When the designer says “picture this” – but you can’t

Let’s say you hire an ad agency. Maybe you need some graphics for your website; a visual way to explain your unique services to potential customers.

After learning more about your company, your account manager provides you with a brief to approve. Easy enough. Then, perhaps, the copywriter provides you with some text for the graphics in a Microsoft Word document. You read over it while the designer shows you some examples of illustrations. But the text is just text, and those sample graphics have nothing to do with your business.

The agency people describe how they’ll translate the text into the look they’ve shown you. You understand all the words they are saying. But you can’t build those words together into an image in your brain.

Then they look at you expectantly, waiting for your approval. And you know that once you give the OK, that designer will start spending the hours (i.e., your money) to actually create what they’ve described.

But you have no idea what that will look like. And if the finished product is completely different from what you need, you’re out a lot of money. Additional versions will cost additional budget. Yet how can you be expected to fully understand what these artsy people are describing? You think that maybe if you were an artist or a “creative,” you could speak their language, but you’re not; that’s why you hired these people in the first place.

Frustrating, right? Does it sound familiar?

If you’ve been in a situation like this, it may not be for the reason you think. It’s not that you are uncreative or unimaginative.

It might just be that you have aphantasia.

“You understand all the words they are saying. But you can’t build those words together into an image in your brain.”

Aphantasia is a difficulty or inability to create pictures in your head

Most people can picture things in their mind’s eye. It’s not as if they physically see something on the inside of their eyelids – but there’s a part of their mind where they can make mental images, like the ones you might experience in a dream. Of course, there’s a spectrum of ability here: Some people only see hazy outlines, while others can imagine things in photorealistic detail. You can take a quiz to measure the vividness of your visual imagination.

But for folks with aphantasia, that can be difficult or impossible. And because there’s little awareness about the condition, it can cause confusion in many areas of life. Elementary school art assignments. Visualization exercises in yoga class. That novel all your friends loved that you just couldn’t get through (paragraph after paragraph describing mountains).

Many people who discover they have aphantasia are amazed to learn that other people are different. “Wait, other people can actually see things in their minds? They can mentally transport themselves to that relaxing beach? That popular book plays like a movie in their heads?”

Yes. But knowing it is half your battle. The other half (at least when it comes to working with an ad agency), is a little bit of strategy and a little bit of trust.

How to approve an idea you can’t visualize

A good agency will ask you a lot of questions up front: about your brand, your audience, and where and how you plan to use the piece they are creating. Those questions will help you communicate everything you need for the project – with or without visuals. During that process, focus on the following.

  1. The message. Start with the information. What needs to be conveyed in this piece? What action do people need to take? This should all be discussed in the brief or scope of work at the start of the project. If the project is going to be visually complex (like an infographic), the writer will likely draft copy for your approval before it goes into layout. At this stage, don’t worry about the visuals. Just make sure the facts are right.
  2. The prioritization. Now, look at the facts you’ve gathered and ask which are the most important ones? What’s the number one message, and what idea do you want lingering in the mind of your customer after they’ve seen it? Professional writers can help order the information into something easy to digest; graphic designers then lay out the content so that it draws and guides the eye in a specific way. If you can tell them what’s important, they can translate that graphically.
  3. The tone. If you have trouble conveying how you want a piece to look, try instead to describe how it should make you (or your audience) feel. Your designer can create a look based on the tone you want, whether it needs to be fun or serious, rugged or sophisticated, professional or irreverent. 

Aphantasia doesn’t have to be a barrier to success, even in creative fields. In fact, some of the world’s most creative minds have the condition. Human diversity, including neurodiversity, is precisely what helps us create new and interesting things when we work together. So embrace the process: Focus on strategic communication, paired with a little bit of trust, and you can create a strong partnership with your agency that will produce amazing things for your brand.

Tags: Design

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