Developing Your Visual Awareness

In order for us to become proficient visual thinkers it’s absolutely paramount that we learn to recognize the patterns that surround us on a daily basis. Within these patterns lie the answers to all our problems and the dilemmas we face while thinking visually. However, to recognize these patterns we must first and foremost train our visual thinking muscle to become better aware of our surrounding environment and circumstances.

Training your visual thinking muscle can take some time. However, the effort you put in will allow you to expand your understanding of your problems and circumstances to such an extent that you will be better able to spot critical patterns that will shape how you think and work through your problems visually.

It’s All About the Eyes

Because we are discussing the subject of visual thinking, I will focus on developing your visual awareness. However, it’s also important to recognize that awareness can be honed through all your sensory organs. In fact, when your awareness comes through more than one sensory organ, you have more information to work with that can help you gain deeper insights into your problems or circumstances.

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Not All Visuals Are Created Equal

While attempting to express our thoughts and ideas in a visual way, it’s important to consider that not all visuals are created equal. What I mean by this is that there are certain visuals (techniques) that will best represent specific types of information, and then there are other visuals that are most appropriate for visualizing other types of information. Getting these visuals mixed-up or using them inappropriately can often complicate your message to such an extent that your visuals end up hindering the communication process.

When a Chart is Not Enough

Several years ago I came across a very interesting article written by Dave Gray, who is the founder of Dachis Group (formerly known as XPlane). Dave wrote a short article titled: When a Chart is Not Enough.

Within this article Dave mentions that visuals are great to use if you want to communicate large volumes of information in a simple and effective way. Charts and graphs are especially useful for presenting statistics and making comparisons. They help make the information more engaging and appealing to the senses. However, Dave mentions that when describing something new and different, that charts and graphs are often not enough to get your message across.

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Visual Thinking: Not Just About Pictures

While working through the process of visual thinking, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that visual thinking is predominantly about drawing pictures. While this is true to a certain degree, I would like to however broaden the idea of what a picture is — at least in terms of how it relates to visual thinking.

A picture is any type of graphical or organizational tool you use that helps you to represent your thoughts and ideas in a visual way.

When it comes to visual thinking, I have divided the concept of a picture into six distinct categories:

  1. Sketches
  2. Diagrams
  3. Charts
  4. Metaphors
  5. Tables
  6. Combos

To stay consistent with our visual thinking MAGIC metaphor, these categories are akin to potions that can help you represent your thoughts and ideas from a variety of perspectives.

When it comes to magic, ingredients are mixed together in a specific way that help us develop the potions we need to create a magical spell. Further to this, a combination of potions creates a concoction that can be used to ward off evil dragons and spirits. 😉

In terms of visual thinking, our ingredients are known as components that are used in a specific combination to create techniques (potions) that we use to solve our problems or represent our ideas visually. Individually, each of these techniques can also be defined as an element — an element of the visual thinking technique periodic table.

Just like with magic, while thinking visually you must be careful not to fall into the trap of using too many techniques (potions) at one time to try and represent your thoughts and ideas. Mixing too many potions (techniques) in a concoction can literally spell “disaster” and will tend to over-complicate your visuals.

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More Visual Thinking Ingredients

Within the previous post we discussed how pictures, symbols, signs and icons can be used to help you think visually. Within this post we will break down the remaining four visual thinking ingredients that form the bedrock of the visual thinking process: colors, written language, numbers and shapes.


Colors are not an essential ingredient for visual thinking, however they are extremely helpful because they enable you to highlight ideas; they can be used as boundaries to segregate and categorize concepts, and they allow your visuals to pop-out — making them more effective and memorable.

Colors can also be used to label diagrams, maps or charts to help make your content more meaningful. For instance, you could use a variety of colored sticky-notes to represent different kinds of ideas on a whiteboard.

It’s important to also understand that when it comes to visual thinking, there are some general rules for color selection and the meaning that they imply. Here is a quick summary:

  • Yellow = Lateral thinking and opportunity spotting.
  • Black = Critical thinking and innovation.
  • Green = Imaginative thinking and innovation.
  • Brown = Judgmental thinking and quality appraisal.
  • Blue = Holistic thinking and environmental scanning.
  • Orange = System thinking and design.
  • White = Meta-cognition and thinking about thinking.
  • Grey = Chaotic thinking and ambiguity.
  • Purple = Strategic thinking and directing.
  • Red = Decision-making and action.

You can use this list of colors to create meaning during brainstorming or idea generation sessions. You can also use them throughout the visual thinking process.

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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.

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