Mindsets of Public Design Bureau: Visual Thinking

Illustration by Lorry Jamison. Learn more about our illustrators.

Mindsets of Public Design Bureau: Visual Thinking

What’s the mindset
Visual thinking is about creating images or other mock-ups that represent the current or imagined world and help us make sense of it and communicate it. Visual thinking can be as simple as a stick-figure sketch on a napkin, as complicated as a multi-layered framework embedded in a carefully designed document, or anywhere in between. 

Why it’s important
Visual thinking helps move ideas along the path from imagined to reality. Whether for a single creator or for a team of many collaborators, visual thinking makes ideas:

  • More tangible (“Here’s what it might look like”)
  • More memorable (“Oh, I remember that idea from last week”)
  • More understandable (“I thought you were talking about something else, but now I see what you mean”)
  • More quickly digestible (that whole picture worth 1000 words thing)
  • Easier to engage with (“Now that I see it, I have a few questions”)

Especially in collaborative contexts, visual thinking is great for uncovering confusions or questions early along the path before they push you off course. 

A picture of five blue paint chips on a wood surface. One paint chip is circled.
Paint chip samples in action.

Embracing visual thinking in the real world
Liz: “I’ve always got a good house project example! I’ve been planning to paint our kitchen cabinets, and when I described the colors I was thinking about, I didn’t make much progress in gathering opinions from my friends or my partner. But after I went over to my local paint store to pick up some paint chips and taped them to the cabinets, I could quickly and effectively show my ideas, receive feedback, and narrow in to the color that best suits our kitchen (it’s Adriatic Sea, in case you’re wondering).” 

Embracing visual thinking in design
We have so many examples of visual thinking in our work. A few favorites: 

  • During the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus planning process, we shared visual examples of campus features with students, faculty, and staff to seek their feedback — making ideals like “sustainable,” “accessible,” and “welcoming” more tangible. 
  • In working with the Regional Data Alliance, we used visual frameworks to help explore and understand the role and direction of the organization. These visualizations were tested with stakeholders including staff and board members, to prompt discussion around programmatic priorities. 
  • While preparing for a new project with a team, we made quick, simple sketches of how the collaborative team could work together to help uncover expectations from different team members.

How we cultivate visual thinking
Like with the examples of visual thinking in design, we are always thinking visually, with a stack of scrap paper or Post-it notes nearby to help express our ideas. Some of our favorite visual thinking practices include: 

  • Sketch your ideas, from new services to facilitation agendas to where to put the couch, in order to make them more tangible and to quickly try out your plans. 
  • Practice simple visualizations, using stick figures and shapes to help explain yourself and to feel confident in your skills. (As Annemarie likes to tell her students “It doesn’t have to be cute; it just has to communicate.”)
  • Search for visual inspiration in online images, and compile a small set that show different parts of your idea. It might be like looking for a reference image for a haircut — you could choose the bangs from one picture, the color from another, and the length from a third.
  • Create visual metaphors, either with frameworks or images, to help create a memorable and useful anchor point to help illustrate the current or possible reality. 
  • Make visual prompts when you notice there might be confusion or questions. Something as simple as bolding a due date in an email is a great example of using visual communication to emphasize the answer to a common question.

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