Meaning Guide

Drawbacks to visual thinking

Drawbacks to visual thinking

I came across this question on Quora: “What are some drawbacks of visual thinking?” “Drawbacks”? It got me thinking…

Dave Gray answered the question directly and objectively, emphasising the need to match the right tool and thinking style to the right situation.  This is undoubtedly true, but I want to focus more on some of the problems and challenges faced by visual thinking practitioners themselves. In my experience, with the power and potential of visual thinking to create meaning comes the power and potential to generate sticky situations.

If you don’t know your stuff…

If you apply visual thinking to a subject you don’t really understand, it’ll be more obvious than if you’d just used vague abstract words. Verbally, anyone can waffle and seem like they know what they’re talking about. Visualising stuff means relating ideas to experience, and if the experience being visualised is lacking, it’ll be clearer for everyone to see. The trouble is, most people assume you’re there to add clarity. That’s a stressful place to be.

People interpret symbols differently

Though totally obvious, the fact that people have different points of view is easily overlooked, occasionally with consequences.

Black woman becomes white woman because soap? It might seem unbelievable that Dove failed to foresee how offensive this could be… but it seems they actually didn’t mean to make a racist advert. Perhaps you’re thinking this is actually an example of failing to think visually, like “how could they be so stupid!”? However, the problem has more to do with assuming that other people would look at their design and understand exactly what they intended them to understand (eg. that all skin is wonderful and equally deserving of their lovely soap). Confirmation bias and failing to fully consider the context are problems visual thinking is unlikely to fix.

Metaphors can get messy

When you illustrate one concept in terms of another, you get a whole load of meaning for free, a whole lot of which might be irrelevant to what you intend. Knowledge and skill are required just to avoid nonsense.

Eg. “Tom is a lion”. This is presumably to emphasise Tom’s nobility, courage, and perhaps his charisma and strong leadership qualities… but all the other ‘lion’ associations hitch a free ride as well: Does Tom spend all day sleeping in the shade of a tree while his harem does all the work? Is he dangerous? Does he stink of rotting meat? Is he intolerant of other males?

“But that’s the wrong type of lion!”, you cry, “I’ll draw one that’s noble and models positive leadership behaviour!”:

Nice, love the film, but that’s now what I’m thinking about instead … does Tom have a murderous little brother and an irritating avian attendant that sounds curiously like Blackadder? Does he make you think of Elton John?

“You’re doing it wrong” you cry, “I’ll draw it from scratch”: Lovely, but it begs the question, is that really the most efficient way to communicate the intended meaning about Tom?

Because so much of visual thinking is based on metaphors, you have to be so careful that your intended meaning is also what your audience is picking up.  This is why good words are so important alongside good pictures.

Visuals can lead people’s thinking before it’s ready

It’s hard not to focus on visualisations, which can be a major obstacle to the process of exploring different possibilities in a meeting (perhaps due to attention bias or availability heuristic?) For example, if the topic being discussed is “the future state of our organisation”, but someone important stands up and draws a road, then suddenly we’re all thinking about the journey rather than the destination, which is problematic. Although a good visualisation at an appropriate level of abstraction can be invaluable, getting it wrong can be distracting and leave people confused.

Sticky mental image

Another flavour of this issue is experienced by visual communicators as an obstacle to exploring alternatives in a design process. Sometimes the first idea to form in the mind’s eye just kinda sticks there and crowds out the competition, even though it might not be objectively preferable. It’s one thing when the idea is one’s own, but when it’s someone else’s? Grrr!

Pictures can give people who just need to be angry a target to be angry at.

Counter to the above example where people align towards a visualisation too soon, sometimes they’ll go in the opposite direction; pictures are easier to shoot at than vague fluffy abstractions which is why, in situations where tension runs high, making a picture can give people a focus for their frustration. This may well be a necessary and valuable service to provide, but being the creative, making work for people to rip into can be tough.
A less dramatic though much more common flavour of this scenario occurs when showing people pictures for the first time and something in the picture – it can be a really minor detail – causes someone to kick off: “That’s wrong!” They then interpret all the other details through the frame of “this is wrong”. I find allowing my work to be “wrong” for people can be a highly productive approach to dialogue – though it sometimes requires deep breathing.

Clarity can be threatening in certain situations

Facts and concepts which remain safely hidden in vague words suddenly become threateningly apparent when represented visually. On change programmes for instance, leaders sometimes lose some of their appetite for visualisation when they see it all mapped out and realise the implications that everyone else will also see. It can also cause problems in sensitive situations where people feel threatened about revealing how things work, perhaps due to the fear of losing control, IP, or job security. There are various ways this plays out: Content can be made less meaningful (censored), the visualisation can end up not being used or, if used insensitively, ends up upsetting people.

Visualisation is not always valued highly

In some cultures, particularly within certain corporate functions, visualisation in general is regarded as being unworthy of serious consideration as, say, a spreadsheet. It can be a tough sell, at least until they have first-hand experience of its value.

If you are seen as primarily an artist, then you might end up feeling like a great big pencil for other people’s ideas

I drew this following a particularly unrewarding experience a couple of years ago.

I still keep it by my desk as a reminder to avoid the sort of scenario where my only remit is to follow instructions in making the client’s ideas pretty, regardless of whether or not it makes any sense to me. Forget visual thinking, when the scope of a project goes awry you might not get to do any thinking at all. Expect to feel thoroughly under-valued as you re-work that thing to death. For whatever reason, possibly to do with how art is taught in schools, art sometimes seems to be regarded as a non-thinking discipline. This manifests in business contexts as clients and consultants treating you as a brainless hand that just makes stuff; the beauty to their brains.

People (clients) don’t always know how best to work with and integrate visual-thinking into their projects

Clients will typically only think to call you late in their process, by which point there’s no time to help them make sense of what they’re trying to achieve, one the main benefits of thinking visually in the first place. Expect to work crazy hours to some inadequate briefs, at least until you’ve figured out how to properly scope and boundary projects and manage to establish mutual understanding with your clients.

OK – I’m done with drawbacks for now. I’m acutely aware that much of this list could just as well be spun positively, particularly with sensitivity and understanding of the situation, good scoping and management. But sometimes it’s fun to dwell on the sticky side.






  • Damn right with that human pencil visual…Been there and narrowly escaped getting there again. Folks just don’t see visual thinkers to be strategic meaning makers. While some of us aren’t too … A huge part of Visual communication is understanding culture relevant semantics. Yes, metaphors too are just that…metaphors….So how do you escape ambiguities or misrepresentation or misunderstanding?

    One idea is to help people generate images or imageries and then agree on finding a consensus of the visual. Or use the visual practitioner as an unbiased listener cum visualiser of the conversations so metaphors can be freely interpreted and need not necessarily be contextual. So a Tech related meeting could use wildlife metaphor or A life sciences one could use a gladiator theme etc.. herein the role of a facilitator is supremely important to guide interpretation to understanding the subtleties rather than the literal representation. As in semantics…. Connotations vs Denotations. Lastly, yes it could be a pretty picture…But It will start off from messiness so don’t expect a process work to be pretty…Or cheap because it looks ugly…But see it as a learning aid to the verbal volleys in the room.

    Each of the issues you mentioned needs more detailed and thorough introspection…But Visuals are great in not just the impact of grabbing attention but retaining it too…By making evident the entire contents of the session on one spread… Allowing readers to find patterns and further solutions….Often the session facilitator forgets to use the visuals as assets to build conversation on….Rather they use it as a testimonial, a visual memory/ memorabilia….

    • Hi Chitra, welcome!
      You’re right, there’s a catch22 with visual thinkers not participating at a strategic level; they don’t develop the required knowledge and experience, and organisations don’t get to see the benefits of using visuals at a high level.

      I’m becoming convinced that listening, questioning and modelling skills, as well as domain-specific knowledge, are vital additions to the visual practitioners tool kit. Doing those things well combined with visualisation is highly valuable because it can help create shared meaning in the tricky world of corporate language.

      That’s a nice point you make about the power of using visuals to help find consensus, particularly when the practitioner ‘gets out of the way’ and lets the group do the sense-making.

      I guess I’m sceptical about using broad metaphors for mapping themes (wildlife, gladiators) onto subject domains (tech, life sciences). As you say, the facilitator has to work hard to steer people’s interpretation… sometimes that’s cool, other times the picture needs to do the work, and the metaphors had better behave themselves 😉

      “Each of the issues you mentioned needs more detailed and thorough introspection…”

      Too right! It’s a learning process. For me, the journey from “person who loves drawing stuff” to “professional” has been one of navigating these challenges. It’s about recognising these signs as needs and figuring out how best to respond to them.

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