Drawing reality, picturing a future

Dave Gray draws in order to understand the world through his hands and eyes. With a mark on the page, he conveys the content of his mind.

“I have always had an absolute fascination between the outer world and the inner world,” he says. “When you draw, you are taking in the things that you see and translating them into something you can express with a gesture.”

Gray is the founder of XPlane, a 23-year-old design consultancy that uses visual thinking to help people clarify and accelerate organizational strategy. In the knowledge economy, he favors the low-tech tools of markers, whiteboards, sticky notes and paper to explore the “fuzzy goals” of an uncertain tomorrow.

Discovering reality through illustration has been a lifelong practice for Gray. His first drawing, he recalls, was of his pet turtle, done in finger paint on an easel. But while most people have memories of picture-making with crayons, pencils, and paints, not everyone sticks to it as a way of interpreting life.

Gray suspects that we leave behind the joy of childhood art because of social pressures to excel in areas such as reading, writing, and arithmetic — skills that are more readily marketable. But he notes that the ability to imagine a thing and depict it is essential to human production.

“For me, drawing is about the pleasure of bringing something into the world,” Gray says. “It is almost a pure expression of what you have in your head. You’re not limited to describing what exists.”

Drawing enables us to picture a future, which is critical in fields where change is coming fast. It is an exercise that can be done as a group, with many minds in a room, each of them simultaneously seeing pieces of a vision.

“What exists in your future is complicated, and it takes a bunch of people to figure it out together,” Gray says. “We have to try to imagine what the future world is going to look like and how we’re going to be in it. If you can build a mural of this, you have a shared picture of what it’s going to look like.”

The act of drawing stimulates the imagination and enables us to see what has become hidden in our own midst. In a business setting, a simple sketch can help members of an organization understand and find the glitches in their workflow. Arrows, circles, and stick figures show how a product moves through time and space. Illustration shines light on the process, identifies key players, and reveals trouble spots.

“Some things are easier to explain in words, and some things are easier to explain in pictures,” Gray says. “Behavior is better explained in pictures. In a lot of organizations, everyone has their job that they’re doing, but that doesn’t mean that they have an understanding of how it all works together. Drawing is a way of nailing it down. I can actually look at a picture and say, Oh, that’s me!

Drawing also helps define terms. For employees of an airline, for instance, what does it mean for a plane to “arrive”? When it lands? When it reaches the gate? When passengers claim their baggage? Different understandings of a single term might not be apparent in written reports, but in everyday reality, they could diminish overall efficiency.

Gray suggests that images are often superior to language, which can become convoluted and ambiguous. “There is a lot of vagueness and potential for misunderstanding that can creep into language,” he says. “Sometimes the writing is at such a level of detail that you’re lost in it, and you’re having trouble seeing the bigger picture.”

A precise illustration can correct perceptions about how a group is functioning both internally and externally. The larger the organization, Gray says, the harder it is for members to see outside it. They see each other, but not how they relate to the world beyond. They slowly get out of tune. “We have to get better at calibrating our minds against reality,” he says.

Through drawing, Gray helps organizations to adjust their view — to see plainly how they function and where they fit. Only then can they picture a future.