What I Like about Making Maps: Visual Super Powers are Required

What I Like about Making Maps:  Visual Super Powers are Required

No Better Time to Claim Our Superpowers

I have always loved the world of superheroes and have passed untold hours amid the vivid art and fantastical story lines of my favorite comic books. Naturally, I’ve developed a lifelong fascination with superpowers, and in my work life, I wield the superpower of mapmaking to confront the true nemesis of organizations everywhere: complexity.

In today’s world, it is increasingly difficult to attain the clarity needed for organizational decision-making. At Maga Design, we’ve spent the past decade creating maps to help organizations see and define their futures. Like Wolverine (my favorite superhero), maps have powerful healing agents that help organizations overcome any toxin, including complexity.

What is so special about maps? For starters, maps need to be made collectively—with the leadership, the stakeholders, and the organization’s customers. This means that people have to get on the same page—literally.

We call visual information mapping a “lite” methodology. By presenting a visual reference for what is and what is to be, any audience, at a glance, can overcome “Death by PowerPoint” with a single jump, on a single page. What busy person doesn’t want that?

We have found that single-page maps can be useful learning tools for complex scenarios such as installing new IT platforms, launching new products, or even explaining how missions get formed at National Geographic. They can also be a lot of fun for those creating them.

What We’ve Learned by Making Maps

By making hundreds of maps, Maga Design has evolved into what I see as a visual systems integrator of strategies, innovation pipelines, communications campaigns and IT architectures. Of all that we’ve learned during our mapmaking adventures, I believe the following ideas will be most helpful for organizations on their innovation journeys.

●      Maps are tactile

●      Maps are persistent

●      Maps lead to outcomes

Mapmaking Is Inherently a Collaborative, Risk-Reducing, Problem-Solving Process

When companies use our maps, we see a decrease in stress, anxiety and fear. Meanwhile, there’s an increase in alignment, excitement and the sense of being on the same page and knowing where the organization is headed. This sense of direction is, of course, what maps are for.

Most of our clients deal with high levels of risk, and change creates a great deal of stress. People always want to know all the ways a change will affect them. Maps serve two powerful functions here: they acknowledge the human need for context, to see the big picture, and they help to explain what’s new and what’s next.

The kinds of bets innovators have to place on the future are particularly stressful. The visual collaboration required by mapmaking reduces stress, releases creative energy and serves as a de-conflictor.

Drawing big ideas and turning them into shapes is a key step, which is why we use illustrators.

Mapmaking Enables Teams to Envision the Future

One of the by-products of our work with teams over the years is discovering that the process is as important as the product. After getting in the room with clients and beginning to draw what’s next, we’ve seen team after team step up to embrace the challenge of mapping their own destiny. We call these “graphically facilitated sessions,” and they are the best way we know to begin any project.

As Mapmaking Explores and Reduces Complexity, It Creates Visual Clarity

As companies try to explain themselves to customers—and to themselves—every organization we know has suffered from PowerPoint fatigue, without many easy alternatives. Our maps tell stories, and stories help people deconstruct, understand, remember and take action.

When you think about it, maps are lodged in our DNA– lost or found we turn to them when we want to figure out the way forward.   Neuroscientists tell us that our brains have the innate capacity to quickly recognize and comprehend shapes (Biederman, 2009).  Whether it’s rivers, highways and points of interest – or visions, strategies and key references – our maps help innovators share big messages consistently by using visuals in compelling ways to connect with diverse audiences.

Mapping conversations is the first step to creating a Maga Map. Some are linear, some aren’t, but by getting them on paper, we always provide a way to envision what’s next.

Because there’s only so much information a single page can hold, finding metaphors that contain your core message, while fitting on the page, is a superpower. Deciding how to use the page’s remaining “real estate” and analyzing the key messages and their hierarchies is an important next step. After much reflection, and some important back and forth on the drawing board, the end product is a visual map that makes it easier to move forward together.

How do you describe a new-to-the-world software offering? Here’s how we helped Vivisimo put theirs on one page. IBM recently acquired Vivisimo. Did our map play a role? Who knows, but we like to think so!

The Maps That Teams Deliver Are Visual Calls to Action

Every company lives and dies on the strength of their ideas. These one-page communications, aka maps, spur new interactions because they are the equivalent of internal cause marketing—marketing that makes ideas visible for the organization. When we provide this for our clients, we help them bring their most closely held visions to life, something we find incredibly rewarding.

I keep our Maga strategy map in front of me so I can reference it every day. Every one of our employees has one too. It helps set the frame of mind for our company, and by illustrating our thinking and our vision, it helps us keep our priorities straight.

Maga's 2011 Strategy Placemat

Maps are persistent reference tools, built to last and outliving the flavor of the day. Maps invite interaction. Around a table, across a desk, up on a wall or on a computer screen, maps generate a reason to discuss and reframe organizational communications as visual communications.

Wherever we work, people pull us aside to tell us that they’re really “visual.” Of course they are. We are all visual! As human beings we want to draw, to collaborate, to see our futures. Maps let us do this, and mapmaking, this wondrous superpower, is enough to make anyone feel like bursting from a phone booth and taking on the world.

If you’d like to learn more about maps and mapping, please contact info@magadesign.com image credits: magadesign.com

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What I Like about Making Maps:  Visual Super Powers are RequiredScott Williams is the founder and CEO of Maga Design, based in Washington, DC. A pioneer in visual information mapping for wide-ranging business challenges, he’s led the development of Maga Maps™, Maga Design’s unique process for creating physical and digital representations of collective strategic thinking. Scott combines 15 years of Navy technical and business-innovation experience with commercial marketing and brand-strategy acumen. Scott’s clients include the Air Force, Disney, National Geographic, the Navy, Pepsico, and QinetiQ. Maga Design has been named to the INC 5000 three years running.

Scott Williams




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