The 6-12 KISS Principle of Visual Thinking

Once you start exploring visual thinking, you will be amazed how many different ways you can visualize things, and subsequently the kinds of problems you are able to solve. This is all well and good, however Rookie Visual Thinkers often tend to fall into the trap of over-complicating their visual thinking canvas with too many diagrams, charts, sketches, etc. This leads to confusion and consequently the message and the key concepts of the visual are lost.

For this very reason we need to stay true to the KISS principle of visual thinking, which was originally used as an acronym for the design principle of, “Keep it simple, stupid”.

This is very relevant to the process of visual thinking, because as visual thinkers we’re also designers. We bring our thoughts and ideas into reality on a canvas of our making in the physical world. This canvas is used as a communication tool. And as we probably know from experience, any slight misunderstanding during the communication process can lead to very different perspectives and interpretations. Likewise, this can create confusion, which can cost us lost time, energy, money and resources. Moreover, it can lead to poor decisions that result from the assumptions and conclusions that were made.

For the purpose of visual thinking, let’s not call ourselves stupid. Instead, let’s modify this KISS acronym to the following:

  • Keep It Simple and Straightforward

Keeping your visuals simple and straightforward means that you provide enough visual information to get your message across in a logical step-by-step fashion using as few visual thinking elements as required to tell your story. However, we must of course be very careful not to over-simplify the message, because this too has consequences.

Let’s look at all of this in a little more detail.

The 6-12 Component Explained…

A while back I stumbled across an article written by Dave Gray who mentioned a 1997 study that researched the process people undertake while creating a visual diagram.

The researchers discovered that when people create visual diagrams that they use about 6 to 12 visual elements — otherwise known as nodes — to describe a system. In fact, Dave Gray mentions that this was true no matter what kinds of creation-tools they used and regardless of the complexity of the system they were diagramming.

This study is significant because it proved that it did not matter whether people created diagrams using pencils and markers or plasticine and cut-outs, or whether they were diagramming a complex system or a simple object. None of these variables seemed to affect the complexity of the diagrams they used to represent the systems.

Dave Gray also mentions that when the researchers instructed the participants to take their time and add as much detail to their diagrams as possible, that even in these circumstances the participants maxed-out at 13 visual elements.

Dave Gray concludes, that we all tend to construct mental models of the world that consistently influence our understanding of how things work. Moreover, he mentions that these mental models are made up of 6 to 12 components, and that a diagram made up of 13 or more visual components is probably not likely to be fully integrated into people’s mental models of the world.

For more information about this study, as well as Dave Gray’s personal insights and thoughts, please visit the Communication Nation blog.

All of this brings us back to the 6-12 KISS principle of visual thinking, which reminds us  to always keep our visuals simple and straightforward — making sure that we present no more than 6 to 12 visual thinking elements when visualizing and representing a single concept or idea.

Influencing People’s Mental Models of the World

Within the next article, I will try to take the 6-12 KISS principle of visual thinking to another level, by discussing how to integrate it with people’s unique perspectives and mental models of the world.

This followup article will help explain how to keep your ideas simple and straightforward, while staying true and consistent with people’s mental models of the world. Only in this way, will you be able to create powerful visuals that communicate your intended message.