Much like other crossover sensations from the creative world such as design thinking and information design, the visual thinking phenomenon has sustained interest for some time now. From the most staid corporate institutions to the most enlightened young startups, visual thinking techniques are being sought after as part of a new business toolkit in the quest to create “cultures of innovation.” Post-its, whiteboards, and flipcharts are infiltrating once stodgy conference rooms and work spaces. Unbridled creativity — not industrial-era efficiency — is the key to better products, smarter services, and increased profit.
But behind the glowing promise of the vizthink movement, a challenge persists for many in the business world: how best to harness the power of visual thinking to achieve real results?
There are already countless answers to that question tied to specific practices. Some would argue that free-form “doodling” (now scientifically proven to aid attention and memory) is integral to more engaging meetings because it ensures participants are actively tracking along with the conversation. Others might champion visual facilitation methods such as graphic recording, the mural-style translation of words to pictures, as the key to making strategy sessions memorable. There’s also the smorgasbord of activities known as gamestorming, meant to enrich collaboration by incorporating elements of play into the workplace. But for the beginner unsure of where to get the most value out of visual thinking, the variety of options can be difficult to navigate, and the time and energy it takes to reach a conclusion on one’s own can be daunting.
A number of guiding lights provide practical instruction and systems for learning core visual thinking principles, yet there is still room to close the gap between the vision of vizthink and everyday workplace realities.
Thinking First, Visuals Second
It’s easy to think that beautifully penned sketchnotes or delightfully illustrated graphic recordings are the hallmark of good visual thinking: they demonstrate great technical skill and creativity, and they certainly appeal to the eye. In reality, they might only succeed at just the visual part while providing little insight or fuel for the thinking part. Quite often, the artistic production of these visual artifacts takes precedence over the process that they support and the outcomes they are meant to deliver. To be blunt, if a visual fails to convey an idea clearly, enhance understanding (for oneself and for a group), inform decisions, or drive toward a goal, then it benefits no one. Visual thinking is more than just drawing for the sake of drawing, capturing something for posterity, or aiding memory. It boosts our capacity to process information and create new knowledge by enabling specific cognitive tasks. In a business context, visual thinking facilitates knowledge work in teams by dissolving communication barriers and allowing many different minds to work together towards a common goal. It is the glue of human collaboration.
Different Modes for Different Goals
At a fundamental level, visual thinking operates in three modes, with corresponding tools and techniques:
Visual thinking is generative — that is, it relies on the output of ideas and content in tangible, visual form. It may sound simplistic, but without the externalization of thought in some representational form — text, drawing, symbol, etc. — visual thinking cannot happen past the mind’s eye.
Doodling is the most common generative activity since it channels stream of consciousness thoughts in an unstructured form. The lack of inhibition and freedom to put pen to paper that doodling affords, rather than the quality of visual output, is perhaps of greatest value when solving problems. Related activities such as graphic recording and sketch-noting are also generative in that they convert spoken and written thoughts into pictures, with the intent of making key ideas resonate in memory. Mind mapping and visual brainstorming also fit in this category since they allow many ideas to be generated rapidly.
Visual thinking can also be analytic. It breaks down raw content to uncover patterns and define relationships. Tied to the generative function, analysis cannot occur without something to analyze, such as meeting notes, PowerPoint decks, and other documents.
Analysis seeks to create order and includes non-drawing-based methods that take advantage of spatial relationships. Pinning up, clustering, and color-coding materials are classic ways to organize content into categories for analysis. Visual frameworks such as axis plots, charts, and graphs help capture and distill the findings of analysis into a usable form.
Finally, visual thinking can be synthetic by combining previously disparate or disconnected ideas to create newer and clearer ones. Synthesis typically feeds off of the findings of an analysis and produces tighter pictures of a situation than previously known.
Synthesis can take the form of diagrams, concept sketches, and visual stories, among other methods. Multiple iterations strengthen synthesis: trial and error with different formats, configurations, and graphic approaches ensures that all essential elements of an explanation work together to communicate effectively.
All three modes of visual thinking are essential to problem solving, but I find that the real power of visual thinking lies in the second and third modes. This is where the thinking side of the equation really shines — where “aha” moments happen.
Finding the Right Mode for the Job
With a basic understanding of visual thinking’s distinct but related functions, it’s easier to diagnose common work situations and take action. Here are six common scenarios and some possible approaches:
Do you need to get a quick grip on a situation?
GENERATE: Draw a very simple picture of what you know and don’t know — who’s involved, what their roles are, where the situation is happening, etc. Add to the picture as you learn more, even if the picture gets messy. You can take a more considered approach once you know what you’re dealing with.
Do you need to dig deeper and learn more?
GENERATE: Ask probing questions to capture as much information as possible verbally, using visual frameworks as needed when words get cumbersome (eg, organizational structures, process flows, etc). Just stick to generating facts without making assumptions or drawing conclusions.
Do you need to sort through research or extract the most essential information from a pile of documents?
ANALYZE: Read through the content in several passes until you see a pattern emerge. Pin up, number, color, stack, label — use whatever means necessary to clearly distinguish one category from another. Track your findings along the way to synthesize later.
Do you need to put all the facts together and see the big picture?
SYNTHESIZE: Explore multiple different ways to put together the key findings from your analysis until the story or message comes through clearly. Aim for balance and visual harmony rather than superfluous detail to refine the picture.
Do you need to come up with ideas for something?
GENERATE: Try visual brainstorming. Take a stack of index cards (or post-its) and draw one idea per card, using only enough visual detail to get the idea across quickly. Go for quantity and pin them up or arrange on a table for analysis only when you’ve exhausted all possibilities.
Do you need to explain a concept to colleagues?
SYNTHESIZE: Sketch out the three to five important points you want to highlight in your story, then draw and redraw until your pictures are both complete and easy for your audience to understand. Rather than jump to PowerPoint, consider presenting in storyboard format or in a sequence of flipchart drawings. This format saves time and invites additional comments and feedback.
There are many more techniques (and entire systems) available to accomplish the above tasks depending on the situation, time/location constraints, and whether you are working solo or in a group. As a general rule, I find that simpler is always better when it comes to doing visual thinking in a business setting. Setup should be easy, tools and materials should be readily available, and visual methods should maximize inclusion and understanding — always keep everyone engaged and the process flowing. With experience, one comes to realize that almost any challenge can be made manageable with a keen situational awareness, a few workhorse pictographs and frameworks, and a bare-bones toolkit.
Technical note: I’ve started using Bamboo Paper on my iPad more frequently these days. It’s tremendously helpful in creating natural-looking drawings and outputting them digitally. The visuals in this post and the last were created with this method.
This is incredible stuff. They should teach this in elementary schools. Thanks, Michael. You’re doing important work.