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Landscapes & Portraits: Essential Visual Tools for Innovation
- Nov 2014 -

One thing we’ve learned over the years is that there is no magic formula for successful innovation or entrepreneurship. Different methods work for different people. 

To use two famous brands as an example, just look at Apple and Samsung. They are like chalk and cheese in the approach they use to bring new products and services to market. The same goes for startups, there is no magic formula and successful entrepreneurs often disagree about the advice they share with others. However, there are some tools that we use that are hard to argue against, AND are really under utilised by innovators and startups in particular. 

They are what we call ‘Visual Landscapes’ or ‘Visual Portraits’. The first thing we do when we are tackling the design of a new product or service is go out and explore the landscape for that innovation. 

It doesn’t have to be hugely laborious unless you need to get deep insights on a lot of users. If that’s the case, then we would suggest that you put user research into a different category and just create your visual landscape without users. With enough focus and energy, you can put together a Visual Landscape in a week. 

The purpose of this exercise is to get a short sharp deep dive into the world you are going and then to visualise that research through the physical and digital environments in which you are going to work and collaborate. Broadly speaking, we explore the competition and other members of the ecosystem (distributors, partners, retailers etc) through the framework of People (users, experts, customers), Technology / Materials and Business Models / Finance. 

The real point though is what we do with what we learn. First of all, we don’t just have pages of text that analyse and describe the landscape. We visualise it through images, diagrams and illustrations. Likewise, there is no point in just having a document that everyone reviews for half and hour, and then ends up in the dark recesses of your digital filing system. 

Quite the opposite. 

Humans are highly influenced by imagery (imagery is at the heart of advertising for a reason!), so we bring our research to life visually, we print it all out and we surround ourselves with it. We literally create a highly visual 'war room' that captures almost everything about the world that we’re innovating in. 

One of the biggest mistakes we’ve encountered with startups is that they can get so wrapped up in their vision / product that they actually forget about the world around them. 

More to the point, they lose sight of what the competition is doing, they forget why a certain business model didn’t work for another competitor, they forget that awesome nugget of advice that was given to them right at the beginning etc. We cannot emphasise highly enough how important it is to immerse yourselves in the context of your new product, and stay immersed throughout the development process. Having visual reminders around you while you discuss and make decisions how to move forward is a HUGE help. 

Beyond that, we don’t use it for visual reminders but rather as a framework to reference throughout the development of the product or service: 

  • Does it still make sense for customers? (Photos and insight snapshots of customers that we can look at immediately)
  • What are all the parts of this system that will enable / facilitate that interaction?
  • Will the customer pay more for that premium service we’ve just come up with? 

Of course, some of these questions might need us to go back and check with the potential customers or technology provider, and that’s fine. 

The point is to use our visual landscape, not just for reminders in our day-to-day discussion, but as a framework to ensure we are on the right path throughout the journey. It also serves as a great mechanism for both integrating and distinguishing the macro and micro perspectives. We find it extremely useful to be able to look at the big picture and then if we need to, we can zoom in to a specific detail before zooming out again. 

Our process is about constantly zooming in and out to take big decisions about the product / service we’re designing.

Ultimately, a visual landscape facilitates better vision throughout the process. The other major opportunity - often missed opportunity - is what we call the Visual Portrait. If a ‘Visual Landscape’ is all about the context, then a ‘Visual Portrait is about your specific concept. 

This is about defining and showcasing your vision through powerful story telling. If you don’t naturally lean towards bringing things to life through imagery, then you should definitely find someone who can help you. Whether it’s communicating to other team members, potential partners, but most importantly to investors (VC’s or the ‘Crowd’), bringing your vision to life in a visual way is an absolute must. 

We don’t claim to have any set formula but we do use these tools without fail on every project we work on. We’ve worked with startups that didn’t appreciate how important these tools are at the beginning, and now they are an essential part of their tool kit. 

We will be running a workshop at Fest-Up, the Start Up Festival in Barcelona happening on 27-28 November, highlighting the importance and detailed methods of creating Visual Landscapes & Portraits, so please join us if you’re interested! 

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