Innovating Collaboration – Making Thinking Visible In Business

Design Thinking links strategy and execution to catalyze innovation. This article identifies one aspect of Design Thinking called Making Thinking Visible – a user-friendly framework to overcome issues separating people tasked to work in teams so they are able to think, make decisions and execute together. It is a strategy for giving and receiving immediate assessment and feedback.

The article is an update of one presented at AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) FutureHistory Conference, Chicago, 2004. The current version adapts emergent academic research for business.


It was on a plane coming home from a visit to the Reggio Emilia, Italy schools for young children that I was taken by the possibilities of what might happen if the model of documentation I had just witnessed fell into the hands of design students.

This came to pass as I developed a curriculum, The Teaching and Documentation Project at California College of the Arts (CCA), San Francisco. Simply put my students documented their design and teaching of an art/design project at a site in the neighborhood.

Recently I have adapted this material from higher ed for those keen on innovating communication flow within business. Documentation is a mind-set and a method balancing strategic thinking with execution and reflects an emerging business environment valuing collaborative teamwork at the intersection of creativity/logic, right/left brain and visual methods/text. Recognizing this link CCA is launching the first MBA in Design Strategy offered in the States September 2008.

Business Applications for Making Thinking Visible

1. Communication at the Front End Impacts Customer Experience: Testing products & services before budget is spent on development, getting data early while approaches can be changed; peer to peer assessment enables innovative marketing experiences to surface

2. Cohesive Teams Innovate: Introduces design thinking aligned to execution; supports the unique cultures of diverse teams; deepens transparency in cross functional teams; boosts morale by building and rebuilding trust up

3. More Immediate Customer Feedback: Sessions designed for customer participation

4. Higher Caliber Client and Customer Relations Creating process framed case studies demonstrates control over internal process reassuring clients and customers


Several snowy winters ago I received a grant to visit Reggio Emilia in Italy which Newsweek named one of the top 10 learning systems in the world. Their students are 3 months to 6 years old while my clients are grown-up so I was a little concerned about how much sense it would make. But it was Italy – there was no resisting.

The relevancy knocked my socks off and I returned with a burning question about the implication for adults. How could this collaborative model that provides equivalency to images in conjunction with the spoken word – whether or not we are visually versed or even if our professional context is word/text dominated – impact adult inquiry in business practice?

We reward talking in education – and pretty much everywhere else. Yet children do not have recourse to speech like adults do. In Italy I saw systemically how communication flows when the “tyranny” of the spoken word is balanced with other ways of knowing The Italians call documentation “the second skin” of their schools.

The children’s reflections about their work were visible everywhere. The Italians say that children speak 100 languages yet adults listen to just one: the spoken word. Again, adapting this material for business, a variant on their question: What are the 100 languages of adulthood?

Teachers have taught in Reggio for decades without burn out. What was going on? A colleague returning to the States said the hardest part was becoming a solo practitioner again while in a school full of teachers. Communications systems were missing.

Returning I began to embed documentation into my curriculum and felt an instant relief: the shared visual medium provided a powerful way to communicate alongside speaking, the dominant communication mode of teachers – and managers. In making visible the diverse ideas and experiences as well as the shared goals of the student group reduced stress and personality clashes were quieted or given a fresh (visual) inroad to address them. I looked forward to coming to class.


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