More than words – why think tanks should be more visual

At our branding workshop a couple of weeks’ ago one of the participants suggested that if we wanted to be accessible to a much broader audience than think tanks traditionally are then we should be much more visual. This struck me as a really interesting idea, and it’s worth considering more as we develop this project.

After all, the web is increasingly visual rather than textual. Think about the sites that are building massive communities – Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr. But most think tanks, most of the time, are fairly conventional in how they communicate their ideas and arguments. Words – presented in the traditional ways (reports, pamphlets) – still dominate as the ‘respectable’ means of communication, perhaps with the occasional map or graph thrown in when required.

This neglects that pictures, though they can be more time-consuming to create and produce, often present information and data much more powerfully. Of course there are some really good exceptions to the generalisation that think tanks neglect thinking visually – for example the work Danny Dorling has done with IPPR, how the new economics foundation has increasingly been using video (see the vampire squid), and the short film Number Games commissioned by Runnymede and produced by Feedback Films. Special mention also has to go to the RSA, with its RSA Animate series created by Cognitive Media.

Pictures would also be more accessible to a much wider audience than think tanks traditionally talk to, and could invite more people to participate in what think tanks do (for example, by posting pictures to illustrate their experience of public services) – something which is crucial to this project of course. It’s something we’ll think more about and we’d welcome your thoughts, for example links to great examples you’ve come cross of visual ways of presenting information and arguments. In the meantime, here’s a few well-known advocates and experts of visual thinking and presentation that spark our imagination about what might be possible:

For our own part, Stephen Lee Hodgkins has been kind enough to create a visual record of the discussions at our branding workshop, posted below. Stephen calls what he does – a colourful method for capturing ideas and information visually in real time, for example at a meeting or event – ‘graphicking‘. Check out his site by clicking on the link.

Remember that still we’d love to hear your suggestions for our name as well – we hope that Stephen’s graphic inspires you (you can click on the picture to expand it for a better view).

6 Comments on “More than words – why think tanks should be more visual”

  1. hilarysutcliffe says:

    Totally agree Michael, I love all those, but it does cost. That is a big part of how we approach things, but it is expensive. No cash for that in our land!

  2. You’re right Hilary this can be expensive – there’s also a message for research funders and commissioners here about supporting visual presentation, since it can reach a much bigger audience and in this way represents better value for money. One example – nef’s Vampire Squid film, with nearly 30k views on YouTube alone: Not many think tank reports achieve that kind of reach. Then there’s the RSA Animate series – I don’t know but I can’t think that these cost that much to produce, yet they get millions of views for cutting-edge and often complex ideas. Animating ideas seems to be the way to go – it’s relatively cost-effective, accessible and people love to share the films.

  3. Really good point Michael and I agree wholeheartedly. Here at we are trying to move in that direction, with plenty of video and a forthcoming competition to design education info-graphics. However one of the tensions is between engaging, viral outputs for practitioners and the general reader vs the respectable, weighty and traditional outputs needed to convince Ministers and their officials.

    • Yes it’s always a case of what evidence – and from this forms of presentation – best suit the subject, the audience/users, and the objectives. But I think we often take a safety-first approach, that the worse thing that could possibly happen (worse that being ineffectual) would be to appear to lack an appropriate ‘seriousness’. Policymakers need all sorts of evidence to make better policy, but they’re people too, which is to say that they’re influenced like the rest of us by a variety of forms of information and evidence. I’ve seen a single story from a practitioner or service user break through to a policymaker far more than think tank reports typically tend to do. The Pearson Centre video wall is great: – a really good idea that other think tanks could adopt.

  4. Seeing Stephen’s visuals summary of the workshop brought it all straight back to me, very effective!

    The traditional evidencing and policy making outputs often seem ineffective and certainly reach a very limited audience. I’m a big fan of the RSA Animations and think that in a 5-10min animation they manage to get across complex messages and reach much broader audiences. Also, their messages stick – the combo of visual and audio is very powerful and lends itself to more learning styles than using words only ever would. More pics, films and visual summaries would be welcome in policy making and anywhere that people want to get their messages across.

    • I love the way Stephen has summarised the discussion as well – you get a great idea of what we talked about, but it’s so much more interesting and engaging than a traditional set of notes. It’s a real skill the way he’s organised it, but he did it in real time (i.e. without knowing what was going to be said next) – so it’s a bit of a mystery to me how he’s done this actually! But it absolutely proves the point – pictures work.

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