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InfoQ Homepage Articles How Visual Thinking Can Help Teams Get Clarity, Be More Creative, and Have More Inclusive Meetings

How Visual Thinking Can Help Teams Get Clarity, Be More Creative, and Have More Inclusive Meetings

Key Takeaways

  • Some people think more visually, in pictures, whereas others think more “verbally” in terms of words. However, the working world is more geared to those who think verbally.
  • There are links between visual thinking and neurodiversity, which means that visual thinkers are more likely to underestimate the power that their visual thinking abilities give them.
  • You can use visual thinking techniques, such as use of images, drawing out ideas and creating pictorial records of conversations, to create a more inclusive workplace culture.
  • By using simple visual thinking techniques to create categories of information, collate information and prioritise information - you can get some quick wins in getting clarity in your meeting.
  • Visual thinking techniques, such as templates and metaphors, can change the way that you think about your problems, and then help you be more creative in your ability to solve problems.

In my years working with technical and leadership teams I noticed that meetings tended to be very wordy, and almost always suited to those who had the “gift of the gab”.  Sometimes that’s me - when my brain is firing on all cylinders I can mostly find the words that I need to express myself.  But more often than not, it’s not! 

My family lineage is one featuring a huge number of people with dyslexia, with varying levels of severity.  Although my reading, writing and speaking skills were enough to get me through school without a diagnosis,  I still struggle to find the right words to express myself, and it can make sorting and retaining verbal or text information really tough at times.

My discovery of visual thinking, a way of putting thoughts into pictures, really changed the way I understood my brain.  I discovered that my brain naturally thought in pictures and 3D models, when other people’s brains didn't so much.  This ability was not only something that I could utilise for my own benefit, but I found I could also use it in the workplace to help other people. 

This article is here to help you understand a bit more about visual thinking, and how you could use it to support yourself, your teams to create a more inclusive, creative and collaborative culture at work.

Visual thinking, and visual thinking practices

Visual thinking is a way of making sense of the world through images.  There are a few visual thinking practices that are growing in popularity. 

The first practice is sketchnoting, which is a way of taking very concise notes but structuring them on the page and adding visual elements that add visual meaning to the notes taken (below are a couple of examples of my sketchnotes!)    

This was one of the first visual thinking practices that I learned about.  And I found that after some practice,  by sketchnoting I was able to focus better on the key topics being discussed, and that once I had created the note I was much more able to remember the information that I had heard.

Example 1:  Sketchnote of a seminar by Mauro “xLontrax” Toselli on how to hold a sketchnoting workshop or practice group

Example 2:  Sketchnote of a MeetUp talk by Nims Dhawan on Psychological Games, and how they might be played, or resolved, within Scrum teams.

Then you have graphic recording, which is a similar practice often created while listening to a speaker or group discussion live. It works by drawing on a wall/ large scale so that everyone is able to see and take meaning from the notes. 

(Image of me creating a graphic recording for a workshop)

There’s also visual facilitation, which is a way of framing a problem or way of problem-solving into a picture, and then using the image to shape the way the group addresses the issue.  

(Image of visual facilitation where participants are invited to draw and add to different shapes and diagrams to articulate their thoughts)

I now use both graphic recording and visual facilitation to help people focus and remember what is being discussed in meetings or workshops, help people identify “patterns” in their discussions, and give ways for other visual thinkers and learners to contribute.

What all three practices (Sketchnoting/ Graphic Recording / Visual Facilitation) have in common is the way they structure and synthesise verbal data into visual data, so that it can be retained, understood or worked with more easily.

Differences between verbal thinking and visual thinking

Verbal thinking tends to be fairly rational, linear, granular and detailed. It’s great and we can’t do without it. However, it also tends to be lacking in noticing complex patterns, or what we refer to as “the bigger picture” - I guess there’s a reason why we call it that! 

Verbal thinking due to its linear nature can also be limited in its ability to deliver quick emotional punches, in a way that visuals have no problem delivering. Since we are more likely to remember things that feel important or have an emotional impact, we then create something that is much more likely to be memorable.

An example of how psychological theory can be quickly represented with emotional impact through the power of visual thinking - e.g. The Jungian unconscious “shadow” self holding the sovereignty over the conscious self, until recognised.

Why is it important to include visual thinkers in meetings?

There are many people who are visual thinkers. However, research also shows that there are strong links between people who are visual thinkers and those who are neurodiverse.  So if your meetings are currently mostly geared toward verbal information, you may find that people in your teams with dyslexia, ADD or autism may well get lost, either because they will struggle to concentrate, or to process the amount of verbal information. 

Image that shows the superpowers neurodiversity can bring into organisations, and how visual thinking can help those with different neurotypes.

By making it easier for the neurodiverse to get involved through use of visual thinking, you are more likely to be able to tap into the natural genius and superpowers of the neurodiverse!  

I get excited when I speak to other neurodivergent people with this skill.  I have a friend, Myron Parks who has AuDHD (Autism with ADHD), to whom I can pass invisible 3D models of problems. Myron is then able to pick these models up from me, and break them into their component parts! We can both “see” the model, and its parts, in our mind’s eye, and so when we mime breaking it into pieces, we both “see” the perspective of how the parts fit together. We can then problem-solve based on our shared “vision”.

What you can do to make meetings clearer

If you suspect you are a visual thinker, try sketchnoting in the meetings you are zoning out in.! You’ll be amazed at how much more you hear, once you’ve got used to drawing and listening.  

The reason behind this is that you have to listen much more closely to understand the main features of what is being said and then turn that information into a graphic in your mind's eye and draw it. By processing the information with so many more parts of the brain than you would if it was just processed in an auditory way, the information is more likely to be deeply understood, taken in and retained.

If you are running a meeting there are some great, really simple things that you can try. First, see if you can create some categories for people to interact with/input into. So for example, a really boring risk meeting. Break out the types of risk with some visuals, like this one:

Example of a visual template that you can use to hold a discussion on risks to a project or team.

You are then able to collate, group, de-duplicate and prioritise what gets discussed in the meeting. And you have a visual anchor point that it relates to.  It’s also pretty useful for noticing where you might have gaps (e.g. no one wants to think about our reputational risks. Is that because we have none, or is there an elephant in the room?)

Building a better workplace culture

Some visual techniques are really simple, and just involve using tools like post-it notes, whiteboards or online canvases to help improve communication.  The simple act of taking a flip chart page and using that to build a structure for a conversation can be really useful, making it easier for everyone to be included in the conversation, by making it more accessible to those who are visual thinkers as well as verbal thinkers.  

Example of some simple grouping of ideas on a whiteboard

Culture is in part made up by the assets that we see around us. Therefore, having “visuals” that tell inspiring stories about who your team is, or your organisation, can be really powerful reminders. And that power is maximised when the visual artefacts created are co-created by the team.  That doesn’t have to mean that they are drawn by the team, although it’s great if they are. It just might mean that the team has come up with a visual language that can then be referenced around them.  So that might be things like branding colours, themed avatars, or a customised team Kanban board, but it could also be using visuals to develop their understanding of the product.  

Example of a product box visual thinking template- to be used by a team to create a visual artifact that helps them understand their product, what it means to their users and how it’s positioned in the market.

I had one team create a “product box” for the product we were developing - and that was a really useful reference for us to look at when thinking about our product decisions, or how we were communicating about our product at reviews.

Improving our problem-solving skills

A lot of the time when we approach problems, our brain works really hard to find the quickest solution.  That means that we regularly run and re-run the same paths over and over again, because it’s most efficient to do that.  The issue comes when the go-to solution isn’t actually the best one for the problem.  In those cases, we need additional stimuli to “bump” us off the most regularly trodden path, and move into a creative state where we can think about less obvious solutions, or even see the problem from a different perspective.

Use of a metaphor to explore the bigger picture behind how an observable event might be linked to a pattern of behaviour, that could be influenced by organisational structures, which are created by shared beliefs.

Visual thinking can help with this by using the idea of metaphor to “frame” the problem differently.  So for example, if you had a problem to solve where a call centre was underperforming, different metaphors may shape the way you think and attempt to solve that problem.  Imagining the problem through the lens of a production line or conveyor belt would bring about quite different results to thinking about the issue through the lens of a superhero story.

Example of a production line metaphor, that could be the starting point for a visual template to frame and discuss the problem.

Example of a production line metaphor, that could be the starting point for a visual template to frame and discuss the problem.

The conveyor belt example might have you thinking more about inputs, outputs and efficiency, or definition of done.  The superhero story might get you thinking more about the human story of the people calling the call centre, and the agents answering the calls, considering their “powers” and also the power dynamics that may be in play.

Through visual facilitation, you take a problem to a group or team using the metaphor (it can be on an online canvas, whiteboard or flipchart paper), and then use the metaphor to help them explore the subject and come up with solutions.  

Learning visual thinking

I first experimented with visual thinking practices from wanting to up my workshop game using Gamestorming!  Gamestorming was co-written by a visual thinker, Sunni Brown, which then took me down the visual thinking route.  I then started to learn sketchnoting and discovered an amazing sketchnoting community through the brilliant conference International Sketchnote Camp.  This conference introduced me to some wonderful visual thinkers, and I loved the way the community encouraged each other.  

You can learn many of the drawings, layouts and theories from books or online resources, in order to make a start at visual thinking.  I recommend the following:

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