A Picture Speaks A Thousand Words

Over at 37Signals there’s an old post written back in 2008 I recently stumbled upon, provocatively entitled Why we skip Photoshop which not surprisingly has stirred my thoughts on the role of visualization in design and to a larger degree, problem-solving in general. While personally I do not agree with Jason Fried’s perspective on this topic, I do have an enormous amount of respect for the work their firm delivers.
Almost 2 years on and 205 comments later it becomes clear in sifting through some of the old fallout posts on this particular debate, the basis for Jason Fried’s argument against using Photoshop was, and certainly still is, based more towards a development-centric approach to UI design and is not necessarily a call against Photoshop itself, but the very act of employing visual renderings period -which apparently they deem counter-productive.

Jeff Croft sheds light on this point over at his personal blog:

“…the post actually has very little to do with the actual tool (Adobe Photoshop), and is really more related to workflow.
37signals doesn’t do a visual composite phase in the process of developing their products. Instead, they jump directly from rough sketches (on paper or in their heads) to development using HTML and CSS.”

No clients. This is a big one. 37signals is not a client services company. Rather, they build products. 37signals is a small team of people who all understand the web and web development very, very well. It’s easy for them to visualize things and move on…”

While this last point underscores one of the core differences, in terms of process between, for example, a client-centric agency like OSL Marketing (where I work) and a software development firm like 37Signals, I still find the omission of visual mock-ups (in static format) somewhat limiting from a design and problem-solving perspective.
Regardless of the problem or specific area of focus dealt with -be it software development, automotive design, architecture, product engineering, movie production, or digital marketing, there is supreme value in building articulate visual mock-ups. Sometimes words simply can’t express what an image may be able to spontaneously convey -in these instances it’s fair to acknowledge images have the power to speak louder than words.

Pictures Foster Understanding
The common thread, at least among the projects and teams I’ve participated, in working towards a common goal, is the belief that imagery can express ideas and be one of the most -if not the most, effective tool for communicating and visualizing deliverables.
Look and feel renderings, mood boards, storyboards sketches, iterative thumbnail concepts -all of these illustrative techniques exist as problem-solving aids and tangible artifacts with the purpose to invoke discussions between clients, designers, developers, and so forth.
Imagery can take on many forms: from highly conceptualized proposals which might be light on specific details to inspire and move a project forward or more down-to-earth, pragmatic design layouts (e.g. pixel perfect mock-ups) where subjective interpretations may be kept to a minimum.
In any case, visual mock-ups help us see things holistically, forging a segue between abstract thoughts and theories which initially exist only in our minds with the concrete manifestation and application of ideas.

Pictures Sell Ideas
In digital marketing for instance, creative teams must ideally create look and feel layouts to help clients visualize the end result while also supporting the production requirements for Web developers who must ultimately engineer creative mock-ups into functional components. This process is crucial to realizing a smooth production work flow, exposing potential development obstacles, and generally building consensus among team members across disciplines. Creating detailed renderings has absolutely nothing to do with the Web-savviness or imagination ability (or lack thereof) held by the people involved, but in providing a visual context to a written project/creative brief and clearly articulating objectives in a format everyone can quickly and easily understand. The old adage  A Picture Speaks A Thousand Words seems quite relevant:

“…the idea that complex stories can be described with just a single still image, or that an image may be more influential than a substantial amount of text. It also aptly characterizes the goals of visualization where large amounts of data must be absorbed quickly.”

A Famous Example
Finally, consider for a moment the well-known, if not famous story of conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie hired by George Lucas back in 1975 to create a series of presentation renderings that were initially used to convince executives at 20th Century Fox to finance a little movie called Star Wars. Not only did McQuarrie’s drawings get the ball rolling on filming and production, they later served as the foundation for character design, environments, vehicles, and pre-visualization for many of the story’s key elements.
Imagine George Lucas trying to sell the initial Star Wars concept/script to movie studio VPs without these intriguing concept paintings created by Ralph McQuarrie.


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