How can visual thinking change the way we process information?

My favourite editor Helen Williams asked me some great questions about my upcoming visual thinking Bootcamp / World Tour. Above is one of her questions and my answer follows here:

A common saying is that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. We are taught that life is about trade-offs between mutually exclusive propositions. And in many domains this certainly seems to be true. In written text you can either be brief or have a lot of texture and detail. But if you want to have both you need to separate the two: a brief summary in the beginning or end and then the bulk of text with details. The big picture and the details. As a reader you can of course read both but not at the same time. The same goes for spoken language.

An excellent example of a visual that integrates both concrete and specific details within a big picture context. Photo from Xplane, a visual thinking company that I love.

However, visual language has a different way of operating. When information is laid out visually for example on a big wall poster, you can often integrate the details into a bigger picture, in a way that allows the reader to seamlessly swap between the macro and micro view. When looking at the whole, the eye is still able to perceive visual clues about the details. And when shifting focus to the details, the peripheral vision still allows the eye to absorb the details in their context.

Example of very poor use of visuals (the 76% and the pie chart don’t agree)

This doesn’t mean that everything visual is great. Like with written tract and anything else for that matter, visual can be done horribly. There are millions of terrible infographics out there which range from confusing to misleading to the outright deceptive. Often it’s because they fail to realize the power of integrating details and context and simply become graphs with icons.

one of my own project timelines

A useful example of how you can easily begin using this power for yourself is when you are making plans. If you draw a timeline with your major milestones and tasks laid out visually, you can dramatically increase your overview and your progress will become visible. For personal creative projects where you only have yourself to keep yourself accountable, this can be really useful.