You ought to be in pictures. No, really. Companies are increasingly using simple pictures to distill complicated concepts into easily shared, easily remembered nuggets. "Graphic expression and visual thinking are a central part of human cognition," says Neil Cohn, a researcher in cognitive psychology and linguistics at Tufts University. These ideas are spreading from how companies sell what they do — as in UPS's "Whiteboard" ad campaign, featuring its agency's creative director sketching out what brown can do for you — to plotting strategy. For example, Mark Zuckerberg has said that Facebook is based on the "social graph," a visual model of how people interact.
"Between information overload, globalization, and the sheer complexity of modern business, we've got to be more visual and less language dependent in communicating ideas," says Dan Roam, a visual consultant who advises major organizations such as eBay, Wells Fargo, and the U.S. Navy. (His book about how to use pen-and-paper sketches to your benefit, The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures, was published in March.) Flip the page for four instances in which Roam's clients forced their thoughts into pictures with great success.
The basic Infosys business model is simple. Bring work to the workers, instead of bringing workers to the work. But the company's communications were arcane. "We were guilty of death by PowerPoint," says CEO Stephen Pratt. "We struggled to get our messages through." So Infosys launched a program called "Perfect Pitch," aimed at simplifying presentations, both internally and to the outside world. It worked. "Our people are much more effective now," Pratt says. A before-and-after sketch of the contrast between the classic world economy and the Infosys system has been especially handy. (That's the "after" at right.) Pratt found himself using the sketch at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this year to help explain what the company does and how it works, instantly.
Peet's Coffee & Tea
About a year ago, the leadership at Peet's found itself facing a challenge: how to communicate its new vision, mission, and values to 3,500 employees. Unless workers bought into the "serve, manage, develop, inspire" concept, the plan would flop. "The task was to make this seemingly heady concept simple and fun," CEO Pat O'Dea says. "Everything we do in our store fits into one of our four tenets, and if people understand that, when we bring those four together we're creating fanatical customers." O'Dea wanted a visual guide that could be distributed to all the stores and throughout the company to get everyone from the guy cleaning the bathrooms to the execs back at headquarters on the same page. (See a simplified version at left.) "When we introduced it," O'Dea says, "it was like lightbulbs went off for people." In fact, he says many managers pull it out during job interviews to show candidates what they're signing up for: to be recruiters of "Peet's fanatics," not simply coffeemakers.
"You take just about anything we deal with related to sustainability," says Andy Ruben, VP of private brand strategy at
A version of this article appeared in the April 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.