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Friday, December 07, 2007

VizThink and Visual Thinking and Learning - Still Not Sure

Tom Crawford is a person I consider to be a friend, colleague and really good person. He has a wonderful background including being director of eLearning at Root Learning and working for Masie organizing events. He is now CEO of Vizthink - and is organizing and running VizThink '08. I think he's done a wonderful job pulling together what looks to be a very interesting conference.

All that said - I'm still not sure I really get the connection between visual thinking and eLearning. I asked Tom to help fill me in and so we've had a little dialog on it. I thought it would be worth sharing a bit of our conversation and inviting others to join in.

Tom suggests...
When creating an e-learning module, there are dozens, maybe even hundreds of pages of material required to document what is to be created. In some organizations, they have replaced the documentation with storyboards which are certainly a step in the right direction, visually. However, even storyboards can be complex to create, hard to update, and even harder to develop from. Visual thinking offers opportunities to streamline that development process especially during the review and approval stages. Very rarely will someone read pages of text, where a visual that communicates the same message provides a quick way for people to review and then respond. The process also benefits from the creation of personas, visual stories about the learner, which help keep the learner the focus of the design.
I agree with Tom about using multiple Persona (Personas? Personi?) to help focus the design effort, but that's design 101, not really visual thinking. I definitely agree with creating representations of what the screens will be and/or storyboards. Again, design 101. So, what the heck is he talking about with this? Isn't this standard design stuff?

Tom goes on ...

Another portion of visual thinking is usability, information design, and interactivity. How often have you looked at an e-Learning module and not know what to do? Colors are drawing your eyes in many directions, text fills the screen and is hard to use, buttons work sometimes and not others with no indication of why, the interactivity does reinforce the message, the visual (often clipart or a stock photo) are irrelevant and distracting…these are all signs that more attention needed to be paid to the visual (and visual thinking) aspects of the module. The use of space, color, images, text, and interactivity are all significant portions of the visual thinking space, and if not done well they can inhibit and even prevent learning from occurring.

Uh, Tom, this is exactly user interface design. There's got to be more, right? Or am I missing something in what he's talking about. I'm not saying good user experience design is not important - it is hugely important, especially for a lot of the projects that I work on. But, I have many sources for help with user experience - I'm not sure I get how that could be the focus of VizThink.

Finally, he gets to what I expected him to discuss...

Finally, and maybe most importantly, visualization can enhance almost every learning opportunity. When they are well designed, visuals communicate more information, more quickly, with more retention and longer recall. The application of visual thinking is across all art styles from photos and video to sketching and illustration to virtual worlds and even product design. New tools allow annotation, collaboration, and co-creation visually. Rather than talking about doing something, people use the creative process to solve problems, generate ideas, and streamline processes.

To me, when you talk visual thinking, I normally think of the wonderful diagrams that people can create from your concepts (see Marilyn Martin's picture of my eLearning 2.0 concepts).

There certainly is big value from being able to take concepts and turn them into diagrams, pictures, visualizations. Kathy Sierra is a master of that. I've always felt that there was a certain skill required to do that where you can crystalize the important issues, simplify, picture them and then render. I'm sure that Tom's conference will talk a lot about this.

And, certainly if you are able to do that, you can create more powerful learning tools. Just like you can create more powerful marketing tools, communication tools, etc.

So, again, I highly respect Tom and the conference. And maybe it's as simple as the fact that a lot of what we do in training, learning, education is try to crystalize the important points, and turn it into an engaging, meaningful learning experience. So, maybe it's a parallel and very useful skill. But I have this sense that Tom thinks there's more to it.

And, I just am still not sure I get what he's seeing? What am I missing here?


bschlenker said...

You are missing a whole lot!!! As Tom Peters would say DESIGN IS EVERYTHING! From my experience training in many...dare I say most instances... exists where developers were lazy and designed poorly. From industrial design to software development. When I was using PCs I remember page after page of instructions to get the simplest thing to work. Mac stuff just plugs in and words...period. THAT's DESIGN. No training required. My wife creates amazing family videos with music, transitions, and graphics. She has ZERO production experience or training...The software just knows what she wants to do and gets out of her way. THAT's DESIGN. When I build my kids IKEA furniture the instructions have no words, they use pictures. THAT's DESIGN. When a product is well designed to perform a specific function it does not require training.
Have you ever had this experience:
Someone says that you need to create a training course and so you sit down with the expert. The expert hands you a list and says, "if our workers could just do these things, exactly like this, then all will be right with the world." What do you do? Do you spend 6wks to 6months going through the ADDIE model and implementing a big ol' training course? When all we have is the ISD hammer then everything looks like the nail.
There are many industries, and careers, doing training and learning WAY better than the industry that claims to be the design experts of learning.
Yes. Most of what you talk about is Design 101, or interface design 101, but how many ISDers were EVER taught these skills? Learning is an interdisciplinary skill with everything BUT ISD being more and more important as we move into the new world of work, creativity, and life.

Tony Karrer said...

Brent - I hear you on the importance of design. Is visual thinking and design the same thing? Maybe that's my issue. It seems like you and Tom are collapsing the two together?

Christine Martell said...

Let me try to come from a different perspective. Each of us has a visual voice- what an artist often calls a style- a way we will tend to organize information visually. Visuals can be used to communicate not only content, but can be used to convey less conscious material also (think advertising). How many learning developers have training in visual language? From the looks of most of it, I would guess very few. Frequently people are creating visuals out of default or formula rather than consciously working with them as another communication element.

We can develop much more effective learning when we actively manage all the input channels, and align them with learning goals. A lot of what I see may be well designed from a graphic perspective, but not necessarily from an integrated learning one. Sorry, but a lot of e-learning is still visually ineffective. But with a little more knowledge, understanding, and learning to SEE it could take an exponential leap.

I have a lot of background in visuals (and will be one of the facilitators at VizThink). I am excited about the conference because you hardly ever get that many leaders across so many applications all working with various aspects of visuals in one place at one time. And they are all using visuals to drive business results and to deepen communication. Hard to find. And I'm sure there will be a lot to learn for us all.

Tony Karrer said...

Christine, I really appreciate your comment - and what you are describing - visualizations / visual representations - sound more like what I was thinking that VizThink was all about.

And, I agree that being able to create visualizations of concepts is an INCREDIBLY valuable skill.

I wonder though how teachable it is? And can I learn it from a conference? I'm sure that parts of it are teachable, but a lot of it I feel like is going to be awfully hard to learn.

Let me try this another way. Without going to the conference, how could I get a sense of whether I could learn it (whatever it is)?

Or is it more akin to learning the piano? You can teach me some theory and probably even get me to plunk a few things out in a mechanical fashion, but I'm not going to even be able to play as well as my 7 year old by the end of the conference, not to mention my 10 or 13 year olds.

I certainly won't be creating Kathy Sierra pictures by the end. That's a concert pianist and I'm a plunker.

Christine Martell said...

Good questions. Some of it will depend on your expectations of what you think you need to learn. You are right, you will probably not be Kathy Sierra at the end. You might however be a whole lot more effective Tony Karrer playing chords.

I believe all the skills are teachable because I've been helping people learn them for a long time. There are several parts, the technical skills that take eye hand coordination like drawing or software. But for me, the skills that are more elusive and important are those of seeing.

I remember the instant I learned to see. I was sixteen, sitting in Miss Keary's art class trying to draw a still life. She sat next to me and pointed out what I needed to look at, the light and shadows separate from the lines and form. In one moment everything shifted and suddenly I saw things differently. The drawing became dimensional and I never saw the world the same again. My eyes literally opened sitting by her side.

Have you seen Bob Horn's book Visual Language? He'll also be at VizThink, and has attempted to articulate what some of the visual language elements are in relationship to a syntax. It has isolated many of the individual elements that are helpful to understand, and lays out a foundation of what we work with as visual professionals.

If you come to my session you'd learn about what your natural visual language tendency is, and explore what the elements are that make visuals communicate. My sense is that all of the facilitators will be focusing on helping people actually build skills in the session. So much of the learning is experiential, it can sound almost lame in a description. Kind of like my eyes opened in a high school art class---but I assure you that moment changed my life.

And I assure you that if your eyes open, you will forever make different choices in your learning design process. And we need better e-learning in this world (I have not seen your programs, so it's a general not specific comment).

Tony Karrer said...

This is a great conversation (or when it's this one sided is it still a conversation?), but definitely thanks.

You said - "the skills that are more elusive and important are those of seeing" ...

I tend to find that this is a big barrier for me personally when it comes to visual depictions. What is the kernel of what I want to show? What is the 1,000 words to convey? To me that's the heart of it. If I really knew the message, then I could create something (even if it's ugly). But Kathy is able to distill a message - to me that's a big part of the beauty of her work.

For me, once I start to go after the visual (ugly as they are), then I find myself changing the diagram, adding, etc. I'm never happy with it. So, I tinker. Pretty soon that visual depiction falls apart. So I wasn't clear on what it should have been at the start.

Or maybe it's not that simple? It's more iterative?

So, if I start with "seeing" will Horn's book help me with that? Or is there another resource?

Or is seeing too tightly coupled to the rest to break it out that way?

As they say in Stripes - I'm willing to learn. :)

Does going out and buying Horn get me moving in the right direction or is there something better to start with?

Unknown said...

Hi Tony,

I have so many questions and thoughts for you that I don't know where to begin.

When you talk about making depictions, and tinkering with them, are you using software or drawing freehand on a napkin or whiteboard?

In my experience there's a significant difference because software -- no matter how simple or sophisticated -- usually has embedded assumptions that will tend to limit your thinking.

Yes, I believe visual thinking is learnable -- and teachable. It's like a muscle. No matter what age you are, working the muscle will improve its condition.

As to the relation between e-Learning and visual thinking, consider this:

Learning and experience are inextricably intertwined, and most agree that we have three primary modalities for learning and representing our experiences: visual, auditory and kinesthetic.

In an e-Learning environment you control only two of the channels, the visual and auditory. The kinesthetic experience is dependent on the device and probably out of your control.

The auditory channel can be accessed online, but many people, especially at work, keep the volume turned down on their computers, so I would argue that the auditory channel is more difficult to rely on.

So what is your fundamental, most reliable channel? The screen of course, a 100% visual channel.

Now add to this the fact that design on the internet follows the same logical model that was defined by Gutenberg hundreds of years ago, which was based on physical limitations that no longer exist, as follows:

The number of images that could potentially exist is infinite, while the number of letters and numbers (in European languages) is finite and actually quite limited.

In a mass-production process (like printing) , individual numbers and letters can be cast in metal and combined and recombined in infinite ways, while each image must be created individually as an engraving or woodcut.

This makes textual information more fluid and easier to work with, while visual information is more rigid and harder to work with.

So we created a paradigm for "creating content" where we write the words first, and then create illustrations. When we put this content into form for printing, designers "place" the images, and then we "flow" the words around them like a river.

Throughout the process the words are flexible and constantly being edited, while designers and visual people seem to have less flexibility, need more lead time, and constantly complain about tight deadlines and changes.

This has given us a belief in the primacy of written language over visuals which I believe is false.

I am certain Leonardo, one of the most inventive people in history, developed his visual and verbal ideas simultaneously rather than sequentially as we usually do today.

(Bear with me here!)

In a digital age these constraints on images no longer exist, HOWEVER we have embedded them anyway in our design of the internet and almost all software.

I think that, because of this, most people today have an unconscious belief that words are superior to pictures when it comes to expressing and receiving thoughts.

But unconsciously we KNOW this is untrue.

We prefer face-to-face conversations, especially when we are meeting someone new or when a lot is at stake.

We watch TV and movies more than we read.

We say things like "seeing is believing," or "you have got to show me."

We believe eyewitnesses over other forms of evidence even though research has proven that the memory of eyewitnesses is one of the LEAST reliable things you will ever see (or hear) in a courtroom.

The facts are these:

1. If you are designing e-Learning, you can fully rely only on one channel: the visual channel. And EVERYTHING on the screen, by definition, is visual, yes, even the text.

2. Most of the tools you are working with will force you into embedded assumptions about the primacy of verbal language over the visual. Pen and paper is one of the few exceptions to this.

VizThink, for me, is PRIMARILY for people like you, Tony, who lack faith in their own ability. Your faith in your ability to draw is basic, Tony. EVERY five-year-old has this faith, and every five-year-old has pretty much the same level of skill and ability.

Why some continue to draw and others don't is a mystery, but you could look for clues in our education system, where English and Language are mandatory and Art is optional and even considered frivolous by many.

We "read" visual language all the time. It surrounds us, in the form of billboards, TV, road signs, car dashboards, internet screens, etc.

But how many of us can "write" visual language? I submit to you that visual language is not, and should not be, the province of designers, but is a core skill as we enter the coming century, maybe THE core skill.

We're flooded with more and more information all the time. And reading takes time. Somehow we must select from this flood of information what to read, and how much.

Visual language allows us to process more information, faster. And because we are unconscious of its power, we can more easily be manipulated by visuals than by words.

So, there are two things that I want people to take away from VizThink:

1. I want them to improve their visual literacy. To understand how visuals impact their thinking and emotions, both in conscious and unconscious ways. I want them to be more conscious of visual thinking in their lives, so they are less vulnerable to being manipulated.

2. I want them to improve their ability to express themselves visually. Te regain their belief in themselves as visual communicators. Yes, to learn how to draw and think visually, which I firmly believe is within everyone's grasp.

There's lots more I want to say but my fingers are getting tired and I can't draw in this little comment window, because the people who designed the internet, and the blogger software, and the keyboard I'm typing on, and the screen in front of me, all assumed that my primary mode of communication would be via keyboard and the finite set of words and letters you see here.

With the mouse and the tablet PC and the built-in webcam and YouTube, these things are starting to change. In the coming century, I hope, we will rediscover the fundamental nature of visual communication, not just for artists and designers but for everyone.

And THAT, for me, is what VizThink is all about.

Unknown said...

Hi Tony -- let me add: I hope you can make it!

thcrawford said...

Thanks Tony for starting a robust discussion! I'm going to try to make the comments here, but I may have to resort to a separate blog post.

I think it's important to start with a definition: visual thinking is the use of any form of the visual arts (painting, sketching, illustration, design, video, photography, 3D, sculpture, modeling, etc) for learning and communication. That covers a very wide scope of possibilities. Visual Thinking approaches include things like brainstorming, organization, planning, alignment, design, communication, etc. In fact, it's probably more often about the process of getting there than it is the final product (thought that doesn't reflect either's relative importance).

Here are just a few of my specific comments:

Design vs. Visual Thining: I would love to be able to say that all design (especially learning design) incorporates visual thinking, but it does not. In fact, personas, storyboards, and representations are still often created only with text which leads to serious flaws. Good design does incorporate good visual thinking, but design itself doesn't always do that. The use of visualization methods during the design process exposes flaws, displays opportunities, and improves the overall effectiveness of the module.

User Interface Design: A good user interface disappears into the design. That's what makes this part different, especially in learning. If the learner notices the interface, it's probably not designed correctly. Visual Thinking techniques and analsys can help expose the weaknesses of the interface.

Creating Diagrams from Concepts: Certainly this is part of visual thinking. However, its not just about the diagram. Visual Thinking, when applied well, can actually help with the creating of the concept itself. Both the creation of the concept and the creation of the final visualization can benefit from Visual Thinking.

Is Visual Thinking Teachable? Absolutely, yes! In fact, most (some would say all) people have a natural visualizaiton sense and that all we're doing is helping them tap back into something that was buried during early childhood. Regardless, many of of facilitators at the conference such as David Sibbet, Dave Gray, Karl Gude, and Nancy Duarte (among many others) have been teaching people to these techniques for years. In fact, teaching Visual Thinking is how many of our facilitators have made their careers.

I think part of the disconnect here is the natural attachment of drawing skills to visual thinking skills. Much of visual thinking requires limited or no drawing skills at all. In fact, there's plenty of software today to help those of us who's work won't be seen in a museum any time soon. But even more than that, fully illustrated pieces are always necessary for learning or communication. Often, a simple stick figure will do, and most people would say they can do that.

We so believe that it can be taught, that we've designed a different kind of conference. You'll notice on our session page ( that over half of our sessions are hands on, each covering a different portion of Visual Thinking. So, yes, it can be taught, and those who come to the conference will start down the path of rediscovering how to do it.

Resources: I'll do a post at the VizThink blog today on resources to use to get started. You can check that out at

In short, learning can be dramatically improved by incorporating visual thinking both in the process of creating learning and in the visualization used in the final module. Sadly, most of the e-learning out there incoporates neither.

I will echo Dave here and say that I hope you, and your readers, have been inspired to attend. We would love to have you there.

Christine Martell said...

I just couldn't stand the confines of the Blogger comment box any longer when I found so much to say in response. I started writing a series of posts, and specifically answered several of your questions in the post I just put up

This a great conversation I hope continues. Let me know if there are particular things you would like me to write about.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tony

Great discussion. I want to add by saying that we (Christine Martell) and myself have some great visual skills. I am a photographer and Christine has major art skills.

AND we don't have great skills in all things visual. For our products we had a graphic artist friend help us. For our logo and website we had another graphic artist help us. These are things that we are not very good at.

AND we didn't just say to these people go ahead and create carte blanche. We have enough visual 'education' to be able to guide the processes.

This is the essence of why its important to develop some of these visual skills. Its not about becoming an expert and being able to do everything yourself. Its about learning to 'see' so that you can make conscious decisions about what you want to use and it's overall affect.

Tony Karrer said...

This has been a fantastic education for me.

Some further thoughts / comments / questions:

Dave (wow that's Dave Gray - cool) asked - "When you talk about making depictions, and tinkering with them, are you using software or drawing freehand on a napkin or whiteboard?"

I generally use a blank piece of paper or the really big whiteboard in our office. I don't go to software until I know what I want it to look like. And I have a way to cheat - people in the office with really good graphics skills (on the producing side - I still have to be able to say what I want).

Dave says - "The kinesthetic experience is dependent on the device and probably out of your control."

Actually, that's not quite right since a lot of what people do these days is interact with a computer. Thus, the kinesthetics available in a simulation are quite the same as what they will experience when they apply it back in the real world (when they use the computer)... but I understand what you roughly mean.

Dave says - "most people today have an unconscious belief that words are superior to pictures when it comes to expressing and receiving thoughts" ... I don't really think that's the case. Like most people, I would prefer to have an elegant, simple to understand, visual to depict any concept. However, there's a time, cost, and lack of full semantic value that causes me not to do that. I would say instead that words are considered an alternative to visuals and you decide based on those factors.

Dave says - learn from VizThink how to "improve their ability to express themselves visually" ... I would say that this is the part that appeals to me the most.

Okay - it's fair to say that I'm on-board that it would be valuable for me to be better at the associated skills. But, convince me that it really is trainable?

So, Tom comes in and tells me - "many of the facilitators at the conference such as David Sibbet, Dave Gray, Karl Gude, and Nancy Duarte (among many others) have been teaching people to these techniques for years. In fact, teaching Visual Thinking is how many of our facilitators have made their careers." ...

That's great, but let's assume I'm too cheap to buy the books you suggest (although I've browsed several of them at bookstores a while ago - especially Tufte). I can't say that I've seen something that feels like it would help me through the process and skills to improve my abilities.

I'm familiar with several of the facilitators you mention - and David Gray's work I've admired on a consistent basis. Still I've always felt that David has a talent/gift that I'm just not going to be able to figure out.

Still - I'm getting very hopeful. Maybe that's all you need to get people to come to the conference? Hope. And really great people presenting. But, I'd love to know that I can really build skills.

Are there web articles that I should look at that would give me a sense of what would be used in a session to help me build those skills? Oh, I see that Christine has started to answer this on her blog. Cool!

And - bottom line - even though I feel like an old fart having this discussion - it's been hugely valuable for me.

Anonymous said...

Just a quick question: is visual thinking different than spacial thinking? I often think that I don't think "linearly" but rather spatially. As a result, I tend to think of concepts in broad visuals and connections.

Visual Rhetoric requires that you code a message so the receiver of the message decodes it the way that you intended it. This is different than adding visuals or design, although the design is the encoding of the message.