The Visual Thinking Mental Model

Within the previous article I mentioned the 16-12 KISS Principle of visual thinking. This principle explains the importance of keeping your visuals simple and straightforward. Moreover, I mentioned that we all construct mental models of our world that help us interpret our understanding of how things work. Let’s now dig into this topic in a little more detail.

What is a Mental Model?

Mental models are the deeply held internal images (symbols and beliefs) we have about how the world works. They are in essence simplified systems and representations we have made about our world, people and the objects within our environment that stem from our past experience, memories, knowledge and perceptions.

VizWiz mental model

Mental models are explanations of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world and the relationship between its various parts. They are an important and critical component of our psychology because they help shape our behavior and define our approach to solving problems and carrying out tasks.

To further elaborate, mental models are simplified models of our own reality that we use as a means of interpreting the world around us — effectively determining what we pay attention to, and consequently what we do about this information on a daily basis. In other words, they represent possibilities, not probabilities, that are based on our understanding of cause-and-effect relationships that we have accepted as truth.

Jay Wright Forrester states that…

“The image of the world around us, which we carry in our head, is just a model. Nobody in his head imagines all the world, government or country. He has only selected concepts, and relationships between them, and uses those to represent the real system.”

Use Visual Thinking to Influence People’s Mental Models

We are not always consciously aware of our own mental models, however through the process of visual thinking we can influence other people’s mental models of the world, and therefore their understanding and interpretation of a problem, solution or idea.

It’s important to note that all mental models are essentially wrong, because they only represent the idea of reality — only a representation of how the world works. However, even though this is true, all mental models you create through the process of visual thinking can nevertheless be very useful because they will help you — and other people — gain a unique perspective about reality.

unstable model of world

We must also keep in mind that people’s mental models are relatively unstable, are subject to change, and are often constructed using their imaginations. This once again supports the idea that through the use of effective visual thinking elements, you can effectively influence and deconstruct people’s mental models of the world in remarkable ways.

Simplicity and the Mental Model

When it comes to visual thinking, you are essentially helping people to create a mental model of the world, problem, idea or solution you are presenting them with. To do this, you need to use the 6-12 KISS principle of visual thinking in order to keep the visual thinking elements you are using as simple and straightforward as possible.

To further this idea, here are some points to consider when it comes to simplicity:

  • Simplicity allows for clarity.
  • Simplicity promotes understanding.
  • Simplicity encourages comprehension.
  • Simplicity inspires motivation and action.

Familiarity and the Mental Model

Another way you can influence a person’s mental model of the world using the visual thinking process is by focusing on the concept of familiarity.

The visual thinking elements you create should build on a person’s prior knowledge — the knowledge they’ve gained from experience while interacting with the world. This essentially means that your visuals must contain objects, concepts and other elements that people already understand and are familiar with. This is important because only the information that fits our familiar ways of thinking, behaving and acting gets through unchanged.

You must therefore present your visuals in such a way that others can easily relate-to and understand. Otherwise, the message of your visuals — even though it might seem crystal clear and simple — will not get through in the same shape or form you had intended. Your message will simply be filtered out and changed accordingly with people’s mental models of the world. This therefore increases the likelihood of misunderstanding and miscommunication.

mental model filtering

Some of the best ways to build familiarity is to use metaphors and analogies — as I have incorporated into the framework of this blog with the idea of visual thinking being built upon the principles of magic.

The same principles apply when you’re working with visuals yourself — for your own purposes. You must use your own mental model of the world and build your visuals in a familiar way that is aligned with the way you process the information.

Causality and the Mental Model

Our mental model of the world is shaped by the cause-and-effect relationships we have defined as being true over the course of a lifetime. To give an example, say you download something from the internet, open the file, and suddenly your computer crashes. In such instances, your mental model most likely tells you that the file contained a virus, and as a result your computer crashed, and now it’s time to panic. 🙁

computer virus

Given this example, it’s important to incorporate the causality principle into the process of visual thinking. Subsequently, when presenting your visuals keep them simple and straightforward by using familiarity and causality. In other words, explain the cause-and-effect relationship between different pieces of information and between different objects or ideas. This will help promote better understanding and will more likely influence people’s mental models in the desired way.

Building a Visual Thinking Framework

I hope that this article has put into perspective how important it is to ensure that your visuals are naturally and holistically aligned with people’s mental models of the world. In fact, these mental models are a critical component of the visual thinking framework, which all the pieces of the visual thinking puzzle together.

Within the next article, I will try to help you build even stronger foundations when it comes to your visuals, by touching upon an NLP model of filtering that is very relevant to the process of visual thinking, and essential to the KISS principle discussed in the previous article.

core principles

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