Every picture tells a story… a taxonomy of visual thinking methods
Could visual thinking have clarified the Brexit debate?
Visual thinking methods can add clarity – even in the muddied waters of political debate. UK readers may well have caught the recent excruciating Brexit-inspired exchange on British TV between the author Will Self, and the Conservative politician MP Mark Francois (it can be seen on YouTube). As I watched it, I drew a Venn diagram in my head and tried to transmit it telepathically through the airwaves to the hapless MP, who seemed incapable of understanding what the author had said. What he said was “All racists voted Leave in the Brexit referendum”; what the MP heard was “All who voted Leave are racists” (my paraphrases).
Cue much self-righteous, and massively misplaced, indignation on the part of the MP.
A good grounding in propositional logic would have benefited the MP. But, much more simply, I think my Venn diagram would have helped. My diagram of what Will Self said:
What Mark Francois heard:
I’m sure that the picture would have helped even Mark Francois understand the point that Will Self was trying to make.
Making sense of visual thinking methods
It was a classic example of a situation where words on their own seemed unable to rise above miscommunication, where a picture might have clarified beyond doubt.
I’ve spent a lot of the last couple of years thinking more about visual thinking methods, and our use of them to clarify thinking, to develop meaning, and to make other methods more effective. In doing that, I’ve been trying to find a way to describe the landscape of these methods, something visual that can capture the complete taxonomy of them. I’ve been unable to find any taxonomy at all, so have (although hardly qualified to do so) had a crack at my own.
I think it looks something like this.
Different types of visual thinking
What do I mean by this?
- Explicitly visual methods start and end with the visual content. These might be methods with a formal notation, such as:
- Mind mapping;
- LogoVisual Thinking;
- Concept maps;
- Affinity diagrams (KJ method);
- South Beach;
or they might be methods with a symbology designed to get us drawing, such as:
- The Back of a Napkin suite of books and guides;
- The glyphs of the Visual Alphabet (visit xplaner.com);
- The work of people like Ed Emberley, Malcolm Craig, Henning Nelms
- Implicitly visual methods are methods with high visual content, but which are not explicitly or exclusively visual. Lots of computer and process related methods are like this – they have high visual content (think of most system development methods, and methods like Lean), but the diagrams are never quite enough to solve the whole problem and to communicate its resolution. The more visual we can make these methods, the greater the chance of success and of reduced mis-communication, but there will always be a natural limit on the ability of the visuals to do everything in the method (so, part of Six Sigma will always be numerical and mathematical…..).
- Visualisation techniques take non-visual information and make it visual. A great example is the explosion in data visualisation techniques. See David McCandless’s books on making information and knowledge beautiful, or the work of Canadian data artist Jer Thorp.
All of these methods and approaches are making our work, communication and interactions more visual, and hence more effective.
What do you think?
Does this way of thinking about visual methods work? If it works, is it useful? Is there a better way of thinking about visual thinking? Please leave a comment below. We will use the feedback to see if we can evolve a better way of thinking.