Visual Thinking Simplifies Ideas

With the increasing amount of information at our disposal, it is becoming evidently clear that the world is getting more complex by the day. There are just far too many options for us to choose from and too many problems for us to deal with. Technological breakthroughs are trying to curb these frustrations, however at the same time it seems that every technological answer just leads to further problems and confusion.

Amidst this turmoil we are secretly looking for ways to simplify things, to simplify the complexity and the chaos that surrounds us in ways that will help us regain our capacity to think and create far more effectively.

Simplicity and Associations

Imagine for a moment accidentally walking into a lecture theater where the lecturer is teaching a subject you are not familiar with.

As you sit there you try and make sense of the topic by picking out words and concepts that you are already familiar with. You link these concepts with previous knowledge and experience to try and conceptualize this information in an intelligent way. At this stage you are in association mode — trying to understand the topic by linking the current information you are studying with past information that you’re already familiar with.

However, as you continue to listen to the lecturer describe this topic you soon realize that you simply don’t have enough connections with previous knowledge and experience in order to fully grasp this topic. You therefore remain confused, bewildered and frustrated. 🙁

Your frustrations signify to you that there is a better way to try to understand this topic, and as such, your brain automatically switches to the second phase of understanding.

Simplicity and Pattern Recognition

The second phase is pattern recognition mode. Here you try to look for patterns within the content in order to better grasp and understand it’s meaning and significance. You are hoping that if you identify enough key patterns within this topic that this will help you figure out how to make sense of the subject area.

You attempt to make sense of the information by using your imagination to identify patterns that may be evident within the content under study. However, try as you may, no patterns really stand out in your mind, and the subject continues to confuse and frustrate you. You’re thinking to yourself that there must be a better way, a more effective and simpler way to understand the topic under discussion.

Simplicity and Visual Thinking

As you continue to try and make sense of the verbal words and linear slides, the lecturer suddenly pulls out a whiteboard marker and begins visualizing the concepts using pictures, symbols, colors, charts, maps, words and metaphors in a simple and straightforward manner that is surprisingly easy to understand.

As you observe how the visualizations evolve on the whiteboard you begin to form associations with past experiences that now suddenly make sense through the use of metaphors and analogies. You also start recognizing patterns that you never saw before because all of a sudden the concepts are visualized in front of you in a way that seems familiar and comfortable.

Yes in deed!”, you say with a smile. “I think I’m ready to become a brain surgeon.” 😉

The above example is obviously a fictitious story. However, I hope that it lays down a solid foundation for a real life story. A story that helped hundreds of thousands of people grasp and understand a series of complex reforms with the help of a few simple visual pictures.

Simplifying the Health Care Debate Using Pictures

Several years ago during the Health Care debate, President Obama was struggling to communicate how the reform would work. Speech after speech, didn’t seem to do much to alleviate people’s confusion and frustrations. This was a serious concern for the president who prides himself on communicating his message precisely and concisely at all times. He needed to find a way to change the style and presentation of his message, otherwise public confusion could very easily evolve into distrust and bitterness.

Just as things were looking bleak, along comes visual thinking expert Dan Roam who is the author of The Back of the Napkin. Roam argued that our culture relies too heavily on written and verbal words — often complicating complex problems such as economic reform, which is made up of many little parts affecting each other. Instead, he insisted that we need a new way to look at this issue with the help of pictures.

Roam went to work and prepared a series of simple, yet very effective, napkin pictures illustrating the relationship between various health care players such as doctors, insurers and patients. See slide show presentation below:

Within a few short weeks over 300,000 people viewed this series of images, and for the first time they finally began to grasp the reforms that President Obama had been presenting. Not only did Roam receive numerous emails from people thanking him for finally explaining the reform in an easy to understand fashion, but even member’s of Obama’s staff called, asking Roam for help with future communications.

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Visual Thinking

I hope that this practical example has given you a little more ammunition and belief in the power of visual thinking. Not only is it an effective tool that will help you solve problems and clarify your own thinking, but it can also be used seamlessly to simplify and explain complex ideas to those whom you are trying to influence, motivate and inspire.

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