Putting Your Visuals into Context

Before we begin delving into the different ingredients that form the bedrock of visual thinking, it’s important to point out one critical flaw within this mode of communication that could utterly ruin your ability to communicate your ideas, solve problems and create innovations.

This critical visual thinking mistake is tied to the meaning you associate with the visuals you create. In other words, it’s tied to the context or the setting within which you place your visuals.

What is a Context?

A context is the circumstances that form the setting of an event, statement, or idea. Webster’s Dictionary defines it as the whole situation, the background or the environment relevant to a particular event, personality or creation.

When it comes to visual thinking, a context is the environment or canvas within which something is (the visual) or occurs. Therefore every time you draw an image on a canvas you are placing it within a visual thinking environment that is up for interpretation by those whom you’re trying to communicate your ideas with.

drawing image on canvas

Putting your visuals into context is absolutely critical because the context will effectively control and influence the message of the visuals you are wanting to draw people’s attention to.

The Problems with Visuals

Visuals by themselves are poor communication tools because people are likely to interpret them very differently depending on their culture, age, sex and other related factors.

In fact, everyone has a very unique understanding of the world. This comes as a result of the variety of experiences that we’ve had over a lifetime. All these experiences come together to form our perspective of the world, which likewise determines how we interpret and understand things within our environment. This is obviously a big problem when it comes to visual thinking.

Unless we are able to put our visuals into a context that is specific and clear, then we will unfortunately often fail to communicate the intended message. This will subsequently lead to misinterpretation, which will likewise lead to a poor communication of ideas that can hinder effective problem solving, idea formation and innovation.

I hear you saying, that it might be okay if the visuals are simply for your own purposes and don’t need to be shared with others. This might very well be true, however at the same time a context allows your visuals to find a place for themselves within an environment where other ideas, associations and connections can be made. Therefore, for this very reason alone, you should always be putting your visuals into context.

How to Put Visuals into Context

Before I examine the different ingredients you can use to put your visuals into context, it’s important to keep in mind that…

A visual in isolation is bound for misinterpretation.

1.0 isolated image

To avoid misinterpretation, you must put your visuals into a context by using a combination of visual thinking ingredients that are relevant to the message you are trying to communicate.

There are a large variety of ingredients that you could potentially use here. However, the main complimentary ingredients that you might want to consider when putting your visuals into context are:

  • Complimentary Images
  • Arrows, Lines and Squiggles
  • Words and Phrases

These three categories of ingredients will set in place the necessary components you need to ensure that your visuals have context and clarity.

Complimentary Images

Complimentary images can assist your visuals in the following ways:

  • Helps create meaning.
  • Puts visual into perspective.
  • Puts visual into a specific environment.
1.1 complimentary visuals

Arrows, Lines and Squiggles

These ingredients can assist your visuals in the following ways:

  • Helps create meaning and emotion.
  • Forms connections and associations between visuals, words, graphs, numbers, etc.
  • Forms boundaries and borders.
  • Identifies movement and direction.
1.2 arrows lines squiggles

Words and Phrases

Words can assist your visual in the following ways:

  • Helps create meaning.
  • Gives the visual a voice.
  • Identifies and labels different elements.
1.3 words phrases

Visual Thinking Context Questions

As you move forward through the visual thinking process, it’s important to keep the context of your visuals in mind. To help you with this, you might find it useful to ask yourself the following set of questions that will allow you to critically examine the context within which you place your visuals and the message you are attempting to convey:

communicating message
  • What message is the visual trying to communicate?
  • Who or what specifically is the visual?
  • Where exactly is the visual located?
  • When is the visual located?
  • What is the relationship or connection between the visual and its location?
  • What is the visual doing?
  • Why is the visual doing this?
  • How is the visual doing this?
  • Where is the visual going?
  • How could the visual message be interpreted by others?
  • Is the visual communicating the intended message?
  • You don’t necessarily need to ask yourself all these questions for every visual you create, in fact, some questions might not apply to all visuals. However, it’s important to keep them in mind in order to ensure that all your visuals are put into a relevant context that will help minimize misunderstandings or misinterpretations.

    Visual Thinking Comic Books

    If you would like to see a great example of how visuals are put into context, then simply pick up any comic book and flip through the pages. Even comics that use words sparingly or not at all, put the visuals into a context using the ingredients I highlighted above. Also the storyboard format of each comic, sends a clear message of an unfolding set of linear events.

    Another Visual Thinking Context Example

    Finally, below I have included another visual thinking context example. As you can see each visual builds on the previous visual by adding a variety of ingredients discussed above that help put the visual into a specific context that has meaning and is less likely to be misinterpreted.

    c1.0 isolated image
    c1.1 additional image
    c1.2 environment

    Within the first visual you were probably wondering why VizWiz was running towards that scary looking animal with big yellow teeth. 🙁

    Within the second visual everything started to make sense, as VizWiz now appeared to be running away from a bigger animal with even larger teeth!

    Then, within the third visual a little confusion set-in as the cliff-tops were added onto the canvas. However, within the fourth visual we realize that VizWiz is just a good, selfless, heroic guy who seems a little out of his depth. 😉

    Even though these are very simple examples, I hope you can see how important it is to put your visuals into a context that makes sense. The better you are able to do this, the more likely your message will be fully understood by others with little room for misinterpretation.

    core principles

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