06 March 2006

Visual thinking isn't for everyone

Visualization isn't for everyone. In the 15 years since I started XPLANE, I have sat in many meetings where I was asked to "xplane" the value of visual explanations. I have learned over the years that people either seem to instantly "get it" while others struggled to understand the value of visualization.

I remember sitting in a meeting where I pulled out a visual map (here's an example) and a woman actually seemed upset by it. She said she didn't understand what the purpose of this was and that she just didn't see the usefulness of it at all.

This is a question aimed at all you visual thinkers out there: What have you experienced? Have you noticed any patterns? Does visualization resonate well in some industries and poorly in others? Or perhaps the pattern is more by functional area: Do people in sales "get it" while people in accounting seem puzzled?

I have a high degree of interest in this topic. Please share your thoughts in the comments section. Thanks!

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16 comments:

Ivan Osadchiy said...

I think, age and level education have most important aspect.

Dr. Melissa said...

Are you sure her resistance was to Visual Thinking or to a new idea? Some people recoil at anything new--no matter the idea. In which case, you hope that she isn't the key decision maker and address your presentation to the person who is. Some people just like to hear themselves say, "No."

Chris Heuer said...

Recently I was working with a very smart communications professional and pimping the use of mindmaps. He looked at one and got a headache - he could not rationally process the non-linear pattern in front of him. Even after giving him the metaphor of reading it like a clock, it was still not linear enough for him. I presented the same mindmap as a word doc outline, and he got it quickly.

I refer to this issue within the realm of discussion around individual's unique palate for knowledge - some people like emotive story, some only the numbers - some want you to get straight to the bottom line, others want to take their time to get to know you - some want it well designed and polished and others think that it is a frivolous waste of time to 'do it up' like that.

Knowledge like food, can be prepared in a way that 'tastes' good to the person consuming it, pleasing their palate and leaving an indelible imprint in terms of the experience of the knowledge. Perhaps it would be interesting to map out these axis to certain roles or personalities. It might have more correlative intersections with Myers Briggs or other similar personality analysis...

matteo baldan said...

I think you'd consider two aspects of the question.
If you explain something useing visual maps, usually the most of your audience will get it, but they won't use their imagination very mutch.
Instead if you use visual maps only by yourself and you explain something only by your own words probably the most of you audience won't get it but everyone will use more the right part of his brain.

Triplet Dads said...

I spent time working with BigCo on a new vision of their future at E&Y's Lab in Chicago. We had artists roaming around joining discussion groups for the sole purpose of drawing visual images of the ideas being generated. After that, all you had to do is look at the drawing and all the discussion lept forward. A heck of a lot easier than notes. I also think that visual thinking inspires both mental AND physical reactions. Every pro athlete knows how to do visual thinking. They "see it" then they "do it"

Timo said...

I agree with Ivan...Education, cultural background but also like Chris said by personal learning style/channel are drivers of how we learn.

Just think about an accountant/controller looking at an Excel sheet full of numbers. Some of them are able to see "pictures, trends and stories" just by looking at the figures. On the other hand I know some persons who need personal communication and interaction. They can look at diagramms and text for hours without understanding it. But with somebody talking to them, telling a story or example they get it in minutes.

Also a lot of people are learning visually there are a lot out there who use different channels.

Solomon Folks said...

I have worked in both finance and technology, and it seems that these two industries need your work the most. I think most people understand in a very general sense how interest rates effect their lives, but do they really understand all of the things interest rates effect? In technology, it's the physical and logical relationships that challenge people most. Hence the massive use of Visio documents and whiteboards in meetings. To bad you don't have a product to add scale to your business...process understanding is everything!

Dana said...

Chris, your point about a the correlation between personality types and ways of understanding reminded me of an experience I had recently.

I have a dear friend who works in PR and is often described as a 'people person.' I've known her for years but one day, to my great surprise, I discovered that she has difficulty reading and using geographical maps. In all the time we've spent together this point never came up, even in the course of our many traveling expeditions.

I asked her with great interest what her experience with maps was like. Her reply was a somewhat embarrassed, "I don't know," and the conversation quickly moved on to other topics. Thinking back on that dialogue now, I realize that she never hesitates to stop and talk to someone to ask directions, but I've never seen her with a map in hand; she simply navigates the world using a different 'language' than I do.

Anonymous said...

People take visual thinking for granted and underestimate it. Just because one has eyes doesn't mean they can see. It's all about serious observation and feedback.

Randy Gerdes said...

I worked for 10 years with architects. They couldn't speak or discuss ideas without drawing...and I found that for me, as an Organization Development practitioner, the more I could draw for them the more effective my communication.

I began to sharpen my drawing skills and attended a workshop in Graphic Facilitation, presented by a group called Grove Consultants. www.grove.com

I found that they had created templates to visualize many of the common OD tools, and had grouped them in sets for specific purposes. As I'm not good at drawing, I've continued to use their pre-made templates, which, though somewhat limited, offer me a starting place for several of the common engagements I have as an OD consultant. They're very powerful tools that bring about much higher engagement of participants.

I've also noticed that since I stopped having the flip charts from work sessions typed up and distributed to participants (I now take digital photos and send those out in a Word or Powerpoint format), people remember more of what was said. There is strong difference between what they saw hand lettered in the session and a typed/word processed version...which just isn't as easy to remember because it's another generation removed from the original visual. I remember reading in college that students did better on tests taken in the same room where they studied for the test. Something going on there!

Brian Mullins said...

A broad generalization here, but in my experience, those who "get" visual thinking are right-brained people in sales and marketing vs left-brained folks in finance, accounting or legal. Your post made me think of Dan Pink's book, A Whole New Mind. The premise of Dan's book is that in a global economy where analytical skills can more and more be fulfilled anywhere in the world, left brain people in the developed world will have to add right brain skills to continue to succeed. He then lays out the essential right-brain skills.

JJeffryes said...

Visual language is like any other language. Not everyone speaks it.

When talking to other designers, I often refer to this as "design blindness." Like the color blind, people that are design blind simply cannot see relationships between shapes, visual hierarchies, or any other high-level "words" in the visual language. Their visual vocabulary is limited, which is why they tend to focus on things like bold text, huge logos, starbursts, and pictures of people. They cannot, on a physical level, comprehend anything beyond that.

I formulated this theory when showing samples to clients. Some of them would seem to understand what they saw, and others would not. The ones that did not would look at two pieces with wildly different design, and as long as they had the same color scheme and words, fail to see any difference. Eventually I got over my designer's bias and realized they were simply thinking in a different language.

Showing someone that is design blind a visual map is like shouting at them in Russian, when all they speak is Japanese. They won't understand you, and if they know you also speak Russian, they'll going to get annoyed. In their mind, you are purposely excluding them by talking in a way they can't understand.

I don't know what makes some people design blind, so far it's been my experience that you can't do much about it, other than find a way to give them information in a non-visual way, and eventually build enough trust that they will take your word for it when you say something looks good.

Anonymous said...

Some people are verbal thinkers and think with words. These people tend to graviate towards professions that deal almost exclusively with verbal thought and communication (e.g., law, writing).

Others are visual thinkers and think with diagrams and spatial and temperoral ralationships between components. These people tend to gravitate towards engineering, science, and graphics related fields.

And then there are some people, like myself, who are visual, but are trapped in verbal professions. Every day is hard work, since words do not come naturally to me. I need diagrams, and equations, to understand most complex systems.

Currently stuck on a word-related issue and wasting time here...

dave said...

Wow, that is a challenging dilemma. In my early days with newspapers I had a similar experience -- newspapers at the time were controlled by "word people" -- many of whom had a hard time embracing visual thinking as an approach to work.

USA Today, for example, was seen as an evil force driving the "dumbing down" of America, and the power of visualization was actually seen as a threat by many writers and editors.

Newspapers have embraced visualization since then, but at the time it was difficult.

lkim said...

I've not met anyone who doesn't appreciate visual thinking (yet). It just takes varying levels of time.

Anonymous said...

Visual thinking comes naturally to most of us when young, but is drummed out in school. So some people then adopt "approved" systems of communications and learn to forget pictures. Its only when its so strong or they are reawakened to the power in visuals that it becomes natural (with some work) again. This is important stuff - to reconnect us to our roots.