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Visual Thinking, Line-By-Line

November 20, 2009

John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, said recently on Twitter:

Showing beats telling.

This short tweet touches upon the value of visual thinking. When a complex idea is communicated using an image, often with far more success than pages of text, that’s visual thinking. Many people envision a final image with arrows, stick figures and maybe a graph but we need to take the idea of ‘showing’ even farther. While a strong image can be successful, drawing that image line-by-line can take comprehension one step further. Dan Roam, author of The Back of the Napkin writes that:

…nothing makes an image (even a complex image) clearer than seeing it drawn out step-by-step.

A simple example is a game of tic-tac-toe or X’s and O’s. Look at the final image – playing grid full of X’s and O’s – and all you know is that the O’s won. Watch the image develop step-by-step and you learn the strategy used to win, where the loser went wrong, the mood of the game, and if the winner jumped up in victory. You understand so much more when you witnessed the creation of the visual.

When I’m presenting a concept for a new software feature at Brainpark, I often explain it step-by-step on the whiteboard so everyone is on the same page. I’m able to capture work flow, state changes with quick swipes of the pen and add details in response to a question. Drawing that final image line-by-line also allows the conversation to focus on one detail of the image before moving on to the next part. The viewers become participants, ideas can be revised on the go and when looking at the completed image, having experienced its creation adds to everyone’s understanding.

Where an image is better at communicating than a page of text, watching that image develop is better than being presented with a completed visual. Let’s face it, images can be as complex sometimes as a text document so if you use visual thinking, and everyone should, don’t simply present finished visuals. Take the comprehension one step further and expose the building of the image line-by-line, step-by-step.

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