Visual Thinking: A Challenge for Our Sector

by Emily Comisar

If I told you that we could find new expressions of Jewish communal work using this image as our inspiration, you’d probably think I was crazy:

That’s right, square plus triangle equals circle. In this case, the triangle (or delta) stands for change, the square for the status quo, and the circle for wherever it is that we’re going – and we’re generally in agreement that where we’re going is not where we are.

This equation formed the basis for NTEN’s annual Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC) this month, where nearly 2,000 nonprofit technology enthusiasts gathered to discuss everything from social change to Pinterest to Blackbaud’s plans to acquire Convio. If you’re not familiar with NTEN (Nonprofit Technology Network) – I can’t recommend their work highly enough, nor can I oversell their conference. And thanks to Darim Online, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and the Jim Joseph Foundation – who now regularly organize opportunities for Jewish professionals to attend and network at the NTC – you’ll be in good company.

Dan Roam, the keynote speaker and author of Blah Blah Blah: What to Do When Words Don’t Work, is a huge proponent of the visual thinking that guides that picture-based equation above. When about 60 percent of our brains are dedicated to visual processing, he argues, then why do we insist on problem-solving solely through written words? In a world where the Boeing 787 Dreamliner can be collectively constructed with pieces made in 17 different countries where 12 languages are spoken, why do so many of us in the American nonprofit sector still have trouble getting our messages across? The Jewish community in particular has a long history of reliance on the written word. Not to negate the richness of our written and oral history, but we could definitely use a kick in the pants when it comes to visual communication.

The point of all this is simplicity. Conveying ideas through imagery doesn’t have to involve the expertise of a trained designer just like it doesn’t require working knowledge of English to understand what’s going on in the Wong-Baker Faces Pain Rating Scale. The basic tools are already in our arsenal: circles, squares, arrows, even smiley faces.

In thinking through how we might communicate better with visuals, another hot topic in the nonprofit sector deserves our attention: data. Now more than ever, we’re tracking, analyzing and taking action on the free flow of data to which we have suddenly been given access in our highly tech-savvy age. At NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation, we collect information on everything – from how much time passes between a participant’s return from the Taglit-Birthright Israel trip and when they register to host their first NEXT Shabbat meal, to which of their meals were vegetarian, Kosher-style, Kosher, or none of the above. Annie Leonard best summed up the downside to this data deluge at NTC this year: as her expertise grew, her ability to communicate shrunk.

Somewhere between these seemingly competing trends – an ever-expanding set of data and a need to simplify our messaging through visuals – there must be a middle ground. I’m talking about a space in which complex ideas and theories can manifest in nonverbal ways.

Let’s play out an example. The ever-changing behaviors and habits of the Birthright Generation are keeping many of us on our toes as we navigate the world of Jewish identity formation and how it takes place in different peer groups, on different social networks, and through various in- person and remote experiences.

What if, instead of getting bogged down in our own definitions of terms like “identity,” “community,” and “continuity,” our thinking and talking about young Jewish adult engagement looked something like this?

Or even this?

Drawings like this are just the beginning, the prompt to a broader conversation about the problems that we are trying to solve and our approaches to solving them. As far as beginnings go, this one is surprisingly easy. I drew this equation in the Google Docs drawing template in just a few minutes (and if I can do it, trust me, so can you).

Roam argues that the person who best describes a problem is the person most likely to solve it. In his world, that often translates to “whoever draws it best, gets the funding.”

So here’s my official challenge to you – spend a few minutes in Google Docs and draw your own statement about the work you’re doing in the Jewish community. Join NEXT’s “Visual Thinking” sketchpad to add your artwork and view that of others. We just ask that you respect the artwork of all of our colleagues in the field and try not to accidentally delete anything.

As this body of work grows, we will share it in service of continuing this important conversation – both in words, and in meaningful visuals.

Emily Comisar is Manager, National Projects at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation.

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Comments

  1. Love this post Emily! I have to confess that I have been struggling to use visuals ever since Dan’s keynote. While I don’t think I always succeed, I do think that approaching the problem differently has led me to some very different thinking about the problems I’m addressing, and that’s a good thing at least. We’d love to see some of what you folks come up with if you’re willing to share on the NTEN blog!

  2. Thanks, Holly — I think figuring out the best way to use this approach to problem-solving is definitely a process and at NEXT we’re really interested in making it an ongoing conversation, to which we hope others will contribute. We’d be more than happy to share what we find in any forum that makes sense!

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