The importance of Visual Thinking – Interview with Avanscoperta
In October 2019 I will teach my two-day workshop “Visual Thinking Workshop: Making the Invisible Visible” in Milan. In preparation for the workshop, the host company Avanscoperta asked me a few questions about the workshop, the meaning and importance of Visual Thinking and life in general. This interview was first published in June 2019 on the Avanscoperta blog.
Hello Eva-Lotta! We’re glad to be welcoming you to our team of trainers and experts this year!
Let’s start with a classic: When did you discover you enjoyed drawing? Any childhood memories you’d like about the first times holding a pencil in your hands you’d like to share?
I enjoyed drawing pretty much since early childhood. I can remember a little book I made when I was 4 or 5 that I filled with a whole bunch of one or two sentence poems and then corresponding drawings illustrating the stories. The writing was funny as I had not properly learned it in school yet and the poems were really random. I remember one being about all the people who came to the swimming pool on a hot summer’s day and I drew a whole bunch of heads with swimming caps sticking out of the water.
What type of studies have you done, and when did you decide you were going to make drawing and sketching your profession?
I originally studied graphic design but then changed school mid-way to focus on interactive design. I drew a lot in university, both for the foundational courses as well as keeping a sketchbook for my project ideas. When I started working in a design agency after graduating I completely stopped sketching for several years. I just did everything straight on the computer.
Sketching found its way back into my life and my work when I started going to conferences in 2006 and my notes naturally took a quite visual shape. I discovered the term ‘sketchnotes’ and thought it was fitting for what I was doing. From then on it was a gradual process of first starting to talk about sketchnoting at barcamps, then being invited to speak at conferences and starting to teach workshops in my spare time. I finally made the leap to make sketching and visual thinking my full time mission in 2017.
For those of us who are not so familiar with the topic, let’s clarify things a bit: what’s the difference, if any, between drawing and sketching?
Let’s start with what they have in common. Drawing and sketching are both about making marks on paper. Drawing is more about creating a realistic (or close to realistic) depiction of a thing or a scene, like drawing someone’s portrait so that you could recognise the person in the final result. Sketching is more about making a rougher draft that captures a thought or an idea. It is less about the accuracy or likeness of what you draw but more about exploring and developing a thought with the help of the pen.
Let’s introduce another key concept here: Visual Thinking. What do we mean by that?
As the name implies, Visual Thinking is the act of thinking through a problem with the help of visuals. When we are thinking through a complex problem or situation that is made up of lots of different parts that are interconnected, it is very hard to get the full picture by just talking about it and trying to keep track of all parts in our head.
That’s when visuals (and sketching as a very quick and immediate way of producing visuals) come in. We can place all the different parts onto the paper, we can arrange and sort them in different ways, we can show the connections and relationships between them. By not only holding them in our mind, but by physically seeing them in front of us on the whiteboard, we can easily spot patterns and gaps, evaluate if the overall structure is correct or if me missed something. We can point at parts and talk about them, we can add annotations, capture questions where they occur and mark problems or highlights on our map. By visualising our thoughts, we create a visible shared memory of a group conversation (or a solo thinking session) and a tangible overview of the topic.
This is very powerful, especially in a time where most of our work is a team effort and our projects often deal with complex systems.
When did you have the Eureka moment, and realised how important Visual Thinking was?
I didn’t have a particular Eureka moment. Visual Thinking just never NOT made sense to me. I remember a few rare classes at school where teachers used visual models, particularly one where our geography teacher drew a model of the climate system of the equatorial deserts and rainforests on the blackboard. It totally made sense and was a far better way to explain the process than just talking about it. I wondered why not all teachers would draw overviews like that for most topics.
This feeling has continued and has grown over the years. I heavily rely on drawing problems and complex situations to understand what is going on. And to be honest, I often cannot imagine, how one could understand a complex system WITHOUT having mapped it visually.
What is the most difficult concept you’ve ever had to make visible, and why? How did you overcome this challenge?
I encountered a few challenging concepts and processes to map over the years. One project was to develop a visual language for describing various user journeys for a large online travel company. Traveling –from finding inspiration where to go, to browsing options, searching flights and accomodations, making plans, booking, and actually being on the journey– can take many shapes and forms, depending on who is travelling and on which occasion. The challenge was to develop a system that would be flexible enough to cater for the variations while still distilling and describing overarching patterns and commonalities.
The most important part of projects like this is to be very open and curious in the early stages. I spend a lot of time diving into the material and information that is already there, asking lots of questions, analysing the parts and their attributes and trying out different ways to sort and group the material. This is the time when sketching and visual thinking is most useful as I start mapping different possibilities and play with different structures, spatial arrangements and visual treatments to let the material take the right shape.
Do learners tend to follow a similar pattern when approaching this discipline or is there room for surprises?
There is (and should be) room for surprises in everything your learn!
The possibilities of using visual thinking are as manyfold and varied as the topics you want to think about or explain. There is no one single way to approach and learn the subject. In my courses I like to demonstrate and practice some basic skills that enable the participants to start doing and experimenting (which is one of the most important steps) and to introduce them to some fundamental principles for creating clear and legible sketches, spatial structures and visual hierarchy. They can then take these building blocks and start applying them to their own interests and topics.
What’s the most successful story you can share of someone who picked up Visual Thinking from scratch?
Unfortunately I don’t keep track of success stories people tell me very closely, but I regularly get emails or meet people at events who tell me that they attended one of my workshops at some point and that it really changed how they work, explore their ideas and communicate their concepts.
I like to compare sketching to writing. It is a very fundamental skill to learn that – once you start using it regularly – enables an unlimited amount of possibilities and can be applied to almost any area of your life, in both big and small ways.
How has technology been impacting the whole world of drawing? Can we expect to be throwing away pens and pencils in the coming future, or will they always be the drawer’s best friends after all?
Well, at least sketching digitally has stopped being mostly awkward since the introduction of the iPad with the Apple pencil. It’s actually quite a nice experience to draw on a tablet now (not only the iPad) and it is very useful for making the production process of visuals much faster as it’s easy to edit and reorder content or to play around with alternatives.
But pen and paper is still the most immediate tool. No expensive hardware required, no empty batteries, complicated interfaces, distracting notifications or temptation of the internet just a click away. Just me, my thoughts and the piece of paper. I like the simplicity and the challenge of just exploring and expressing my thoughts with very reduced means.
One of the biggest advantages of paper is that I have unlimited space. When one page is full, I just add another and another and so forth. I can put them side by side, rearrange things, hang them up on the wall and discuss them with a group. With a digital tool, I always have a limited surface and can’t just step back and see the bigger picture.
What’s your recommendation in terms of tools: what is really needed to start doing some sketching at home? Any particular recommendation?
The pen that is closest to you is a good one to start with.
The question about tools is overrated, especially when starting out. In the beginning a simple black pen and couple of coloured ones are enough to start.
One tip: find the right thickness of pen for the size you are drawing in. It shouldn’t be too thin so your sketches do have some visual weight, but not too thick so the details of your drawings don’t all blend together.
You’ll be teaching your 2-day “Visual Thinking: Making the invisible visible” workshop in October in Milan. I’m reading the course description but I’m not entirely convinced I should join… convince me!
Being able to make simple pragmatic sketches is a similarly fundamental and useful skill as being able to write. Words are amazing for a lot of things, but for some areas, visual structures and images are more effective. When you learn to use both together, you really elevate your thinking and communication powers to a whole different level.
To know a topic is one thing, to teach it is another… What techniques and tools do you use to make your sessions and workshops interesting and fruitful for the participants?
My workshops are very hands-on with a lot of sketch-along demos and practical exercises where we learn, try and practice specific techniques. We also have group discussions and feedback rounds where we reflect on our work and see how we can improve and expand. The last ingredient is some underlying theory that explains why we do what we do and how we can make the right decisions when sketching and visualising.
In your experience, what type of professionals can benefit from this workshop the most?
Anybody who is working on complex problems and regularly needs to think through or communicate concepts, processes or systems to other people (e.g their team, stakeholders, clients, coachees, etc.). So far I taught many different types of people, from designers, engineers and product people to trainers, facilitators, authors and even yoga teachers.
How many times have you heard people saying “It’s all very nice… but I’m no good at drawing!”, and what advice do you have for them? Is there hope out there?
It’s not about talent or about being artistic. I approach sketching from a very systematic and pragmatic angle that everybody can learn. Usually the people who say they can’t draw are the ones who get the most out of the course. There is definitely hope!
You’ve been living in different big cities throughout your life. What makes London different from Berlin, and ultimately… what’s your favourite?
Ahhhh, that’s a hard one. London is more fast paced and high energy than Berlin. It’s a bit more laid back here. I can’t really say that one or the other is my favourite… there are great corners, people, quirks and surprises to be discovered in any place.
As Thoreau says: “It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see.”
Who’s your favourite visual artist?
Ha, that’s another impossibly hard one to answer with just one name. At the moment, I have a little series of posts going on my instagram that I call #iloveyourwork. In each post I introduce an artist that I follow through a little portrait and a lettering of their name. In the caption, I explain what exactly it is that I love about their work. You should check it out for a more nuanced answer to your question.
What music do you like listening to when drawing on your own?
I love silence. And the sound of the birds outside or of rain on the roof.