See Your Ideas at MAFN

We taught a condensed version of See Your Ideas, our class on vision maps, as a workshop for the Mid-Atlantic Facilitators Network (MAFN.)

Heather Lynn Osborn Herbert graphic records the five phases of vision mapping. 

Heather Lynn Osborn Herbert graphic records the five phases of vision mapping. 

We covered many vision mapping methods, including: 

  • Visual triage
  • Identifying themes
  • Storytelling
  • Drawing thumbnails
  • Layout
MAFN members practice storytelling.  

MAFN members practice storytelling.  

Vision maps describe complex future states, current operating environments, or plans or proposals on a single placemat-sized sheet of paper. Data is gathered from existing source documents like strategic plans, facilitated team meetings, and stakeholder interviews. Content is organized using a technique called “visual triage” for sifting and binning similar themes. Themes are then linked into a single cohesive story. A visual is then designed around that story.

Vision maps synthesizes or replaces lengthy documents and invites communication between the presenter and audience.  

 Click here to learn more about workshops including our See Your Ideas vision map class, or click here to request a training.  

Identifying Themes

“The most beautiful order is a heap of sweepings piled up at random.” - Heraclitus


Human beings are good at seeing things that aren't really there. This is helpful when a job requires finding connections and patterns. Once you've gathered a critical mass of content and data for a vision map, it's time to put the participants' ability to find those connections to work. Here's how to set it up.

Lay out all of the content you've gathered on large tables. Arm your participants with sticky notes, sharpies, highlighters, and scissors. Share these instructions: 

"If you had to clean your garage, you might start by dumping everything out on the driveway and figuring out what goes together. You'd probably start by deciding what you want to keep and what you want to get rid of. Then, you COULD organize all your stuff by use. For example, all your sports equipment goes together, your gardening stuff goes together, your tools go together, and so on. Or, you might organize your stuff by shape. All your long handled stuff goes together, so you'd put rakes and baseball bats and brooms together, and all the stuff in boxes stacked neatly. HOW you organize it doesn't really matter, so long as it makes sense to the most number of people who have to find things. We're going to recreate that process here.

"First, start by scanning all the content we've gathered. If something strikes you as worth keeping, highlight it. Now, 'worth keeping' is subjective and means different things to different people. Rather than come to one definition of what 'worth keeping' means, we're going to leverage the diversity of perspectives in the room and say that if it's worth keeping for one person, it's worth keeping for the group. That way, we'll start to see all sides of the beachball.

"After a while, you'll start to see themes emerge. Themes are the big categories of information that our content falls into. If you think you see a theme across the content, move those pieces of content together, and write down the name of the theme on a sticky notes near the cluster of content. Talk with your colleagues about this. Have a discussion. Validate your proposal for a theme with others. And remember: what matters most is that the themes make sense to the most people. Keep the Paris Principle in mind." 

The Mid-Atlantic Facilitators' Network practices Identifying Themes.

Six Thumbnails


Once, I was working with a design team to create a first version of a vision map under a tight deadline. After we gathered the content we needed, the team took a break while I sketched out six thumbnail concepts to layout the content. Going off of what I assumed about the design team, my first five thumbnails were traditional and businessy, all arrows and boxes. With about a minute before the team came back from break and out of ideas, I drew a mountaintop, with content laid out on the summit, hiking trails, ski slopes, and surrounding clouds. I thought there was no way the design team would go for it.

Surprise: the team loved the mountaintop layout.  

After gathering content, sketching six thumbnails concept drawings is your next step in designing a vision map. The first few thumbnails will capture the most obvious ideas. It may feel like a stretch to come up with the last few thumbnails, but real creativity often shows up once the obvious ideas are out of the way. Share your thumbnails with the core design team to get their feedback and decide on the overall look of the vision map. Use what you know about shape, layout, metaphor, and visual vocabulary to come up with ideas for the six thumbnails. 

Vision map design workflows

A collection of videos of workflows for designing a vision map. More to follow!

Instructions for how to incorporate hand-drawn images into Illustrator.

Workflow that includes a digital template that's traced by hand and scanned back into Illustrator  to achieve a hand-drawn look.

High-level overview of the entire approach to vision mapping.

What is a Vision Map?

In preparation for two upcoming courses on how to design Vision Maps, we designed this explainer video using Google TiltBrush VR.

The first pilot class will be offered through NOVA Scribes on Feb. 16 at 6:30PM in Chantilly, VA.

The second class will be offered through the Mid-Atlantic Facilitators' Network on Feb. 24 at 8:30AM in Washington, DC.

Thanks to Heather Martinez, Trent Wakenight, and Ben Tinker for fantastic feedback!

Wash, Rinse, Repeat

A vision map can serve as a powerful tool for stakeholder engagement and buy in.

Schedule a working session to review the vision map with a small selection of your key stakeholders. Prepare by printing the latest version of the vision map on 11x17 placemat-sized paper, one for each participant, and a single wall-sized version. Introduce the vision map to the group by saying, "A few of us got together and sketched out some ideas. This is the way we see it. We're not saying it's the only way to look at this, but it's what we came up with, and we're sharing it with you to hear what you think about it."

Resist the temptation to present it as a well-polished, complete deliverable. Most of your stakeholders will be seeing this for the first time, and they will feel intimidated and pressured to provide insightful feedback in a few minutes while others have had hours or days refining their ideas. This isn’t the time to impress your stakeholders by how much time and thought you’ve put into the project, or how much knowledge and experience you bring to it, or what creative solutions you’ve thought of. Be authentic as you ask for their help and insight.  

Give a very brief walkthrough of the vision map, but don’t read every detail. Cover only the high-level themes. Then say, “It’s important for me to hear your feedback and get your ideas. And because you read a lot faster than I talk, I’m going to be quiet for the next five minutes and let you explore the visual on your own. Take notes. Mark it up. Then, we’ll go around the room, and I’ll capture your input and edits.”

After your stakeholders have time to read, solicit their feedback. You could choose a structured model for feedback, such as I Like I Wish What If, or One Breath Feedback, or One Word Feedback, but it’s best to have an open, facilitated discussion. Make sure every participant is given air time to avoid spending too much time on one aspect of the vision map. Capture the feedback using a combination of graphic recording and direct edits on a version of the vision map large enough for everyone in the room to see. Have a note-taker on hand to capture the discussions between stakeholders. These notes can serve as raw material for more detailed content for the vision map.

Remind yourself that the feedback your stakeholders share is coming from the perspective of their fresh eyes. You have been in the thick of designing and refining the vision map, and it’s easy to lose perspective while working the details. Trust that what you hear is the honest opinion of those who are sharing it.

Thank your stakeholders for their feedback. At all costs, resist the urge to explain or defend. Just make note of what you hear. After the feedback session, meet with your core design team and discuss what you captured, point by point. THIS is the time to go into detail. Decide among yourselves how to incorporate the feedback you received. This may be in the form of edits to the vision map, or in depth discussions with the individual who offered the feedback to better understand their perspective, or in the scope of the vision map overall.

When the next version of the vision map is ready, invite a larger selection of your stakeholders to another feedback session, as well as the original group. They’ll see that their voices were heard, as they see their words reflected in the next version of the vision map. As they see themselves as helping to shape the vision for the future, they’ll be more engaged in the changes to come.

Wash, rinse, and repeat the process.

Words as Objects

Here's a neat idea for both visual templates and vision maps: use the shape of words to create objects and elements.  

Visual template to harvest what's working, what's not working, and solutions to advance both.  

Visual template to harvest what's working, what's not working, and solutions to advance both.  

99 Visual Templates

On the topic of Visual Templates, Bas Bakker just released a free ebook with 99 visual templates AND ideas for how to design others. They're simple, "one function" templates that you can draw with a moment's notice and use to facilitate a discussion. Good stuff in here!

Storymap Project Lessons – A Designer’s Perspective by Tiffany Forner

Advice from Tiffany Forner of the Grove Consultants on storymapping. 

"I’ve worked on many Grove Storymap® projects during my 18 years at The Grove. In the beginning, it felt like wading through a swamp of data, struggling to find a way to communicate a client’s complex situation in a clear and simple way. This kind of information design was not like anything I learned as a design major in college.

"After years of practice and collaboration with my esteemed colleagues, Laurie Durnell and Rachel Smith among others, it has gotten easier. Below is a summary of some things I have learned."

Resist the urge to jump straight to the point

Sharing the bottom line up front (BLUF) isn't always a best practice. Participants may have zero context around the issue you're about to share. Especially when you have a lot of information to share, it may be tempting to jump into the "need to know" info. An ounce of framing a conversation properly is worth a pound of trying to convince someone who's not ready to listen. Context, purpose, and WHY THIS MATTERS is everything. 

Avoiding chalk and talk

With text-heavy presentations, borrow a page from Edward Tufte, who said, "People read four or five times faster than you talk. Rather than reading your audience the text of your PowerPoint, write a paper, print it, hand it out, and say, 'Take a few minutes, read this, then we'll have a discussion.'"


That transmits information much more quickly. It holds attention better than a briefing. It prevents people from asking premature questions that would have been answered later in the deck. And it gives space to people who want to expand and reflect on certain points time to do so (after the reading.)


The first time you do it, the silence may feel awkward, but that evaporates quick when people get into the reading.


One thing I do is to ask people to simply make eye contact with me once they're done reading so I know they're finished.

Tenets for framing a Visioning exercise

- Vision is a view of the future

- It is the long-term change that is desired

- It should be inspiring and memorable

- It shouldn't contain jargon and technical terms

- It can be easily explained...would your next-door neighbor get it?

- It is not frequently reviewed & one might do with a mission statement

- It is a Postcard from the future

- Aspirational, yet realistic and achievable

- Motivational enough to engage others on the journey

RESULT: The teams start thinking about how to apply their strengths to get there.

Bibliography additions

Brandy Agerbeck's The Graphic Facilitator's Guide
Beyond Words by Milly R. Sonneman
"The Functional Art" by Alberto Cairo 
"Design for Information" by Isabel Meirelles 
"Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information" by Manuel Lima 
"Infographics Designers' Sketchbooks" by Steven Heller and Rick Landers
"Book from the ground" by Xu Bing
Infographics: The Power of Visual Storytelling by Lankow, Ritchie
Information is Beautiful and Knowledge is Beautiful by David McCandless
'Understanding Comics', 'Making Comics' and 'Reinventing Comics' by Scott McCloud
The sketchnote handbook
Edward Tufte, envisioning information
David Sibbett - Visual Meetings and Visual Leaders
Doodle Revolution from Sunni Brown
 Stephen Few for practical advice on graphics for data viz
Dan Roam (Blah Blah Blah and Back of the Napkin) 
Robert Mayer on MultiMedia Learning Theory.
Oceans of Data by Scripts Oceanography

Draw Your Future

Patti's TEDxRainier talk has an inspiring message about how to Draw Your Future using guided imagery and the brain's ability to envision realities to change the world around you.

What is a vision map?

complex visuals that tell a story, show context, share large amounts of information all at once, promote systems thinking, build shared meaning, show details, themes and patterns, and activates creative thinking.