Visual Thinking: Not Just About Pictures

While working through the process of visual thinking, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that visual thinking is predominantly about drawing pictures. While this is true to a certain degree, I would like to however broaden the idea of what a picture is — at least in terms of how it relates to visual thinking.

A picture is any type of graphical or organizational tool you use that helps you to represent your thoughts and ideas in a visual way.

not just about pictures

When it comes to visual thinking, I have divided the concept of a picture into six distinct categories:

  1. Sketches
  2. Diagrams
  3. Charts
  4. Metaphors
  5. Tables
  6. Combos

To stay consistent with our visual thinking MAGIC metaphor, these categories are akin to potions that can help you represent your thoughts and ideas from a variety of perspectives.

When it comes to magic, ingredients are mixed together in a specific way that help us develop the potions we need to create a magical spell. Further to this, a combination of potions creates a concoction that can be used to ward off evil dragons and spirits. 😉

warding off evil dragon

In terms of visual thinking, our ingredients are known as components that are used in a specific combination to create techniques (potions) that we use to solve our problems or represent our ideas visually. Individually, each of these techniques can also be defined as an element — an element of the visual thinking technique periodic table.

Just like with magic, while thinking visually you must be careful not to fall into the trap of using too many techniques (potions) at one time to try and represent your thoughts and ideas. Mixing too many potions (techniques) in a concoction can literally spell “disaster” and will tend to over-complicate your visuals.

The Six Visual Thinking Categories

As discussed above, there are six distinct categories that are relevant to the process of visual thinking. Within these categories lie the answers to all the problems that you will be working through while thinking visually.

Let’s now take a look at each of these categories in a little more detail.


Sketches are simple rough drawings that tell a story or present a scenario on a flexible canvas or landscape that is open to many possibilities. In fact, sketches are used as a basic foundational tool that initiates the visual thinking process. As such, other elements/techniques are often added to sketches to enhance the visual message you are trying to convey.

Sketches are used in many different ways throughout the process of visual thinking. Five common ways to use sketches include:

  • Storyboards
  • Comics
  • Mindscapes
  • Perspective Lenses
  • Treasure Maps
  • See more


Diagrams are simplified drawings that help show the appearance, structure or workings of something in a practical way. Moreover, a diagram shows the relationship between parts and how they come together to form a whole.

Five common diagrams that you will use throughout the visual thinking process include:


When creating diagrams you must prioritize the information, determining which parts of the material are most important to include within the diagram. Furthermore, you must also decide how each of these pieces of information should be placed within the diagram.

Diagrams are built upon relationships. As such, you should always be focusing on the relationships between different items and pieces of information, while examining the meaning attached to each.

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that diagrams grow and expand in a variety of ways as you are working with them. This allows you ample flexibility while thinking visually.


A chart is a visual representation of data, in which the data is represented by symbols such as bars in a bar-chart or lines in a line-chart.

A chart can represent tabular numeric data, functions, or some kinds of qualitative structures. Charts are often used to ease understanding of large quantities of data and the relationship between parts of the data.

Five common types of charts that you will use throughout the visual thinking process include:

  • Bar Charts
  • Pie Charts
  • Line Charts
  • Gantt Charts
  • Spider Charts
  • See more


Visual Metaphors are representations of something in real life that you use to help conceptualize your ideas and put them into perspective. They are often used to help clarify certain concepts and ideas that you are working through.

A visual metaphor uses a type of diagram that is used as the actual metaphor to describe the information you are working through. They are ideal techniques that will help you to tackle your problems and ideas from unique angles and perspectives.

Five common types of visual metaphors that you will use throughout the visual thinking process include:



Tables show a set of facts and figures that are represented in a grid-like structure that help to piece the information you are working with in a more structured way.

Five common types of tables that you will use throughout the visual thinking process include:

  • Decision Grids
  • Examination Grids
  • Check Sheets
  • Rank Order Grids
  • KWHL Tables
  • See more

While working with tables it’s important to keep in mind that they are difficult to visualize and put into perspective, especially if they are comprised of many pieces of data. In such instances, you would use other visual elements to represent the information you are working with. However, tables do have their advantages and can be used quite effectively in the right context.


A Combo is a visual thinking activity that uses a combination of sketches, charts, diagrams, tables and/or metaphors for a specific purpose to achieve a desired outcome or goal.

In addition to these elements, combos also use a variety of visual thinking creation tools that help assist with representing your thoughts and ideas in a visual way.

Five common types of Combos that you will use throughout the visual thinking process include:


Breaking Down all the Individual Elements

This is of course only an introduction to the large variety of visual thinking elements/techniques that we will explore throughout the visual thinking process. We will not only explore them individually, but also explore them in combinations — providing you with a roadmap you can follow that will help you solve your problems visually.

For more information about each technique, please visit the Visual Thinking Element Gallery.


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