Visual thinking

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Visual thinking is a way to organize your thoughts and improve your ability to think and communicate. It’s a way to expand your range and capacity by going beyond the linear world of the written word, list and spreadsheet, and entering the non-linear world of complex spacial relationships, networks, maps and diagrams.

It’s also about using tools — like pen and paper, index cards and software tools — to externalize your internal thinking processes, making them more clear, explicit and actionable.

The visual thinking landscape

Why is visual thinking important?

There’s more information at your fingertips than ever before, and yet people are overwhelmed by it. When faced with too much information we shut down. We need a way to simplify the complexity and chaos around us, so we can regain our capacity to think and create.

We think in pictures. When you hear a word — for example, “leaf” — an image instantly springs into your mind. We use images like this as building blocks to construct mental images when we think.

The whirl.

Visualization is increasingly used in business and science to simplify complexity: a picture is worth a thousand words.

Drawing is a natural process for thinking, exploring ideas and learning. Every child enjoys drawing — but at some point in our lives we learn that drawing is the province of artists. We begin to say things like

“I’m no artist”
“I can’t draw a straight line”
“I can’t draw a stick figure”

This is a fallacy. You can draw, and when you were a kid you knew it. You just forgot.

It’s time to remember what it was like to draw as a child — and to rediscover the joy of exploring ideas and learning without boundaries. It’s time to forget that you don’t know how to draw.

Play isn’t just for fun. It’s how we learn. You can practice your visual thinking skills and have fun at the same time. Enjoy yourself, and take some new abilities back to work with you.

Visual thinking basics.

In this 20-minute video I share some basics of visual thinking that will get you up and running in about 20 minutes.

Drawing facial expressions.

Now let’s have some fun. Here’s a short video showing you how to draw facial expressions.

Some basic rules for napkin-sketching.

How to draw a car.

Exercise: Turn words into pictures.

Here’s a Pictionary-like exercise that’s fun, easy and will help you hone your visual thinking skills.

You’ll need a friend and a sketchbook, and you can do it nearly anywhere — in an airport, a bar or over lunch. Here’s how it works:

1. Each person makes a list of words and phrases. If you want you can pick a theme, like famous people, transporation, or dot-com companies.

2. Next, pick a word from your list and try to draw it. No letters or words allowed. It’s your friend’s job to guess the word. If your friend guesses the word you each get a point. If you give up, you lose a point.

3. Take turns and see how high a score you can get in an hour.

4. Next time you play, see if you can beat your record.

You can also play with three people: Every time someone correctly guesses what you’re drawing, both you and they get a point.

Don’t have any friends? No problem. You can also play this game online with anonymous strangers.

Forms, fields and flows.

How to know what to draw.

Once you have gained some comfort with drawing, the next question is, “Now that I know how to draw, how do I decide what to draw in order to best convey my ideas? In this video I share a simple three-by-three matrix that will help you determine the best way to approach drawing an idea.

How to know when to draw.

My friend Marcia Conner, an admitted “word person” has been honing her visual thinking skills. She asked me “How can I recognize when I should be drawing an idea, versus communicating it some other way?” Watch my conversation (and sketching) with Marcia here.

Here is an hour-long session I did in Dubai, teaching people in the financial industry how to draw:

I’ll be adding content to this page over time.

Contact me if you’d like me to teach your team about visual thinking.