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Visual thinking strategies you can start using today

By: Leanne Armstrong

Whether your brain thinks predominantly in words or in pictures, we all generate visual images to help us make sense of the world. Visual thinking allows us to organize ideas graphically. But extracting those ideas when we want to explore them further or discuss them with somebody else isn’t always easy.
That’s where visual thinking strategies come in.

With the help of tools like concept maps, infographics, videos, and web diagrams, the visual thinking process can be made to unfold in a way that lets you literally “see” and work with new ideas as they develop.

By applying visual thinking strategies to everyday situations, you can clarify your thoughts, organize and analyze important information, think more critically, and integrate new knowledge.
In this article, we’ll take a look at some visual thinking strategies and processes you can start using today at home or at work.


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What are visual thinking strategies?

Officially, Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is a teaching method for improving critical thinking skills through instructor-led discussions of visual images (more about this later).

Unofficially, any thought or communication technique that uses a visual aid (ideally, an interactive one) to help you round out an idea, learn something new, or create shared insight with others can be considered a visual thinking strategy.

Because the concept of visual thinking is driven by cognitive psychology and learning sciences, the applications for visual thinking-based strategies are widespread.

Engaging in the visual thinking process, for example, can help you:

  • Make sense of complex information, conversations, or learning materials
  • Improve procedural or process efficiency
  • Actively explore new ideas as part of a group

Visual thinking strategies are especially helpful for encouraging individual contributions in team brainstorming and problem-solving environments.

Why visual thinking strategies work

When you think and learn visually – by assembling the workflow diagram for a new project or watching an instructional video, for example – your brain is highly engaged. And because it’s actively seeking out new solutions or understanding, it retains more of the information it processes for a longer period of time.

Research suggests that when we hear information, we remember only about 10% of it several days later. Take a visual content strategy approach, however – by pairing that same information with a related image – and retention rises to 65%.

In a group setting, visual thinking strategies can be even more effective.

Not only has collaborative learning been shown to develop higher-level thinking skills, demonstrating and working through ideas and materials visually can expand interpersonal and leadership abilities along with comprehension.

The more frequently people work together to build on each other’s thoughts and knowledge, the better they get at creating a complete and practical picture they can put to use later.

And as a bonus, participants who are less vocal are more likely to share their perspectives in group settings where they can interact with visual tools.

Using visual thinking strategies in the everyday world

Learning is an integral part of life. But no matter how insightful or thought-provoking someone else’s expertise or ideas may be, our minds are reluctant to hang onto information we receive from books and documents, verbal presentations, or conversations alone.

Using visual thinking strategies to accumulate, develop, and use knowledge is a great way to improve many of the personal and professional activities we engage in each day.

You can take a visual thinking approach, for example, to make it easier to:

  • Learn new skills or adopt different habits. Remembering and practicing new aptitudes or attitudes gets easier when the words we read or hear are conveyed along with images. There’s a good reason why 86% of YouTube viewers watch videos to learn new things.
  • Communicate effectively. Whether in discussions with friends, family, or colleagues, explaining your idea or personal perspective quickly and succinctly can be as simple as grabbing a notebook and drawing a mental map or picture.
  • Work toward shared objectives. When you’re having trouble moving a group project or community initiative forward, a colorful, easy-to-generate infographic is a dynamic way to illustrate and substantiate your direction.

Strategies for visual learning

If you teach as part of a formal institution or in a business training capacity, you can use the Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) methodology to encourage flexible thinking with the help of a single, interesting image and three simple questions:

  • What’s going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can we find?

Much like a brainstorming session, the goal of a VTS discussion is to enable shared discovery, learning, and insight rather than to disseminate knowledge. Encouraging the contribution of individual ideas in this way has been shown to deepen the learner’s observation, collaboration, and communication skills.

Mind mapping strategies are another effective way to visualize thinking and learning. By presenting your topic in the form of a vibrant, interactive MindManager mind map, for example, you can improve understanding and retention by helping learners draw important connections between different pieces of information.

Visual thinking strategies for organizations

Given the increasing complexity of business and the work that we do, visual thinking strategies offer a better way to share information and learn together in the workplace environment.

Methodologies like Agile and Lean already embrace the reality that shared learning is more fundamental to success than relying on plans or external experts alone.

Here are some other prime examples of how you can use the visual thinking process to improve many common business practices.

Problem solving: You can streamline individual creativity and group brainstorming sessions with strategies that visualize problem solving. Physically (or digitally) sketching out your personal ideas for revitalizing a struggling product or service, for example, makes it easier to share and build on them when you meet up with your team.

Business planning: Whether you’re exploring new ways of working together or you’re developing a strategic plan, visual thinking strategies and tools provide a flexible framework for everyone involved so they can play out simple scenarios.

Managing information and company knowledge: Because it drives inquiry-based learning, the visual thinking process is far more impactful than traditional approaches to sharing and managing information. Your employee training, for example, might benefit from role play to explore new job responsibilities or visual mapping to learn and discuss a new skill set.

Managing projects and tasks: Are you responsible for planning projects, developing new workflow, or managing existing tasks and procedures? It will make your job easier if you remember that statistics show people perform 323% better when they follow directions with text and illustrations than they do without visual images.

Creating new business processes: Company knowledge visualization is a great way to improve business process design. You can use visual thinking strategies to ramp up your onboarding process, for example, by making it easier to communicate organizational culture and common practices, for current employees to share their experiences, and to identify potential improvements.

Improving productivity: Improving workflow as a team or department, troubleshooting bottlenecks, and analyzing critical incidents so you can avoid them in future can be accomplished more productively when you take advantage of visual thinking strategies and tools like flowcharts.

You can even incorporate the visual thinking process into remote environments like your next online meeting to help focus the energy of participants and keep them engaged.

Together, visual thinking strategies, tools, and software reduce complexity, improve collaboration, and provide greater insight into how an event or process works now – and how it can be made to work better in future.

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