What Is Visual Thinking and How Do You Apply It?

When people conceptualize new ideas or brainstorm solutions, they almost always do so visually, whether they realize it or not. Our brains are wired to create ideas visually, but, as we all know, taking the visualization in your head and communicating it to other people isn’t a simple task. Visual thinking is a method of communication that allows people to actualize their ideas to help build them collaboratively. By utilizing visual thinking strategies, you can depict and develop new ideas with clarity rather than moving in circles, unable to express yourself effectively.

In this article, we will define visual thinking and walk through six of the most impactful visual thinking strategies.

Visual Thinking Definition & Importance

Visual thinking is a thought process that organizes ideas visually and focuses on graphic representation instead of a verbal representation of information. This can be a bit of an abstract concept, but it can have a significant impact if applied correctly. As we develop a more nuanced understanding of the brain, it becomes increasingly apparent that people everywhere learn best through visual mediums, regardless of their artistic disposition. 

It can be hard for people to grasp what visual thinking is because it’s not a specific set of rules or a linear procedure of steps. It’s more a thought process that encourages graphic representation, using images to inspire and recall information, and brainstorming with largely visual elements.

In the physical world, visual thinkers use these skills to complete many tasks, from the very mundane to the extraordinarily complex. For example, they might be great at estimating distances between objects or could create a complex mind map from memory. Some people are more naturally inclined to think visually, but that doesn’t mean it can’t help everyone. Especially in a professional setting, visual thinking strategies can help teams:

  • Stimulate problem-solving
  • Break down complex structures of information
  • Create strong associations between pieces of information
  • Explore innovative ideas
  • Improve team efficiency
  • Organize ideas graphically

When used during traditional or remote collaboration, visual thinking strategies can be helpful to stimulate participation and diversity of thought, something that is very important in team collaboration. Through using visual thinking, teams can reveal new kinds of information, challenge assumptions, and create a unique and shared understanding as they work together. 

6 Impactful Visual Thinking Strategies

If you want to begin implementing visual thinking into your team process, it’s important to identify some potential visual thinking strategies to utilize. While visual thinking doesn’t rely on a single strategy to facilitate, there are many ways you can integrate visual thinking into your collaboration process. Below are some popular strategies and templates that you can use to integrate visual thinking:

Strategic Planning

Strategic planning requires teams of people to have a shared understanding of the vision behind an organization, the processes that structure it, and how to align company goals for the future. Keeping all of these elements under the same roof can get very confusing, so it can be super helpful to implement visual thinking to increase transparency and communication.

One example of how to do so would be creating an org chart for an existing organization. Creating an org chart allows you to formalize documentation on the structure and hierarchy of an organization. This template uses visual elements to structure the organization, which helps communicate information quickly to everyone involved and can have a positive impact on your strategic planning.

Task Management

Managing projects and tasks requires careful organization to ensure the project can finish on time and with the correct cadence. When mapping out these workflows, it can be incredibly helpful to utilize visual thinking strategies to plan out procedures and directions. 

People typically have a much easier time following directions when they’re illustrated in a visual format, and whether that be a Gantt chart, simple task management structure, or fleshed-out flowchart, visual thinking strategies can help get the most out of your task management.

Problem Solving

Brainstorming and problem-solving is the most straightforward place to implement visual thinking strategies, and people have a relatively easy time grasping how to brainstorm and communicate visually in these situations.

Integrating creative expression, template-based collaboration, and exercises that push people to express themselves visually allows you to expand the limits of what you can achieve in a brainstorming session. Doing so will make people more engaged, provide a unique way to communicate, and can efficiently solve problems that don’t have an immediate solution.

Distributing Information

Something that many organizations struggle with is creating documentation and communicating information to a large group of people. Without a visual aid, there are a ton of chances for miscommunication and misunderstanding, which can create many different issues further along.

Utilizing visual thinking strategies such as org charts, flowcharts, and business models allow organizations to distribute information efficiently and give people a visual aid so they can better remember the information.

Innovation

One of the reasons visual thinking is so impactful is because it breaks from the norm of traditional verbal communication. By breaking away from this communication style, you can increase the velocity at which your team innovates and formulates new ideas.

Visual thinking allows teams to innovate more consistently and keep pushing themselves to ideate new concepts. Some artistic examples of innovation-based visual thinking strategies could be drawing squiggle birds, doing the 30 circles exercise, or creating mind maps.

Workshops

Conducting virtual workshops, or doing traditional workshopping, is a good way for teams to connect and explore visual thinking strategies while collaborating in real time. Workshops usually create a forum for people to interact over a series of different visual thinking exercises, building on each other’s contributions and creating solutions along the way. When conducted through an online whiteboard, people are able to integrate multiple visual thinking strategies on the same board, expanding on new ideas and integrating creative patterns of thought.

Visual Thinking Examples – How To Apply Visual Thinking

If visual thinking seems like something that could help your team in the future, here are some examples of sessions that you can conduct to stimulate innovation and collaboration for your team.

Brainstorming

Brainstorming takes many forms, and there are a million different ways your team can formulate new ideas using visual thinking. Some of the most popular are brainwriting, creating concept maps, or expansive mind maps. Even if you’re a novice, you’re surely familiar with some of these visual thinking strategies. Brainstorming helps teams focus on a singular goal, ideating and bouncing ideas off each other until they reach an ultimate solution.

Roadmapping

Creating roadmaps is a beneficial visual thinking example and can help teams think in the future about their processes, their customer’s experience, and how they can improve in the future. Roadmaps are helpful from multiple perspectives within a business, so any team can engage in roadmapping to create future innovations. Additionally, these documents are helpful for internal management, so you can integrate them to facilitate organizational planning as well.

Presentations

While creating presentations can often seem like a formal task that is only used for delivery, using a presentation can be really helpful for integrating visual thinking elements into a workflow. Utilizing presentation slides can greatly increase your ability to visualize contributions with an audience of people and is an effective way to integrate visual aids to communicate information.

Especially when beginning a new sprint, pitching a new idea, or planning with a team, presentation slides can be a great medium to integrate visual thinking to communicate with a team.

Flowcharts

Flowcharts are a more detailed version of roadmaps and can be used in a variety of situations to help visualize information and create actionable insights. These diagrams are a popular visual tool that creates clarity between teams, opens up possibilities for automation, and limits miscommunication. Flowcharts are helpful for diagramming workflows and can be a tool that helps teams collaborate on creating an efficient and optimized internal experience. Where this would usually just be in an email chain, flowcharts give teams a visual forum to collaborate and engage in visual thinking.

Teaching

Visual thinking is extremely beneficial in the classroom, and teaching is one of the most important applications of visual thinking strategies. Teachers can use visual thinking to help explain complicated concepts so students can develop a deep relationship between ideas and can also help teach new information to establish strong roots of knowledge. Especially in situations with younger classrooms, visual thinking strategies are key to developing intuitive and creative thinking.

How to Increase Visual Thinking Capabilities

If you want to implement visual thinking but are struggling to find the right balance with your team, we outlined some methods that can help increase your ability to use visual thinking.

Educate Your Team

If your team is skeptical about utilizing visual thinking, they won’t take any ownership over their participation. Don’t shy away from convincing people to contribute and buy into visual thinking. There are plenty of resources (including this blog) that can help expand on what visual thinking is and why it’s effective. Educating team members and teaching them new methods of interaction can be a catalyst for their participation, which can boost team morale and increase productivity for everyone.

Create More Engaging Sessions

If your visual thinking sessions are more of a lecture than a collaborative, creative exercise, then they won’t be all that effective. If you’re struggling to see results from your initial visual thinking sessions, try adding bold colors, using additional visuals, and coding all information visually to give people clear references to where something applies. Adding colorful visuals can create a much more engaging experience than simply using a pencil, and this can help improve visual thinking for everyone involved.

Help Connect Thoughts

If people are thinking using visual aids and communicating well, but the ideas still aren’t connecting, it can be helpful to create associations during your visual thinking sessions. While visual thinking strategies can help create stronger memory for people, it can also be a little confusing if you don’t make an effort to connect ideas in the first place. Try associating related images and thoughts to create a web of information that’s easier to follow. This way, your team can benefit from the stimulation of visual thinking while also navigating a connected web of information for easy association.

Encourage Collaboration

Visual thinking strategies work best in collaboration with other people, bouncing ideas off each other and exploring new trains of thought. If your visual thinking sessions are stagnating, try to mix up the collaborative environment, get new people working together, and assign projects that require cross-team collaboration. This permits a more intense exchange of information and can reveal new, innovative ideas for everyone. Additionally, it provides an opportunity for more people to get involved and contribute their ideas which can help further the collaborative impact of visual thinking.

Utilize an Online Whiteboard

Using an online whiteboard can be incredibly helpful for teams conducting visual thinking exercises and can be a catalyst for important progress. There are a variety of helpful templates available on online whiteboards, making them an extremely useful tool for teams looking to mix up their sessions and try something different. If your team is stuck in a rut, try using an online whiteboard to conduct a brand-new brainstorming session to help facilitate some progress.

How Visual Thinking Is Unique

Visual thinking is a unique style of communication and is very different from the traditional written or verbal type of communication. Additionally, because visual thinking emphasizes how to better understand information, some people can be confused as to how it applies in real life and where verbal communication might struggle.

Here is a quick breakdown of how visual thinkers typically process information, contrasted with verbal thinking:

Visual

  • Visualize information in their head as pictures or 3D representations
  • Find it easier to see something than explain it; often imagine abstract concepts before fully formed thoughts
  • May struggle to find the exact words for their thought because it can’t accurately represent an image

Verbal

  • Thoughts are usually a string of words or a sentence rather than an image
  • Many thoughts exist as internal dialogue rather than an abstract concept
  • May struggle to visualize information fully because verbal representation can’t create a full picture

Most people grow up learning mostly about verbal thinking and communication, which can do a great job when expressing information from person to person. When working together and sharing ideas, however, verbal communication can struggle to properly communicate the full picture. For this, visual thinking is a very unique style of communication that can be incredibly effective.

Verbal and visual thinking aren’t complete opposites either, and in order to communicate and collaborate effectively, teams will need to utilize both. By bringing teams together and utilizing problem-solving strategies that positively impact both verbal and visual thinkers, you can ensure everyone is aligned and able to participate effectively.

Conclusion

Visual thinking is a process that helps create innovative processes that push teams forward and communicate effectively. Hopefully, this guide helped clarify how to integrate visual thinking strategies, and if you want to experiment with sessions on your own, check out Fresco for free online collaboration.

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