Ep. 269 - Nora Herting, Founder of ImageThink and Author of Draw Your Big Idea on Benefits of Visual Thinking

On this week's episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Nora Herting, Founder and CEO of ImageThink and Author of the new book, Draw Your Big Idea. Nora and I talk about the benefits of visual thinking, some of the myths surrounding art and business, and some of the exercises anyone can use to think and work more creatively using visualization tools. Let's get started.

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Interview Transcript of Nora Herting, Founder and CEO of ImageThink and Author of Draw Your Big Idea

Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I'm your host, Brian Ardinger. And as always, we have another amazing guest. Today we have Nora Herting. She is Founder and CEO at the visual strategy firm ImageThink, and Author of the new book called Draw Your Big Idea: The Ultimate Creativity Tool for Turning Thoughts into Action and Dreams into Reality. Welcome to the show, Nora. 

Nora Herting: Hi, Brian. Great to be here. 

Brian Ardinger: I am so excited to have you on this show. Because I've been a big proponent, whether I'm working with startups or corporate innovation teams about using visual tools to help you think through new ideas and launch new projects and that. And when I came upon you and the stuff that you're doing in this space, I wanted to have you on the show to dig in deeper about what it all takes to make this happen.

So, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? How you went from becoming an artist and a photographer to working your way to work with some of the biggest companies in the world, Google and IBM and NASA on this idea of visual strategy. 

Nora Herting: Basically, I had started my career off in academia as an artist, going into academia, sort of the most sure-fire fit. You get the tenure track and the health insurance and whatnot. And I was 27. Managed to get a position. And then had this terrible realization that my goal was really just a failure of imagination. That I hadn't really thought or tested what else I could do with my skill set, outside of sort of this academic world.

So, I left my position, moved to New York with no job. And found myself at a division of Cap Gemini that we would call now like their design thinking solution. But this was the early 2000s. And that wasn't really a term we even used there. But it was a network of facilitators that we would put huge corporate projects through these innovative incubators for three days and tell them in three days we could get three months of work out of their team. 

And I learned the skill of graphic recording while I was there because they knew I, besides having a Masters, I had also for a little while been an elementary school art teacher, which was actually kind of a great qualification for this particular work. And saw the power of visuals to help business people really clarify their thinking.

Get people on the same page. Sort out a lot of complexity. And in time, my first client, when we started ImageThink was NASA. And I had this real moment there where they had brought in someone to talk about the space glove. They had not been able to innovate a better space glove for several decades. They opened it up to a public contest. 

All these teams in turn, but it was actually one solo engineer that designed a better space glove than all of the NASA scientists in a couple of decades. And they were fascinated about how this worked, and they described this guy's process. And while I was there, I'm visualizing the story. And I realized that they're really just describing a series of iterative process.

Things that are really intuitive to tinkers to artists. And that it was just this moment where I thought these things that I've learned that seems so innate to the creative process were mysteries to corporations. So that's one of the joys of ImageThink is not just using the visual tools, but really helping. Tried to demystify that for business leaders so that they can take some of those same mindsets and techniques and apply them to innovation in larger companies. 

Brian Ardinger: I think a lot of folks do have that misperception, that businesses over here and art is over here. What are some of the myths that you've seen of how people and innovators should be doubling down on art in the business world?

Nora Herting: Great question. I love this question. You know one big myth is if you don't have the title Creative on your business card and then you don't have an opportunity to think creatively. Just don't believe that that's true. At ImageThink I think that we believe that everybody who has a job that requires complexity or problem solving has a huge creative opportunity in front of them.

So that's one thing is people will think, oh, because I'm in engineering or because I'm in HR, what I don't get to be creative. I forgot how to be creative. Another one is just this narrow idea that, you know, you're only creative if you can paint or write or play the guitar. Right. 

So, expanding that idea to things that are more broad and then, you know, just kind of a lack of creative confidence in people, kind of around those ideas. And, you know, we have different ways of trying to break that down and expose people, show people, that they can exercise that muscle. And really, they have that opportunity every time. 

Brian Ardinger: Walk me through some of the benefits that you've seen firsthand about getting people unstuck or what really happens when you move into that art visual mode to tackle problems that you couldn't track before.

Nora Herting: One example or one benefit of it is first off is to remember it's a very, very old technology. We've been drawing and using pictures to communicate before, you know, as a species before we had written language. You know, some of the earliest cave paintings are 30,000 BC. And they're basically instructions for hunting.

So, this is something that we've been hard-wired neurologically for a long time to process things and pictures. And when you do that, you're using multiple facets of your brain, including the prefrontal cortex. I like to tell people if they want to look at a problem differently, or they want to use a different set of neurons to fire, ask people to illustrate, or at least use visuals of some aspect of it to really get people just literally to think a little bit differently. 

So, one way we do that is first to just have people practice on really low stakes things. We'll do something called like a visual bio. We'll ask everyone to tell us about themselves, really mundane things like their name, their role, but using only pictures to convey that.

And what happens is there's a lot of laughing, people feel a little awkward. But people realize pretty quickly that there's a lot more nuance that gets conveyed when someone is illustrating, let's say their role, than just say, you know, I'm a Director of Innovation at X company. Right. So how they think about that?

So that immediately gets people thinking a little bit differently, even if it's not the problem at hand and understanding that there's a lot of nuance that can be conveyed. And then it's great because you have people buying in pretty quickly to the process of working visually as they start to try to apply that to real problems that they have in business.

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Brian Ardinger: So, let's talk about your book. It's called Draw Your Big Idea. It's got a ton of like exercises. I love it because it's very tactical. So, can you talk a little bit about the book and how it came to be and what are some of the things that the audience will get from it?

Nora Herting: Yeah, so what was great about this is the publishers at Chronicle came to us and said, you know, we'd love for you to do something. What are you thinking? And I really wanted, my coauthor as well, really wanted to give somebody something that was practical. That they could use right away. So rather than writing a book, we sort of essentially drew a book. 

As you said, I think there's 108 visual exercises in it. A lot of them are versions of exercises that we use for our corporate clients but applied to an individual level as well. So, moving people from kind of the whole cycle of innovation, if you will, Brian. From scanning their environment, assessing the current state, thinking about all the potential ideas that could come out of a problem statement. All of these things, your walkthrough, basically in drawing exercises in the book up until the final chapter, which is you kind of moved through the Innovation process.

And now you're speaking strategically, like how are you going to launch this new idea? Whether that's a new business or a new endeavor or, you know, a personal project. It builds on itself. It takes you through all those things. And for listeners out there, you can also kind of flip to one exercise and say, you know, I really need to do something around mapping my resources, you know, as a team. And there is a visual exercise for you to do for that as well as many other ones. 

Brian Ardinger: What do you see holds people back from this? You do see some people gravitate to it, but for the most part, like you said, there's a lot of. For whatever reason they are scared or fearful of what's going on. What holds people back and more importantly, what can you do to overcome that fear?

Nora Herting: Well, I think that in our experience, like on a corporate level, when people are in the room and they see the visuals being done for them, they're very enthusiastic. They see the power of it. They appreciate it. I can pick up a pen and apply this to myself. That's maybe a little bit bigger of a jump, right? And so one of the misconceptions that we talked about is people feeling like, oh, I'm not creative.

Another one is just around the skill level. People will say, I can't draw a straight line, you know, or my Kindergartner can draw better than me. I don't care. Because again, we're talking about leaders. We're talking about innovators. We're talking about communicating. Right. And I try to remind people really, it's not about the artistry, it's about what is being communicated and what the impact is.

And so there's a number of exercises we kind of do to show people that we're wired to make meaning out of images. You know, I just talked about how we've been doing this for 30,000 years plus. So, your audience basically just needs a minimal viable product, right? Stick figures totally work. And so, once we give people a few exercises where they see that they see from other people's bad stick figure drawings, that they get a lot out of what the person's trying to communicate. They can start to see, you know, what it's really just about the end result, which is, am I communicating my idea. Am I aligning people to it? Is it resonating? And that you need an actually very low level of skill to do that. 

Brian Ardinger: Do you see particular types of tasks or particular types of projects that this works better for than others? 

Nora Herting: At ImageThink we have kind of created this life cycle of an idea, if you will. It's called the ImageThink method. Clients come to us at different points. You know, sometimes they come to us at the top of a project like, oh, we need to launch a whole new product or we're having an acquisition. 

But sometimes they come to us later when it's a little more tactical, like you say, or, you know, we need to map out the strategy. So we're able to understand from that where the client is and match different exercises to where they need to be.

We've helped, you know, not just at the beginning of blue sky conversations and innovation, all the way to, how do we market this now that we have it ready to go to our client. So, what I love is that visuals can be helpful, I think, along the whole process. Wouldn't you agree? 

Brian Ardinger: Oh, absolutely. I mean, one of the things that I like, specifically like about the Business Model Canvas, for example, is it takes that what used to be a 90-page document of what your business idea was, and kind of visualizes it out and to nine core components and you use sticky notes and other ways to think through. 

And it makes it much more accessible than a spreadsheet or much more accessible than a document that, once it's in a document, people think it's the perfect thing. It's the perfect plan. But as soon as you add the visuals and that it brings out the messiness, that is the reality that you're dealing with in the real world. And that's why I like that particular type of technique.

Nora Herting: Yeah. I think that that's true. And sometimes people think might be a barrier, but really often actually isn't, is we have a lot of technology clients. So, you know whether it's IT or pharmaceuticals, with a lot of complexity, right? And sometimes they think, oh, this is too detailed, or this is too scientific to be approached this way.

But actually, most of the time, and you might've found this in your work, right. Or talking to other innovators, those people who are such subject matter experts sometimes have a really hard time leveling up from the level of detailed expertise they have. So that they can communicate it to a bigger audience. So, they can kind of engage the cross-functional departments or larger stakeholders that they need.

That's been a real sweet spot for us because we're able to listen to those folks. To steal the big ideas from it. Understand what's going to resonate for other people. And help them simplify it into a story that's a little bit more relatable. So, I'm not sure if you've also found that to be the case when you've worked visually that sometimes the simplification is a benefit rather than a detraction. 

Brian Ardinger: And what I've also found is going through the process, your first map is not always the perfect map. Like, can you map it out and you draw it out and it's like, well, that's not exactly right. So you go back and modify it or change it or whatever. And that process gets you to think through what's actually going on in the world, around you, and that.

So, I find it very powerful, and I appreciate you helping us think through some of this kind of stuff. One of the last questions I have is how can you build this type of visual thinking, visual strategy into your everyday practice. Whether it's at work or at home. Are there particular techniques or things to give a non-artist or person who doesn't do this on a regular basis, to build this into their normal practice?

Nora Herting: Yeah, so that's a great question. You know, some things that people feel more empowered by is if they create a set of icons that they're going to use. So, you know, if you're in a particular domain, sometimes I'll have people like basically we kind of do like Business Pictionary. Which is like write out terms that you are often come across or you often need to express.

And then we have everybody create, you know, the minimal viable product of how they would express that idea. And that can just be on Post-it Notes. So, you know, you might have 5 to 10 concepts that you've worked out and you're like, okay, this is the way I'm going to depict this visually. So now when you're thinking about it, and you're trying to practice, you're not inventing these as you go.

And that's something that we do at ImageThink. Right? Like our team, we've been at thousands of meetings. So, if someone says the word disruption, we already have one or two go-to icons for that. We're not having to make it up on the fly as much. So, I think that that's like a good way to just start practicing that muscle. And then seeing if you can integrate that in. 

Another example would be the next time you run into a problem is to challenge yourself, to try to depict that problem as a visual as well. You know and see if you might not uncover some different ways of thinking about it or using a metaphor. 

There's a great article by this man named Dan Seewald, really great Innovation expert, who talks about using metaphor as a tool for Innovation. Like how is this problem maybe a metaphor for another problem. So, getting people to try to draw out that problem in a metaphor, I think could uncover a lot of different opportunity and be great practice as well.

For More Information

Brian Ardinger: Absolutely. Well, I encourage everybody to pick up a copy of Draw Your Big Idea and get started themselves. If people want to find out more about yourself, Nora, or about the book, what's the best way to do that? 

Nora Herting: Sure, so you can visit our website ImageThink.net. Lots of information resources there. Draw Your Big Idea you can find on our website or on Amazon or if you make it to an in person's book bookstore. 

Brian Ardinger: Excellent. Well, Nora, thank you for coming on Inside Outside Innovation. I really do appreciate your time and insights into this world. And I encourage everybody to start drawing and start getting visual out there. 

Nora Herting: Thanks Brian. 

Brian Ardinger: That's it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.

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