home about contact internet marketing book twitter business book archives subscribe

Problem-Solving Through Visual Thinking

It’s probably been said countless times: humans are visual-oriented creatures. Yet, many people do not use any form of visualization capabilities, whether for goal-setting or simply solving problems.

My research and personal experience shows that problem-solving is easier when you approach it from a “visual thinking” process. This can be as simple as creating a few sketches or as complex as a structured diagram using predefined symbols.

Diagrams stimulate both the creative (right) half of the brain as weil as the the logical (left) half. Using colors helps, too, especially if there is some structure in how you use color. For example, you could use different colored text to represent different types of solutions, or colored lines, backgrounds, borders, etc.

Some Elements of Visual Thinking and Diagramming

Here are some of the more common elements you’ll find in diagramming or visual thinking methods in general.

  1. Text – for node, line, and callouts.
  2. Color – borders, connecting lines, text, backgrounds.
  3. Shapes – typically for nodes.
  4. Borders – node border shape and color.
  5. Texture – backgrounds.
  6. Connecting lines – with/ without arrows and end symbols.

Visual Thinking Styles

Not all of the following are part of pure diagramming but they are part of visual thinking processes.

  1. Doodles – These are less formal than sketches/ drawings, and often aimless.
  2. Sketching and drawing – Sketches are “practice”, whereas drawings are a finished product.
  3. Diagramming and schematics – E.g., UML diagrams, state diagrams, flowcharts, blueprints.
  4. Mind mapping – Sophisticated mind mapping packages can double as diagramming tools.
  5. Image snapshots – e.g., computer screen snapshots produced with a tool such as SnagIt.
  6. Presentations – E.g. slideshows, PowerPoint presentations.

Benefits of Diagramming and Visual Thinking

Here are just some of the benefits of approaching problem-solving from a visual thinking mindset.

  1. Stimulates both creative and logical halves of the mind
  2. Easier to absorb visuals than a mass of text.
  3. More universal than words. (See #2.) Back in the late 1970s, many common signs in North America changed over from text-only to having an image and text or sometimes just an image. E.g., bathroom signs. Visual lexicons were created and often used in various parts of the world.
  4. Easier to modify/ update/ transform a diagram than to have to rewrite text.
  5. Starting with, say, a sketch, you can transform it to a diagram to a drawing to a solution, or something along those lines, depending on your need.
  6. They’re a great memory trigger for a more complex concept. So if you only have time to sketch out an idea but in your mind you have some complex thoughts about your idea, a diagram can help you retrieve your thoughts at a later point.

Downsides of Visual Thinking

For those of you inclined not to think visually, trying to adapt visual thinking to your problem-solving approaches might initially have its downsides.

  1. Might suffer from blank-page syndrome.
  2. Might feel compelled to be an artist.
    Just sketch, use schematics. This is not a drawing. Don’t doodle, as that usually is not a productive activity. Even professional artists might sketch elements several times before they decide to finalize a piece of work. If you’re embarrassed about your sketches, there’s no need. Who’s going to see?
  3. Might feel like you have to get it right immediately.
    Maybe you don’t want to waste paper. For this reason, I often use recycled notebooks for initial drawings. Ultimately, I end up finding I switch over to a clipboard full of printer or scrap paper.

If you want to use a formal approach, you have to either learn or develop a set of symbols to represent various elements. This is the hardest part for some people. Some diagrams look suspiciously mathematical, which tends to scare a lot of people. It takes a certain “geek” mindset to want to even work this way, but hey, this is Geekpreneur.

What type of symbols you use really depends on what types of problems you are solving. For structured diagrams, there are different approaches for different purposes, each with its own tightly-bound set of symbols. For example, many of you might be a bit familiar with flowcharts from when you took that college computer course. Then there’s  UML, or Unified Modeling Language, which is a general-purpose diagrammatic “language” used for software engineering. Basically, it’s a much more advanced form of flowcharting, but has its computer and business analysis elements.

What I’ve done over the years to take elements of various diagramming approaches and come up with my own hybrid visual thinking process. My version only means anything to me, just like Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings at one time probably meant something only to him. My diagramming approach is organic, and it changes frequently, when necessary. Overall, since I use diagramming/ visual thinking to solve all types of problems, including writing, coding, design, finances, and even goal-setting and achievement, I’ve found that not worrying too much about structure appears to be the best approach. I do often use mind mapping, but my paper-based mind maps usually turn into some sort of hybrid diagram that looks like a combination of football plays and wizard incantations. And it works for me.

Visual Thinking Tools

Some people prefer working with pen(cil) and paper, others like to work digitally. For me, it depends on whether I’m just sketching or producing a finished visual. Unless I have access to a sketch tablet, it’s easier to sketch on paper. Sketch tablet prices seem to go up exponential as they increase in square inches of drawing area. So it’s not always feasible to have a suitable for all types of visualizing. What’s more, paper doesn’t feel so restricting. You can always tape pieces together if you have to. However, for finished diagrams/ visuals, I do use digital tools.

Here are some of my visual thinking tools, past and present.

  1. Paper – loose sheets in a clipboard, or a bound sketchbook.
  2. Pilot HiTecpoint V5 Extra Fine ink pens. As a hardcore pen addict, I’ve wasted a lot of money on pens over the years, but these seem to work the best for me, both for writing and for visual thinking.
  3. Sketch tablet – I always keep a couple of small ones on hand but rarely use them. If you’re going to, get the biggest one you can afford, and then design your workspace with the tablet in mind.
  4. Visio – Visio, part of MS Office, is probably the granddaddy of digital diagramming tools.
  5. Gliffy – Can’t afford Visio? Gliffy is web-based and free, though not as powerful.
  6. SnagIt – SnagIt is a powerful screen capture tool from TechSmith.
  7. Smartdraw – SmartDraw is like Visio on steroids. It probably costs more, but it’s worth every cent because of all the extra features.
  8. MindManager Pro – MindJet’s MindManager Pro is not the only mind mapping package nor the first, but in a 1.5 year study of about twenty packages, I found it to be the most sophisticated.
  9. Adobe Illustrator – One of the kings of vector-based drawing tools.
  10. Adobe Photoshop – One of the oldest and most comprehensive raster-based image tools.
  11. Adobe Fireworks – Fireworks is like a combination of Illustrator and Photoshop, offering both raster and vector imaging features. Once a rival of Adobe products, now owned by them.
  12. Gimp – The Open Source lover’s Photoshop.
  13. Inkscape – An OpenSource beta competitor to Illustrator and some Fireworks features.

I also spend a great deal of time visiting David Armano’s site, Logic + Emotion, for incredible visual inspiration. I highly recommend his site, and you should also check out his L+E Visual Thinking Archive at Flickr. For more discussion about visual thinking, diagramming and sketching, be sure to check out Sketching is the New Black, which links to numerous articles on these topics.


  1. Ryan Coleman Says:

    Great (and very thorough) post Raj! Thanks for writing it up...


  2. Matt Says:

    A great visualization tool for the Mac is OmniGraffle by the Omni Group. http://www.omnigroup.com/applications/OmniGraffle/

  3. Mark Hewitt Says:

    For visual thinking, I've found nothing better than lots of whiteboards! Plenty of space to spread out your thoughts, the freedom to erase and rearrange and will, and they're very visible to keep things at the front of your mind. I wrote a quick post about it, might interest some people: http://www.silverknife.co.uk/productivity/2009/04/productivity-tools-array-of-inexpensive.html

  4. Jake Says:

    You left out MSPaint, I often use it when making diagrams or designs. Though there are a couple of problems with it, one it may not have all the tools you want (or look as neat as you would like) and two it's Microsoft. I am happy with its simplicity and lack of anti-aliasing however. (Which I hear has appeared in the Windows 7 version.)

Leave a Comment