Visual Thinking

Still pondering the whole idea of visual thinking from Dan Roam’s keynote at the recent Great Ideas Conference.

I am not a visual thinker. There are white boards all over the offices at Beaconfire, and 90% of them have all sorts of diagrams and sketches all over them. Mine falls into the other 10% – largely blank (at least when it’s not pro football season). I’m a “Red Pen” person 100%. Actually, the point of the red pen person is that you can eventually get them up to draw on the white board if you can make them mad enough that you’re oversimplifying the problem. I guess I have an exceptionally long fuse, because I’m never going to get up and take the pen of my own accord. So I may be the elusive “No Pen” person. I’m all about words, baby.

And yet, the concept of visual thinking is really appealing to me.

Roam pointed out that ALL 5 year olds report being able to draw, if you ask them. But at some point, most of us decide that we can’t, and that’s that. No more drawing. Or as he put it, we’re “not taught to make use of our inherent visual sense.”

And I really love the idea of simplicity on the other side of complexity, which is what I think this is fundamentally all about. My spouse, who also foolishly studied philosophy, calls it the “essay paradox.” Most philosophers start out expressing their ideas in essays, generally 100 pages or less. Then a handful get famous and decide they need to write books. BIG IMPORTANT books. The next thing you know, you’re saddled with all 600+ pages of A Theory of Justice when “Justice as Fairness” says pretty much the same thing in WAY fewer words.

As Roam articulates them, the rules of visual thinking are:

  • Whoever best describes the problem is the one most likely to solve it.
  • Whoever draws the best picture gets the funding.
  • The more human the picture, the more human the response.

So how do you do it?

  • Draw a circle & give it a name (Roam says it should generally be “me” because people are usually at the center of their own problems.)
  • Divide problem into 6 slices: who/what, how much, where, when, how, and why
  • Determine which of the 6 are involved

So what about those of us who, left to our own devices, will literally NEVER do this? Are we SOL?

I don’t think so, and here’s why: those questions are the key.

  • Who/what?
  • How much?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • How?
  • Why?

Sure, you *can* answer them with pictures. And if that’s the way you work, go for it. But it seems to me that there’s no reason you can’t answer them with words, if that’s the way your brain works. And (Red Pen Person alert) with words, you can explain the thinking behind your answers. Additionally, Roam identified one potential flaw in answering “why?” with a picture – confusing correlation with causation. It seems to me that if you’re forced to document your reasoning (by using words), you’ll be less likely to fall victim to that confusion.

Or am I completely wrong and doomed to be mired in complexity if I can’t overcome my disinclination to draw stick figures?