Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Visual Thinking with Diagrams - The Cartoon in Your Head

Here imagery guru Kosslyn argues that the best of visual-diagrammatic thinking is a cartoon in your head, a vague sketch "stripping away irrelevant detail while preserving or highlighting essential information about objects and their spatial relations." The pair argue that visual communication in sync with the brain's rules of imagery processing is the most easily processed and received. The figure below shows a chess master's vague sketch of the chess piece positions.

There is a lot good in this paper, but individuals differ in their imagery more than is discussed here. But before we get to that, let's see what they say:

1. Show Diagram Before Text- "to be maximally effective, the diagram should be examined before the reader encounters the relevant text, in part because the diagram helps to organize the text and in part because the reader may try to visualize what the text is describing, and the results may not match the diagram."

2. The Mind's Eye is Better Than Truth - Because the brain organizes and prioritizes what it sees (or more generally, senses), as in the caricature below, they argue that there will be less of translation problem if information is visually in-sync with the brain's representation distortion. In the caricature below, for instance, the most exaggerated JFK face is the easiest for most people to recognize.

Diagramming is clearly a valuable tool for visual thinking and problem solving in general. By translating facts or list information spatially, new associations and relationships can be discovered.

What doesn't totally hold together, in our experience, is the idea that internal representations always correspond to this vague type. In fact, some people have quite definite color snapshots, while others have these sketchy spatial cartoons. There are advantages or disadvantages of both imagery systems, depending on what you're trying to do, but that's a whole other can of worms.

The Power of Diagrammatic Thinking
Diagramming from Open University (HT: jots.com).
Thinking with a Pencil


  1. Isn't that curious how a more "inaccurate" caricature is more recognizable.

    Thank you for a year of interesting thoughts.

    Happy New year

  2. And to you, too! Happy New Year!