Visual intellectual property (Visual IP) is a powerful tool to help you explain, influence, and persuade. Here are the 5 essential shapes to unlock the impact of your ideas.
Do your great ideas end up trapped inside your mind? You’re not alone. In my encounters with big thinkers, I find they often struggle with words. They know their ideas have merit, yet they become frustrated in their attempts to explain, influence, and persuade.
That’s when I’ll jump in and ask them to scribble a rough drawing of the idea they want to share. After a moment of puzzlement — and sometimes a gentle protest of lack of artistic ability — they start to sketch. Within a few moments they are shaking their head in amazement at the increased clarity of their thinking.
Visual IP = Powerful persuasion
These drawings, frameworks, or diagrams can become valuable visual intellectual property (visual IP). They transform the intangible creations of the human intellect (the general definition of IP) into tangible assets you can use in writing, presentations, or other communications.
What I’ve discovered over the years is that visual IP often centers on 5 essential shapes. These foundational shapes appear again and again, no matter the topic or context. Based on my work with leaders at some of the most creative companies in the world, and my background in design, technology, and business, I’ve created a taxonomy of these shapes to help big thinkers get their ideas out of their heads and into the world.
Let’s explore what shape your ideas may take, and how you can supercharge their communication impact.
The circle is perhaps the most common shape that humans have drawn through history. In your drawing, circles may show up as a single shape, defining what’s contained and what’s left out. Concentric circles can also become targets, with elements of your idea segmented around a core and becoming more focused as you approach a solid center. Or you might draw a Venn diagram, with 2, 3, or 4 intersecting circles. The overlaps and relationships help you investigate how parts of your ideas relate to each other.
Square / Matrix
Squares are the basis for the ubiquitous 2×2 matrix, scrawled on every whiteboard at business meetings. You’ve likely seen this shape in a SWOT analysis for strategic planning, or Steven Covey’s “Important vs Urgent” matrix that he popularized in “7 Habits for Highly Successful People.” The process of choosing two criteria for axes and placing your ideas into four quadrants strengthens your reasoning and lets you see in which areas your ideas may be lacking. Squares can also become grids and scorecards, setting out individual elements for analysis and ranking.
Triangles offer two distinct forms for your ideas. First, a pyramid allows you to stack layers of your idea and show how they may build one upon another to reach a pinnacle. Pyramids may also show segmentation of a whole, and illustrate how each segment may be addressed individually or in the entirety. A common example is the Knowledge Pyramid or the DIKW (data, information, knowledge, wisdom) Pyramid. In another format, inverted triangles become funnels. They’re often used as a process diagram to show movement from broad initial steps to the desired final result, such as in marketing or sales funnels. Pyramids in both forms might also show up as spirals, again indicating action and process.
If you express your ideas as a path or process, your drawing might include squiggly lines that meander over the page. These can take on the imagery of a map, with markings for milestones, roadblocks, detours, and other byways. Journey imagery lets you immerse yourself in the process, enabling you (and others) to think through each step to reach a final outcome or destination. In contrast to the other more defined shapes, this freeform expression invites your imagination on a trip through time and space.
The final common shape is one very familiar to those who understand the structure of the internet: nodes and connectors. This shape lends itself to explaining distributed networks and the relationships between key components. Some examples are the classic Mind Map, where brainstorms or streams of consciousness can be charted and later analyzed. Your drawing of nodes and connectors may have one central point or many. It’s in exploring both the nodes and the relationships that tie them together that provides a worthwhile exercise.
Your Toolbox of Visual Persuasion
These 5 shapes give you a toolbox of visual persuasion, one that can help you differentiate yourself or your company, establish your credibility as an expert, and set you apart as a thought leader. Over time, you can create your own library of visual IP — an original collection of drawings, frameworks, or diagrams — that uniquely presents your value and the power of your ideas.
In a past article, I shared how we as humans are hard-wired to respond to images thousands of times faster than words. In future articles, I’ll be exploring each of these 5 shapes individually, with examples of how they’ve been used by big thinkers in the past, and how you can craft them for your own ideas. You can sign up to receive them by completing the form elsewhere on this page.