Visual Thinking can help to save an incredible amount of frustration, time and money of many businesses, simply because its so much easier and effective to think, converse and explain complex systems with the help of visual tools.
Our world and society is changing; and the speed at which things are changing seems to be exponentially growing. Living in a globalised world, our products and services become increasingly sophisticated and interconnected. We are dealing with a never-seen-before amount of complexity, information and uncertainty.
We are used to dealing with challenges by having standardised meetings; by talking about, and writing, reports. This is not enough to meet the requirements of complexity. Our collaboration tools are outdated. We can not explain complex problems and their solutions without adapting a systemic way of working.
How can we think and communicate in a way that meets our own needs for simplicity but also makes sure we can deal with the increasing complexity of information?
We want to present to you 10 reasons why we use visual thinking. Enter the Bright Pilot.
We thought it would be a great idea to make use of visual thinking to try and explain its own benefits.
Anah joined us as an Explorer and has come up with the character ‘Bright Pilot‘. An old-school adventurer with a lightbulb for a head. He’s here to shine a light on Visual Thinking, and to help explain its uses. He has no mouth & doesn’t talk so the whole thing will be visual.
Bright Pilot’s first goal is to illuminate 10 Reasons why we use Visual Thinking for problem solving.
Try to understand a complex setting by just reading words. For example the relations and roles of and between the different characters in Heinrich von Kleist’s novel “Michael Kohlhaas”. By drawing it out in a map, making it visible in a sketch, the situation gets more clear, simple and understandable. The book “The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures” is a great resource to read further on how making problems visual can help you ” literally see the world in a new way.”
2) By visualising out a complex problem, it becomes simpler to communicate & for others to build upon.
Imagine an IT-Department explaining the rest of a company where they have to save what kind of information. Or an HR team that introduces the organisational structure to a new person in the company. In these situations, where complexity needs to be communicated often Models are used for communication. By making thinking visual, you can communicate across cultures, hierarchies and specific domains. Thus working on a complex problem is made possible, by using many minds to that build on each other.
3) Visual Thinking helps people communicate across culture and language barriers.
We look at culture in three different ways: Hierarchical cultures, departmental cultures and human/world cultures. What unites these is that they all establish their own unspoken rules (how one has to behave), paradigms (how the wolrd works) and languages (how one exchanges information). While doing complex problem solving it’s often that multiple cultures are touched upon, or that one needs to exchange information with another. Here Visual Thinking can lower the barrier. In “Reasons for Visual Thinking (#2)” we brought up the example of an IT-department that needs to talk to the rest of the company. And it could also be the CEO of a big company, who makes use of a visual language, scribbling on a flip-chart with clumsy stick figures, that people usually lower in the hierarchy can resonate on. Bringing them on the same level of understanding by employing a language that’s new to both parties. Or, as the illustration shows, three different horse riders that want to get consensus on how to tackle the snake. Last September I visited some non-English speaking villages in India. How did I make clear what I needed? By letting my arms do wild gestures. This is Visual Thinking.
4) Visual Thinking makes communicating the emotional side of complex problems easier.
Sometimes what makes a problem more complex is that the emotions of those involved are tangled up in the decisions that need to be made. This can be very difficult to deal with when we just use written or verbal language as words have a power of their own. The connotations involved with certain words, phrases, or spoken inflections can spark emotional responses in those who are an audience to them. In sensitive situations this can be dangerous. How many times have you heard the phrase ‘It’s not what you said but how you said it,’ as the pre-cursor to a full blown argument?
In R4VT #4 above we can see one fish making a suggestion to go into a cave, or not. Now I’ve never met a fish that can talk but bear with me. If the fish making the suggestion had have spoken it,
“Hey guys let’s hide in that cave.” The response could be very negative, the fish are being hunted, many of them would be on edge, and here’s this idiot fish telling everyone to go into a scary cave. But what he actually said was a suggestion, not a command, but it can be heard that way in emotional situations. If he was being more careful maybe he would have tried to be much more clear about the open ended-ness of his suggestion, but these take a lot of time and energy,
“Guys I have seen a cave, maybe it is safe, maybe not, I don’t know. But could we make a decision about wether we should check it out or not? I’m not attached to the outcome either way but I felt strongly to make the suggestion. What do you think?” phew! Take a breath right? Even this consciously less-violent communication can be taken badly if the atmosphere is charged enough.
What Mr. fish above decided to do was to communicate his idea visually. A simple sign made of simple symbols. Donating that the group may, or may not, go in the cave. With this method he removes the charge (positive or negative) connected to the words and deals only with something that is actionable. It even allows for a 3rd option which is to ignore the sign altogether (though he hasn’t placed himself well spatially for that to be a clear option).
With the emotional side of things diminished, or at least defined in a way that they can be taken into consideration properly in their own time, then a decision can be made on the issue at hand (the cave) and the group can move forward.
5) Vizualization helps facilitate non-linear problem solving.
Visualizations can be non-linear. This means that the process of creating them does not have to be linear either. By building on top of pre-defined structures during a process, elements can be adapted, changed and added to each other. Using visual thinking we can create building block of visual information that can be re-used later in the process. They can be repurposed or reinterpreted to create (or discover) new meaning.
6) Vizualization of a problem enables people to think along with each others ideas by creating a shared language.
Ok so we have to admit that we don’t think cavemen were running around being chased by dinosaurs but what is true about this drawing is that we’ve been using visual communication for a very long time. As you can see above, two cavemen are using shadow puppets to explain the situation outside the cave to one another.
Humans started with visual communication and slowly, abstraction by abstraction, built towards the written word. We still have an affinity for understanding visual representations, so much so that many of the neurons in our brain a specifically wired towards translating visual stimulus. Also because visual communication is a less abstracted form of the original information (than writing is) when it is presented as a literal interpretation then it allows for cross culture exchanges and a mid point for many different people to communicate evenly.
For more information there is a great site from the Sabanci University (Istanbul) that goes into a lot of detail about the use of visual communication in pre-history (you can find it HERE).
7) Visual mapping of a problem can help to see the gaps where solutions can be found.
It can be very difficult for most of us to imagine a complex problem, in its entirety, in our heads. I remember once trying to recall every point of my bus ride to and from college (this was some years ago) and thinking that I had it pretty accurate. Only when I actually took that ride later in the day only did I realise that I had skipped entire sections of the journey. Our brains move very fast when presented with challenges and problems, often skipping details that could be important. This is why your mathematics teachers in school insisted you show your workings when you supply an answer to a question. Not just to make sure you understand the system behind the answer but also to remove the risk of a miscalculation. If showing your workings can help with problem solving in an abstract language such as maths then by using visual thinking we can bring a similar problem solving skill to a wider audience.
The problem of fitting two of every animal onto a gigantic boat with a fast approaching deadline is not one that most of us will ever have to deal with but I am sure many people have felt under an amount of pressure that could only be described as “Biblical”. Using a visual map we can make sure that all the information we have is represented, thus removing the stress and worry of ‘missing something’. By drawing things to a ‘scale’ (e.g. size, price, urgency) we can also prioritize or organize our thoughts easier. It may even be that by mapping out our problem that others can contribute what they see, often people external to the problem can find the solutions you may never have noticed, by presenting it to them in a visual (rather than explaining in words) you remove any barriers of language or technical knowledge and allow them to think of solutions without parameters.
Below is a video from the University of St. Gallen describing the research they did (that I’m going to pretend proves my theory about my own brain being no good at imagining my bus route home)
8) Vizualization helps people to memorize, makes ideas concrete and thus creates more accurate outcomes in the end.
This one seems pretty obvious. If you need to know more then you can play a little game: like looking at a lego model and timing how long it takes you to build it from memory, and then timing how long it takes for you to build it with a guide you drew yourself. The outcome is pretty clear even without trying it out.
For further watching I can recommend (especially as this builds upon today’s cartoon) a few episodes of the UK tv show “Grand Designs“. The difference between those episodes where a creative architect is involved (doing mood boards, sketches, and plans) and the episodes where the people on the show just make it up as they go along, is huge.
9) Visual thinking can give you the necessary overview to learn from your mistakes.
Complex problem solving can often be a case of continuous trying, failing, and re-trying. In the example of the two stranded hikers above the failure would seem pretty extreme (it is lucky then that they carried a flip-over chart all the way up the mountain). Now they can reflect on the events that preceded them falling into the gully, plan to avoid future gullies, and visualize their escape. Using a visual toolbox can help enormously when entering unknown territory. One real life example of this would be web designers who want to test how people interact with their site, an area called user interface design. It’s of course possible to mock up simplified code and ask people to test that. But for those people who don’t have the time or the resources a paper prototype is perfect. I was lucky enough to stumble over this gem of a video on YouTube today.
If you can see past the cuteness (because it’s thick with it) the learnings that BlueDuckLabs could take out from prototyping this way were pretty impressive. I only hope our two hikers can also make such great discoveries and find their way to the top of the mountain.
10) Visualization serves as a great motivation to achieve a goal
This is especially true when the goal is something abstract. The pirate captain can tell his men that there’s treasure at the bottom of the hole they’re digging, he can even say that there is a lot of treasure, or describe specific jewels. But if he can show them a picture of it then that buried treasure moves from imagination into something more real, more tangible. We hear a lot about “visualizing our goals” and most of us do it in our head, sometime with our eyes shut. We try to imagine the goal but it’s only when that goal is drawn out that we can see the full scale of it, the challenges we might encounter on the way, and why it might be worth pursuing. It gives us a sense of scale.
We really loved working with Anah on this exploration of visual thinking. If you want to see more of her work you can find her here cooktherobot.tumblr.com & here kicktherobot.wordpress.com. We’re currently figuring out how to keep the Bright Pilot flying, weekly comic anyone?
Are you interested in learning more about how Visual Thinking can help YOU solve complex Problems? See our Training offers here.