My favourite editor Helen Williams asked me some great questions about my upcoming visual thinking Bootcamp / World Tour. Here’s her first question and my answer below.

What is the science behind visual thinking?

The most useful studies related to visual thinking are actually not using much illustration or visuals in the literal sense. Instead they approach it from the space of cognitive linguistics (and cognitive semiotics, which was one of the disciplines I studied) where language is seen as a window into how the brain and mind works.

Some of the most notorious authors in this area are George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, especially their book Metaphors We Live By (1980), which became a bestseller. The original theory is quite disputed amongst fellow scientists, but it is still worthwhile reading, and the fundamental ideas are immediately and practically useful when you are becoming aware of how language uses implicit metaphors that shape our thinking for good and bad. Certain metaphors allow us to see certain opportunities. Other metaphors hide these and show others. If you want to be a skilled visual thinker you must be able to raise your awareness of these implicit metaphors so that you can change them.

It’s powerful stuff. In the world of politics this is used extensively to shape our understanding of the world and what is the right course of action. Here’s an example: in the initial statements after the 9/11 attacks, president George W. Bush referred to them as acts of terror. Terror is a crime and the response to a crime is a police investigation, gathering of evidence and eventually a trial where suspects are convicted of their crime and given a sentence that defines their punishment. However, shortly after these initial statements, a new metaphor was invoked, when Bush initiated what since has been called “the war on terror”. A war is completely different from a crime. In a war you have countries fighting each other with armies and troops. You gather intelligence. You strike. There are of course still rules of war but they are very different from criminal justice. And by invoking this conceptual analogy Bush opened a door to a whole different range of appropriate responses to the 9–11 attacks, incl. the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The metaphor shapes how we think.

Why? According to Lakoff and Johnson, it’s because our understanding of the whole world is based on the patterns we learn from our senses.

In an everyday case you can think of concepts like a “project”. What is a project? And how would you draw it? It’s not a tangible thing like a book or a hammer. But we can still use metaphorical concepts like “friction” to describe the state of a project. Many of the ways in which we talk about projects, are based on an implicit conceptual analogy where the project is viewed as a journey: it has a planning phase. It can take a detour. And you can be close to the goal. This is all great.

However, there may be a project where this implicit metaphor is actually hindering the success of the project. What other ways can we think of it then? What if the project is not viewed as a journey to a destination but more like a photo safari where the real goal is to capture beautiful moments along the route? It’s not that one is more correct, they just offer different lenses and different opportunities.

By drawing these things visually you can both shift your own view of the world and help others do the same. But this ability depends less on your ability to draw and more on your ability to think.

For more great books in this area, check out:

  1. Women, Fire and Dangerous Thing by George Lakoff
  2. The Body In The Mind by Mark Johnson
  3. An Introduction to Cognitive Linguistics by Friedrich Ungerer (Author), Hans-Jorg Schmid (Author)