Visual Thinking

By Mariah Howard

When was the last time you found yourself drawing or painting? Did you love to doodle and paint just for fun when you were a kid? Some of us were lucky enough to make art throughout our primary school years, painting with our fingers, drawing with crayons, and cutting shapes out of colorful paper. Many kids raise their hands without hesitation when asked, “Who’s an artist?” Sadly, the proud title of artist doesn’t last very long; before we reach our teenage years, most of us no longer feel comfortable calling ourselves artists. As soon as reading is introduced into most traditional curriculums, the paints and crayons are stored away and the lined paper gets the full attention of teachers and students. Drawing gets relegated to art classes only. While many children adapt to the prioritization of linear forms of communication like reading and writing, quite a few of us have a hard time with the switch. We might feel more expressive drawing or dancing, expressing our thoughts using more than words. What happens to the visual thinking kinesthetic students? Grades are affected as well their ability to appreciate their visual learning style. It may be decades before some visual and kinesthetic students pick up the crayons and markers or dance again, which is a loss to them and to our society.

All of this is not to suggest that reading and writing aren’t critical and there’s certainly no risk of those foundational skills being left out of curriculums around the world. But I want to wonder with the students, parents and educators of the world: What might happen in classrooms where we continued to practice drawing, painting, pottery and collage, while learning the art of reading and writing? What innovative thinking and solutions to challenging, systemic problems could emerge from the students who continued to embrace their creativity throughout their educational experience? Paintings, drawings and symbols are powerful tools for communication and innovation, especially when paired with the written word; education could fully embrace the whole brain and teach to the full potential of all the visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners in the room. Such a classroom makes me wonder what a generation of these students might do to transform our workplaces and government institutions.

The classroom (and workplace!) I’m advocating for is one where Visual Thinking is embraced and welcomed. Visual Thinking is a way of taking notes and sharing ideas using pictures, symbols, color and words. Visual Thinking “combines both visual (right brain) and verbal (left brain) ways of operating with interaction and physical movement” using the motion of drawing itself, so kinesthetic learners get to engage their bodies as they draw and take notes. (Sibbet, “Visual Meetings”)

Both individuals and teams can use Visual Thinking to express their ideas: students can take notes during class using mind maps (see examples below) or charting their lesson by clusters and themes instead of using lined paper. Groups can put up a large piece of paper in a meeting and work together to create large maps, posters and graphics that represent their collective ideas. Planning a new project is a great way to use Visual Thinking: make a big poster that helps everyone see clearly what steps need to be taken and who is assigned responsibility for each step (see examples below). Meetings can become more colorful and engaging as well as classroom presentations. Visual Thinking asks us to consider what an idea looks like along with the words we use to describe our ideas; this encourages us to think more systemically, fleshing out more fully all the nuances and aspects of our idea. We can solve problems and collaborate at new levels when we draw simple pictures or map out complex systems using mind maps or diagrams.

As you first try on the skill of Visual Thinking, the most helpful thing you can do is to adopt an attitude of play as you start mapping, drawing and thinking in non-linear ways. Many of us will find that our drawing abilities are right where we left them – in primary school – and that’s all that’s required to practice Visual Thinking. Stick figures representing people and circles connected with rectangles as trees are all perfect; as long as we know what the drawing represents we can express our ideas and share them too. Author Dan Roam suggests that “any problem that we have the ability to articulate at all, we have the ability to articulate abundantly more clearly through the use of pictures.” Roam believes that if you can draw squares, circles, stick figures, and arrows, then you can draw any picture you’ll need. (Roam, Back of the Napkin). As you play with Visual Thinking, you’ll soon find that the simple images are the most compelling.

Next time you’re about to make a grocery list or write a paragraph, try engaging your whole brain and using Visual Thinking to make a mind map instead. It’s a great gift to encourage the children you know to continue to draw and express their ideas visually as they learn in more traditional ways in school. Why not create a mind map with the kids you know? They’re great teachers of art and creativity! Even if you stopped drawing when you were a kid, you can still enjoy Visual Thinking; it’s not about how beautiful the drawings are or how the map looks – it’s about engaging your whole brain, using color and imagery along with the written world words. Bring out the crayons and markers and see what happens…you might be surprised at how much the artist within you appreciates the time spent using Visual Thinking.

How to make a mind map:
The first step in creating your mind map is to consider what it’s going to be about: I mapped the syllabus for a Biology 101 class but you can map any subject– anything you’d usually write on lined paper – you can map instead. All you need is unlined paper (8.5×11 or larger is best), a few colored pens or markers, and the content of your map.

I started my map by drawing a medium sized circle in the center of the page. Next I added my title to the circle, ‘Biology 101’. It’s great to use lots of color and add symbols wherever you can, like the stick figure person and leaf that you see in my sample map. After the symbols and color were added to the title, I drew a series of lines connected to the center circle like spokes on a wheel (population, communities, etc). These spokes represent ideas that are connected to your subject/title – one spoke for each main idea. I drew 6 spokes to represent the subject being taught during each week of the Biology class. Try using bold, clear lettering to help highlight the main idea on each spoke. After I put a title on each spoke I added arrows like branches on a tree that are connected to each spoke. Sometimes the arrows are connected directly to the spoke and other times they’re next to the title of the spoke. I chose to use the branches to define the subject being taught each week, for example, the definition of ‘neurons’ is right below the word. Your branches can contain any additional information that relates to the main idea of each spoke. After I wrote the arrows, I added a few related symbols for each spoke, like a tree and sun for photosynthesis.

If you feel uncomfortable drawing, remember that a simple image is best – try looking online for an image and copy it yourself. You also cut out magazine images or print clip art to add to your map. Once you’ve drawn your spokes, branches, and symbols, take a final look at your map and see if there are ways to connect the spokes or branches. Looking at my map, you see a green arrow connecting the spoke ‘Community’ week 2 with the (dotted line) branch from Population week 1; the concept of interaction is related to both spokes. A student using this Biology 101 map could add in the highlights from each lesson or any questions she might want to ask about the subject being taught. It’s easy to see where new information can fit into a map. Once you’ve completed your first mind map consider hanging it up – it will help you think of new creative connections and ideas that are related to your subject – and – it’s a great example of your creativity at work! Feel free to email me with questions or ideas, and I’d love to see your next Mind Map.


Mariah works as a meeting designer, teacher, and visual thinking specialist. She helps clients like non-profit organizations, corporations, and community groups to translate their visions, processes, plans – anything! – into engaging images.