Visual thinking encompasses a variety of creative thinking techniques that rely on visual imagery to arrange your thoughts, plans and ideas.

In this age of massive discontinuities and accelerating change, savvy executives desperately need new ways of thinking about, and new ways of “seeing,” challenges and opportunities to help them develop a steady stream of new ideas and innovations. Visual thinking meets these needs by offering a collection of simple, elegant and vivid ways to represent problems and solutions.

What is Visual Thinking?

Visual thinking encompasses a variety of techniques for representing ideas using words and symbols. These diagrams appeal to both the right and left sides of the brain, allowing them to convey both meaning and context, in a gestalt fashion. As a result, they can be used to communicate information faster and with greater impact to today’s post-literate audiences.

For example, the shape and color of a highway stop sign carry so much cultural meaning that even if the sign wasn’t emblazoned with the word “STOP,” most people could still tell you what the red, octagonal shape means.

Another example: many executives have participated in planning meetings where everyone tries to reason through a complex marketing situation logically.

After several hours of frustration, when someone finally draws a flow chart on a white board, the problem (and a workable solution) suddenly become clear to the group.

As the pace of change renders many traditional solutions obsolete and business challenges become more multi-faceted and complex, many executives find it hard to clearly visualize this maelstrom of elements, factors and influences in their minds. Also, words are often imprecise and open to interpretation by team members, further clouding the problem definition and solution-finding processes. Transferring this information to paper in a more symbolic form helps to make these pieces – and the relationships between them – more understandable. As a result, teams can often develop better and faster solutions using visual thinking techniques.

According to Terry Richey, author of “The Marketer’s Visual Toolkit,” by drawing upon both the visual and logical/linear capabilities of the brain, executives can think faster and more clearly, develop more creative solutions, present their ideas more persuasively, and achieve better results from teams.

Mindmapping: the Roots of Visual Thinking

The technique of visually mapping ideas was originally developed in the 1960s by business creativity guru Tony Buzan, who was seeking a more visual and faster way of outlining ideas on paper. His pioneering technique, called “mindmapping,” begins with a symbol or graphic of the problem to be brainstormed in the center of the page. Key words are used to represent ideas, and are connected to the central focus with lines. In addition, words can be placed within symbols (ovals, squares and other shapes) to highlight certain ideas and to further stimulate the mind to make other connections and associations.

Mindmapping not only stimulates creativity by drawing upon the visually-oriented right side of the brain, it’s also a very efficient way to do a “mental core dump” of your thoughts and ideas onto paper in a matter of minutes.

Since the 1960s, interest in visually mapping ideas has grown steadily and has evolved into other brainstorming and process-mapping tools. During the last decade, countless thousands of workers have been trained in process flow charting and other visualization exercises as part of the Total Quality movement. More recently, the popularity of visual thinking has enjoyed another resurgence as forward-thinking executives increasingly realize that creativity and innovation are quickly becoming mission-critical business skills for coping with a world of accelerating change.

Further, everyone from the creative minds of Madison Avenue to software designers have recognized in recent years that symbols are powerful communication tools. “Look around you – symbols are everywhere. From signs in airports to icons on computer screens – we increasingly communicate not only in words, but with images,” explains Nancy Margulies, co-author of the book Transformation Thinking. “Mindmapping helps us to stretch our thinking beyond our usual paradigms. (It) can help you to see the big picture, capture complex ideas quickly and easily and identify relationships between ideas and processes,” she adds.

Other Visual Thinking Techniques

Mindscapes: A visual “storyboard” of a problem-solving process. For example, a team could use a drawing of a trek up a mountain to depict their development of a departmental mission statement. A road could symbolize the path to the group’s objective, and rocks could represent potential obstacles along the way to the goal, for example.

Mess Mapping: A mindmapping variant that outlines the current forces, trends and influences surrounding a situation or opportunity Fishboning – A Total Quality technique that places the problem statement on a horizontal line, with key words on lines drawn at a 45 degree angle to the right, above and below it (so it resembles the backbone and ribs of a fish).

Total Quality Flow Charting: Elements in a business process are laid out in a linear fashion (left to right) using key words and symbols, with process flows mapped out using lines and arrows. This powerful visual diagramming method has been used widely to simplify business processes, by eliminating steps that don’t add value.

Business Applications

Business applications for visual thinking are as varied as the human imagination. They include:

Leadership & Management

  • Developing a corporate vision or mission statement
  • Defining new organizational structures
  • Problem solving
  • Decision making
  • Employee training (helping them visualize processes or procedures)
  • Process mapping and optimization
  • Brainstorming – as part of a team, or individually
  • Project organization
  • Meeting management

Marketing & Sales

  • Identifying new market niches or customer needs
  • Developing ideas for new products or services
  • Positioning a new product or service (or re-positioning an existing one) vis-à-vis competitors

Strategic Planning

  • Outlining the strategic plan
  • Developing future planning scenarios
  • Mapping the forces or influences affecting a situation

Personal & Professional Development

  • Mapping your existing knowledge of a particular area
  • Visualizing your network of professional contacts and their relationships
  • Defining personal or team goals
  • Presentations
  • To-do lists
  • Writing
  • Note taking

Visual Thinking Resources

Here are a number of sources where you can learn more about visual thinking techniques:


Use Both Sides of Your Brain, by Tony Buzan – Written by the pioneer of mindmapping.

Mindmapping, by Joyce Wycoff – An excellent overview of mindmapping techniques and practical applications. Transformation Thinking, by Joyce Wycoff – This book includes many valuable ideas and strategies for leaders who are seeking ways to enable their firms to become more innovative. Visual thinking techniques described include mindmapping, mess mapping and mindscapes.

Thinkertoys, by Michael Michalko – One of the most enjoyable and yet information-packed books on business creativity techniques ever written (in this author’s opinion), Thinkertoys covers fishboning and dozens of other visual and non-visual idea-generation techniques. Don’t let the title fool you: this book is rocket fuel for the entrepreneurial mind!

The Marketer’s Visual Toolkit, by Terry Richey – This book is filled with many valuable visualization techniques, with a strong focus on marketing, strategic planning and product positioning.


Inspiration from Inspiration Software, (503) 245-9011 – This excellent program allows you to quickly and easily create a mindmap of your ideas, and also maintains a parallel version of it in a hierarchical outline format. Inspiration contains hundreds of symbols and a myriad of line, color and other formatting options to help fuel your creative juices. It’s one of the most powerful software programs in my professional arsenal!

Ideas: The Currency of the 21st Century

In closing, ideas are fast becoming the currency of the future. Whether you’re trying to clarify your own thinking or seeking more impactful ways to persuade others, these visual thinking techniques represent a powerful new set of tools you can add to your executive arsenal. Indeed, a picture – or a symbol – truly is worth a thousand words!