Category Archives: Visual thinking

Meaningful images

I’m currently reading ‘The back of the napkin’ by Dan Roam, about solving problems and selling ideas with pictures. Roam says that visual thinking is all about making “…the complex understandable by making it visible – not by making it simple.”

This made me wonder what is going on in our brains when we look at images/diagrams that they can provide us with those ‘a-ha!’ moments.

In thinking about this I came across a TED Talk by information designer Tom Wujec:

In the talk he explains how a good visual will engage three parts of our brains:

  • The ventral stream – engaged when our eyes are invited to dart around different parts of an image.
  • The dorsal stream – engaged when the image encourages interactivity.
  • The limbic stream – engaged by colour and motion in an image.

He concludes that there are three key elements which are needed to make an image meaningful. The first is that the ideas need to be clearly visualised, the second that it needs to be somehow interactive and the third that to make it memorable there needs to be visual ‘persistence’.

For me, thinking about these fundamentals can really help if you have a complex idea you would like to visualise. If you can engage people’s brains well that must surely be half the battle!

Have you tried using images to explain a complex idea? Do you think knowing these brain fundamentals would help?


Pictionary your idea!

One of the things I look forward to during the festive season is the chance to pull out my favourite board game – Pictionary. I love playing this purely to see the amazingly imaginative images people will come up with to express a word or concept.

From Egyptian hieroglyphics to executive pie charts, images and symbols have always been used to support the expression of concepts and ideas. In recent times, a group of architects (Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein) developed a visual thinking technique called ‘pattern language’  for designing new buildings. As this method is visual and flexible it can be applied in many situations and helps people to see new and different relationships between the attributes of a problem. It uses abstract visual symbols to substitute words.

In his book ‘ThinkerToys‘, Michael Michalko gives an excellent description of how to apply pattern language to idea development:

  1. Divide your challenge into its different attributes.
  2. Describe each attribute by drawing an abstract symbol (each on a separate card) – on the back of each card write the attribute.
  3. Place all of the cards on a table with the symbols facing up.
  4. Group and regroup the symbols randomly into various relationships.
  5. Record the most idea provoking arrangements.

We so often use words for describing and thinking about challenges, that they can lose their impact. Using visuals provides fresh eyes for looking at a challenge and could inspire ideas which you may never have arrived at by using words alone.

Why not try describing the attributes of a challenge you have using symbols/images? If you’re not sure where to start, what about having a game of Pictionary to warm up?!

Here are some of my images based on a challenge about fundraising:



The meaning of shapes

I am being inspired by Visual Meetings at the moment. This book is helping me to develop a whole new way of representing people’s ideas – through graphics.

The author, David Sibbett, suggests that symbols, shapes and pictures can get to the heart of an issue more efficiently than words: “Meaning is anchored in our experiences not in the rules of grammar”. This is because the basic movements used to make shapes are universal as: “…they flow from how we are shaped as humans.”. He illustrates this with the basic shapes:

  • Points= ‘Look here’, ‘I’m different’. They stand out on a white page.
  • Lines= ‘Connect’ or ‘Separate’. They’re about relationships (the heavier the line, the stronger the relationship).
  • Angles= ‘Active change’.
  • Squares/rectangles= ‘Formal organisation’.
  • Hollow arrows= ‘Active organisation’. By putting together the meanings of angles and squares/rectangles.
  • Spirals= ‘Dynamic unity’.
  • Circles= ‘Unity’.

I practised using graphics when writing up a summary of a recent meeting (but before I had read this part of the book):

The hollow arrows I used do express the ‘active organisation’ of the main themes identified (‘formally organised’) and the ‘active changes’ participants wanted to make. The circles gather together in ‘unity’ the ideas expressed in the meeting.

I believe shapes and graphics really have the power to express and share ideas with more impact.