What do your ideas look like?
The next time you have an idea, grab a piece of paper and sketch it out. Now take a look. How did you translate it from your brain to the page? Did you write a paragraph? Draw a picture? Make a diagram? Now ask a coworker to sketch the same idea – chances are, their page will look very different from yours.
There are many different kinds of thinkers. More often than not, we wind up working with people who understand the world in vastly different ways from ourselves. It’s what we mean when we say, “great ideas can come from anywhere.” Sometimes, what’s obvious in one mode of thinking is remarkably complex in another. By putting different kinds of thinkers on a problem, we can compose a greater range of creative solutions.
I’ve compiled a list of the ten most prevalent types of thinking you’re likely to encounter in a digital agency. I don’t mean to say that every individual falls into one category or another. Most people can think across several modes, depending on the situation, but everyone tends to have a few styles they’re most comfortable in… no one is equally adept at them all. Great agencies build diverse teams that can approach a problem from several angles.
Without further ado, the ten types of thinking you’re likely to encounter at a digital agency.
Storytellers like to think in narratives. Ideas are usually linear and have distinct beginnings, middles and ends. Most traditional creative copywriters tend to think this way, excellent for narrative media like TV but can be a bit of a struggle in less narrative-based digital media.
2. Visually Minded
A picture is worth a thousand words. Visual thinkers are adept at conveying a larger idea through carefully chosen visuals. It’s no surprise they make great art directors and designers.
3. Systems Oriented
System thinkers fuss over the relationships between things. Instead of developing a big narrative, they try to map out and understand how all the moving parts fit together. They love flowcharts and diagrams.
This type of thinking is readily apparent in the platform strategies of digital brands like Apple, Adobe and Google. The true value of each company is predicated not just on their individual products, but how all their products work together seamlessly. Planning and understanding that connection is where system thinker’s shine.
Associative thinkers look at the patterns between things. They have a tendency to express themselves through metaphor and proxy. They often lay out ideas in a chaotic fashion and are extremely prone to digressions. My thinking tends to follow this path. From experience, I can tell you that we sympathize quite deeply with the famous “digression” scene from Catcher in the Rye.
[Mr. Vinson] could drive you crazy sometimes, him and the goddam class. I mean he’d keep telling you to unify and simplify all the time. Some things you just can’t do that to…. It’s nice when somebody tells you about their uncle. Especially when they start out telling you about their father’s farm and then all of a sudden get more interested in their uncle. I mean it’s dirty to keep yelling ‘Digression!’ at him when he’s all nice and excited. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain.
See what I mean?
Logical thinkers break problems down into a series of choices. They focus heavily on the structure of decision-making, often establishing rubrics, filters and other tools that can not only institutionalize knowledge, but be used to teach computers how to automate tasks. Not only are they great programmers, but they also make some mean spreadsheets.
Have you ever met someone who had a knack for simplifying complex lists into simple categories? They probably fall here. Organizers are excellent and grouping and bucketing ideas, personnel, files… you name it. They have a habit of breaking things down by function, which makes them excellent programmers, but also excellent project and account managers as well.
They tend to have the most amazing file cabinets and binders, which make me unspeakably jealous.
This mode of thinking is very similar to that of the organizers, but instead of grouping by function, they arrange in terms of hierarchy. Traditionally, this is called Information Architecture and produces the kind of tree layout shown above.
Like a sculptor, intuitives often start with a rough idea of what they’re trying to create. As they gradually mould their creation, it begins to take form, often in unexpected (and wonderful) ways. They know they’re done when it “feels right.”
Bill Moggridge, founder of IDEO, explains:
“If you think about the structure of the mind, there just seems to be a small amount that is above the water—equivalent to an iceberg—which is the explicit part… Most academic subjects are designed to live in that explicit part that sticks out of the water. If you can find a way to harness, towards a productive goal, the rest of it, the subconscious [understanding], the tacit knowledge, the behavior—just doing it and the intuition—all those, then you can bring in the rest of the iceberg. And that is hugely valuable…. I mean every scientist is an intuitive person, and most “ahas” come from intuition anyway.”
They are known to cause panic attacks in more structured thinkers who prefer to have a concrete sense of where they’re going.
Leaders are goal-oriented individuals. They lay out the objectives and the timeline and lead the troops into the breach. They may not have charted a course, but they have a clear-eyed understanding of where the team is now and where it needs to go.
In films, montage-time helps bridge the gap between the inspirational speech and ultimate success. In the real world, they rely on the dedication of their team to get to the finish.
Similar to leaders, but far less grounded, visionaries imagine how things could be without regard for feasibility. Often, their ideas inspire more grounded thinkers to take bold, innovative steps.
It’s good to take note of the different kinds of thinkers around you. Pay attention to how your coworkers diagram their thoughts and keep it in mind when assigning tasks to teams of individuals. Instead of pushing likeminded individuals together (i.e. a brainstorm of programmers) try deliberately forming differently minded teams.
Interesting things happen when you pair two or three very different types of minds together. Sometimes, all greatness needs is a little perspective.
Work with other types of thinkers? Let me know in the comments!