Visual thinking tools

Information designers often use visual thinking tools to enhance understanding of complex projects, and manage high amounts of data. Visual thinking or visual perception is defined as thinking through visual processing and using the part of the brain that is emotional and creative to organise information in an intuitive and simultaneous way. This visual approach to thinking can facilitate conceptual and idea-development processes. In addition, visual thinking can help develop a common language for conversations and discussions among the members of a team or between designers and clients. As an example, Dam Roam’s work is concerned with improving communication by employing visualisations, and emphasises the relevance of visual thinking for problem-solving.

This post discusses visual thinking tools and actions from an information design perspective, presenting how those tools and actions can be applied in the stages of the design process.

Information design context
Previous posts presented the two-stage structure of the design process, composed of conceptual and prototype stages. During the former, decisions are aimed to conceive, consider and create sketch quality outcomes; while during the later, sketches and ideas are developed further and finished artwork is created. A parallelism between visual thinking and conceptual design actions is outlined below.

A. Understand & Conceive
The initial step of problem-solving is centred in understanding the problem and the context. Collection and analysis of information are key actions to achieve thorough understanding and cover all the necessary points to reach a successful solution. For this purpose, three approaches can be followed:

• Questioning: The first approach aims to extract information based on defining basic information and requirements related to the problem, and selecting and organising facts and ideas. Component parts should be identified and the relationship between them and the whole understood. Roam suggests ways of identifying this type of information based on how people see, adding that when people look at things they follow a basic mental methodology that consists of looking for objects (who and what), quantities (how many and how much), positions in space (where), positions in time (when), influence, cause and effect (how) and reasons (why). This theory describes a way of understanding a problem by considering six individual but related components described as the six Ws.

• Concepts: The identification of key concepts facilitates, deepens and broadens the generation of (new) ideas, and helps define specific requirements of the problem. Concepts can be defined following a three-component structure:

– Sign: Word/symbol that names the concept
– Properties: Qualities that all examples of the concept share in common
– Referents: Examples of the concepts

Three-component structure of the concept ‘Coffee’

• Thinking tools: Edward de Bono suggests seven categories to structure the thinking process, collection of information and definition of requirements. He refers to these categories asCognitive Research Trust (CoRT). Each of them divides thinking into defined tasks to be performed in order to make decision-making easier and more effective. These categories and key questions are outlined below:

  1. Plus, Minus, Interesting (ideas) (PMI): Consider both sides of the problem and list down all the plus points/factors and all the minus points/factors, as well as make a list of all the interesting points/factors. What is my decision after considering all the factors?
  2. Consider All Factors (CAF). Consider and list down all the factors by making decisions, planning and drawing of conclusions. What is the appropriate decision to be made?
  3. First Important Priorities (FIP): Process of selecting the most important ideas, points, factors, objectives, consequences. for the requirements of the specific problem or project. What are the important matters involved?, Which is the most important one to be considered?, Which one should be given priority?
  4. Aims, Goals, Objectives (purpose) (AGO): Focus attention on the purpose rather than on reaction. What is the AGO of the project?, How do I make sure that the AGO is achieved?
  5. Alternatives, Possibilities, Choices (APC): Explore all the alternatives, choices, and possibilities, solutions, responses – beyond the obvious. What other alternatives can be found to overcome the problem?, What are the implications if every step is taken?, What is the best solution?
  6. Other People’s Views (OPV): Look at external points of view so that the thinking process can be seen from other people’s approaches rather than only from one’s own perspective. Will this idea influence others?, What is other people’s opinion on this matter?
  7. Consequence and Sequel (C&S): Analysis of immediate, short medium and long-term consequences of the thinking process. What are the long term effects?, What are the risks I have to face?, To what extent this solution would bring changes?

B. Consider & Organise
The second step in the visual thinking process is to give order to the concepts, ideas and factors previously identify by linking them according to the requirements of the potential solution. Mind maps are often created to represent the structure in which concepts and ideas are linked and arranged.

• Mind maps: When creating a mind map, concepts and ideas are referred as nodes, and the relations between them referred as links. According to the characteristics of the relationship between the nodes two types of mind maps can be created:

– Models: Mind maps which depict static, non-linear relationships between nodes. Websites are an example of models.
– Stories: Mind maps which are used to depict progression of time, in which nodes are related in a linear way. Books are a clear example of stories.

Mind map structures based on the type of relationship between the nodes

C. Create & Present
Ideas are presented as wireframes and draft proposals to facilitate discussion and exchange of opinions. The visualisation of data helps find new links and reach conclusions that before could not be seen in such clear way.

Mind map created by the MDes students to visualise the research findings of their project

In visual thinking a varied range of methods and techniques can be used to encourage and increase idea generation, including brainstorming, card sort, information mapping, mental models, thinking hats, among others.

N.A.: This post is based on my recent lecture to the MDes Design Management students at Ravensbourne College of Design.

Key references
– Arnheim, R., 1995. Sketching and the psychology of design. In Margolin, V.  & B. Buchanan, B. (eds.) The idea of design. Cambridge (MA): MIT Press, pp.70-74.
– Roam, D., 2008. The back of the napkin: solving problems and selling ideas with pictures. New York: Portfolio.
– De Bono, E., 1990. Lateral thinking: a textbook of creativity. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
– De Bono, E., 1999. Six thinking hats. London: Penguin Books.
Visual Language Project
The Story of Stuff


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