A lesson in drawing from Lord Nelson

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One of the things that is always cited as a cornerstone of the designerly approach is an ability to visualise: to make ideas tangible by putting marks on paper. I always think this is a bit of a stitch-up on the part of the design community. You don’t have to be a designer to be able to do this, they just find themselves nowadays in a unique position. Most of the rest of us have had the habit stamped out by schooling, which teaches that the only way to express ourselves in a sophisticated and convincing manner is to write reams of words.

However it is such a useful communication tool. Making abstract ideas concrete and immediately digestible is rarely possible through words. And it is also a useful strategic tool: being forced to draw something trips the brain into thinking differently, imposing order on what might otherwise be a random set of loosely connected ideas.

Unfortunately the idea of drawing as a means of expression is usually an uncomfortable one for most people, who will have stopped drawing as they left childhood. It seems an innately childish thing to do. So here is an excellent example of the power of drawing your ideas rather than writing or speaking them.

I’m not a great connoisseur of military history. The standard telling of history as a story unfolding via battles and wars leaves me cold. But recently a bit of Nelson memorabilia – a scrap of paper at the national maritime museum – caught my eye. Alongside a very clever bit of interactive display that showed, in plan view on a huge touchscreen, the progress of the Battle of Trafalgar, was Nelson’s original battle plan sketch. I have no idea how this was used. Possibly he made it purely for himself as a bit of working through thought on paper. But it instantly conjured an image of him sketching, black fountain pen in hand, at a table surrounded by the captains of his fleet. ‘Our lines will advance like so… The enemy line will be split like so… Then: we win!’

He would have had to be pretty convincing in his explanation of the plan, as it was a strategy that went directly against received military wisdom. And indeed he must have been, as the battle unfolded almost exactly as predicted in his sketch plan. This hastily scribbled little drawing could have been the argument that not only secured the agreement of his men, but seared into their brains a very clear plan of what they were all meant to be doing, enabling them to pull off a difficult manoeuvre. And influencing the course of British history.

So, the next time you’re trying to be persuasive, try drawing what you’re thinking.

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1 Comment

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One response to “A lesson in drawing from Lord Nelson

  1. catherine bailey

    Couldn’t agree more ! In executve development , its amazing how much more most people are engaged by visual images rather than words ( and its not simply the death by powerpoint problem) AND its equally amazing how people surprise themselves at their creativity as well as their ability to capture more directly and succinctly an idea in pictures than words .

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