Designers as Visionary Leaders

Woman speaking to audience
Illustrations by Cal Brackin

A visionary leader mobilizes people by providing an inspirational vision and new potential reality to move toward. An inspirational vision is rich with imagination, creativity, and gives people a higher sense of self-purpose and a unifying goal to work toward in a group.

An artist, writer, and musician

Visionary leadership is often portrayed as a charismatic storyteller who helps people see new possibilities in their minds. People who may not be as inclined to speak up verbally but can evoke emotions through creative forms — artists, musicians, photographers, filmmakers, poets — have tremendous potential for being visionary leaders.

A designer showing a prototype

Designers in particular can be outstanding visionary leaders. With a toolkit of visual methods and talents, they can lead groups to work through multi-faceted challenges, insert creativity into collaboration, and develop compelling projects that help people see new things.

A cave-man in front of drawings on a whiteboard

Why is being visual so important? Well, visual stories, started being carved or painted by our ancestors nearly 32,000 years ago and we haven’t stopped. Humans still run on pictures to communicate and understand each other’s ideas. The growth of our visually-oriented social media is just an extension of what our ancestors were doing, we just have better technology.

A brain drawing with Visual as a main part of the diagram

We’ve had a fraught relationship with our visually oriented brain, a brain that has more processing power invested in vision than any other thing we do like memory, listening, or rational thought. But verbal communication has flourished, while our visual language has played second place.

Child, boy, and man communicating through pictures and words

Children are encouraged to draw early on, to communicate with crayons, and then in adolescence, to put it aside for a word-oriented education. People who are adept at communicating using pictures alongside words, often control the conversation. Good designers and visionary leaders know all of this.

Dan Roam using illustrations and words for super communication

Dan Roam published riveting books about our visual communication in, Draw to Win, Back of the Napkin, and Blah, Blah, Blah. In his work, he encourages drawing to communicate ideas and describes strategies and theories to how we can use a strategic visual language structure that is reflective of our verbal language structure, which is all really reflections of how our brains process information. By drawing out information, it can boost how we communicate ideas and paired with words, people can be communication superstars.

Here are the basics of what Dan lays out:

To create the ideal teachable story, use all of the six elemental pictures in a sequence to build a complete visual narrative. Done right, your visual story will provide all the context your audience needs to follow along and the insight they need. The ideal visual story contains these six pictures, presented in this order

1. Who and what are involved: Open every teaching story with a visual summary of the people and things you are going to be talking about.

2. How many are involved: Next, provide a quantitative measure (or many measures) of the people or things. Changes in number (friends) are particularly revealing.

3. Where the pieces are located: Present a map illustrating the relative positions of these people or things according to geographical or conceptual coordinates.

4. When things occur: Next, show a timeline that illustrates the sequence in which these people or things interact, or the steps required to bring them into alignment.

5. How things impact each other: Provide a flowchart that adds cause-and-effect influences superimposed on any (or all) of your previous pictures; show the change and how you will achieve it.

6. Why this matters: Complete your visual story with a concluding visual equation that summarizes the keep learnings, takeaways, or action items triggered by the previous visual insights.

Dan Roam’s ideal teachable story diagram.

And I’ll end with one of his quotes about the importance of being visual.

Check out the video to this article:



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Cal Brackin

Cal Brackin

Illustrator & Designer at CMCI Studio