Ask five people for a definition of visual thinking and you’re likely to get five slightly different answers. After all, visual thinking is a complex subject. But, at its core, visual thinking is about finding and sharing meaning through the use of visual tools such as graphs, maps, photos, drawings and diagrams. So why should market researchers care about visual thinking? Let’s face it, one of our biggest challenges is not conducting complex research, it’s about communicating the results in a meaningful and memorable way so that clients can leverage the insights in their business decisions. Whether you are a client side researcher communicating findings to stakeholders or a supplier of research conducting the study, visual thinking matters.
The Power of Visual Thinking.
I saw the power of visual thinking in action when I was helping a client with the implementation phase of a new segmentation. The research materials provided by their research agency were top notch. But, getting up to speed quickly and becoming an expert on a segmentation study when you weren’t involved upfront is a little challenging, to say the least. As I read through the 200+ page report the first time, I found information overload quickly setting in. So, I turned to one of my favorite tools of pen and paper to create some visual sketches about the data. By the end of the second reading, I had about 10 drawings that helped me understand the segments better and create meaningful connections within the data. The drawings also helped generate some hypotheses and potential areas to explore further.
When I presented the segmentation data at the first workshop, I wasn’t completely surprised to see that a few participants were struggling a bit with information overload. I wondered if they were visual learners who might benefit from a few visual cues. I moved to the whiteboard and recreated a chart that I had sketched to build my own deeper understanding of the data. I then started to create a visual on the board to introduce each section of the workshop. What happened next was almost magic. I found the pace and quality of the discussion picked up and participants started connecting the segments to business issues, often pointing to one of the graphics on the whiteboard to build their case. After that I started including the graphics in the workshop presentation materials. Within weeks, I started to see the graphics pop up in product development and strategy presentations and discussions. Now, that’s the power of visual thinking.
How to get started?
A good place to start is reading David Armano’s post on “How to Think and Communicate Visually.”
Next, I’d recommend investing in a few new books for your bookshelf and spring/summer reading list. These are books I turn to often when I’m stuck on a visual thinking issue.
Connie Malamed’s, Visual Language for Designers is by far one of the best books I’ve read on understanding the principles of how we process and store information. It’s the fundamental building block to understand visual communication. If you buy one book this year on visual thinking, this would be the one I recommend.
I also recommend two books by Nancy Duarte. Resonate will inspire you on how to put together compelling content, while Slideology guides you through the process of translating the content and story into a persuasive presentation deck.
If you are struggling with the mechanics of what should be in a quality chart, then I’d add a fourth book to the list. The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics by Donna Wong is a great book if you are new to creating and presenting data graphically.
Last, I’d say practice, practice, practice. It’s the only way you can truly improve your visual thinking skills.