Dave Gray is productive. This man puts out more graphics in more media than a graffiti tagger with a hardware store full of paint. Besides inventing his own visual language (you do that in your spare time, right?), Dave has written a book, taught class in the physical world, started a visual thinking school, and landed a spot in the Top 10 popular lenses at Seth Godin’s Squidoo project. Dave was kind enough to give me an interview recently, and there’s lots to cover. So, without delay, here’s Dave Gray:
Tell me about founding XPlane. What came before, and how’d you make your move?
Before founding XPLANE I had a career as a graphic journalist. It was my job to quickly understand any complex situation and create a visual infographic that explained it to the general public. These "visual stories" typically explained something that was difficult to convey with words alone.
Here are some real-life examples:
- "So-and-so just won a Nobel prize in physics — figure out what he discovered and why he’s so brilliant and explain it for tomorrow’s paper"
- "Explain the various methods for soundproofing freeways, along with the pros and cons of each"
- "Explain why that bridge sank to the bottom of the ocean" etc.
There was also a lot of visualization of complex data in the form of weather maps, stock charts, timelines, etc.
This was great training because I learned questioning/listening skills, fact-finding/fact-checking, and storytelling, all through the lens of visual thinking.
A newspaper job was also good training because of the timelines involved. Usually I had a day to put an infographic together. When I had a week it was a luxury. You learn not to overthink things.
I made the move because in my newspaper job I usually reported on things "after the fact" — an often I was reporting on disasters (The plane crashed, the bridge sank, etc.) and by then, while people could learn from the event, it was too late to fix the situation.
Most often the problem boiled down to "lack of information" or "lack of communication." It occurred to me that many disasters could be avoided if various scenarios could be thought through and visualized in advance.
What does a typical Xplane engagement look like?
We work with our customers to solve their most difficult communication problems. For example:
- "How do we get people’s attention in a world that’s already oversaturated with information?"
- "How can we change people’s deeply embedded behaviors, when it’s a fundamental necessity to business success?"
- "How can we communicate consistently to a global, multicultural audience?"
- "How do we explain complex ideas consistently to thousands or even millions of people?"
Engagements vary, but most follow a similar pattern:
1. Define: contextual inquiry to gain a deep and rich understanding of the business context and human factors involved, rapid visualization of complex information or stories that are rich in meaning.
2. Distill: boil the information down to it’s essence: "What’s the 20% that really matters?"
3. Depict: Visualize or otherwise capture this "mission-critical" information for the page or screen.
4. Deploy: Find innovative ways to get the message inside the heads of the people who need to understand it. We use traditional media but also employed a variety of devices such as cards, board games, placemats and other means to get our customers’ voices heard.
What’s your work and skills background?
I went to art school and then went into visual journalism as my first career. I have also taught at the university level, washed dishes, stocked retail shelves, waited tables,bartended and cut fish. Since starting XPLANE I have been a bookkeeper, artist, designer, consultant, general manager and CEO. I have learned valuable things in every job I ever had.
You recently started up the Visual Thinking School. What was on your mind?
Well, this is completely unrelated to my fish-cutting background, but there’s the old adage that says "Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime."
I felt that in order to really support our customers they needed to go beyond hiring a services company and begin to develop visual thinking competencies inside their organization. In 2006 XPLANE will be rolling out workshops to teach our customers how to improve their communications. Our goal is to make our customers master communicators.
What has most surprised you about the Visual Thinking School Project?
I have really enjoyed the enthusiasm and energy of the participants. The popularity of it perhaps is the most surprising. It’s in the top ten of more than 12,000 sites on Seth Godin’s Squidoo. More people join the visual thinking Flickr group every day.
How much of your networking, your connecting to new people, are you accomplishing through these online venues like Flickr, Squidoo, and the other places you’re hanging your work?
Well, I’ll start with tangible, measurable results: I started blogging seriously in August and so far the blog has resulted in
– an invitation to an international conference
– two great new hires
– an article in a German business magazine featuring XPLANE
I also noticed the other day that Communication Nation is the number one result on msn.com when you search for the term "Communication."
I think these things are a great start.
As far as I can tell the online activities have not directly driven any new customers our way yet (at least not that I have been able to measure). However I do believe there are many less concrete benefits that are difficult to measure.
XPLANE was not founded simply for the purpose of making money. My purpose in starting the company was to enrich people’s lives by improving the flow of communication throughout the world.
This is a big vision and we are still only at the very beginning. The online activities provide a hub where like-minded people can share ideas, and where their skills, enthusiasms and passions can coalesce.
We know that life can emerge from a primordial soup. I see these online activities as the primordial soup of ideas, from which new forms of "business life," like XPLANE, can emerge.
What’s up for Dave Gray in 2006?
Well I told you that as a company we will be working to find ways to "teach our customers how to fish." I will be doing a lot of the thinking and support work on that. We’ll also be working on new ways to measure and improve customer satisfaction.
I will continue to work with XPLANE customers on selected engagements, as I always have. We have a goal to launch one new breakaway product this year, so that’s another area of focus. I will also be continuing to challenge our XPLANE team to continually improve and grow, and do my best to support them in their efforts to do that.
If someone were interested in getting involved in Visual Thinking or Visual Communication, what are some tips and advice you’d give them?
Follow your passion, believe in yourself, and take any expert advice with a grain of salt. The best learning is self-directed. Also, get out there and join the conversation, either in the real world or on the web. That’s the short answer anyway.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Oh, reams I’m sure, but I don’t want to jump the shark!
And for a set of links:
Dave’s Blog – Communication Nation
Dave’s Company – Xplane
Dave’s Visual Thinking School Blog – Visual Thinking Art
Dave’s Flickr Stuff – Dave at Flickr
Dave’s Visual Thinking School Lens – Visual Thinking School
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