Visual Thinking and Pattern Recognition

In order to make full use of your visual thinking capacity, you must first learn to become a master of pattern recognition.

First, you must discover how to recognize patterns within your environment, within information clusters and within problems. Secondly, you must proactively combine the data you have acquired into visual patterns that help you identify critical solutions — leading you to breakthrough thinking, ideas and innovation.

Within this post I would like to highlight how to apply pattern recognition into your visual thinking practices.

The World is Built Upon Patterns

Whether we look at the world from a macro-level of understanding or a micro-level, one thing is undeniably clear:

Everything around us thrives on predictable or semi-predictable cycles, rhythms and patterns.

The planets revolving around the sun do so in a semi-predictable pattern, just like the electrons that revolve around the nucleus of an atom. The earth itself moves through cycles, rhythms and seasons, as do all the plants, animals and insects. Even our social, economic and political history moves through semi-predictable cycles and patterns that tend to play-out over and over again.

The human body is built upon biological patterns and rhythms that keep us alive and functioning. The same is true of our psychology which traps us in patterns of semi-predictable behaviors, habits, actions and decisions that merge together to create our destiny. Moreover, the combined psychology of small to large groups of people can essentially predict a collective destiny that spans across cultures, political boundaries, religions and borders.

Pattern Recognition is Link to Evolution

Ever since the dawn of mankind we have evolved as a society because of the few individuals who took the time to identify patterns within their environment.

At first we identified the behavioral patterns of wild animals. We used this knowledge to hunt them or to avoid being hunted by them. Later we identified the patterns of the moon and seasons, providing us with the knowledge required to effectively farm the land.

In recent years science has built the foundations of extraordinary medical and technological breakthroughs. Scientists, doctors and engineers continue to make sense of patterns that lead to the formation of new associations and understandings of what’s possible in every area of our lives.

Ever since the invention of the stock market, opportunists have been looking for patterns and cycles that could help them get the edge they needed to make better financial decisions and investments. Also companies and organizations today continuously look for the changing and ever evolving patterns within the marketplace in order to predict the trends that will lead to the creation of the next BIG breakthrough business innovation.

As you can see, patterns are everywhere, and it is these patterns that lay down the critical foundations for every breakthrough technology and idea that has shaped the society we live in today.

How to Recognize Patterns

Just like with any new skill, it takes a little time to learn to become a pattern recognition expert. 😉 It’s actually not that difficult if you know what to look for and consistently ask the right kinds of questions.

I won’t spend time outlining all the different types of generic questions you could ask. Instead, what I would like to focus on here is the process of actively looking for patterns, organizing them, and imagining new possibilities.

1. Actively Look for Patterns

The first step is to begin actively looking for patterns within your environment, industry, within people’s behavior and within the subject you are studying — to help you identify an opportunity or solve a problem. Take time to notice how things happen, how the information is structured, how the different pieces interact with other elements, and how they come together to form outcomes.

At this stage you are essentially looking for the cause and effect relationship between the different pieces, and how this relationship forms predictable or semi-predictable patterns that you can take advantage of. It is therefore paramount that you collect as much data as possible in order to help you identify the connection between these relationships.

Keep in mind that patterns may not be immediately evident. Don’t concern yourself with this. For now, simply collect every piece of data you can. The patterns will eventually come to the surface during the concluding stages of this process.

Finally, it’s important that you do not question anything at this stage. Just observe the data that is out there. If you fall into the trap of questioning too early, then your preconceived assumptions might lead you astray.

2. Organize the Pieces

Now that you’ve spent time observing the data that is out there, your next step is to lay out this data into a visual format that will allow you to make sense of existing connections and form new associations.

It’s important to note that your main objective here is not to find solutions or answers, but to rather organize the information into chunks or groups that will help you to better pinpoint possible patterns you’ve been observing. Creating mind maps can be very helpful.

3. Question the Data

Having observed and organized the data into a visual format, now comes time to start questioning this information. Ask “who?”, “what?”, “how much?”, “where?”, “when?”, “how?”and “why?” questions, and…

  • Identify what you see.
  • Determine whether you’ve seen this type of information before.
  • Pinpoint things that stand out in your mind.
  • Question whether there are pieces missing.
  • Think about possible patterns that might be emerging.

For more information about this, please see the Visual Thinking Questions introduction page.

4. Visualize the Data

As you continue to ask relevant questions, begin visualizing the data using graphs, charts, maps, pictures, etc [see: element gallery]. The better you are able to visualize this information the more patterns will start to emerge, and the more likely you are to find solutions.

I will provide you with numerous techniques, tools and strategies to help you with this step in future article posts.

5. Imagine New Possibilities

While you are visualizing the data, new patterns will start to emerge. This will inspire new concepts and ideas that will expose you to opportunities and possibilities that you probably never considered or didn’t even know existed.

This is in essence the realm of idea generation, where you explore the possibilities that lie before you.

The Steps Towards Breakthrough Innovation

The above five step process lays down the foundations of how pattern recognition can lead to breakthrough ideas and innovative concepts. However, we’ve only touched the surface of what’s possible. There is so much more to discuss and visual thinking techniques to share with you in the coming weeks and months. We’ve only just started to make progress along our journey towards becoming a Visual Thinking Magicians.