Click to print article     Design is a moveable feast. Memory is all.


Flash Fetish.” Nate Burgos. CTheory. 6/00.

The Echo of Om at ACD’s Living Surfaces Conference 2000.” Nate Burgos. Ionik. 12/00. Experience, empathy, and enlightenment reverberating at the American Center for Design’s Annual Living Surfaces Conference.

College of Architecture and the Arts at The University of Illinois at Chicago

School of Art and Design at The University of Illinois at Chicago

American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA)

American Center for Design (ACD)

Illinois Arts Alliance (IAA)

Society for Technical Communication (STC)

University and College Designers Association (UCDA)

Library of Congress

National Geographic Society

Worldstudio Foundation

West Hills

Metropolis magazine

The New Yorker

Art As Experience. John Dewey (Perigee, 1938)

Fast Company Magazine’s Design articles

No More Teams! Mastering the Dynamics of Creative Collaboration. Michael Schrage (1995)

Discovering Design: Explorations in Design Studies Richard Buchanan, Victor Margolin, editors. (1995)

Dynamics in Document Design: Creating Text for Readers Karen A. Schriver (1996)

Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace Janet H. Murray (1997)

Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart by Bonnie A. Nardi and Vicki L. O’Day (1999)

inform design journal of the AIGA Chicago chapter

Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate by Steven Johnson (1999)

Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths, and Metaphors by Mark J. Stefik (1997)

Work, Life, Tools Edited by Milton Glaser, Photographed by Matthew Klein (1997)

In the Steelcase exhibition called “Work, Life, Tools,” architect Helmut Jahn said, “If I don’t draw, I don’t understand.” Jahn was pictured with a pen, his tool of choice—the extension of his thought as he envisioned it. Like Jahn, a leader needs to give form to thoughts. When leaders draw, they convey their thinking.

  Photos by Nate Burgos

Visible Stream of Consciousness

In his book Art is Work, the graphic designer Milton Glaser states, “The act of drawing has nothing to do with being an illustrator. We draw because it enables us to see.... Drawing is the path to observation and attentiveness.” The key phrase here is “to see.” How many times have you encountered something like this? You are involved in a meeting and you have difficulty absorbing what the meeting leader is actually saying. At the end, someone asks, “Did you understand?” Your body language may say, “yes” with a hesitant dipping of the chin, but your mind nods left to right and right to left realizing you didn’t understand at all. If you could only see what was being said. If you could only see the criteria being addressed. If you could only see the ideas being relayed.

Drawing allows you to see and provides a tactile relationship between subject and interpreter. Drawing can be described as making adjectives of nouns (data). Drawing toggles between what is and what can be. With a few quick strokes, you can capture multiple views of a concept and crystallize possible solutions. Drawing is conversation of minds over matter: you can see what is being thought and said.

Visual Dynamics

Drawing comes in two main types: representation and notation. You can achieve representation, for example, through diagramming a flow chart. You can diagram with pen and pencil or digital tools like Visio. Another means of representation is thumb nailing, conceptualizing a page layout. Modeling by diagramming and thumb nailing makes the abstract tangible and contributes to a project’s context.

Drawing can be described as a context-sensitive platform. Its purpose is to map elements in space and time, whether toward such complex entities as the composition of an interior or an exterior product. When visualizing a total system, composed of hierarchies and connections, drawing can simplify what we comprehend. Drawing can weed out bad thinking and usher in good discourse. Because it is highly plastic, it can adapt to the climate of the room.

Drawing can also bring down barriers. During product development meetings, I have witnessed sketches on the wall that motivated us to visually display our views. We pass the magic marker on like a baton in a relay race and the sketch builds in density. This collaborative sketching produces a mosaic effect. Drawing is the lingua franca that dynamically brings together specialists of different disciplines for brainstorming, troubleshooting, and decision-making. Drawing has the power to unite people in a spirit of cooperation.

Notation (textual drawing) also proves helpful. Taking good notes is as relevant in the workspace as it was when we were in school. Jotting down key terms and phrases could be perceived as an array of fragments. However, the glue that binds these notes is one’s linguistic flow—how one outlines the issues being expressed. A streamlined notational breakdown of a discussion can be a checklist and a summary. Like representational drawing, notation is both an additive and subtractive exercise. We deliberately select the facts and figures that matter.

Drawing serves as a visual aid. When I was a formal student in visual communications, I remember relating a concept that I thought was solid and witty to a professor. He looked at me blankly and replied, “I can’t see what you’re saying. I have to see it to believe it.” My professor, a man of words, wanted to see a picture. Most of us do.

Leadership Lessons from the Drawing Board

If telling proves insufficient, show it.

“Every experience… begins with an impulsion,” said John Dewey in “The Act of Expression” from his book on aesthetics Art as Experience. It doesn’t take great visual charisma or even talent to describe a concept through pictures. Heed your expressive impulse and act. If your point will benefit from visual representation, seize the opportunity to illustrate it. Pictures fill in the conceptual void when words fail to express what we are trying to relate. Taking initiative in using visuals has the potential to make the quality of interaction with other specialists or with the subject itself more efficient and exciting.

Drawing drives discussion.

Once you do a rendering, however rudimentary, people’s attention focuses on what was drawn. More than eye-candy, the drawing becomes a communal anchor for questions and issues brought to the discussion table. As the drawing progresses, more questions and issues reveal themselves. Participation increases visually and verbally in “real time.” The drawn image escapes flatland because it becomes a social vehicle. The element of conversation brings an extra dimension to what is drawn. This builds a sense of community and leads to shared involvement and, hopefully, proceeds to shared ratification.

Have a canvas!

The physical environment can be conducive to self-expression and co-creation. Frequently I notice office spaces with walls made for drawing. If the walls can’t be drawn on, use any available surface. I use medium-sized Post-It notes or a board on the wall when I can’t write on paper. Colleagues doodle on the back of lunch napkins. The more surfaces you have for mental maneuvering the better! Make a notebook or grid paper your visible thought companion.

Drawing is exploration.

Visualization should be a liberating experience. You can be wildly spontaneous or awfully mundane. Take risks and visualize the “what ifs.” Ask, “What if it was done this way? What if it was done that way?” Mistakes pave the way for discoveries. Cross out or erase and move on. The drawing becomes a soundboard, taking advantage of various conceptual takes and directions. One stroke leads to another and in the words of writer Eudora Welty, “The picture composes itself.”

Drawing is metaphysical.

Drawing embodies more than the physical act itself. A scene, a phrase, or even a word that strikes you for whatever reason can prove to be a visual trigger. When we draw, we draw from opinion, from facts, from nature, from the media, from a number of influences. Most of all, we draw from curiosity; we want to make the unknown known. The activity of drawing is an all-encompassing one.

Drawing is validation.

Like the artist who signs a masterpiece, drawing authenticates conceptualization. When you are involved in the image-making process, you are an “eye” witness. Name and time stamp the work to confirm the project visuals for future reference.

Drawing is documentation.

Drawing from history makes history. We are documenting evolution. As we invest in the information display of a project, we make visible the decision-making. We gain the wisdom of best practices as well as the lessons history teaches.


“Leaders make meaning.” This is Rule 47 of Tom Peter’s Rules for Leaders. (Rule 48 is “Leaders learn.”) Drawing facilitates this meaning making. As part of a leader’s skill set, drawing shows what matters and what makes sense. Drawing literally draws out the best of the leader and his or her colleagues in their thinking about a need or a problem. In so doing, insight and discovery increase the intellectual depth of the collaboration. Such communication resonates with purpose, community, and inventiveness. Drawing enables anyone to make visible their imaginings and sustain them so all will be led on a journey of realization—locally and globally. “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”*

*Quote from John Maxwell

Nate Burgos is a design manager at Chicago-based Morningstar, the global leader in investment information innovation. He is also a teaching associate with Research Professor John Massey, a graphic design pioneer, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, his alma mater, in addition to teaching computer graphics at Loyola University. He attended the Yale Summer Program in Graphic Design in Brissago, Switzerland and the Maine Summer Institute in Graphic Design. His current passion projects include,, collecting rare books, and piano. Contact him at



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