A rich visual language

Andréa Watts on taking a 'coaching through collage' tool online.

03 June 2020

As an artist, collage has always been my preferred medium of choice. Even when completing the first-year foundation of an MA Art Therapy course, I would use collage if I could get away with it. Perhaps that is why, after a somewhat circuitous career route, I started UnglueYou®, where I developed a 3-stage methodology forcoaching creatively through collage. 

The methodology combines my training in Art Therapy, Clean language and mindfulness to facilitate deeper self- awareness through images. The purpose is to empower clients to get ‘unstuck’ and maximise their personal and professional potential, by unlocking their unconscious thinking, bringing to conscious awareness blocks, mindsets and experiences that may be preventing them from achieving their aspirations. We reveal their motivators, strengths and values that can serve to inspire them. This is achieved primarily through leveraging the language of imagery, visual metaphors and symbols. These have the power to quickly affect us emotionally and psychologically, influencing thinking patterns and encouraging purposeful action.  

Usually collage as an Arts Based Method (ABM) for coaching takes place face to face. It is worth noting that there is a difference between collage as an ABM and collage as art: clients do not need artistic experience to engage with it. Instead, I prefer to place emphasis on the methodology as a form of creativity that involves large brain networks (Kaufman, 2013). So, as a face to face activity once lockdown began, I had to cancel all my group workshops, training and 1-1 consultations. 

I was then invited to deliver a session at an online resilience retreat organised by a colleague. I would normally facilitate workshops at her weekend retreats. Now I was faced with the challenge of transitioning online. But I also recognised that during this period of unprecedented change images are an excellent and accessible way of reflecting, assessing and articulating what is 'volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous' [VUCA] as well as emotionally difficult. As a coaching resource the UnglueYou® collage methodology has the benefit of allowing personal insight and clarity that enables clients to respond well as they face new challenges, while simultaneously engaging people in a mindful process that benefits wellbeing. This was our intention for the women attending the retreat: to create a space where they could come together to gain strategies to be resilient, minimise overwhelm and approach stressful situations with clarity.

Having only delivered offline before, creating an online version initially raised concerns that something might be lost in the way of embodied cognition through the hand mind connection. I also had to consider whether ‘playing’ with the images (manipulating, moving and reconstructing them) online would be too different to the tactile experience of working directly with the materials offline as clients create their collage. There was also the aspect of Mindfulness and Flow state as described by (Cziksentmihalyi, 1990) to consider. Could the right set of circumstances be reproduced to allow this to occur? And if not, would it matter? 

Additionally, as clients gather images, I guide them not to edit or filter by looking through the pile of magazines for ones they like. If they were to do this, they are not remaining open, curious and non-judgemental or accessing their unconscious knowledge. Instead they are making assumptions about what will be in the magazine they overlook, as well as the one they choose. My challenge, therefore, was how to transition this stage of the process online in a format that would still allow clients to work with their unconscious and intuitive knowledge. Recognising that if they used the search function to source images, they would be working with their cognitive and analytical reasoning i.e. what they knew on a conscious level – immediately running the risk of judgements, pre-conceived ideas, barriers and unconscious bias influencing their image choice. 

To avoid this happening, I decided to get creative. Where creativity is defined as ‘manipulating your existing knowledge to look for alternatives’, my existing knowledge relates to years of practice specialising only in coaching through collage. Drawing on this I know the types of images that are typically used offline and used this to inform my version of an online magazine.

Firstly, I ensured that most of the images could be interpreted metaphorically, knowing that these images elicit multiple meanings, facilitate deeper connection and therefore more open and meaningful dialogue. Secondly, having witnessed hundreds of collages being created I deliberately made available images that are symbolic or part of our collective unconscious (Jung, 1964) e.g. butterfly, door, seedling, a bird in flight, spiral. Then to reduce the chances of imposing my own unconscious bias, someone else contributed images and I chose not to exclude ones I disliked or that made me feel uncomfortable. Finally, to mirror paper magazines, words, quotes, patterns and a variety of genres were represented – science, nature, psychology, engineering, film, music, religion, sport and health. 

With the resource I had created and an online collage tool I was able to replicate the offline methodology. Anyone who had access to a range of magazines could also participate. Undoubtedly, some parts of the process were experienced differently compared to offline. But in terms of the purpose and overall outcome of coaching through collage, it successfully remained the same.

This was especially noticeable as the women shared their collage stories with each other, after guidance how to do this in a psychologically safe way. Because collages are intensely personal, they provide a rich visual language from which to share the story of our lived experiences in an authentic way that removes jargon, pretence and clichés. Language that would otherwise act as a barrier and slow down honest expression, emotional connections, mutual understanding and support. As I listened to the women’s conversations, it was clear that creating their collages digitally had no discernible impact on their storytelling. In fact, I was pleased to have feedback describing my session as insightful and transformative. 

Personally, guiding clients through the creative process online would never be my first choice. But I understand that is as much about me, knowing as an ENFJ I love meeting and interacting with my clients face to face, at least to begin with. Plus, the creative energy in the room, especially with groups, can never be replicated online. However, as an alternative, creating a digital collage offers all the benefits of offline and an opportunity to come together, connect and reflect through an Arts Based Method.

Andréa Watts

Creative Coach | Trainer | Speaker

Honorary Lecturer City University, London – MSc Psychology



Cziksentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Jung, C. G., Henderson, J. L., Jacobi, J., Jaffé Aniela, & Franz, M.-L. vo. (1964). Man and his Symbols (C. G. Jung & M.-L. vo. Franz, Eds.). Aldus Books Ltd. .

Kaufman, S. B. (2013). The Real Neuroscience of Creativity - Scientific American Blog Network.