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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