Planning and Designing in the Visual Age

The National Arts Education Association chose an intensely visual experience for discovering, designing and communicating its new vision and strategic framework.

The leaders of NAEA and Signature i, LLC were studying design thinking and eager to apply its principles to strategic planning.  As advocates and teachers for visual arts education, NAEA members have a natural affinity for design thinking.  Design thinking encourages visual observation, critical thinking to see challenges and solutions clearly, and prototyping ideas and new approaches in creatively concrete ways.

From the beginning the NAEA strategic planning process was a visual experience.  At the annual conference in spring 2010, hundreds of members expressed their ideas and hopes for NAEA in a collaborative art studio.  Working with a team of volunteers and the board, Signature i interpreted this outpouring of opinions and images to discover the association’s strategic issues and opportunities.

We continued this creative expression of NAEA Next when the board convened in its planning retreat several months later.  Every board member did an artistic expression of what NAEA would need to become.  They did this before engaging in more typical processes to draft a vision, mission and goals.

Yes the vision and strategic framework ultimately uses words to convey its intent and message, but the plan’s simple and clear structure can be traced to its visual beginnings.  The words are packed with shared meaning  from exploring and experimenting with the best design for NAEA through visual images.

Design thinking is also evident in how NAEA is communicating its strategic planning process and vision and strategic framework. At the annual conference NAEA distributed a “First Impression” mini-brochure not much bigger than a business card that powerfully unfolds the new plan and shares the journey to create it.

Not every organization is fortunate enough to have artists willing to see the possibilities for a clear and creative design for its future. Still the NAEA experience offers three great practices for others. 

  • Invite new ways of expressing ideas and hopes for your organization.
  • Think like a designer and see the bold outlines that are essential to your organization’s future.
  • Design your communications to deliver both the message of the plan and the experience of creating it.