Visual Thinking Ingredients

When I ask people for their thoughts about visual thinking I often get some very interesting answers that help me put into context how people perceive the act of visual thinking.

One response that I tend to get over and over again is that visual thinking is all about visualization. It’s about closing your eyes and visualizing what you want to achieve in your life. In fact, some people believe it has something to do with Neural Linguistic Programming that uses — among other things — the process of visualization to help people overcome emotional and psychological roadblocks.

Visual thinking is actually none of those things, however it’s very interesting to hear that many people aren’t yet familiar with what visual thinking is all about. I guess that presents an interesting opportunity that all of us who are familiar with visual thinking can take advantage of.

Within this article I would like to discuss an important part of visual thinking that forms the bedrock of how we think visually. This bedrock is made up of specific components that all of us will be using as we work through the visual thinking process. However, in order to stay true to our metaphor of magic, we will call these components “ingredients” that work very much like a recipe that’ s made into a dish.

These ingredients include:

  • Pictures
  • Symbols, Signs and Icons
  • Colors
  • Written Language
  • Numbers and figures
  • Shapes

Each of these ingredients are used as a means of communicating and clarifying your thoughts and ideas in a visual way. They will help you build a consistent visual language that will allow you to become a proficient and capable visual thinker.

Let’s now take a look at each of these ingredients in a little more detail.

Pictures

For the novice visual thinker, it’s easy to assume that visual thinking is all about drawing pictures and visualizing your ideas and thoughts on paper using sketches. To a certain extent that may be true, as pictures are certainly the main ingredient of visual thinking. However, pictures are only one of six ingredients that form the bedrock of visual thinking.

Pictures allow you to visualize complex ideas in an eye-catching way that gets your message across from very different and unique perspectives — enabling you to simplify concepts that otherwise would be very difficult to understand or piece together. 

When I’m talking about pictures, I don’t just mean drawing ideas down on paper. This would certainly limit your ability to express your creativity. What I do mean is to think outside-the-box when you are thinking about pictures making sure that you include:

  • Sketches
  • Doodles
  • Photos
  • Images
  • Clipart
  • Clippings (magazine cutouts)
  • Videos

The key is to use all of these parts to express your thoughts and ideas in a visual eye-catching way that will leave a lasting impression on your mind as well as on the minds of those listening to your message.

Symbols, Signs and Icons

Symbols, signs and icons (SSIs) are a short-form of visual thinking that allow you to develop a simple universal language that gets your message across in a clear and concise way — more so than you could using words alone.

SSIs provide you with a means of representing a complete thought in a streamlined and effective way. Moreover, because they are easily and universally understood by others, they can therefore be used to express a combination of ideas in the form of diagrams and maps that allow you to communicate sentences and concepts in a simple and straightforward manner.

Every SSI you create stands for something and transfers meaning that is unique to that SSI alone. And that is where its power lies.

Icon Creation Exercise

To develop your skills in this area, take out a sheet of paper and walk around your home drawing everyday objects in the form of icons. Make sure that these icons are simple and straightforward, and that they get your intended message across. Above all else, remember that this is not a drawing exercise, it’s rather all about simplifying everyday objects into their most basic shape and form that is universally understood by others.

To help you with this exercise imagine being hired by Microsoft to develop a set of icons for a new Windows operating system. How would you go about piecing them together?

Once you become proficient at drawing icons for inanimate objects, proceed to draw icons that represent emotions, ideas and actions. When done, share these icons with others and ask them to label each icon with a word. Only in this way will you know if your visual message follows the 6-12 KISS Principle of visual thinking.

Colors, Language, Numbers and Shapes

Within the next post we will discuss colors, language, numbers and shapes and outline how they can be best incorporated into the visual thinking process.


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.