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;
    • Gamestorming,

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.

3 thoughts on “Every picture tells a story… a taxonomy of visual thinking methods

  1. Not all representation is concerned with problem solving.
    It seems there are different ways to cut the cake. In my own article on patter thinking (https://www.centreformanagementcreativity.com/articles/pdf/pattern-thinking.pdf)#)
    I suggested differentiating according to use; Data-Graphics, Visual Recording, Visual facilitation, Brainstorming, Mind-Mapping, Systems Thinking.

    But see also, St Gallen university’s Periodic Table of visual representation of ideas

    It would be good to explore this further.

  2. Thank you for this very interesting and useful exploration of visual thinking!

    It really would be great if people add to your picture, so that we all get a better handle on this valuable domain that, willynilly, shapes our world (as your introductory example illustrates so well).

    In my article on Pattern Thinking (https://www.centreformanagementcreativity.com/articles/pdf/pattern-thinking.pdf) I suggest a spectrum of visual thinking, from Visual Recording through visual facilitation, brainstorming and mindmapping, to systems thinking. This seems to be an alternative structure to that you propose – or maybe they co-exist and are both helpful?

    What do you think of the hugely significant step that is mobility, as applied in LVT (i.e. using symbolic objects that can be handled). Of course computers can bring mobility to most visual representations, so that shape and pattern can be infinitely changeable. However, it seems the ability to model and re-model, with multiple diverse players, is particularly enriching. My personal experience suggests this is best accomplished with the haptic quality of physical tools that computers only simulate.

    Let’s get others involved in this conversation – I am sure this is valuable territory to explore further.

    1. Thanks John,
      I have read and enjoyed your Pattern Thinking article, and it certainly presents another angle on a possible categorisation of the methods, which I will study in more detail – there is some obvious potential harmony between the two angles of approach.
      Mobility – I will need to think more about this, but certainly for me one of the powerful elements of LogoVisual Thinking is in the Organising stage when teams start clustering the randomly placed hexagons as they start to make sense of the inputs. I find the ability at this stage to physically reorganise the hexagons on a magnetic whiteboard increases both the participation of the team members in the exercise, and their commitment to its results.

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