Visual Thinking Association Trap

Visual thinking is an incredibly powerful tool that can help you solve any problem and develop unique innovative ideas. However, because visual thinking relies heavily on making associations between different pieces of information, this can inhibit your ability to think broadly.

In this post I will help explain how to overcome this pitfall in order to free your mind to think more freely and creatively.

What is an Association?

An association is your ability to successfully connect seemingly unrelated ideas, concepts, questions or problems from different fields or subject areas. In fact, the foundation of creativity is built upon the framework of connecting things in a new and original way.

When it comes to creativity, we often may not know how all the pieces will connect, however we have faith that eventually as we connect more pieces together — by finding unique associations — that in time the idea puzzle will evolve.

We can also unravel chains of associations that are linked to past knowledge and experience. In such instances we take what we are currently learning, observing or hearing and link this back to our memories of something that’s similar or somewhat related — unlocking a whole string of associated ideas that are clustered around domains of related experience.

This is a natural way of building upon our existing knowledge-base. In fact, this is how as a society we make efficient progress over time — allowing us to move forward quickly from analysis to action.

It’s easy to identify the tremendous benefits that these types of associations provide us with, however where there are benefits, there are also drawbacks.

The Problem with Associations

There is one major flaw with associations that can often hinder our thinking, our creativity and our ability to generate new ideas and create innovative concepts. The problem is that “making associations” in this way can inhibit our ability to think broadly because…

  • We fail to question our assumptions
  • We jump to conclusions quickly (based on past experiences)
  • We create barriers to alternate ways of thinking about situations

Creating associations will be familiar to those who use mind mapping to formulate new ideas. Mind mapping is a fantastic tool that can help us come up with very interesting and helpful connections between different pieces of information. However, mind mapping can prevent us from thinking outside the realm of our own experiences. This can lead to quick assumptions, conclusions and it can create barriers to alternative ways of thinking about our problems.

Associations and Visual Thinking

When thinking visually it’s very easy to get carried away with doing what feels comfortable and familiar. However, this level of comfort that you are after is what prevents you from coming up with creative solutions and innovative ideas. It’s this level of comfort that will hinder your progress and keep you closed in a box of your own thinking.

When thinking visually we must step outside of ourselves — outside of the familiar box of our past thinking, conditioning and experience. We must go beyond familiarity and into the realm of conceptualizing new ways of doing things that will stretch our abilities in new directions.

Please don’t get me wrong, making relevant associations with past information and experiences is very important and relevant when it comes to creativity and innovation, however it’s not very helpful when it’s all you rely on — and it prevents you from thinking broadly. And it’s certainly not helpful if you become blinded by your own assumptions, expectations and conclusions.

If you desire to take full advantage of the visual thinking process, you must first accept these limitations and take action today to overcome them.

What is the Solution?

People who are successful at breaking down their associative barriers do several things that help them step outside the box of their own thinking and assumptions:

Step Outside Comfort Zone

Your first step is the step you make outside your comfort zone. You must commit yourself to the pursuit of new experiences that will provide you with new perspectives of the world. This could very quickly transform the way you think about the world, yourself, others and the problems you face.

Cultural Diversity

Your second step is the step you take outside of your cultural boundaries.

Because every culture imposes certain ways of thinking and behaving, this has a tendency to limit us in the way we solve problems and generate ideas. As such we are limited by our cultural practices, traditions and expectations.

Studies have shown that people who are fluent in multiple languages tend to exhibit greater levels of creativity because they are able to draw upon a varied set of perspectives and therefore make a wider range of associations.

Commit yourself today to break out of your own cultural boundaries and expose yourself to other cultures, languages and traditions.

Become a Broad Lifelong Learner

Your third step is the decision you make to become a broad lifelong learner. Go out there and pick up a book that you wouldn’t normally read, ask someone to teach you about something you know very little about, or take a class in a new field that’s unrelated to your line of work, business or occupation.

By learning constantly and exposing yourself to as much variety of information as possible, will help you to think outside the box — creating far more creative associations and innovative ideas.

Techniques for Breaking Associative Barriers

There are also several techniques you can use to help break down your associative barriers to visual thinking. I’ll highlight these techniques when we launch into practical applications of visual thinking at a later time. At the moment it’s important to take care of the foundations and break down any barriers that may be holding you back from learning how to think visually.


Everything you read here is part of ongoing research and experimentation within the visual thinking arena. The goal is to create a comprehensive framework for visual thinking that encapsulates creativity, problem solving and critical thinking skills. Your comments, ideas and suggestions are most welcome.