A New Look at Visual Thinking 

(When Vision Makes Meaning)

The currency of the future is ideas and innovation; dealing with a large number of unknowns are the main tasks business and individuals will have to address. Trying to clarify one's thinking or looking for ways to convince and communicate with others, requires new tools. Visual thinking is fast becoming the means that will help us move into the forward. A new meaning of visual thinking must incorporate visual cognition.

This article is about identifying in broad terms what visual thinking is and how we use it in SenseCatcher.

Visual Thinking - popularity and usage

Visual Thinking burst into popularity around 2004; the interest in the subject remains high.

Its most common use has been for Graphic Recording. It involves a person with artistic skills, silently creating the visual while the talk takes place. The objective is to record the presentation. In many respects - this is what many people think Visual Thinking is. There is a good reason for this - there are many websites, youtube channels, books and courses teaching people different techniques to do these types of static visuals. There is a place for this technique and can produce good results. As far as visual thinking is concerned - it only captures a fraction of the essence of visual thinking.

There is another variation - called visual facilitation. The difference is that the 'creator' of the visual, acts as a facilitator - asking questions and interacting with the audience. The end product(s) can be one or more visual diagrams of the discussion created live during the meeting. This technique has been around for some time and certainly is getting much closer to using the full power of visual thinking. There are limitations and drawbacks: the conversation can remain superficial; the semiotic mechanism is not fully engaged (a very important aspect); the facilitator in the long term is not ideal (acts as a gatekeeper - even innocently).

Other ways in which visual thinking is used:

  • Child development theorist Linda Kreger Silverman (she suggests that proportions of the population are visual/spatial thinkers in varying degrees), 
  • Multiple intelligence, 
  • Split-brain research (in its basic form has been debunked - however, neuroscience confirms that there are regions of specialization in the brain - there are no strict left/right brain split functions),
  • Photographic memory, 
  • Dyslexia and Autism,
  • Art and design.

Visual Thinking as Cognition

All these areas inform each other - no idea or concept is an island. Research into visual thinking continues.

At a basic level, the concept of 'wholistic' is a good starting point to understand visual Thinking.

The increase in popularity of visual Thinking is because it offers a simple, yet powerful way to think, and grasp complex ideas.

A more comprehensive understanding of Visual Thinking needs to capture the essence of how we think cognitively. The areas that are central to SenseCatcher is visual perception and visual cognition.

"Visual cognition is the branch of psychology that is concerned with combining visual data with prior knowledge to construct high-level representations and make ... decisions" Patrick Cavanagh.

Visual Thinking is about making thinking visible

We see thinking as a combination of 'language' and 'vision'.

These ideas are looked at seperately in various articles on SenseCatcher's website. 

The rest of the post looks at basic facts about visual thinking; we end with a quick discussion on visual resoning. 


Visual Thinking Facts

We usually process information and ideas in picture form. Humans have been doing this for a very long time. We did this after we started using language and long before we learned to write.

The processing of images is not the same as the processing of text. Text only uses vision for the first stage - the recognition of the shapes of the letters. It is far from a visual task, and it uses specific regions of the brain to process.

Harnessing visual thinking network

Text processing network


       Image processing network

The processing of images, on the other hand, fires up a vast area of the brain, stimulating a global network almost instantaneously. The result is a rich tapestry with subtle nuances of meaning packed into a simple image. The text-only offers underlying meaning; it relies on other text to create a drawn-out piece of information. It has fundamental dimensions and limitations.

the building blocks

Text alone can lead to misinterpretations and miscommunication. It cannot capture nuances or variation of meaning. It can easily lead to arguments, and it requires great skill. It is challenging to record details (especially if there are many). Capturing and writing complex ideas in the text is difficult to both write and read. People lose track of the various threads of meaning, especially if the subject matter is technical.

We have a limited capacity to remember more than seven pieces of information. Because of this, long slabs of text are cognitively taxing and ineffective, leading to information overload. People lose focus, switch off and start to skim (missing essential facts). It takes the brain 60,000 times longer to process text-based or verbal information than it takes to process images. It takes only 13 milliseconds to process a picture, and nearly 500 milliseconds to process a decision that engages the rational brain.

graph people prefer visuals

The underlying reason anchors on the notion of 'holism'. Theories of systems and complexity explain this concept.

visual thinking speed of image processing

The most well-known form of communication is cave paintings dating back to 130,000 BCE.


Writing is dated to 3500 BCE when the Sumerians developed the cuneiform writing. The first alphabet based on sound dates back to 1050 BCE. Our brains have primarily evolved to process images rather than text.

When we are thinking hard, or trying to explain something complicated, it is natural to draw or sketch, to describe what we are thinking about. It is natural to express our ideas in a visual way. When we need to give shape to an abstract concept, making the invisible visible and intangible tangible, pictures are the only way to achieve this. They are powerful. They cut through the noise, they are succinct, they sharpen and focus our thinking. The idea or concept is remembered for a long time. 

Complex ideas are easier to understand and share with others. It opens the door to what is in our head. This reduces cognitive load, freeing up our capacity to process complex information and use the slow mode more efficiently and for longer – some say that it shifts the 5% usage of the slow mode to 50% or even higher. This is powerful!

Using pictures makes decision-making easy. It distills issues clearly, leaving only what is relevant and useful. It de-clutters irrelevant information and biases are identified. Neurologically, looking at a picture helps the brain absorb large and complicated amounts of data in a quick way, which is not possible with text. Images allow us to process information exponentially, compared to text. We are hardwired to recognize and make sense of visual information more efficiently.

A picture makes communication easy with ourselves and others. Once the picture is created, others can understand the issues clearly (ambiguity is eliminated), relationships are easy to identify, ideas are created and found, and problems are easily pinpointed. 

where is my beer

It is instantly clear and requires little to no effort to understand what is happening in this visual.

We know that the man (most probably the father of the young boy) has just returned to the room. In his absence the boy drank the beer, which is now lying out of sight under the table.

This understanding is unambiguous and happens in seconds.

These are facts – our emotions and values are free to surface later, but the facts remain intact.

They are unambiguous and verifiable over time.

With a visual, memory will not be able to embellish or distort the facts.

The act of creating the picture is the act of mapping your thinking. It is the enactment of the thinking journey. It is an act of clarity and sharpening of the mind.

We have looked at the baiscs of visual thinking.

Visual Reasoning

To better understand visual reasoning, look up related articles at the bottom of the page, to help to put visual thinking into perspective.

By seeing visual thinking as discussed on this page (including linked article), we can understand how it becomes possible to see things that are usually invisible (abstract ideas and the possible future). Our cognitive processes are inherent in our visual structure, impossible to separate from perception. The making of sense becomes clear, in how it works, how it gets created and the importance it plays in our ability to think, solve problems and make the right decisions.

emerging behaviour visual reasoning

Visual reasoning is a process of giving symbolic meaning to data, information, and knowledge. Central to this process is emergence. 'Meaning' emerges from the interplay between the elements on a visual sense map, for instance. Humans are experts at pattern recognition.

One thing that our brains do very well is to recognize patterns more than any other single function. We are weak at logic, calculations, and to some degree, remembering facts. But pattern recognition is our core capability.

Our brains create meaning from patterns we see or imagine. Pattern recognition helps us make predictions, survive, learn, and understand the world around us. We do this visually and with minimal effort.

An image simultaneously represents both that which is visible and the concept represented by the pictures. It contains vast amounts of layered and interwoven information that is very difficult to describe through language. Images do this instantly, whereas 'language' is slow and cannot describe every detail that images can.

Images can simultaneously reveal the interactions and interconnections in patterns – we can see non-linearity, self-organization, and emergence. Pictures help us to understand complex adaptive systems. It is challenging to achieve with language alone.

Language tends to obfuscate meaning, whereas images and visual maps make things explicit and tangible. Language does not carry 'meaning' – it describes 'meaning', making it a drawn-out process.

We can only write down 10% of what we know – writing is a restrictive way to communicate.

Abductive Reasoning

Visual Thinking and abductive reasoning go hand in hand. To understand and see the issues in the problem situation, we need to accumulate clues. But to gather evidence, we need observations.


The abductive process begins with observation, then assembles the observations and attributes a variety of characteristics or conditions.

There is a back-and-forth, like detective work, comparing the observations with information in a cyclical manner until a reasonable explanation emerges – parallel processing. It is not sequential or linear (see more on abductive reasoning).

abductive reasoning tool for visual thinking

SenseCatcher does the hard work for you, leaving you to make the right decisions. 

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