XPlane Tranforms Global Companies with the Power of Doodling

Using drawings, skits, role-playing, and the power of "show, don't tell," one local design consultancy generates some seriously smart thinking.

By Kelly Clarke October 10, 2014 Published in the Design Annual: Fall 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

XPLANE’s internal “culture map” illustrates who the company is, what it does, and where it is headed.

When ICANN wants to envision the future of the Internet, they don’t call a buttoned-up business consultant anymore. The global domain coordinators ping a crack team of designers, artists, MBAs, and architects in a downtown Portland office cluttered with student art projects. It’s a place where you might watch staffers role-play with executives from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, or doodle shoulder to shoulder with bigwigs from Apple, Coca-Cola, or GE. 

Collectively, they are XPlane, an innovative local design consultancy that harnesses the power of sharp design- and visual-based thinking to help the world’s most powerful companies transform their workforce and missions. Think of XPlane as the business world’s hip hybrid of communications expert, therapist, and chic design pro—with a little bit of camp counselor thrown in. 

“We take complex, ambiguous, or confusing concepts and just beautifully clarify them or bring a new level of understanding to them,” explains Stephanie Gioia, the company’s director of consulting. Excitement snaps through her words as she describes how staffers use unorthodox but calculated exercises to help business leaders unravel problems. “You can hide a lot in words,” she says. “We start with everyone drawing—it’s about literally getting people on the same page.” 

XPlane launched in 1993 as an infographics firm, boiling down complex concepts into engaging art. But CEO Aric Wood explains that, very soon, clients started gushing over XPlane’s planning meetings as much as their final product. “We’d have executives say, ‘The process you took us through helped us achieve in two days what it would usually take us two months to do.’” he says. “Visual thinking is an accelerator. We’re not just the picture guys.”   

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