Seeing is solving: why visual design thinking is a must for innovation and problem-solving

It’s a cliché, of course, but a picture really is worth a thousand words, if not more. Concepts which are complex and cloudy in print become tangible and understandable when we represent them visually. Visualising a problem helps us see a solution, and show that solution to others. This is why we believe visual thinking and design should be at the heart of innovation, in everything from civil engineering to brand management. 

To show you what we mean, we’re going to talk about neuroaesthetics – how the brain handles visual input and information – and then look at how we can use this for clear, design-style thinking in the workplace.

Neuroaesthetics – seeing is thinking.

Managers have included mind mapping as a key weapon in their project-planning armoury for decades. Today, infographics are emerging as a powerful tool for summarising complex situations and presenting them to non-specialists.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, considering that we learn to simplify problems by thinking of them as visual situations very early in our development, in primary school maths classes. Whether it’s workmen digging holes, gardeners planting seeds, or the classic trains travelling in opposite directions at different speeds and crossing somewhere along the way, we’re taught to calculate and compute by thinking not about pure numbers, but about something we can imagine and depict – something we can see. 

Techniques and approaches

Research by Ho Siew Yin indicates seven different ways in which visualisation can help with a mathematical problem, particularly a problem which is new to us and set by a leader who encourages us to think visually. The power of visualisation extends beyond doing sums, though. Our minds identify things by their shape and colour, and locate them in space through perceptions of light and motion. This is why colour coding helps us group, sort and separate our ideas, and why flowcharts help us understand complex processes and decisions by implying movement from step to step.

For a classic example, consider the London Underground map. How well would Londoners be able to navigate the Tube without Harry Beck’s design innovation?

This pre-Beck design uses colour coding to identify the lines, but it’s tied to the real location. As the Underground has become more complex and more interwoven with other railways, conventional maps like this one have become less and less useful. There’s too much detail, too close together, and the interchanges are too complex for the eye to track.

Beck, a technical draughtsman rather than a cartographer, brought his visual design expertise to the problem and realised that scale and distance aren’t important for navigating a network like the Underground – what matters is the position of stations on the lines. His map almost totally abandons conventional geography in favour of something that makes more visual sense, and only presents the information that’s needed to get the job done.

Project management – visualising the abstract

Beck’s map is still a visual representation of physical locations, but the same approach works for handling abstract problems as well.

Rebuilding Manhattan after 9/11 was a vast and complex civil engineering project, with dozens of sub-deadlines, stakeholders and contributing organisations for managers to keep on top of. The basic principles of visual design – colours for identity and implied motion for relationships – reduced the cognitive burden involved through a mind map, designed by David Hill and Lisa Frigand.

This map not only sorted the stakeholders and challenges, but used the tree-like structure of the mind map to identify small processes and associate them with stakeholders and aspects of the work at hand, creating an implied movement from the large central problem out to small, quantified solutions.

Visual thinking took an intractable problem – the scale and complexity of a project which bordered on the unmanageable – and helped solve it by shaping it differently, redesigning the information so it could be processed in a different way. The original map is now owned by the New York Museum of Modern Art, Visualising relationships in this way helps bring stakeholders on board by showing them how they relate to projects and processes, and how their needs are being met. For brand managers and agencies, mapping out complex processes (like a major redesign) in this way encourages clients to buy in. Their processes and their needs are grouped, organised, and related to the central idea of the brand.

If you’ll forgive us a second cliché, necessity is the mother of invention.

Putting that more originally, we might say problems are the mother of innovation and innovation demands a clear, straightforward design. Whether selling new concepts or solving complex problems, visual design transforms, simplifies and demonstrates ideas. It presents them clearly and succinctly, reducing cognitive load and encouraging buy-in.