VizThink Berlin (October 12-14,2008) is still bubbling up images for me. Berlin itself is vortex of creative design, art, and architecture, having resurrected itself from both WWII and the unification effort. Seeing 100 designers and visualizers from across Europe at VizThink’s second conference was also provocative. Dave Gray, Aric Wood, and Parker Lee from XPlane and I were the only people from the USA. There were two Canadians and everyone else was from Europe.This post captures highlights from both Berlin and the conference.
BERLIN—A City Reborn
I had a chance to spend a full day exploring Berlin before the conference. The conference was at the Crown Centre Hotel near the big zoo, just west of Mitte, the center of Berlin and place where East and West met. The wall and the gap is gone, replaced by high rise apartments and office buildings. Only a few memorials like the one above at Bahnhof Potsdamer Platz remain. I couldn’t help but see the primal power of graphic images as the first language of children and the expressive language of revolutionaries and change agents the world over.
The very texture of the city is a graphic panorama. This picture down Kufürstendamm, a principal shopping boulevard shows the “hollow tooth” of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedachtnis Kirche with it’s modern bell tower, dubbed “the lipstick,” a block beyond one of the hundreds of large new sculptures that grace the city.
As impressive as the older Sony Center and modern buildings are, I was knocked out when I happened on a memorial to the holocaust, erected in the space between the where the old wall used to be.
You can see a person in the middle right side of this picture. Each of these more than a 1,000 blocks of high grade cement in human size or bigger. Paths move down into the maze until you are a grid pattern with blocks rising twice your height. Down each path people appear and disappear, suggesting a labyrinth of life constrained by this formal gray. It was chilling. I didn't go to the museum but carry the feeling of this installation powerfully.
After my tour I went out a second time with Dave Gray, chairman of XPlane, the sponsors and originators of VizThink. We ran into a 30,000 person demonstration near the Brandenberg Gate protesting government invasions of privacy and the creation of a surveillance society. Apparently Germany has recently passed a law allowing the government to keep six months of voice-mail and e-mail in large data-bases that can be searched to find patterns of terrorist communication. There have already been some abuses, with companies using the data to fight employee unions. Again graphics punctuated the message, with ubiquitous signs equating these new moves to the old police network in the Reich, the Stasi. Now the message is a mash-up of metaphors—Stasi 2.0. The protest was peaceful, but the hundreds of Polizei present underlined how many pressures and strains their are in these times.
PANORAMIC PLANNING: A Pre-conference Warmup
My mind was very much on metaphors getting ready for my general session at VizThink on the subject, and a pre-conference workshop called “Panoramic Planning: Using Visual Templates for Strategy and Innovation.” Six people came, including a creative young Dutch fellow named Patrick Van Der Pijl of Uluru, a firm in Amsterdam, Barcelona, and New York that does what it calls “crossover marketing.” He hadn’t imagined supporting planning with large graphic templates like our Graphic Guides® and was quite interested. He and the others got to play with a context map, see our complete set-up with examples in Second Life at the sim called The Grove (click to go to the Learning Center), and worked on some special problems.
Patrick was especially excited to think about converting a nine-elements business modeling framework into something that had a more explanatory systems metaphor, like DNA. Systems thinking seems to be understood as an important consulting skill, but the link between visual thinking and systems thinking wasn’t so clear with this group. Thinking about systems involves understanding relationships between elements. I don’t know how you do that without some display system that can represent the elements while you think about the relationships. In this sense all systems thinking is rooted in visual thinking.
GRAPHIC METAPHORS: Interface to Brain Operating Systems
The conference itself got underway on Sunday evening with a reception, then general sessions on Monday and Tuesday. I was part of the opening along with Dave Gray, and then jumped into an afternoon workshop on Graphic Metaphors. Forty five people crowded into a sunny room and in 90 minutes we covered the waterfront in a very improvised presentation. I wanted to work on some new materials and drew from the Graphic Facilitation book I re-wrote a couple years ago. In it I share Daniel Boorstein’s frameworks for thinking from his book, The Image, still a classic. He present a hierarchy of mental models that nest, and roughly parallel the stages in the Process Theory of Arthur M. Young, my teacher.
Instead of launching into a dry presentation of this material, I invited everyone to begin with some communication involving metaphors. I asked each person to share their name, organization, and answer to the question “My organization is like a….” and compare it to anything. The photo shows one of the participants comparing his organization to an amoeba. About 20 minutes later the room was hot with conversation and people had richly connected with each other through the use of imagery.
I then began an improvisation on the Four Flows, mapping peoples’ ideas into the Boorstein framework, playing with the way in which our minds make pattern connections. “Who compared their organization with a house?” I began, and explained how static metaphors work, where parts connect. Then I asked for who compared their organization with a “machine,” where parts connect AND move. And then to a self-regulating system like a thermostat (that adapts), and then a cell (that reproduces), and then a plant (that expands), and then animals (that move) and humans (who reflect). All the while I would weave in insight about how the different kinds of mental models both open and obscure perception. Here’s a snap of me at the end with a wall full of listening.
LEADERSHIP: Why the Vision Thing is a Visual Thing
Mark Wogan from a U.K. company called Crystal Mapping led an interesting session that was also about visual and metaphors. He has some software that will map organization visions into a Mandala framework or elaborate maps that can be moused over to get an additional layer of information on a left-hand column. This kind of weaving together of large format visualization with interactive capabilities on web sites is gaining ground. He then had all of us play with creating a vision for a bank experiencing the current financial crises. Here is our table’s work product.
Given the fact we spend less than 20 minutes generating ideas and blending them I thought it was quite remarkable. We chose the solid, traditional bank image to suggest stability and trust, and then would make it clear in the clouds what we were NOT doing (high executive pay, dubious mortgages, etc).
What Can Visual Thinking Do For the World
To begin our second day Ole Qvist Sorenson, a Grove associate from Copenhagen with a company called Bigger Picture, led a general session to get tables to brainstorm how visual thinking could help leaders work for higher purpose by calling on them to express their personal visions. Ole works exclusively for “greening” companies now, and does large-scale visualizations with them to help them imagine purposeful futures.
“Imagine you are the person we have been waiting for… what would your greatest contribution be?” He asked. Each table generated personal answers, and then worked them into a combined answer that he will take to the Tallburg Seminars in Sweden, a conference on future thinkers that has been going for 28 years.
Here is our table at work.
We connected our visions into a tree and saw that we were all working on different parts of it. I was the sun “being de-light; helping ignite a conflagration of hope.” The more I take on an elder role in my communities the more I value the power of just bringing my attention to what others are doing. Others were the gardeners. Rudolpho Carpentier, the original funder of VizThink from Madrid, was at our table and imagined visualizers using their skills to show people how to create sustainable organizations and economically thriving business models in the new economy.
Throughout the conference, organizer Tom Crawford had us doing various kinds of “human infographics” where we would use the conference room as a background and array ourselves around based on different instructions. Here is a picture of us lining up by size. (I was conveniently near the short end with Dave Gray anchoring the tall end). I loved the fact that this picture visually reverses that arrangement, making us shorties appear the biggest!
Near the end Tom has us arrange ourselves by what countries we came from. The dominant groups were France, Germany, Holland and the UK, with a sprinkling of others and only four of us from North America in the room at that time. We all then sat at tables and make pictures of all the connections we might have. I and the two Canadians had a fair number, but the prize went to the Dutch group, which in between football cheers and their contagious senses of humor, produced the most artful infographic of the day. Is this science, art, design, or map to the social brain!!!
There was more that is worth reporting on, but this has become a long post. If you are interested in this community, check out VizThink’s website and sign up for the San Jose North American conference in February.