Visual thinking seems like a simple enough idea – add visuals to your work to complement your thinking. Simple and powerful, yet challenging for those with traditional training whether it is in business, literature or science and arguably also for artists, designers and scientists. This latter group may be familiar with creating visuals as a piece of art, to illustrate their design or draw models of their thinking, yet for anything else they mostly use words. Words on a page or spoken are still the primary way of communicating in meetings, conferences and discussions. We are bombarded with bullet points after bullet points.  Even at designers’ conferences, most attendees take notes “the linear way” starting at the top of the page to the bottom and using words. My own experience and new research is showing that visual thinking may need to take a bigger role in our professional roles.

Why use visual thinking?

I realized 10 years ago that I am a visual thinker, that visuals help simplify and complement my thinking, make sense of complexity and remember better. Learning this has been transformative and by using more visual thinking in my work, I discovered that we are all visual thinkers — to different degrees — but that we have not been trained to use it as a powerful approach to complement our words, particularly in the business world. While traditional approaches tended to be overly focused on verbal thinking as a higher thinking or suggest that visual or verbal thinking is a matter of preference, recent research has shown these both need to be present, particularly around creative work (See Otis, L)

From a practitioner’s perspective, both reflecting on my own process and my consulting work training and facilitating groups around innovation challenges, I have seen how effective visual thinking can be. There is so much ambiguity behind our words and our different ways of interpreting them, yet we are often unsure how to bring more visual elements to our world and feel awkward doing it. When I facilitate an ideation session and ask participants to draw their idea, they feel self-conscious and keep using words instead.

Part of my journey using more visual thinking is personal but it also fits nicely with the Design thinking process I teach and use in my work.  I believe it is an integral part of the process. So I started to use visual thinking in my own presentations such as the slide below. Instead of a lengthy paragraph, this slide quickly shows the key elements of design thinking in a way that is easy to see and remember. And I will add words to illustrate my points as a complement to visuals when I explain the concept.

What I learned from integrating visual thinking in my work

Here is what I learned from experimenting with integrating visual thinking in my work.  First, my artistic drawing skills are very basic so finding ways to deepen my ability to use visuals in my business was challenging.

However I learned that:

  • Drawing (no skills involved) can really help communicate your idea in a way that is clear and fast. This is why I use my own drawings as in the example above: once I am willing to share and be vulnerable to my audience, I give them permission to do the same. I often do a short exercise in drawing with my teams: for instance, try drawing “a monkey jumping over the moon” or “a difficult challenge”. While participants are reticent at first, once they start drawing they quickly realize that it is easy to communicate even complex concepts and also that it can be fun and creative to share drawings rather than battling about the best word to illustrate an idea.
  • Organizing a flow of information or ideas really helps see the big picture: in my work we use a lot of Post-it® notes that can get reorganized to help discover insights and themes through clustering.

  • Using color coding when you are taking notes can be a great way to find your information faster ( i.e. have all the next steps in red and basic information in blue). To that purpose, my best friend is a pack of 18 thin colored Stabilo markers.
  • Mind mapping, “a diagram used to visually organize information …and show relationships among pieces of the whole” (source Wikipedia, Carrol L Hopper), is an amazing tool both for taking notes and organizing ideas. Since I started using this technique, it is the only method I use for taking notes at meetings or training. It makes it so much easier to find the information again, especially when combined with color coding. It doesn’t have to be fancy, you can just use your own words, symbols and colors. Even better try an app such as Nebo to take notes by hand on a tablet. The app can even search later for a specific word that you have hand written. Here is an example of a basic mind-map about VC investment I draw at a conference recently. For more information see Buzan book recommendation below.

  • When I do training or facilitation, I always have critical charts hanging on the walls during a meeting rather than showing them as a slide that immediately disappears. The subtle reminder of key information on a chart (for example Diverging rules) at all time, helps with the flow and can be referred to whenever necessary.

  • Visual thinking is a speedy way to communicate and help get alignment. We may understand a concept differently and can argue on words nuances as each of us can have a different image associated with the word, but when we draw, it brings clarification and concreteness into the discussion.
  • The simple act of using visuals is also a different way to solve problems. Rudolf Arnheim in his book Visual Thinking said “Drawings, paintings and other similar devices serve not only to translate finished thoughts into visible models but are also an aid in the process of working out solutions to problems.” If you are stuck, try to map out what you know and the relationships between elements and see what emerges.
  • If you have space, creating a “war room” where all your work can stay on the wall for the duration of a project can be really powerful. I have a client for which we created a portfolio of new ideas and every time I meet in their conference room, I see the chart and the actions they are progressively taking towards developing these ideas. Having all the information in one place forces your brain to make new connections, save a lot of time and help a team focus.

How can I get started using more visual thinking?

Here are a few simple steps that you can try for incorporating more visual thinking in your everyday personal and team work. This may help you with efficiency, better communication, alignment and speed.

  • Make your slides more visual: slides should complement your presentation with visuals not repeating what you are saying
  • Take notes using mind mapping
  • Draw, rather than use words, to describe an idea
  • Create a flow chart rather than a long explanation
  • Use color coding (using markers, post-it notes…) to simplify and/or remember better
  • Record your meetings visually to help them be more effective.
    • Capture discussion points, decisions, next steps on a chart for all to see during a meeting rather than typing minutes that will be shared later
  • Use sticky notes to give everybody a voice :
    • Start silently to give the introverts a chance,
    • Share all the notes and post on a wall/easel sheet. This ensures that everybody is heard and their thoughts have an equal weight
    • Use a clustering exercise to help highlight commonality (rather than arguing about details and differences). The visual component will help to see this quickly
  • Check out some of the books below to get inspiration

Next time you are stuck in a discussion that is not progressing, you may want to suggest: “Can we draw our ideas or arguments?” or” Can we use drawings to represent our customer journey?”or “Can we use Mind Mapping to make sense of the information?”.

Book Resources

If you want to learn more about visual thinking, here are a few books I would recommend

  • Arnheim, R (1997). Visual Thinking. Berkeley and LA, CA: University of California Press
  • Brand, W (2017). Visual Thinking. Empowering People and Organizations through Visual Connections. Amsterdam, Netherlands: BIS Publishers
  • Brown, S (2014). The Doodle Revolution, New York, NY: The Penguin Group
  • Buzan, T. (1996). The Mind Map Book, New York, NY: The Penguin Group
  • Duarte, N. (2008). Slide:ology. The art and science of creating great presentations. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, Inc.
  • Reynolds, G. (2008). Presentation Zen. Berkeley, CA: New Riders
  • Roam, D (2008). The Back of the Napkin, New York, NY: The Penguin Group