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Iconstorming for visual practitioners: Draw new ideas and stretch your creativity

As an illustrator for Thinking Design by Adobe and the Adobe Design Blog, I face the daily challenge of needing to create engaging visuals that complement various content. To keep my creative juices flowing, I have been using different sketching exercises to generate new imagery and stretch my creative thinking.

I dubbed one such exercise “Iconstorming”, inspired by the cleverly titled Gamestorming, one of my favourite visual thinking books (written by two of my favourite authors). The exercise itself was inspired by Edward De Bono’s creative thinking exercises.

I first shared this exercise in 2018 at VizConf, an Australian conference for graphic recorders and visual practitioners. Since then, I have also been practicing Scenestorming and Storystorming, all of which are designed to stimulate creative thinking.

Iconstorming challenges you to draw pictures that combine unrelated concepts

This article describes each of these exercises over four “levels”, which correspond to how much they challenge your creativity.

If you wish to direct these exercises at solving a problem, simply replace one or more of the random words with words relevant to your problem, and see what comes out.

Have fun with these, and let me know what you find!

Level 1 – Simple icon sketching

One random word

This exercise is identical to Pictionary. Firstly, generate a random word. You then have 20–30 seconds to sketch the word. Anything you draw will either be from your memory, or require you to think on the spot about how to visually convey it.

Repeat this as many times as you like in one session (same for Levels 2–4).

Examples of Level 1 – Simple Icon Sketching (thanks Sally, Kate for the rightmost two drawings)

There is something magical about hearing a word, and translating it into a picture via your mind’s eye. The drawing part turns it into reality, and the whole process is like sorcery.

I like to use creativitygames.net for random word generation.

While Level 1 is the simplest of these exercises, it’s also the most essential exercise for getting good at drawing ideas. Visual practitioners, such as graphic recorders, need to master this skill.

Once you feel comfortable with Level 1, move onto Levels 2–4 to really stretch your thinking.

Level 2 – Iconstorming

Two random words

OK, let’s start smashing atoms.

To do iconstorming, start by generating two random words. You then have 40–60 seconds to sketch an icon that combines the two words. Note you cannot simply draw two separate icons. You must think of a way that the two concepts visually combine.

For example, if your words are “corn” and “café”, you could draw a café made from a giant corn. Or you could draw corn being served inside a café. Note the order of the words don’t matter; you can draw “corn café” or “café corn”.

Examples of Level 2 – Iconstorming (thanks Tali for the rightmost drawing)

For some this exercise will be not only fun, but addictive.

Besides engaging your creativity, iconstorming is great for coming up with clever images. Every time you do this exercise you will be inventing something new, because most concepts have no direct connection to one another.

Thanks to the vastness of the English language, there are 14.7 billion* possible combinations you can get from generating two random words. That’s almost 15 billion icons waiting to be drawn, and that’s just from English alone!

Level 3 – Scenestorming

Three random words

Is this how we synthesise complexity?

To do scenestorming, firstly generate three random words. You then have 3–5 minutes to sketch a scene that contains all three of the words as images. You don’t have to combine the words into one icon, but you must think about why the three things belong in the same scene.

Examples of Level 3 – Scenestorming (thanks Kate for the rightmost drawing)

Scenestorming improves your ability to synthesise multiple themes into one image. To do it well, you might spend more time thinking than drawing.

For example, you might ask yourself: do all three words have something in common? Perhaps two of the words are literal, and the third is a concept that ties the other two together?

Through answering these questions, you are resolving the complexity between these concepts, and practicing your ability to synthesise.

In practice, scenestorming is a great way to come up with interesting visuals for posters, infographics and other illustrations.

Level 4 – Storystorming

Four random words

Time for some creative writing.

To do storystorming, firstly generate four random words. You then have 5–10 minutes to sketch a four-panel comic. The comic must contain a caption for each panel, and each caption must contain one of the randomly generated words.

Start by dividing a page into four panels. Then, using the four words — in order! — construct four sentences that each contain one of the words and string together a story. Only after writing the sentences should you start to draw the story.

Steps for Level 4 – Storystorming

Try to spend at least half your time creating the story, as that will set the direction for your images. Writing the story will require creativity, and some understanding of how stories work (whether intuitive or learned).

Examples of Level 4 – Storystorming (thanks Rob, Sally for both drawings)

Storystorming helps you practice your creative writing in a visual way.

Using four words for this exercise is no accident — much of music, poetry and comic strips occur in four beats. It’s a rhythm we’re well familiar with.

A Daily Practice

Each of these exercises can be used in two ways: as a method to generate unique imagery, or as an exercise to practice your creativity.

If you want to grow your creativity, consider doing these exercises as a daily practice. Over time, you’ll find yourself becoming more confident with creative thinking, and being able to deploy it at will.

If you are thinking of running these exercises in a workshop, know they might be just what you need to get participants to think differently.

To see regular posts of Iconstorming experiments, simply follow @iconstorming on Instagram.

Give it a try, and enjoy sketching!

Visual practitioners sketching new concepts with Iconstorming at VizConf 2018

Note: Levels 5+ are works in progress. If you think of any ideas, I’d love to discuss!

Thanks to Matt Magain and Marcel Van Hove for organising VizConf 2018. It was awesome and a very welcome moment for our visualisation community.

For more on creativity, Freakonomics has a series of podcast episodes on the topic of creativity. I’m a big fan of the way they deep dive into topics, and I recommend the listen.

You can follow my personal work on my website here.

*Quick maths for Iconstorming: Assume 171,476 unique words in the English language. Simple combination formula yields 171,476! / [2!*(171,476–2)] = 14,701,923,550 unique combinations.

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Reflections on visual thinking in design, education and knowledge work in the 21st century.

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Justin Cheong

Justin Cheong

Human-centred designer. Founder of Visual Academy, a platform that equips designers and educators with the visual thinking toolkit. visual.academy

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