Visual Frameworks

May 5, 2020
Andrew DiMeo

Most of us have likely encountered a visual framework at some point in our lives.  They show up in math class as an X-Y axis.  They are flow charts and Venn diagrams.  And while having done such frameworks throughout life, I didn’t fully appreciate them until using the Business Model Canvas.  My introduction to this framework was in the book Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur.  This was one of those eye opening events for a thing that had been right there all along.  I began to see visual frameworks everywhere, including drawn from memory.

The Jim Collins Hedgehog Concept.  SWOT.  The Importance-Satisfaction 2×2 Matrix.  The Double Diamond.  Mind maps.  Empathy maps.  All Visual Frameworks.  I drew a few of these on my whiteboard while writing this post and have included them to add visual context to this narrative.

Visual frameworks are useful tools for organizing, interpreting, and communicating complex information.  I break frameworks down into three main categories: Prioritization, Process, and Relationships.  Let’s take a look at each of these:


Frameworks used to prioritize information are rooted in mathematical analysis.  While they can become quite complex, some of the most useful ones are simple matrices such as a 2×2 or 5×5.  Figure 1 on the whiteboard is the Importance-Satisfaction 2×2 matrix.  This specific example can be found in The Statue in the Stone by Scott Burleson.  Plot importance on the X-axis and satisfaction on the Y-axis to determine product attributes that are table stakes, disruption targets, zero impact opportunities, and significant opportunities.  Extend this concept to a 5×5 matrix (not shown) and it can be used for risk assessment.  Plot probability on the X-axis along with severity on the Y-Axis to visualize risk priority.  An example of this use case can be seen in Trig’s Design History File Ready Ideation.  In practice, any two variables can be compared on the X and Y Axes of such frameworks.  A few more common examples of criteria to compare are feasibility, impact, and interest.

Note that current practice typically begins with data collection that is then entered into a spreadsheet.  The results are a prioritization framework generated with the data.  CanvasGT enables a new way of working where collaboration with a team on the framework can serve as both data collection and visualization simultaneously.


Examples of visualization frameworks for processes include the flowcharts and Kanban boards (not shown).  These frameworks can be an active process or used to communicate a repeatable process.  An example of an active visualization framework is setting up Kanban to manage raw materials and components in a manufacturing plant.  An example repeatable process is the Double Diamond developed by the British Design Council (represented in Figure 2).  This framework has key elements seen in many innovation and design processes, notably the diamond shape itself which represents divergent and convergent thinking.

A few additional process visual frameworks (not shown in figures) that I refer to regularly include Stanford’s Biodesign Innovation Process, Trig’s Explore, Prototype, Build, and CanvasGT’s own Universal Job Loop.


The prototypical example for a visual framework to build and/or demonstrate relationships is the Venn diagram.  The whiteboard version (Figure 3) is a rendition of the Jim Collins Hedgehog Concept.  The other example demonstrating this category is the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) as shown in Figure 4.  Relationship frameworks are especially useful for visualizing confounding variables from a qualitative perspective.  This was, in my opinion, the genius of Osterwalder and Pigneur.  A summary of each category (prioritization, process, and relationships) and Business Model Canvas are shown on the whiteboard in Figures 5 and 6 respectively.

These holistic representations of information enable realizing the impact of a big picture that might otherwise be missed if working in a traditional format, such as a business model in a Word document.

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What is more powerful than a visual framework focused on any one of these dimensions of prioritization, process, and relationships?  Putting two or three of them together.

A great example of this is the Waterfall Canvas which is part of Trig’s Design History File Ready Ideation.  This model combines the repeatable process of the FDA’s Waterfall framework (not shown) to visualize complex relationships for a holistic view of medical device design.  This combined process/relationship framework is shown in Figure 7.  When implemented on CanvasGT, this framework enables all three dimensions by adding prioritization (Figure 8) to the picture.

Visual frameworks are excellent tools for making sense of and communicating complex information.  They can be used to actively prioritize new information or visualize existing data.  They are good tools for building a new process, managing an existing one, or for repeatability.  Use visual frameworks to realize confounding relationships otherwise difficult to connect.  Use visual frameworks to draw order from chaos.

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