Why We Need Communications Planning for Ideas

In any major engagement with a client we begin with a phase called Communications Planning. This is the time during which we develop a shared understanding of what we need to create, how to approach it, and everyone’s role in making it happen. Communications Planning ensures that the vision each member of the project team has in their head is the same, and that the functional and technical details are clearly described.

The tangible outcome of this process is a detailed workplan for the remaining phases of the project. Along with a written summation of the project objectives, audience profiles and market landscape, Communications Planning also includes such elements as a customer experience map, user personas, moodboards, core messages, information architecture diagrams, and wireframes.

Though these visual artifacts can seem ancillary to the actual design deliverables, they are critical to the success of projects. Through them a visual vocabulary is formed that allows the entire project team, including those who may be unfamiliar with design process and vernacular, to find context and common ground.

Visual thinking leader Dave Gray explains that there are essentially three types of language people use to communicate with each other and the world around them:

  1. phonetic — speech and its equivalents in sign language
  2. symbolic — quantitative and specific (i.e. math)
  3. visual — words, shape, and image

Visual language is necessary when an idea is either too abstract or complex to clearly describe phonetically or symbolically or when there is overwhelming volumes of information. This is often the case at the beginning of a project when ideas are in their infancy or when people are feeling stuck by information overload.

Visual documentation can help to organize thoughts and show where there are gaps in thinking, in process or in product development. For example, when everyone can see a map of the pages for a new website, it becomes more clear how the information should be categorized and what topics might need additional development.

Visual language can be used to communicate in a non-linear fashion and to demonstrate things that work in more than one dimension. Filmmakers use storyboards to explain what's going to happen from scene to scene or when multiple activities should be shown happening concurrently. Similarly, storyboards and user flow diagrams are used to describe how certain elements should behave or intended pathways through a website.

With visual language we can identify something uniquely, and we can shorten the length of time it takes to understand a concept. This is especially important for projects that involve a number of stakeholders or require a long timeline where the types of people and their participation will vary throughout the course of the project.

Visually documenting work with clients through Communications Planning and during other phases of a project improves our learning, our thinking and our ability to communicate which in turn leads to better outcomes for clients and ultimately their audiences.

Lisa Mullis