience with managing the different aspects of the interview process – asking the right type of questions, not leading the interview, reading the posture of the participant and putting them at ease, methods of approach, etc.

What felt like a step in the right direction was a continuous team dialogue and debriefing held in between interviews about challenges, missteps, and effective aspects of each interview. We were each initially unsure about some aspect of going out in the field, but as the interviews went on, we fed on the supportive energy of the group and the positive reactions we were getting from participants. At the end of the day, I feel that we could have gotten richer information, but we left we a greater confidence to go back and do it again.

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First Day Impressions

Today was my last first day of school…again. When I earned my MFA ten years ago, I thought my official student days were over. Making the decision to go back to school to learn a new discipline at the age of 39, I’ve felt at times courageous and at times completely paralyzed with fear. Although I can confidently say that a healthy measure of anxiety remains, after spending this first day with faculty, fellow students, and alumni of AC4D, I leave feeling assured that this will be an adventure worth having.

Reflecting on my first day of this student experience, I’m impressed by the quality of both the individuals I’ve just met and the community that has been built and continues to grow at AC4D. For me, the biggest takeaway today, even more than the proffered evidence that the program will be as intense and challenging as I hope/fear, is a genuine sense of belonging. My fellow students come from diverse backgrounds and display a range of professional and personal achievements, and yet we all found our way here at this point in time to commit to a common goal. It’s reassuring to know that my experience and skillset are valued, as I value the range of my colleagues’ abilities.

The alumni who generously took the time to speak about their experiences both as AC4D students and their careers post-graduation were insightful, welcoming, and supportive in answering questions and offering advice. If their charitable attitudes and praise for the program are any indication, then I feel like I’ve come to the right place. I know there are great challenges ahead, but these are challenges that I’m ready for and willing to face. And they’re challenges I feel honored to face in the company of such a strong community of peers.

Obligatory first day of school photo. Credit: Shelly Stallings
Obligatory first day of school photo. Credit: Shelly Stallings