More Visual Thinking Ingredients

Within the previous post we discussed how pictures, symbols, signs and icons can be used to help you think visually. Within this post we will break down the remaining four visual thinking ingredients that form the bedrock of the visual thinking process: colors, written language, numbers and shapes.

colors numbers shapes


Colors are not an essential ingredient for visual thinking, however they are extremely helpful because they enable you to highlight ideas; they can be used as boundaries to segregate and categorize concepts, and they allow your visuals to pop-out — making them more effective and memorable.

Colors can also be used to label diagrams, maps or charts to help make your content more meaningful. For instance, you could use a variety of colored sticky-notes to represent different kinds of ideas on a whiteboard.

It’s important to also understand that when it comes to visual thinking, there are some general rules for color selection and the meaning that they imply. Here is a quick summary:

  • Yellow = Lateral thinking and opportunity spotting.
  • Black = Critical thinking and innovation.
  • Green = Imaginative thinking and innovation.
  • Brown = Judgmental thinking and quality appraisal.
  • Blue = Holistic thinking and environmental scanning.
  • Orange = System thinking and design.
  • White = Meta-cognition and thinking about thinking.
  • Grey = Chaotic thinking and ambiguity.
  • Purple = Strategic thinking and directing.
  • Red = Decision-making and action.

You can use this list of colors to create meaning during brainstorming or idea generation sessions. You can also use them throughout the visual thinking process.

Written Language

When it comes to visual thinking, it’s important not to get lost in writing too many words. After all, visual thinking is not about words, it’s rather about simplifying your words and turning them into something that is memorable and leaves a lasting impact on the brain.

While thinking visually make sure to use only single words, short-phrases and punctuation wherever possible. If you find yourself using long sentences or paragraphs, then it is clear that you are not thinking visually, but rather bogging yourself down in details — details that could be represented in a much more simple visual way.

Words should only be used to help support your visuals, and not to replace your visuals. Take a comic as an example. When reading through a comic the main focus is almost always on the visuals, and the words are only of secondary importance. In fact, certain comics tend to use words sparingly or not at all. They get their point across using a variety of visuals and punctuation.

Many times, punctuation can actually be used independently of words to help accentuate the visuals you are using. Sometimes a single exclamation-mark or question-mark can speak louder than words. 🙂

Numbers and Figures

In a similar way to written language, numbers and figures are also used as a way of supporting and enhancing the meaning of your visuals. However, be careful not to use them over-extensively. Too many numbers are likely to bog the brain down with too much detail, making it difficult to concentrate.

complex formula

There will of course be times when using numbers will become paramount, especially when you are working with graphs and charts. In such instances by all means use numbers, however also consider how you could potentially simplify these numbers by representing them in a visual way.

Finally, numbers can also be represented as a combination of formulas and pictures that help get your visual message across to your audience.


For the most part, drawing is nothing more than a combination of basic shapes that help you structure your visuals. However, shapes can also be used to link visuals, to communicate movement, space, flow of ideas and to segregate concepts.

lost in world of shapes

When it comes to visual thinking, shapes can come in the form of:

  • Circles, triangles, squares, stars, etc.
  • Arrows
  • Borders
  • Connectors
  • Separators
  • Lines, including straight, curved and wobbly lines

Your main challenge as a visual thinker will be to make the best use of each of these shapes in an appropriate way that will help you to communicate your visual message and/or solve your problem far more effectively.

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