Why visual thinking matters

Our work, our projects, and our lives are all intertwined in complexity. Accessing our own understanding and the boundaries of our projects can be quite hard. Explaining them can be even harder!

A map can help us understand our world and make that understanding accessible to others. Similarly, visuals help us define the territory, and the terrain of our projects.

I’ve noticed a trend in how much visuals are being used more to explain and communicate projects and their outcomes.

Why are visuals so important to creating understanding and contribution in project work and what are some of the ways we can use visuals to make impact?


Today many people I meet in workshops and throughout my work are not in the habit of using visuals. We jump quickly to our computers to take notes, maybe we’ll use hand gestures, but what if our instinct was to pick up a pen?

People appreciate visuals. Often the first thing people will gravitate to are the images, diagrams and photos shared in a report or document. The practice of using visuals is increasingly in demand, incorporating data and technology as well as the hand-crafted skills of a graphic recorder. We process images 60% faster than text, and images can break down assumptions, contextualizing our understanding. We learn quickly through visuals, in fact everyone is a visual learner!

We are now coming into a phase of technology where being able to draw digitally is almost as easy and reflective as the process of picking up a pen. VR is offering further ways of exploring how visuals can support our work.

Collective Understanding?

During our work at the European Commission we designed and built an online platform, (PICS) to support european countries and their administrations to share their resources with each other and work on collective projects . It was vital to the success of the project for users to have a good understanding of the system. We needed to have a simple way of expressing how it worked.

During PICS’ launch event, Project Leads from each administration and country came together for training and briefing. We wanted them to be comfortable with the system and feel confident in explaining it to others. At first, they walked through the application unguided, to gain a user’s perspective. Later, we asked them to visually map out their individual understanding of the system and share it with others. This exercise helped them not only get a better understanding of the project, but also helped create a global visual that everyone could use. The impact was clear: in the following sessions and activities during the event everyone had a sharper understanding of the system, and they were able to explain their comments or questions by referring to this visual model we had created collectively.

Sharing our mental models visually, further develops and deepens our understanding and accelerates project development

Mental Models

Interaction with our world depends upon our mental models. A simple example is how we approach and use a door. Without much thought we analyse the door mechanism and work out how the door opens based on visual clues and past experience. Does it open inwards, or outwards? Does it require a card or a key? Does it slide open or spin? Is there a handle, where are the hinges — on the left or right hand side? Do you need to pull or push?

The hinges offer a visual cue. The question of “am I allowed to open it?” feeds into the mental model I have about access via the door. All this information is rapidly and non-verbally processed by our brains, demonstrating how a well-designed door doesn’t make you think.

What if we were able to understand our projects in the same way? Having an understanding of our projects as clearly and as intuitively as a well-designed door?

We build mental models of our own understanding. Through outward clues and feedback from others, we develop that model. We can go quickly to misunderstanding each other when our mental models are not in sync. What if we were able to share our mental models through a simple visual? We can use simple lines and shapes to represent an understanding of our projects. Sharing our mental models visually, further develops and deepens our understanding and accelerates project development.

Knowing when to let go of a metaphor is a skill equal to finding one that matches your needs in the first place.

Visual Metaphors

Visual metaphors are great way to help structure our understanding of something less tangible. Using something we already have an understanding of, e.g. a tree, can help explain our project. The roots can represent the history of the project, the trunk its core elements, the branches its reach and the fruit the outputs and impacts.

One thing to note, though: each metaphor has its limits. You can find yourself struggling to find a suitable place to add important parts of your project on the tree. So use with caution! Knowing when to let go of a metaphor is a skill equal to finding one that matches your needs in the first place.

It starts with picking up that pen!

Developing your Practice

Whatever your project, pick up a pen and draw out your understanding.

Whether you use stick people, and simple shapes and lines, or are a seasoned visual practitioner, the importance is that you and others i.e. your team, clients, partners, stakeholders can achieve shared understanding.

If you want to discover tools, techniques and practice with like minded others. Join Paul Messer, Mary-Alice Arthor and Amy Lenzo for 4 week Visual Thinking Lab

Visual Thinking Lab

Do you aspire to have clarity in how you explain things, leading to others saying yes to shared vision and action?
4 x 2h Online Sessions

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8 visual check-ins to invite creative presence

How do we create the conditions in our meetings so that we can be fully present together and tap into our creative capacities?

Check-ins are an important part of life within Percolab and working and being with others. They are collective moments to stop, reflect, share and become present. In my experience, they are also very helpful to move us away from analytical thinking when working in creativity and innovation. They are invitations for people to step into a creative mindset.

Over the past few years, as part of our check-in process with the team and within projects with clients and partners, we have developed and experimented with a number of different visual methods that can gently host us into a space of collective presence and creativity:

1. Quick blind draw


  • 4 index cards per person
  • Pens (enough for one each)


  1. Each person takes between 4 index cards and a marker
  2. Ask the group to stand and mix up
  3. Ask them to find a partner
  4. Start a 30 second timer
  5. At the same time, each person looks at their partner in the eyes and draws their face on the index card. Without looking at the card!
  6. When the times up, each person gives the card upside down to their partner (the partner hides it at the bottom of their picture
  7. Repeat 3 times (so each person has 4 pictures of themselves)
  8. Everyone returns to their place and looks at their picture
  9. Ask each person to select a picture that resonates with how they see themselves
  10. Write their names on it
  11. Create a gallery

2. In One Line

Materials needed

  • Pens (enough for one each)
  • Paper (A4 or letter works well)


  1. Make sure everyone has access to a piece of plain paper and a marker.
  2. Ask that everyone only draws one continuous line in a short time period (say 30 seconds)
  3. Ask that everyone shares at the same time (hold it in front of them and keep it there)
  4. Give a moment to look around the circle to see what has been drawn
  5. Ask for a quick explanation for why they drew what they drew.


  • Ask everyone to select a color that resonates with them at that moment and then when sharing ask to talk about their drawing and why that color.

Example questions

  • How are you arriving today?
  • What energy are you bringing with you?
  • How do you feel about X project/topic?

3. Mark the paper


This process works well when dealing with creativity and innovation, with those who feel less comfortable drawing, as it pushes people to make a mark on a sheet. Also works well when working with large groups split up into smaller tables.

Materials needed

  • Large sheet of paper on the table(s)
  • Pens (enough for one each)


  1. Ask everyone to write their name on the sheet
  2. Then to draw something that resonates with their name
  3. Ask the groups to share within their table
  4. For a larger group, you can invite one or two tables to share what they see emerge, or speaks to them

4. Squiggle Birds

Materials needed

  • Pens
  • Paper


  1. Draw a squiggle on your paper
  2. Turn it into a bird by first adding feet like sticks
  3. Then look at it and decide where you want the head to be
  4. Draw some eyes and give it a very simple tail feather

Example questions

  • How is your squiggle bird arriving at this meeting?

5. Pick a Card


  • Set of cards
    Example: Percolab circle cards


  1. Lay the cards out in the group.
  2. Ask people to choose one and turn it over.
  3. Ask some questions around the card choice, like “Why did you choose that colour or card?”

Example questions

  • What are you noticing when you look at the image (or see the picture)?
  • What does it say to you?”

6. Answer in image


  • Large paper (big enough for everyone)
  • Pens


  1. Put a big piece of paper in the middle of the group.
  2. Make sure everyone has a marker
  3. Ask a question like “How are you arriving today?” or “What’s important for you today?”.  Everyone draws in response at the same time.
  4. Stand back and see what’s been drawn
  5. Go around and ask for people to share something about their image

7. Quick Find

Works well with distance teams i.e. via zoom or skype


  • Access to computer (ideally laptop) or smart phone


  1. Use Google as your image bank.
  2. Think of an idea or your project and search for an image that represents something about it you’d like to share.
  3. Remember to give yourself a short time to search, otherwise you might fall into the internet and never come back! We suggest a one minute timer.
  4. Have each person share their image

8. Body talk


  • Paper and pens


  1. Draw a body — it can be a stick or star person.
  2. What does the head, heart, arms and legs have to say?  Write this on your paper — either as a group exercise on a big sheet of paper or on individual sheets.
  3. Share around the group.

Visual check-ins help to bring people into innovation and creativity in a light way. Feel free to play around with these suggestions. Try them out with your team. Each of these are easily adaptable to the situation and context, as well as the needs and purpose of the meeting or the event. You have some other similar practices you would like to share? we would love to hear from you.

If you want to discover how Visual Thinking can relate to your business, project or ideas, join online in the VISUAL THINKING LAB, starting June 28, 2017.



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The Four Fold Path

With the up and coming Art of Hosting, Montreal event, 8th – 10th October 2013, during a harvesting team meeting it became clear that the 4 Fold Path would be a key theme.

To help share this teaching we thought it would be cool to have something tactile and playful and so with some helpful feedback from the team (they all tried to play with the first concept!) I came up with the following design…


Its based on the The Four Fold practice from the Art of Hosting community but in foldable form (called a fortune teller). For more information on the Art of Hosting visit: artofhosting.org

Download the template (PDF)

How to fold

For more information in the Montreal, Art of Hosting community, visit artofhosting.org/.




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