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Visual Communication and
Visual Design Masterclass

The use of the visual in supporting cognitive and collaborative work is powerful and yet too often underutilized even in design focused areas such as product, systems and architecture design, but also in technical leadership. This masterclass draws on theory and practice in a variety of areas, from cognition and communication to design.

The sociotechnical systems we work on and within are, not to put too fine a spin on it, complex. And this complexity means we need to work, and work more effectively, together. We draw on each other’s expertise, perspective, experience and ingenuity, because we can’t know or do it all ourselves. And we need to augment our own perceiving and sense-making, and our design thinking-doing and expression, so we can both tackle the challenges we face, and co-ordinate and collaborate. Using the visual to augment our ability to “see” more, drawing thought into the world where we can interact with and improve it.

Day 1: Visual Communication

We explore challenges we face working on and within complex sociotechnical systems, the role the visual plays in perception, understanding and sensemaking, and in expression and communication. We work on both sides of communication (loosely, making and conveying sense; seeing to show; the visual correspondent of active listening as part of communication). Topics and practice areas include:

  • Mechanisms and meaning: how visual forms work on and for us
  • Increasing our observation and perception skills: what helps; what gets in the way
  • Supporting (joint) cognitive work: expressing thought visually
  • Expressing thought visually: abstraction, metaphor, tips
  • Drawing, to draw in, and draw out: supporting collaboration
  • "I see what you mean": visual communication and persuasion

The zoom classes emphasize practice elements where the experience informs and is informed by the theory that frames these practice elements. Further theory (the zoom sessions are part of a longer adventure) is provided in the student material, and the references the material draws on.

There is no required pre-reading, but Nick Sousanis' book Unflattening communicates the mechanisms and meaningfulness of the visual medium in a nonfiction comic format, and is highly recommended!

Cover of Unflattening by Nick Sousanis


Anyone in technical leadership and design, including architects, product owners and product managers, senior designers, senior developers, CTOs and CIOs. This mix gives the masterclass a variety of perspectives and experience sets. The learning differs -- these different roles and their demands differ; however, it brings into the discussion the importance of partnering across scopes.



Alternatively, you can contact Ruth Malan on twitter or mastodon.


Day 2: Visual Design

We turn our attention to systems design and evolution, and the role of sketches, diagrams, models and other visual forms in doing design work (supporting ourselves in the reasoning that goes into design) and expressing and communicating designs. Topics and practice areas include:

  • Seeing systems: concepts, models and practice
  • Visual design and software engineering
  • Views: static and dynamic, at different scopes
  • Design exploration and design expression
  • Start a visually enriched systems journal

The format provides scope for participants to help shape the work we do together, but there is also a body of material and practice elements to draw on.

Getting clues (pouring clues from clue bucket over head) -- hope they stick!

Placeholder image (while I work up the visual syllabus): getting design clues from our clue bucket (the point of the comic being: we need to get our hands "dirty" for the clues to "stick")

Open Enrollment Masterclass

Remote Open Enrollment in 2023:

Remote masterclasses will combine 2 zoom sessions (on the dates/times given) and some (optional) asynchronous work (videos and readings, and async discussion).

Instructor: Ruth Malan

We offer discounted pricing for alumni of our other workshops and masterclasses, and purchase parity pricing. Scholarships are available to BIPOC in tech. Email or DM Ruth Malan on twitter or mastodon/fediverse to arrange.

In-House Masterclasses

Pricing depends on number of students taking the class. Please contact us for details.


Books on Visual Perception and Expression

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Page Created: August 2, 2022
Last Updated: September, 2023