Visual Thinking

Do you think in words – or in pictures?

Various communities use the term visual thinking in different but related ways. Thinking about pictures, communicating with pictures, advertisement and propaganda, visualization of data, and storyboarding share this concept. Football coaches, branding experts, math gurus and choreographers think and communicate in pictures. Visual Thinking champions, like XPlane founder Dave Gray, make an excellent case that everyone else should learn to do the same.

Mightier still

Do a web search on visual thinking and you’ll find that most of the results apply to visual learning, a closely related concept. Visual learning involves concept maps, diagramming, storyboarding and analysis of art for meaning.  Proponents of visual learning (e.g., Visual Thinking Strategies) hold that connecting concepts to images leads to better comprehension, retention, and critical thinking (see also Dual Coding Theory, Cognitive Load Theory). While the same has been claimed for every alternative education concept of the past four decades, the claims for visual learning seem to be on solid ground.

The term visual thinking appears often in the study of art – particularly ancient art. The ancient Romans were highly visually literate; the message of a panel (below photo) from the Cancelleria reliefs would have been immediately apparent to its viewers. Few modern viewers except those trained in ancient iconography can see the persuasive devices at work here. Irresistible forces have called the emperor of Rome to invade Sarmatia, and the senate and the citizens are behind the decision – or so we’re led to believe. The advantage the ancients had over us moderns is not merely their ability to recognize the deities in the scene. The Romans would have correctly interpreted the scantily clad, muscular gal as representing Rome’s people and its soul; and would have noticed that she was pushing the emperor toward his conclusion to invade. They would also appreciate the goddess of war’s flirtation and eye-lock with the emperor.

Cancelleria Reliefs detail

Art historians observe that what we see – or how we interpret what we see – is controlled by our culture. Historian Betty Ann Brown, in Art & Mass Media, puts it this way:

Most of us consider seeing an essentially biological and “natural” process. We assume that we open our eyes and automatically see whatever is in front of them. In fact, looking is learned. We “see” as our culture teaches us to see.

More education in visual thought and analysis of imagery could help us lift this cultural veil from our eyes and eliminate the distrust we have for what we see. And it could help the bottom line.

Rudolph Arnheim, in his much-cited 1969 book, Visual Thinking, made a passionate case that thinking and perceiving are inseparable. That seems a bit extreme – as do his assertions that all reasoning is intuition and all observation is invention. But I think Arnheim nailed it when he said the arts are neglected because they’re based on perception and that perception is downplayed in education because it is assumed not to involve thought.

Many engineers and designers think in pictures, whether alone or working in teams, where schematics do most of the talking. Visual thinking in the world of systems engineering can involve a remarkable rich, yet accessible, symbolic language. In the 1960s, Larry Lamm, an engineer at Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, pioneered the concept of an integrated, functional “systems” approach to schematics. Lamm published aircraft system schematics, initially as part of Delta Airlines maintenance manuals, that addressed the need for communication within interdisciplinary teams. His schematics mixed electrical signals and components, hydraulics, mechanics, and logical operations in the same diagram, each bounded by its interfaces and connections to related systems. They magically explained the way complicated systems interconnected and worked together, in a manner accessible to executives, marketing reps, maintenance crews, and non-English speakers.


Ancient fragment of my schematic of a hypothetical redundant autobrake control system for a jet aircraft in the style of Larry Lamm. From a brainstorming session on common mode failures and unwanted activation during takeoff.

The diversity of teams addressing today’s need for not only product innovation but also the expanded scope of joint product, business-model, and branding innovation cries out for visual thinking. This isn’t simply because the problems at hand are complex, unbounded, and fluid. As with the diverse-community gaps bridged by Larry Lamm’s schematics, great corporate gulfs are dug by discipline-specific language and isolated organizational perspectives. Visual thinking bridges the gaps.

I’ve been in idea-generation (Ideation) sessions with business model experts Alex Osterwalder and Julian Loren where conference room walls were covered floor to ceiling with posters filled with sketches and sticky notes. This wasn’t art class, but a healthcare innovation workshop. Osterwalder’s process, described in his book, Business Model Generation, uses visual thinking, along with sketches, diagrams, sticky notes and concept maps not only to document and communicate but to construct meaning and critique it.

Alex OsterwalderAlex Osterwalder conducting a business model innovation session. Background image by Rachel Smith

A business model is a system. As with the components of an aircraft, each element in a business model influences and imposes constraints on all the others. And like an aircraft system, a business model only makes sense as a whole – at least to most of its many stakeholders. Without visualizing it first, creating the big picture is next to impossible; and so is refining it. As Osterwalder sees it, visual thinking exposes logic flaws and allows for clearer discussions and model changes while moving discourse from the abstract to the concrete.

Imagination should have no boundaries. Business creativity is about turning imagination into something useful. Visual thinking puts us on the fast track to shaping idea into novel products, brands, and business models. Let’s get visual.

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  1. #1 by Vesna on March 26, 2012 - 5:50 am

    I think visual thinking and visualisation of our values are the most important part of our lives – we behave in order to fulfill our visual interpretations.

  2. #2 by Homepage on March 27, 2012 - 9:23 pm

    Just added this blog to my favorites. I enjoy reading your blogs and hope you keep them coming! 124538

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