Visual Thinking Through Time

The idea of thinking visually about our lives, problems and circumstances seem rather novel. We are after all at the beginning stages of the age of innovation, and in order to innovate me must think creatively and bring our thoughts to life in imaginative ways in the real world. However, the concept of visual thinking has actually been around since the dawn of humankind.

The World of the Cave Dwellers

In the beginning of recorded history, we spent a significant amount of time living in caves. Whether or not this was our preference, we didn’t really have much choice at the time. Caves provided us with shelter and security from a dangerous world filled with deadly predators who were out to get us. But nevertheless, we ventured out into the world in order to hunt and feed our families. And it was these experiences that made life interesting, exhilarating and very dangerous.

Venturing back into our caves allowed us ample time to sit, think and contemplate about the adventures we had out in the world. However, just thinking about these things didn’t seem enough. We wanted to share our experiences with others not only through words and actions but also through pictures. Pictures gave life to our stories. No longer did others need to be there at the event, they could now relive the event through our pictures. In fact, pictures became a wonderful teaching tool for others who might never have had these experiences.

Cave paintings have stood the test of time, providing us with incredible insights into the lives, dangers and hunting habits of our ancestors. Without these paintings we would know far less about our ancestors then we know today. The visuals they created provided us with an incredible glimpse into the world these people grew up in.

​​​​The Birth of the Written Language

Visual language took a dramatic leap forward during the time of the Ancient Egyptians.

The Ancient Egyptians created something extraordinary. They pieced together a language built upon symbols. Each symbol had a very specific meaning and could be used to tell a story or provide a method of instruction. We, of course, know these symbols today as hieroglyphics.

This was an incredible leap forward because no longer did we need to guess what specific visuals were meant to represent. Each hieroglyph had a very specific meaning that allowed us to better understand the lives and tribulations of the Ancient Egyptians.

Great Thinkers Through Time

Moving forward through time we come across people who transformed the world with their thoughts, ideas and ultimately the images they put down on paper.

These people brought their thoughts and world to life through exploring, evaluating, expanding, modifying and re-imagining them. They weren’t satisfied with the status quo of the time. They understood that there was so much about the world that we didn’t yet know or understand, and in order to help them clarify their thinking, they knew no better way then to put their thoughts down on paper in a visual way.

Take for instance one of the greatest thinkers in history: Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo would carry a notebook with him everywhere he went. He had an insatiable curiosity and wanted to capture his understanding of the world as well as his ideas for improving it. Putting his thoughts down on paper in this way allowed him the opportunity to organize his thoughts and clarify his thinking about life, about himself, about others and about the future.

Charles Darwin was another avid visual thinker. In fact, many of the great scientific minds through history recorded their thoughts and ideas in a visual way. Isaac Newton, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla are only just a few of the names that immediately come to mind when we think about the incredible impact they had on the world through visual thinking.

One might of course say that scientists need to work with visuals because they use their sketches to help them solve problems and clarify their thoughts and experiments. Yes, that makes perfect sense. But aren’t we all in need of methods to help solve our life’s problems?

All of us experience problems. In fact, life is just a culmination of working through an endless array of problems. And if great scientific minds were able to work through humanities shared problems visually, then why should we not model them and explore our life’s problems using visuals as well? Wouldn’t it just make sense to work this way?

Modern Day Uses of Visuals

In today’s day and age we are using symbols, pictures, and other visual elements more than ever before. In fact the world is filled with visual examples on signs, within books, on doors, on television, in storyboard, in advertising, and more. Today we are representing our world visually in so many creative ways and yet we resist the notion of using visuals to help us learn something new, communicate an idea, and/or help clarify a problem.

It’s time we stop resisting the idea of visual thinking and begin embracing the possibilities that it can potentially bring into our lives.

Visualizing things by bringing thoughts to life is as natural as talking and walking. From the very first cave paintings to the doodles of great scientific minds through time, there is absolutely no doubting the value of visual thinking. In fact, history has shown time and again that visual thinking is the precursor to intelligence. Sketching, doodling, drawing or whatever else you might want to call it helps bring thoughts to life. And when thoughts are made real we can more readily work with them and use them to help communicate ideas more effectively, to teach others, and ultimately to move humanity forward by solving life’s toughest problems.