It is the end of the 50’s.

Professor John Arnold takes a risk: He hires industrial designer Bob McKim at the Stanford mechanical engineering department. McKim has no Phd.

Arnold is a pioneer: He wants to teach his students productive and creative thinking.

The courses he and McKim develop are experiments to find out how to reach that goal.

Their insights are the fundamentals of design thinking

In 1963 Arnold dies of a heart attack at the age of 50.

McKim builds on his work and he takes up Arnolds’ suggestion to develop a course in visual thinking.

This is the beginning of a quest: What ís visual thinking?

He explores the Gestalt Theory, he talks to psychologists that focus on perception and to drawing artists.

But he learns most from his students

McKim makes them do dozens of exercises to explore their visual thinking capacity. They imagine to inhale a bird – to learn to control their mind’s eye. They note down their dreams – to learn to switch between their unconscious and their conscious thinking modes.

He teaches them how to draw.

Their pencil had to become an extension of their hand

Just like the tools of a carpenter. Because brain and body are involved when you think – and they interact with the world around you.

Nowadays we call that embodied cognition

When you have a trunk like an elephant you think of other ways to get a branch from a tree than when you have hands and feet.

In 1972 McKim publishes Experiences in Visual Thinking

It is a kaleidoscopic book with plenty of exercises from the course. McKim connects his findings with the work of Arnold and with ideas from the fields of psychology, philosophy and art. The book is no longer in print. In 2016 I made a visual summary of it.

The goal of the book is to promote flexible thinking

The exercises help you to get beyond your fixed ways of looking – and to develop new ideas.

Nowadays drawing in business is focused on mapping out existing ideas. Most people use it to communicate their story more effectively.

How do you think visually the way McKim meant it?

You start with a question that puzzles you: Something you want to change, but you don’t know how.

Let your eyes, your brain and your hands work together to tackle the question

That works in three ways:

1. Look more attentively

 Our eyes are no passive cameras.

Together with our brain they continuously look for patterns. What you perceive is matched with what you know. It happens in the blink of an eye.

That works fine most of the time

You do not need to register more than a green blob on a stick to avoid walking into a tree.

But when things get complicated your brain also wants to take a shortcut

For example when there is something is at hand in work or life. We want quick solutions – and when you go to fast you do not see what is really going on.

How do you improve your observation? Draw to see, says McKimLook at what is in front of you: When you draw it you see what it actually comprises.

You don’t have to learn to draw

It is not about technique, or about making it look nice.

If necessary you can draw something without looking at the paper. Look at the contours of the object and use your eyes as a seismograph.

When you want to draw a question you map it out

That allows you to look at it quietly – without immediately needing an answer.

And there are many ways to draw what is on your mind.

2. See different perspectives

Take a question about how to get something done at work. How do you look at the company you work for? You can map out an organization in several ways. Do you draw a schematic picture or a concrete image. Or maybe a metaphor? Do you see an organization as a machine, an organism or a set of brains? Check out Gareth Morgans classic book Images of Organization for more examples.

And what is the view of your colleagues?

These are only a few of the ways you can visualize an organization.

If you map out a subject from different angles you get to know it better. Each way of depicting it creates another space in which you can think about how things in your organization work, how your team functions – or what your role is.

Your stack of drawings is input for the next step.

3. Use your drawings as vehicles for thought 

In your head you cannot see two pictures next to each other, no matter how good your memory is.

Drawings you can put next to each other, you can compare them, group them or change the order. When you see a drawing, you eyes immediately look for coherence and see what is missing.

Just like the prototyping that is so important in design thinking

When you work in design, you develop a prototype to see if an idea is feasible. And you adjust if it doesn’t.

Sketches are also easy to alter: Enlarge an element, draw something next to it, erase it, or move it around. The process triggers new associations, you may see a connection between 2 elements that happen to be placed next to each other.

You get different ideas about where you want to go with your organization, with your team, or with yourself.

In summary: When you draw you think differently than when you use words or numbers

And you can apply that immediately:

Take a subject you really want to work on. Make some quick sketches on loose bits of paper – and see which associations come up. Here you can find tips to get your thoughts down on paper.

And I made a visual with the 3 steps of visual thinking – with tips on how to direct them at a question that is on your mind. Click on it for a printable pdf.

Are you stuck?

Let’s do an online visual sparring session: We map out your question together and I join you in your exploration.