Starting The Big Picture

Brass plaque that reads "Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy"
Plaque above the entrance to Disneyland. Photo by Cburnett via Wikimedia.

I’ve designed digital experiences for over twenty-five years. In that time, I’ve worked with many different teams. Some have succeeded, while others haven’t. Often, success comes down to leaders who can articulate the vision and direction for the project to bring clarity and alignment. I call this “The Big Picture.”

The Big Picture doesn’t have to be an actual picture; it could also be a description, with words. (Such as the plaque above.) That said, a clear diagram can move mountains. For example, one such (simple!) diagram helped save Apple from near-death at the end of the 1990s.

Many design and product teams still work without seeing The Big Picture. More often than not, they’re beset by conflicts with other groups, duplicated effort, mis-prioritization, and more. Most of these folks are excellent professionals. But lacking clear direction, they end up working at odds with each other.

That said, The Big Picture doesn’t need to come from the top. Anyone can explain their understanding through drawing. They can then show the picture to others and ask clarifying questions:

  • Is this how it works?
  • Are these the right components?
  • Where does component A sit relative to component B?
  • What do you call this piece over here?
  • Etc.

The answers lead to a new version of the diagram, one that more closely reflects shared understanding. Rinse, repeat.

Sometimes, these cycles reveal significant misalignments. Team A may be very confident in their understanding of the system, but then someone from team B points out they’ve missed something big. That’s good! It’s best to catch such problems at this stage.

The point is that they can’t easily give feedback if they can’t see The Big Picture — whether it comes from the top-down or emerges from the bottom-up. The key is starting the process.

Alas, that’s one of the hardest steps. Just last week, I started a Big Picture diagram for a client. At this point in my career, I’ve done it many, many times. However, I still suffer from the dreaded “blank canvas syndrome.” I’m confident that I’ll get something down — eventually. But first tries are always tentative. That’s scary, but it can be overcome.

These three steps can help you overcome the blank canvas:

Step 1: Get everything down

List the key elements (or parts) of the system. Don’t worry about how they relate to each other; just write them down as they come to mind. Sticky notes are especially useful for this. When you’re confident you got everything down, take a break. (I like to go for a walk.)

When you return, look for relationships between elements. If you’re using stickies, cluster them accordingly. The patterns that emerge offer hints at the type of diagram that’s required.

Step 2: Define the field

By “the field,” I mean the meanings implied by the canvas itself. The elements you draw will convey different information depending on where they sit in relation to each other and the canvas. What type of diagram do you need? Some patterns call for object-node diagrams. Others are best served by matrices. Still others are best represented radially.

Consider how many dimensions the diagram will need. This will depend on the nature of the system you’re exploring. For example, if it’s a strictly sequential challenge, then you likely want a single dimension representing time. A matrix, on the other hand, has more than one dimension. Consider what each dimension represents in the diagram. (Simple 2×2 matrices, such as the Apple diagram I linked to above, can be very useful.)

Most Big Pictures I’ve made have two dimensions. A few have three, using an isometric layout. (Often one of these dimensions represents time, since systems aren’t static.) More dimensions = greater complexity. This applies to making and understanding the diagram: three-dimensional diagrams are harder to make/iterate and grok. Rule of thumb: use as few dimensions as necessary; two is the sweet spot.

Defining the field is a crucial step in the process and one where experience with various types of diagrams pays off.

Step 3: Lay out clusters/elements in the field

Once you’ve defined the field, you can start laying out elements. This is the step where the Big Picture starts coming into focus. If it’s a good diagram, you may get insights from the mere act of drawing. You’ll also discover things you missed. But you may even realize you started in the wrong place; you’ll have to backtrack. (For me, it’s never a straightforward process; I have dozens of sketchbooks filled with tentative sketches.)

Eventually, you’ll turn these sketches into hardline drawings. But resist the temptation to do so too soon. It’s easy to become lost in the details. Remember: the point is to capture the big picture.

Assume the first versions will be wrong. Doing so liberates you from striving for perfection, which is a big part of what paralyzes you when facing a blank canvas. As Anne Lamott put it, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”

Aim for a shitty first draft. It’ll get better as you — and others — see it manifest as a tangible artifact in the world. With enough care and persistence, you’ll eventually have a powerful map to the future that will give your team clarity, confidence, and traction.

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