The eponymous Venn diagram should not be seen as a mere PowerPoint decoration but, Malcolm White explains, can and should be used as a creative thinking tool to unlock potential or seize opportunities.
Circles have encircled me this week. Intersecting circles to be precise. During four different meetings with four different clients to discuss four different topics, I have found myself staring at the intersecting circumferences of four different Venn diagrams.
In fact, Venn diagrams have exerted such a hold on me that, this week, the voices in my head have been asking 'venn shall we two meet again?' (apologies) and the answer was, somewhat inevitably, in the very next meeting.
I'd be surprised if anyone reading this doesn't know what a Venn diagram is, but just in case I'm wrong, here is an elegant description of the Venn from the British mathematician and popular science writer Ian Stewart: "[Venn diagrams] are regions on a sheet of paper which represent sets; their overlaps represent the intersections of the corresponding sets, the members they have in common. For instance, if one set is 'things that fly', and the other is 'pigs', then the intersection is 'flying pigs'."
Such is the ubiquity of the Venn diagram in management, marketing and communications industry practice that I'd also be surprised if you haven't intersected with a Venn diagram yourself this week. What you might not know, though, is that the eponymous inventor of these diagrams was an English logician and philosopher called John Venn, who was born in 1834.
In a paper called 'On the Diagrammatic and Mechanical Representation of Propositions and Reasonings', published in July 1880 in The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science (Fifth Series), Venn proposed his intersecting circles as a way of extending the logic diagrams of Leonhard Euler (1707–1783) to complex logical problems.
The specific problem that Venn was trying to solve with Euler's diagrams (best described as a small circle labelled with the proposition 'X' within a larger circle labelled with the proposition 'Y') was, in Venn's own words, that "it must be noticed that these diagrams [Euler's] do not naturally harmonise with the propositions of ordinary life or ordinary logic. One very marked characteristic – about these circular diagrams – is that they forbid the natural expression of uncertainty. We have no means of exhibiting imperfect knowledge."
What struck me in reading this was that my critique of the worst of modern marketing and communications mirrors Venn's critique of Euler. Too often, it seems that the way brands and products are promoted and communicated doesn't 'naturally harmonise with the propositions of ordinary life or ordinary logic'.
We can all probably think of dozens of examples of marketing and communications campaigns that seem to bypass ordinary life entirely, but sometimes campaigns defy 'ordinary logic', too. A recent campaign here in London for our newest visitor attraction – The View from The Shard – is an illogical case in point. Why, when you are trying to sell tickets to London's highest viewing platform, with unique 360-degree views for up to 40 miles, would you feature a series of pin-sharp, hi-resolution, panoramic photographs showing that 40-mile view in all its glory, in your campaign? Surely the logical outcome from such an illogical strategy must be fewer bookings?
But my broader proposition about Mr Venn's ever-present diagrams is that we should think of them as much more than PowerPoint decoration. Actually, they can be – in fact, should be – used as creative thinking tools to drive and define innovation.
Many famous product and design innovations have come from the surprising combination of different 'sets' of experience. Take the legendary Swatch watch, for example, that was born as a result of the intersection between watch-making technology and fashion trends. Similarly, many of the best marketing and communications campaigns that I can think of are the product of the intersection of two contrasting sets of insight. Perhaps we should encourage our strategists to explore and then formulate new strategies in this diagrammatic way.
Perhaps, to give our creative teams a helping hand when they're staring at a blank layout pad or an empty InDesign workspace, we should be producing our own Venn diagrams, and creating unusual combinations to unlock potential or seize opportunities.
So the next time you find yourself or your teams running around in circles, may I suggest that the solution might lie in some intersecting ones.