5 ways how drawing helps you think better

5 ways visual thinking complete

In the past year I have taken a deep dive into visual thinking and finally, seven years after developing Net-Map in the hot, dusty North of Ghana, I understood why it leads to the insights and transformations it facilitates. And that is because there is something special about visualizing what you know – as compared to merely saying or writing it down.

So how – and why – is drawing different from using words alone to work through problems?

1. When drawing, you work with all you have

5 ways visual thinking heart

This means: you answer your questions not only with your rational brain, but ad what your heart and hands have to say as well. This allows you to tap into your intuitive and tacit knowledge in a way that is difficult to reach with words alone. Often the greatest insights happen when teams look at the network picture afterward and realize they drew things they didn’t even know they knew.

2.  Drawing helps you see the forest and the trees

5 ways visual thinking trees

When you use words to talk about an issue you normally have to choose the level of detail at which you want to describe it. Looking at a picture you can step back and come closer in a second, taking in both, the forest and the trees. When dealing with complex, multistakeholder issues, it is important to be able to see the detail (What does this mean for one of my stakeholders?) and the big picture (What are the larger, political implications?).

3.  Words are sequential, pictures can show everything at once

5 ways visual thinking big picture

When you use words you start with the first sentence, then the next and the next, one after another. While this has the benefit of clearly guiding your listener through the story, this linear way of looking at a problem can keep you from seeing the big picture. And, because you cannot see everything at once, you won’t see larger patterns or connections that are not obvious. This is what a picture allows you to do.

4. Drawing and sharing pictures helps you clarify

5 ways visual thinking clarify

When drawing it is much more difficult to get lost in buzz words. When our teams struggle to agree on how the arrows flow between actors on their Net-Map, they are forced to be specific and explicit. In the process, they often unearth areas of confusion or disagreement.

5.  Drawing helps groups think together out of the box

 5 ways visual thinking outside box

When we do things the way we always do them (e.g. writing a plan) we tend to think what we always think. Our brain is happy to follow the routine and produce the same old and familiar solutions. As we start doing things differently (e.g. drawing a network instead of writing a list) we start discovering new ideas and solutions together.

If you want to learn more about the power of visual thinking, Dan Roam’s book “Blahblahblah, What to do when words don’t work” is a great introduction. And if you are convinced you cannot draw, this explanation to  drawing a stick figure can get you started.

6 Responses

  1. I could not agree more. through all the years of carrying out qualitative research, the best results have been while doing participatory action research especially if you are looking at historically at events which have taken place in a particular area. During studies on adaptation there was initially a lot of skepticism regarding perceptions of farmers on climatic shocks which had occurred over a period of time. Through the use of timelines and seasonal maps, we not only got an insight into the kinds of climatic shocks but the kind of impact each of them had at each particular time. When the perceptions of the farmers were compared with actual meteorological data, the accuracy was unfounded :)

    • You point out another strength of visualization: It’s a great equalizer. In a system where being educated means being able to write great texts and use numbers well, those with less formal education are often seen as less intelligent, knowledgeable or trustworthy. In most groups everyone – whether high or low formal education – will be unused to drawing things, so we all start at the same point. And I have often found that the messiness of drawing things together can be very inviting and tear down boundaries between people who would normally be very formal in their interactions. Thanks for sharing your example.

      • Thanks Eva….adding another point to you what you just commented…I have seen such exercises leading in a lot of inclusiveness. While doing social maps and resource maps, I have seen women automatically take dominance of pointing out and participating helping us understand the socio-economic and cultural structures, which can usually be very hard to decipher from normal interviews or focus group interviews.

  2. Dr. Banerjee, thank you very much for sharing your experiences. Your points are very important so I want to be certain I understand. What I’m hearing is that farmers are very accurate in recalling climate shocks. Their memories are accurate over long time periods. And farmers also accurately relate effects to causes. Is my understanding correct?

    • Yes that’s right… :-) we corroborated the findings of the field which we got from the farmers with the data from the metereological data and they were very accurate even where the years were concerned. We have published a paper in the journal Natural Hazards on this…if you are interested I could provide you the link for the same :-)

  3. Reblogged this on AnthroGraphies.

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