In today’s marketplace, innovation isn’t an outlier; it’s the baseline expectation. And with the often mind-bending originality that many technologies, concepts, and creations offer, it can be tougher than ever to find the right way to communicate the full potential of a big idea.

How, for instance, would you even go about explaining the MIT Media Lab’s Mediated Matter group? Its website contains the following description:

“The Mediated Matter group focuses on Nature-inspired design and design-inspired Nature. We conduct research at the intersection of computational design, digital fabrication, materials science, and synthetic biology, and apply that knowledge to design across scales — from the micro scale to the building scale.”

If that’s too confusing, maybe you’d have better luck understanding how MIT’s Opera of the Future group is “developing new techniques for interpreting and mapping expressive gesture as a transformation musical counterpoint to everyday life.”

Initiatives like these at MIT are not only real; they are innovations in the true sense of the word. The trouble is that it’s tough to get past the far-fetched description. What does it mean? What does this look like? How am I supposed to get excited about a future made possible by this technology when I can’t even begin to visualize what that future holds?

The answer lies in imagination.

Imagination is the Innovator’s Ultimate Storyboard

The only way to communicate any of this abstract and not fully realized stuff is to imagine it and then depict what you conceived in your imagination.

Imagination does not mean “make believe” or made-up things. Imagination is the ability to see and explore real things that can exist and are about to become possible, like all the fantastic ideas emerging at the MIT Media Lab.

Imagination is the companion to a company’s or innovator’s vision — like a giant invisible whiteboard on which you can depict a future world and that helps you write the narratives and scenarios that bring that world to vivid life.

Imagination Design Must Become a New Marketing Discipline

We’ve entered a marketplace reality in which the past is rarely a precedent for what comes next. It’s essential that we shift our focus away from backward-looking, case study–based narratives and toward forward-looking “future studies.”

To do this, we need a visualization and storytelling discipline that can paint a clear, vivid picture of a world that doesn’t yet exist.

In literature and film, the genre is called science-fiction or sometimes fantasy. In our work, we call it imagination design. It’s a discipline that transcends marketing to bring the future into focus. And it acts as more than a communications strategy, bringing it to life in a way that no amount of research or data alone ever could.

Imagination is the flavor of creative energy we need in this era of increasing possibility. As communicators, we must wield this future-seeing power, guiding both the big ideas and their attendant communications to fruition. Along the way, imagination design requires us to be:

  • Students of the future who can track and anticipate where key markets and businesses are heading.
  • Insightful directors who can create detailed scenarios that show the potential impact of an idea.
  • Expert change managers who can map the path from the present condition to the future destination.

Imagination Helps Us Define New Possibilities

Of course, when we’re dealing with true innovation, the future we’re invoking is more than a technical picture; it’s a rich new reality that introduces novel possibilities, problems, and solutions. These need to be communicated, too.

The goal of imagination design isn’t just creating a message, but moreso to create a fully realized world to observe and explore — a world populated by people, places, things, actions, and relationships. And it necessarily establishes a shared language, too, so that the context of this future world can be defined and brought to bear on our present.

Think of it in the same way large institutions like universities create a future vision for capital campaigns. They invite you to think: What does the campus of the future look like? And then they help you see it. What the buildings look like, how students exist in the space, how the current campus architecture and equilibrium will be impacted.

In addition to painting a vivid future reality, the really good campaigns dig deeper to unspool the various ways this new reality will affect all the different threads of life. From social interactions to financial transactions to corporate collaboration, what will be different and how will that affect the lived human experience in this new environment?

Imagination Builds Buy-In for Your Innovation

New ideas will change the world for the better. But before innovations can hit the marketplace and start truly making an impact, they need to generate meaningful buy-in — from internal stakeholders, from investors, from consumers.

If you want to achieve a goal — any goal — you start by envisioning the final outcome. To be a true source of motivation, the envisioned outcome should be precise and alive: not a set of inert images, but a vibrant scene that’s teeming with emotions, victories, hopes, life. Imagination design can help you use this pre-conceptualization of an end goal to inspire your employees, whose work is a vital component of your idea’s execution.

By conjuring an enticing and vivid endpoint, you can inspire your workforce to invest in your idea’s success. By infusing that destination with deep individual meaning, you make it easier to draw a definitive line from the present to the future, and to explain and assign the individual actions that will be needed to get there. By painting your envisioned future not as a possibility but as an inevitability, you can motivate your team members to bring forth the full force of their capabilities to help you achieve it.

This is because a person’s confidence and motivation are tied to their ability to see the outcomes of their efforts. And when this outcome is clearly imagined, employees are then free to use their own imaginations when thinking about how to help you achieve it. In this way, we can think of imagination as a natural resource: a deep well of energy and potential that, when tapped, can fuel a movement that inspires others and produces achievement.

The beautiful thing is that in this work, imagination begets more imagination, and a team of imaginative co-conspirators can be your best friend. Because one person’s imagination can be wildly different from another’s. And that’s where the fun comes in.

Imagination Design Brings Big, Innovative Ideas to Life

The future relies on the ingenuity of ideas. However, innovation can produce very limited impact unless we have imagination to see where innovation can take us.

With so many new technologies, new connections, and new tools available to mankind today, it’s up to the most creative and most insightful leaders to envision how their ideas can change our world for the better.

With that reality comes the need for a new kind of marketing language. Existing communications and storytelling methods are rooted in the past and are thus inadequate for the job of conveying imagined future states.

That’s why marketers must shift our language and storytelling toward a new form of communications: imagination design. This practice draws on creative thinkers’ most important natural resource, their imaginations, to envision, articulate, and fully flesh out the future reality that will exist after an innovative idea is released into the world.