Are you seeing clearly? The role of visual thinking in creative work - Heart Internet Blog - Focusing on all aspects of the web

Whether you work as a web developer, programmer, designer or outside of the tech realm altogether, you’ve likely run into a problem that you feel could use some creative problem solving.

These problems may come in the form of writer’s block, sorting through the same tired approaches over and over, or coming up against a design problem that feels trickier than usual. Regardless of the problem at hand, there are some methods you can use to bust through a troublesome matter.

One method is visual thinking, which can inspire you to think in unique ways to break free of your rut. Here’s a guide to visual thinking to get you started and spark your creativity:

What is visual thinking?

Often spoken of, rarely defined, visual thinking is a powerful problem-solving tool that inspires new ways of thinking. Broadly speaking, visual thinking is a different way to approach a problem or task that requires individuals to adjust the way they think by working with images.

For those who think in a more linear fashion, or those who interact with words and numbers more frequently than graphics or images, it can be helpful to engage your brain in a different way of thinking – that is, by thinking of tasks or concepts in visuals rather than lists or in spreadsheets.

When should you use visual thinking?

There’s no wrong time to use visual thinking. You can take a moment in the middle of the day to draw on a piece of paper or to quickly sketch out a plan of action for nearly any problem. Visual thinking is essentially a different way to think that engages your brain in different ways, so there’s no wrong time to deploy it, and no wrong way to think and rework ideas during the development stage.

Jony Ive, chief design officer of Apple, is no stranger to thinking differently to advance a company and products using visuals. Ive once said, “There’s no learning without trying lots of ideas and failing lots of times.”

Don’t look at visual thinking as added time to your day. Instead, consider it a process that can help unstick your brain when you’re feeling frustrated or bogged down at work.

What are some types of visual thinking?

You don’t have to be an artist to use visual thinking, and any type of thinker can utilise creative problem-solving approaches. That includes those who like to organise their thoughts in more concrete ways, as there are plenty of ways to keep those organisational priorities while still allowing yourself to try something new. Here are a few different visual thinking methods:


Storyboarding isn’t just for those in film and television, and you don’t have to have specific materials to try out this visual thinking method. In fact, all you need is a few sticky notes and some wall space. Take the task at hand—managing a finicky client, trying to create a story for a brand or website—and break it down into individual steps or ideas. Then take those steps, jot them down on sticky notes, and arrange them in whichever order you choose—a grid, a line from left to right, in a staircase pattern or whatever feels right at the time.

Say you need to develop a new social media plan for a company, bringing together text, graphics and videos. Each of these mediums require fulfilling different needs, but must also fit into a cohesive branding approach. Take some sticky notes, map out the project and let the ideas flow. You can use a desktop or table, but there’s something about seeing and planning on a wall that helps visual thinking. You can take a step back to quite literally see the plan from a wider angle. It’s also more inviting to collaboration and is physically more accessible for groups to contribute. Scribble on some sticky notes, add, remove, rearrange, and feel the ideas begin to percolate.


When you need to link together the beginning and end of a story or task, flowcharts can help you get there in a more cohesive and exciting way. You can create a flowchart in a variety of ways—on a whiteboard, in a computer programme, or simply on a piece of notebook paper.

Don’t worry about keeping it clean—visual thinking is meant to be more flexible than linear thinking, and as a result is often a bit messier. This method can be used as freely as you like on a variety of topics, whether that includes ways to bring in more customers, increasing productivity, how to promote employee engagement or streamline customer payments.


Break out a pen or pencil and get to sketching. Doodling and sketching have been shown to increase cognitive abilities, ranging from an improvement in idea generation to the ability to recall tedious information. Luckily for those who never excelled in art class, those same studies show the quality of drawing doesn’t matter when it comes to the benefits of doodling.

Sketch out ideas, whether those include drawings of products or processes, and feel free to use colour. You can also include important words and phrases, or simply words that come to mind during brainstorming and make them more colourful by using coloured pencils, markers or by using highlighters to make words pop on the page.

Take a walk

A Stanford University study showed that walking gets more than just the blood flowing. It also fosters creativity by engaging the body and mind at once. When you’re feeling frustrated or dealing with a mental roadblock, take a stroll down the street to sort through the problem. You can mull over the problem while walking and observing your surroundings, or use an approach that removes you from the issue for a moment, focusing more directly on looking at people on the street, trees, listening to the sounds that surround you or taking a moment to look up at the sky to get outside of your mind to reflect on the bigger picture.

When you come back to your desk, you may just find that those sights and sounds have unblocked your brain, allowing you to think more creatively and approach a problem with a new perspective.

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