September 4, 2013

Designing across cultures

Drawing as a universal language & notes on a quick trip to Holland


Workshop participants drawing a shared vision of a new business service

I spent the last week in Holland working on a consulting project with the Dutch government. While the workshop participants spoke English fluently and clearly, they were more comfortable speaking in their native tongue. To facilitate their conversations, we worked in visuals – a language we could all understand at the same time. It was exciting to watch participants draw their shared vision, while working through the details in Dutch. Though I couldn’t understand the auditory conversations, I followed their visions through the drawings every step of the way.


Leon Paul explains how a new service fits into the regulatory ecosystem

Participants explore different ways to connect business units

Participants explore different ways to connect business units

Personal Reflection

This experience helped me realize a lot about myself, especially as I’ve spent the last year working on multidisciplinary teams from a variety of backgrounds. Language is a barrier, but not only the translation from English to Dutch. People from various backgrounds within the same country – or same organization – often use the same word to describe wildly different things. Pictures can help people across countries, or across departments, get on the same page.

Friend of XPLANE, Sunni Brown, explains the importance of visual language in her 2011 TED talk, “Doodlers, Unite!”

In this talk, Sunni shares the how individuals can use doodling as a tool to help themselves think, retain more information, and creatively solve complex problems. She ends her talk with the following statement:

“Under no circumstances should doodling be eradicated from a classroom, or the board room, or even the war room. On the contrary, doodling should be leveraged in precisely those situations where information density is very high and the need for processing that information is very high.”

Though I have always believed in the universal powers of graphics, this experience truly brought these ideas to life. Not only is drawing important to build a shared vision across disparate business units, it can help individuals across cultures and languages truly get on the same page.

Exploring the countryside
Bicycles rest against a railing in The Hague

Bicycles rest against a railing in The Hague

I have never seen a city or a country with so many bikes. During my brief stay in Holland I stayed in Breukelen (north of Utrecht), but had the opportunity to explore so many cities thanks to my gracious hosts and coworkers.


Countless bicycles at rest in the heart of Amsterdam

Many days I wandered around Breukelen and Nieuwerhoek (where the workshop took place) but also explored Amsterdam, Utrecht, and The Hague. One day I even biked through a nature reserve to the Kröller-Müler Museum to see some Van Gogh.

I look forward to more consulting opportunities overseas. The people were inspiring; the overall experience was beautiful, eye-opening, and humbling.

Cycling through Hoge Veluwe National Park to the Kröller-Müller Museum

Cycling through Hoge Veluwe National Park to the Kröller-Müller Museum

Admiring Van Gogh's process sketches

Admiring Van Gogh’s process sketches