Getting a group of people through a complex or multifaceted discussion is challenging. Different mental models can wrap the discussion around the proverbial axel, and the group doesn’t reach clarity or alignment. But a visual canvas can change that by creating a common mental model, keeping the conversation focused, and organizing information.


In our first Visual Thinking School (VTS) of 2015, we shared tools and techniques the we use to create custom visual canvases.


Getting Started

We started by orienting participants with a collection of visual canvases. Some were examples from our work, and some were from other visual thinkers.

With an overview complete, we shifted into trying a visual canvas so people could experience one before making their own. The canvas we used was a Big Head (or empathy map), where teams of four or five people filled out the template to get inside the head of someone specific.

Here are a few results (from left to right: Oprah, Chris Christie, Hillary Clinton).

Creating A Custom Visual Canvas

Then it was time for participants to create their own canvas. To introduce the process, we made a quick and simple canvas together using the topic, “a family planning their vacation”.


In order to create a visual canvas you need two key things:

  1. A framing question (i.e. “Where should we go on our family vacation?”)
  2. An inventory of the topics, issues, information, questions, etc. that need to be discussed – these later become the components of the canvas 

For the inventory of the vacation planning canvas, we asked the room for ideas: “budget,” “time,” “temperature,” “time of year,” “who is going,” “transportation,” “destination,” etc. Here Tim May, one of our Associate Creative Directors, is organizing the suggestions into the example canvas.

With this example and these two steps in mind, participants dove in on their own canvases.

We ended with over a dozen different canvases and here are two examples. On the left is a canvas created to help a group think about aspects of new partner selection in an NGO setting (the creators planned to use this in a meeting the next day). On the right is a visual model for describing the make-up or anatomy of a good project manager (or any role, really). Remember, these are just the templates – they’re not yet filled out.


Creating a custom visual canvas is surprisingly easy. It doesn’t have to be a work of art. Even dividing a page in half with two opposing questions can help focus a conversation. For example:

  • What worked well? | What should we change next time?
  • What are our keys to success | What risks do we need to manage?
  • What should we do if we get budget? | What should we do if we don’t get budget?


You get the idea. Try creating a quick visual canvas for your next complex discussion; you’ll be surprised at the results.