February 23, 2023
Alan Chen

Illustrating Strategy

Chess is one of the most popular board games in the world. Played between two people, it’s about tactical moves and strategic planning. What makes it interesting however, is that the players can see each other’s moves, which allows them to respond accordingly in virtually limitless combinations. Whether you are playing a chess game, or drafting battle plans, or strategising during a basketball game; being able to see how a plan unfolds is critical to the success of it. It gives us a view of the big picture, one where we understand how our position and our role can service the plan.

A Tool for Communication

As a visual communicator, I specialise in making ideas tangible. I started my career as a graphic designer, creating abstract visuals that would come to represent a brand or an idea. Then I moved on to storyboarding, where I rapidly illustrated sequential scenes that told an overall narrative. From here I moved up to concept art, which had me using my high level illustration ability to create rich locations, characters, costumes and props that became part of the visual identity of a film. In each of these roles, I found myself listening to my clients, eliciting imagery and references from them as best as I could.

Kangaroo Island Advertisement for South Australia Tourism, Directed by Jeffrey Darling, Storyboard Illustrated by Alan Chen

A Time and Money Saver

This is actually a very tactical part of the film industry. For my clients, it allowed them to test their ideas, and then pivot if it didn’t work. On my first feature film as a concept artist, I worked on “Australia” starring Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, and was asked to quickly paint a burning pub in the middle of Darwin. The team wanted to see what the potential moment would look like before committing to the actual scene which cost millions of dollars to create. It allowed the stakeholders in the studios to know that the money would be well spent, and gave them the confidence that the director’s vision (Baz Luhrmann) was one which would resonate well, and be feasible to create. The film grossed $211.3 Million. How’s that for success?

Concept Art - “Australia” 20th Century Fox, Illustrated by Alan Chen

A Tangible Roadmap

Today I continue to draw and make ideas tangible. Whether it’s an illustrated strategy, animated explainer video, graphic facilitation, whiteboard explainer, or just visual note taking; the goal is to translate complexity into something visible, allowing it to be studied, iterated on, and tested before it’s released. Most often I find myself illustrating strategies and values. With strategies, it’s about putting everyone on the same page, and giving people an active view of how they can tactically position themselves in the plan to achieve their vision. With values, it’s all about being able to show abstract ideas or emotions in a way that removes ambiguity, creating a common ground that people can commit to.

UTS Suburb Level Theory of Change - Visual roadmap, Illustrated by Sh8peshifters

 A Collaborative Process

Anytime I’m tasked with illustrating strategy I take a transparent approach. Going back to chess metaphors, it’s a bit like the scenes in “The Queen’s Gambit” where the protagonist Beth Harmon is visualising her strategy against her opponents as giant chess pieces moving on the ceiling. It’s a truly unique gift, which brings the audience along in an active way because we can literally see what she is thinking, and understand what she is aiming for. In the same kind of way, I’m also doing the same with the illustrations I create. I am laying my cards on the table, showing my moves, and taking an inclusive approach. This is about handing the ownership of the concept back to the team, allowing them to take part in its construction, and develop it in a way that they can more easily agree on simply because it is visual.

Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit” - Beth Harmon’s Visual Strategy

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