How to use visual thinking

Visual thinking means taking advantage of our innate ability to see – both with our eyes and with our mind’s eye, to discover ideas that are otherwise invisible, develop those ideas quickly and intuitively, and then share those ideas with other people in a way that they simply get.

In this post, we are going to see how we can use visual thinking and pictures as a problem solving approach. This can also be used to learn, analyse or research almost anything.

What are the problems that we can solve and what are the tools we need?

Any problem can be made clearer with a picture, and any picture can be created with the same set of tools and rules.

The six problem clumps are the 6 ‘W’ s:

  • Who and What problems:Challenges that relate to things, people and roles
  • When problems: Challenges that relate to scheduling and timing
  • Where problems: Challenges that relate to direction and how things fit together
  • How much problems: Challenges that involve measuring and counting
  • How problems: Challenges that relate to how things influence one another
  • Why problems: Challenges that relate to seeing the big picture

What are the tools we need to solve the above problems?

The basics of visual thinking have nothing to do with creating charts on a computer. Visual thinking is learning to think with our eyes, and it doesn’t need any advanced technology at all.

We only need our “built-in” visual thinking tools: eyes, mind’s eyes and hands and accessories: paper + pen/pencil or white board+ erasable markers

Why don’t we need more complicated tools?

We don’t need them because:

  • People like seeing other people’s pictures
  • Hand-sketched images are quick to create and easy to change
  • Computers make it too easy to draw the wrong thing

Do you need some special ability to do this?

There are three kinds of visual thinkers:

  1. People who cannot wait to start drawing
  2. People who are happy to add to someone else’s work
  3. People who question it all.

But regardless of what type you are, everybody already has good visual thinking skills, and everybody can easily improve those skills.

What is the guide rope to visual thinking?

Visual thinking is an extraordinarily powerful way to solve problems, and though it may seem to be something new, the fact is that we already know how to do it.

The guide rope consists of:

  • A four step process: Look, see, imagine and show
  • Three built-in tools: Eyes, mind’s eye and our hand-eye coördination
  • Six ways of seeing and showing: Who, What, When, How, Where, Why

What is the process of visual thinking?

  1. Looking= Collecting+ Screening
  2. Seeing= Selecting+Clumping
  3. Imagining=Seeing what isn’t there
  4. Showing=Making it all clear

This is a loopy process and not a linear process, in life.

Look see imagine show

How to look?

The principles are:

  • Collect everything possible upfront
  • Lay it all out where you can look at it.
  • Establish the underlying information coördinates, which are: Who/what, how much, why, when, where and how
  • Practice visual triage.

How to see?

There are six ways:

  1. Seeing objects: The who and the what
  2. Seeing quantities: The how many and the how much
  3. Seeing position in space: The where
  4. Seeing position in time: The when
  5. Seeing influence and cause and effect: The how
  6. Seeing all of this come together and knowing something about our scene: The why

How to imagine?

The way to imagine is to use the SQVID framework. It uses both sides of your brain.

  • S= Simple versus Elaborate
  • Q= Quantity versus Quality
  • V= Vision versus Execution( Where we are going versus How we are going to get there, step by step)
  • I= Individual attributes versus Comparison
  • D= Delta(or change) versus Status quo( the way things are versus the way things could be)

How to show?

The three steps of showing are:

  1. Select the right framework.
  2. Use the framework to create our picture
  3. Present and explain our picture

For each of the six ways of seeing, there is one corresponding way of showing and one framework to use.

The frameworks are:

  • Portrait: Who/what:( renderings, profiles, plans, elevations, diagrams). They show the recognizable qualities that differentiate subjects.

1. Think simple
2. Iluminate lists
3. Visually describe

  • Chart: How much:(pie charts, bar charts, numeric comparisons, histograms). They give a visual measurement of quantity

1. It is the data that matters, so let it show
2. Pick the simplest model to make your point: bars( for comparing absolute quantities of something), lines and areas(for comparing absolute quantities between two different criteria or times), pies( for comparing relative quantities of something), bubbles for comparing more than one variable)
3. If you start with one model, stay with one model.

  • Map: Where( Venn diagrams, schematics, landscapes, think-maps). They show the spatial relationship of one object to another.

1. Everything has a geography
2. North is a state of mind
3. Look beyond the obvious hierarchy

  • Time-line: When( life cycles, process maps, Gantt charts, progressions, swim lanes). They show when one activity takes place in relation to another

1. Time is a one-way street.
2. Repeating timelines create life cycles
3. Round versus linear

  • Flowchart: How
  • Multiple-variable plot: Why

1. Multiple-variable plots are not hard to make but need patience, practice, and, above all, a point.
2. Medium thick soup is best: Too few variables and too many variable have to be avoided.
3. Anything can be mapped to anything else, but one should remember the difference between correlation and causation.

If you map the six frameworks versus the SQVID we get the visual thinking codex, which is the master list of problem solving pictures.

When you present to someone, again if you use the framework of look, see, imagine and show, you cannot go wrong.

To remember all of this easily, we need a take-anywhere problem solving tool kit, which we shall call the visual thinking swiss army knife(three-four-five-six)

  1. Three basic visual thinking tools: Our eyes, our mind’s eye and our hand-eye co-ordination
  2. Four steps of the visual thinking process: Look, see, imagine, show
  3. Five questions that help us open our mind’s eye: simple or elaborate, qualitative or quantitative, vision or execution, individual or comparison, change or status quo?
  4. Six ways we see and six ways we show: who/what, how much, where, when, how, why

Visual thinking toolkit

That’s all. Now use this to learn, analyse a subject, solve problems and research almost anything.


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