Image for Breaking the da Vinci Code to Boost Information Design Creativity

Leonardo da Vinci’s creative process produced the Mona Lisa and a prototype of modern helicopters. Copying his creative process might give your creativity a surprising boost.

Psychologists have analyzed the source of da Vinci’s creativity, breaking it down into four categories – keen observation, unremitting curiosity, a commitment to trial and error and “schema elaboration”, which means deconstructing a subject and reassembling the parts into a cohesive, compelling whole.

Leonardo da Vinci’s 1510 study of the mechanics of the human shoulder could easily pass today as an impressive infographic, combining explanatory drawings with relevant text. It shows that information design is not new, but incredibly practical and useful.

In an article published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, the psychologist authors write, “None of us is Leonardo da Vinci, but all of us are a little like him.” Put another way, most people have the capacity to see, search, try, fail and scheme. The missing ingredient is often a lack of discipline to follow through with the creative process. Nowhere is that more true than in the creative process to design information.

The principles of information design track closely with da Vinci’s creative process.

  • Envisioning a need for information;
  • Picturing the audience that needs the information;
  • Learning all you can about that audience;
  • Experimenting with different ways to convey the information with the target audience in mind; and
  • Packaging the information in surprising, fresh and eye-catching ways. 

Much like Sherlock Holmes, da Vinci mastered abductive reasoning, the process of drawing logical conclusions from what you observe. Da Vinci’s use of perspective is an example of his abductive reasoning. By combining what he saw with the application of mathematical principles, da Vinci created the illusion of depth in his paintings, a visual breakthrough for his time and still a marvel in our time.

Schema elaboration is a mental process that identifies and integrates relevant information, which human brains assimilate more quickly, according to psychologists. Relevancy is tied to the specific groups of human brains that you are trying to reach. Understanding the human brains of your target audience includes learning how and where they intake information. Much like leaders need committed followers, conveyors of information need an audience keenly interested in consuming the information they convey.

The trial and error part of the da Vinci process isn’t a mystery. It’s a process most of us employ routinely, especially when assembling furniture from IKEA. In the case of information design, the process of trial and error involves weighing choices among words, images, colors and design features. The choice also can be between channels of communication – for example, a television ad versus social media or a radio spot versus a colorful poster.

Where da Vinci excelled was in his mastery of composition. His choices were intentional and he made his choices count. That’s why paintings like The Last Supper and drawings of a flying machine remain compelling to our contemporary minds.

Da Vinci was more than an artist. His curiosity knew few boundaries. He studied birds as a source of inspiration for human flight. Da Vinci was an anatomist who dissected animals and humans to perfect his knowledge of living things. Some of his 500-year-old anatomical drawings of humans are still in use in medical schools.

Information designers today don’t need to aspire to legendary greatness. Their job is to make an impact. What makes da Vinci’s creative process so legendary – and useful – is that it still works.

Apart from the rigors of his creative process, one of da Vinci’s most enduring contributions was his ability to see the world around him in parts that he could re-arrange in practical ways. Lost in his grandeur as an artist is da Vinci’s work as an engineer who produced thousands of mechanical drawings that include designs for parachutes, portable bridges, double hulls for ships, miter locks and the ball bearing. Modern observers regard da Vinci as a forerunner in synthesizing art, science and engineering. His creative process was unbounded and almost always purposeful.

Information designers today don’t need to aspire to legendary greatness. Their job is to make an impact. What makes da Vinci’s creative process so legendary – and useful – is that it still works. His designs still impress.

There is no absolute formula for creativity. However, da Vinci’s creative process comes close to breaking the code of making relevant information virtually irresistible.