How to Unlock Your Creativity with Visual Thinking

Woman drawing a map on a sheet of glass

After a terrorist attack destroyed New York’s World Trade Center and left lower Manhattan a shambles on September 11, 2001, utility company Con Edison faced a herculean task: rebuilding the utility infrastructure of this densely-packed urban area.

As part of this effort, Lisa Frigand of the utility’s economic development department was serving on a committee that was trying to coordinate multiple groups of stakeholders. But the team was having a lot of trouble keeping track of all the individuals and organizations involved – everything from civic, government and 9/11 memorial organizations to property owners and other providers of infrastructure in Manhattan – a monumental number of stakeholders.

When colleague David Hill heard about the team’s challenge, he suggested creating a mind map to represent all of these groups and their complex inter-relationships. Frigand provided the information and Hill created the mind map. He also interviewed some of the people involved to ensure that the information it contained was accurate.

This mind map – which you can see on the Idea Mapping blog – was instrumental in assisting ConEd in rebuilding lower Manhattan. It had such an impact that it was subsequently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as a work of ‘historical significance’.

The mind map was powerful because it took something that was very complex and made it very clear – not unlike the complex, often ambiguous challenges you may face in today’s uncertain times.

Visual thinking is quickly gaining popularity as a set of tools to help solve large, complex problems and uncover innovative solutions. Adding visually-oriented thinking techniques – like mind mapping, diagramming, sketching and infographics – to your skill set is one of the most powerful ways you can add value to your creative work.

Key areas where visual thinking can help you:

Accurate problem definition

As the problems you face in business and life become more complex, you need better tools to help you clearly and accurately describe problems, challenge your existing assumptions, identify areas where you need more information and gather and organize your research.

Albert Einstein once said if he had one hour to save the world, he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution. Using techniques like root cause analysis and fishboning, you can ensure that you’ve identified the right problem to solve, rather than picking away at symptoms.

In addition, tools like mind maps can help you deconstruct your challenges and can enable you to simultaneously see the forest and the trees (a high level overview and a more detailed perspective) – all within the same visual framework.

Developing future scenarios

In a world of increasing complexity and ambiguity, simply getting out of your malaise and being able to envision new potential futures and opportunities is becoming a challenge for many creatives.

This becomes even harder because future scenarios are hard to express in writing in a meaningful way; such narratives become so verbose that it’s hard to understand the impact of the future they describe. In other words, the meaning gets lost in the message.

In contrast, visual thinking offers a rich palette upon which to express what’s possible in compelling, colorful formats, and empowers you to share your insights with others in memorable and inspiring ways.

Brainstorming and idea evaluation

Many tried-and-true approaches seem to be less effective today. That’s why you need tools that can help you brainstorm new ideas to help solve your challenges, and evaluate them based on specific criteria. For many creatives, the challenge is not creating enough ideas, but developing effective processes for sorting through them to identify the best ones.

Arraying your ideas in visual form can help you to group ideas in meaningful ways and evaluate them faster. It can also help you to ‘chunk up’ – to see where relationships exist between ideas – so you can combine them and build upon them to create stronger, more valuable solutions.

Taking productive action

In addition, you need to formulate plans and take action to bring to fruition the best ideas you’ve developed. Capturing all of the details of a new project in an actionable form can often be daunting. Visualizing them in a diagram or mind map can help you see:

  • what you need to do
  • what resources will be required to accomplish those tasks
  • who should be responsible for them

In short, these tools can help you reach clarity faster, make better informed decisions and get things done!

A more powerful perspective

Visual thinking expert and author Dave Gray, in his excellent book Gamestorming, explains how making your thoughts tangible can free you from mental clutter and enable you to focus on generating solutions to the challenge at hand:

Imagine yourself playing a game of chess while blindfolded. It’s possible to hold the positions of all the pieces in your mind’s eye for a time – and most chess masters can do it for an entire game – but it’s much easier to have the pieces displayed on the board in front of you. The shape and color of each piece and its position relative to the board and to the other pieces contains a rich set of information that can help you make better decisions about the game.

In much the same way, you can use visual thinking to treat your thoughts as ‘artifacts’ – tangible, portable thought objects that may include sticky notes, index cards, elements of a diagram or topics within a mind map. Rearranging them enables you to play “What if?” with information and ideas, in much the same way that a chess player ponders his potential next moves by analyzing the chess board in front of him.

Best of all, visual thinking uses both sides of your brain – both the logical left hemisphere and the more creative right hemisphere – giving you greater mental horsepower to generate productive solutions for yourself and the people you serve.

This powerful mindset is one that anyone can develop, and it’s an awesome differentiator for you and your unique creative style.

Visual thinking can help you to:

  • See patterns and connections that others aren’t even aware of
  • Envision new possibilities and ideas
  • Display the quality of your thinking
  • Dissect complex problems, view their components and discern their underlying causes
  • Reach clarity more quickly on complex challenges
  • Make better informed decisions
  • Communicate your ideas in a high-impact, memorable manner to the key people you are trying to influence
  • Build consensus with others

All of these are critical needs today. Why not become the ‘go-to’ expert on visual thinking in your world?

Good books on visual thinking

Visual thinking has become so popular that it has spawned many excellent books. These books are invaluable guides to this fascinating world of non-linear, bigger-picture thinking.

Specifically, I recommend these ten books:

  1. The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures – Dan Roam
  2. Unfolding the Napkin: The Hands-On Method for Solving Complex Problems with Simple Pictures – Dan Roam
  3. Blah Blah Blah: What To Do When Words Don’t Work – Dan Roam
  4. Visual Meetings: How Graphics, Sticky Notes and Idea Mapping Can Transform Group Productivity – David Sibbett
  5. Mind Maps for Business: Revolutionize Your Business Thinking and Practice – Tony Buzan
  6. Idea Mapping: How to Access Your Hidden Brain Power, Learn Faster, Remember More and Achieve Success in Business – Jamie Nast
  7. Thinking Visually: Business Applications of 14 Core Diagrams – Malcolm Craig
  8. Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers – Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo
  9. Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences – Nancy Duarte
  10. Visual Teams: Graphic Tools for Commitment, Innovation, and High Performance – David Sibbett

In closing, visual thinking is one of the most powerful tools you can add to your skill set. It can help you to increase your influence and impact in your work and, more importantly, differentiate you in the eyes of the people whom you serve.

What (and how) do you think?

What complex challenges do you face that may lend themselves to visual thinking?

Which visual thinking techniques have you tried to date? What were the results?

In what areas do you need help learning about visual thinking?

About the Author: Chuck Frey is the founder and publisher of The Mind Mapping Software Blog. This article is based upon an excerpt from Chuck Frey’s new book, Up Your Impact: 52 Innovative Strategies to Add Value to Your Work.

The 21st Century Creative Podcast

The 21st Century Creative Podcast

Hosted by poet and creative coach Mark McGuinness, The 21st Century Creative podcast helps you succeed as a creative professional amid the demands, distractions, and opportunities of the 21st century.

Each episode features insights from Mark and interviews with outstanding creators – including artists, writers, performers, commercial creatives, directors, producers, entrepreneurs and other creative thought leaders.

Guests include Steven Pressfield, Scott Belsky, Jocenlyn K. Glei, Joanna Penn and Michael Bungay Stanier.

Responses to this Post

Sites That Link to this Post


  1. Incisive and thought-provoking.

    As a wordsmith I’ve regularly *failed* to use visual tools to facilitate my writing.

    Whether it’s non-fiction or my mysteries, mind-mapping, fishboning, snowflakes and such would all make the initial story layout, character connections, plot (“who needs it?!?!”) and other story bits (they’re all present in good non-fiction, too, just under different names) more evident.

    Might cut down on my use of parenthetical phrases, too. Maybe someone will come up with a mind-mapping tool for blog comments.

    • Writing is a great use for these tools, especially mind mapping, Joel. It enables you to optimize the structure of your writing at the “skeletal” level, if you will, before you wrap it in sentences and paragraphs. It’s much easier to see if something is missing, could be better organized or is superfluous in a visual outline than in a finished piece!

  2. If mind mapping worked for Con Ed in such a complex and chaotic case, it should work for us in solving regular problems. Several times, Mind Mapping has been suggested to me and I’ve not tried it formally but perhaps I do something similar.

    I see real value in getting ideas out of my head onto paper so I could make connections and “see” what is really going on. What I do is get the largest pieces of paper I could find and use colored markers to chart out my ideas.

    Perhaps I’m mistaken in my perception but what always seemed limiting to me is that as when thinking big I like to use large sheets of paper – the thought of using software for use on my small computer screen don’t seems confining. I’m interested on your thoughts and perhaps which software may be worth trying

    • David, you can of course zoom in and out on your mind maps and expand and collapse branches to give you a greater level of control over how much you can view on screen at any given time. A number of mind mapping software programs also enable you to “focus in” on one branch – so that only it and its child topics are visible on screen. This enables you to concentrate on fleshing it out without any distractions. Then, when you’re done, you can “focus out” and view then entire map once again.

      In addition, large, complex mind maps can be converted into a number of smaller, linked maps to keep things manageable on screen.

      To get started, I recommend either XMind or MindMaple. Free versions are available and they are fairly easy to use.

  3. Whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed with projects and stuff to do, I make myself a coffee, sit down in the armchair in the corner of my office, and draw a mind map of all the projects and tasks… by the time I’m done, everything looks clearer, a weight has lifted, and I’m ready to get going again.

    Obviously that must be the effect of the coffee, but you never know, maybe the mind map has something to do with it. 😉

    • Only way you’ll ever know is to do it without the coffee.

      Wait; you’re not an American. You might could actually do that.

      Yup, used that method more than once. And since I rarely drink coffee, I’m splitting the credit between mind-mapping and caffeine jolt.

  4. I find now that tablets and mindmapping are great allies in visual thinking. The direct touch with the screen and the a Isitt to work on a larger canvas allows the big picture to be seen and then the drill down into the detail. I find it quicker working on a tablet than a laptop/desktop. The ability to export is a great advantage in reducing the friction from getting my thoughts out and then doing something with them…turn into email, text outline etc. plus the ability to add sketches and doodles in imind map and iThoughtshd is a major plus for me.

  5. Donna Stevens says:

    Thanks for the info my english class in highschool is doing a research project and im resaerching visual thing and hopfully to becaume a visual thinker myself