Visual Thinking

Here is another of my favorite Richard Feynman stories (and fitting to honor the memory of Feynman today, for it is 25 years since the day he died):

“When I was a kid growing up in Far Rockaway, I had a friend named Bernie Walker. We both had “labs” at home, and we would do various “experiments.” One time, we were discussing something — we must have been 11 or 12 at the time — and I said, “But thinking is nothing but talking to yourself inside.”

“Oh yeah?” Bernie said. “Do you know the crazy shape of the crankshaft in a car?”

“Yeah, what of it?”

“Good. Now tell me: how did you describe it when you were talking to yourself?”"

So I learned from Bernie that thoughts can be visual as well as verbal.

– Richard P. Feynman, It’s as Simple As One, Two, Three

That boy became this man

Feynman Diagrams

Image source: The photo of Feynman is from Gleick, J. Genius


If you are just joining us, you may like to read the earlier posts in this series, for they set the context for our discussions of architect mastery. In this post, we have turned the lens of our attention to visualization — in our mind’s eye, but also remembering “sometimes a pencil is the best eye” from the lessons in observation in the fish story (, as well as using visual models to help us reason, design and communicate.

The discussion in the comments raises many important points, and provides many useful pointers (thanks especially to Peter Bakker) to resources, that help us explore and understand the role of visual thinking and visualization in architecting.


18 thoughts on “Visual Thinking

  1. Hi Ruth,

    I think (pun intended) that the most important part of the architecture process is not the thinking process itself (which is largely unconscious) but the externalization of thoughts. And the main externalization tool in the architect’s toolkit is sketching as one can read e.g. in

    Architects shouldn’t be limited by so called visual languages or modelling tools. Architects should always start with a blank canvas!

  2. Thank you Peter — that is a wonderful reference! Your point, and the points Barbara makes in that paper, remind me of your tweet from a month ago: So the memory point is reinforced. :-)

    Externalizing thoughts, to amplify our own thinking ability, to create external memory and free up space in short term memory, to create a shared thoughtspace that others can react and contribute to, are important. Not only are we creating and/or evolving complex systems, but we are co-creating and collaborating and leading.

  3. Here’s my twopence halfpenny worth.
    I completely agree with both of you. Visualization is something an architect has to do (and should be done by a lot of other professions too). Of course you can visualize something in your head – in your “mind’s eye” – but its pretty difficult to convey that to others without sketching it out.
    Some things are easier for some people to visualize in their head than to sketch. Feynman reputedly could visualize things in n-dimensions. Try putting that on paper. But I digress.

    I also strongly agree with Peter that visual languages and modeling tools can be a trap, because the semantics are predetermined, which at best can leave you spending a lot of time specializing them to express what you’re after. At worst they can force you into familiar patterns and make you miss the new and unusual. I don’t think they’re useless by the way. Once you’ve figured out what it is you’re trying to convey the use of a language with commonly understood (and preferably rich) semantics helps in the sharing. But maybe at this point we’re already into design.

    Anyway, what I do miss in the above exchange is exactly what Ruth pulled out of the last Feynman story, which is exactly that – story. What is most important in the extract above? Is it the fact of visualization or the story of how Feynman came to understand its importance? I’ll accept “both” as an answer. We learn the importance of the visualization through the power (and simplicity) of the story. And visualization is a part of the architecture process (Peter’s words). It is perhaps not the sketch that matters but the process of producing the sketch – coming to understand the thing ourselves – and the process of communicating to others using the sketch.
    Maybe after that point we do actually need to use something with a formal visual language that captures the semantics and can easily manage subsequent change. I said maybe – I’m really not sure about that.

    Thanks to both of you. Another penny drops.

  4. This quote caught my eye today:
    “The truth does not reveal itself to idle spectators” – Matthew B. Crawford
    Why? The sense I made of that is that in engaging that we find meaningful insights — the penny drops.

    And drawing out what is in our mind’s eye engages — ourselves (we “get our hands dirty” with pencil and eraser), and provides at least the opportunity to engage others.

    As visual languages go, I too would not want to rush to dismiss them. What did Feynman Diagrams enable? And visual design languages like the UML?

  5. Hi Ruth and Stuart,

    About models (made with visualizing languages and modelling tools):

    Yes they are very useful and needed in the architecture process, just look at the impact of BIM* in the construction world. But model-making (and map-making) are crafts by itself [1]. So an architect must use models of different scales but it’s not the core business of the architect to make models. The core business of the architect is to create ideas and/or guide the implementation of architectural ideas to change and (hopefully) improve the territory [3].


    • Sorry, I’ve made a mess of my footnotes :-(

      [1] is pointing to a great article about the impact of BIM and [2] is an example of model-making as a profession.

      This is perhaps a good moment to add some additional info about specialized model makers and architectural illustrators:

      The Ten Talents of a Model Maker:
      1. A sense of scale
      2. Ability to visualize in three dimensions
      3. The pursuit of art
      4. The ability to sense materials when they “talk” to us
      5. A passion for detail and the ability to do finishing work
      6. Ability to link abstract or unrelated ideas
      7. Ingenuity
      8. Search and dig like an archeologist
      9. Interpreter of information
      10. Ability to balance all factors
      The list is described in detail by Hal Chaffee from Model Builders, Inc. at

      Other interesting examples of architecture visualizations and related professions can be found on the site of the Society of Architectural Illustration, which “brings together the world’s leading architectural artists, illustrators, model makers, animators and photographers – dynamic, progressive, professionals who bring architecture to life”, at

  6. This reminds me of taking the ASVAB test when I was in high school. There was a portion on spatial perception where you were given drawings of unfolded objects and had to identify what they looked like folded. A useful skill, but as everyone else has mentioned so far, secondary to being able to convey that information to others. Feynman’s friend Bernie provides a nice example of words evoking images.

  7. Just quickly, to clear things up. I’m not against visual languages. It’s just that the fixed semantics that make them so useful for design can be restricting when you’re trying to figure out what it actually is that you’re “seeing”. I like (and use) UML – when I get to the point that it adds value, which in turn depends on having an audience who can do something with the information. Same would apply to, for example, Archimate. Or BPMN, if one wants to model a business process.

    Feynman’s diagrams have very simple semantics (as long as you already have some familiarity with the underlying theory) and a very specific goal. So here too, if you know generically what it is you’re trying to represent, a tool with fixed and appropriate semantics can help a lot – with an appropriate audience.

    By the way, Peter, I’m most grateful for those references.

  8. Another angle of inquiry is to ask “what are diagrams or visual models good at?” For example, showing elements and relationships and interactions, whether spatial or cause and effect (how it works). Contrast this with code! Or a business process or interpersonal relationship network.

    Grady Booch’s keynote at Models 2009 ( makes many good points of course, but I want to draw your attention to the sequence on what modeling is/is not/should be and why we model.

    To those points I like to add: When is it useful to create a shared “thought space” by externalizing our and other’s thinking so we can collaborate more effectively on the kinds of problems that diagrams — informal visual models — help us address? When is it useful to be able to quickly and sketchily try out a number of alternatives, “testing” them by running through them with various stakeholders (as relevant)? When is it useful to have something other than code to help us communicate? And when is it useful to be able to abstract from the details of the code, to reflect on the state of things, to learn from what we’ve done, to improve structural integrity and to evolve the system?

    In short, sketches, diagrams, models can help us think more effectively (Peter’s Pentel and Frank Lloyd Wright’s eraser come in handy), but also to collaborate and co-create — and to do so with as cheap a medium as will surface and allow us to gain cognitive traction over key design issues.

  9. “What are diagrams or visual models good at?” is an interesting question. I don’t use visual models because I’m not allowed to invest the time it takes to create them, I draw a lot of diagrams because I have to and I sketch because it is a fast and fun way to create a sense-driven design ambiance. Diagramming and modeling are proofing-driven visualization techniques while sketching is a mindfulness technique.

    Sketching is the only visualization technique that makes you (or the group) empathetic, attentive, receptive and most important: curious!

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  12. There are two different aspects to the creation of a diagram that are worth exploring and understanding.

    On the one hand, there is that essence of a picture is worth a thousand words. It summarises and conveys more simply what we might want to or actually write / say.

    On the other hand, there is the question of whether the thousand words are the same thousand words in the minds of each viewer of the picture.

    So, is a picture aiding convergence or divergence?

    A colleague told me how a mentor early in his career had pointed out how meaningless and confusing a picture can be. It looks like it has integrity but it doesn’t. We all know about the 3D interpretation we place on a 2D representation and how we can form different views and assumptions.

    It reminds me of Len Fehskens pointing out about how our language both denotes and connotes. A concept carries with it many additional elements associated with its use. Using the wrong language can create havoc. Creating a visual image can equally create havoc!

    • Hi Peter,

      If you look at a picture, like this diagram at it can be confusing if I you don’t know anything of the story behind it.
      This example is a subway map which represents what I expect from a subway mapping program. For me it represents a consistent story of more than a thousand words. But I guess it is just a funny diagram for anybody else who looks at it. Luckily it won’t create havoc but perhaps it does some priming :-)

  13. Peter

    I don’t think that picture would be confusing – it might not convey anything to me without a legend, but I suspect that once a legend was provided, I would be able to understand the meaning intended by the creator.

    As it happens, I have seen a similar picture, so I can create a story to attach to the picture and I can test out the consistency with which your symbols seem to have been applied. So, that will give me some hints as to whether it tells a confusing story or not.

    The pictures that create confusing usually are unlabelled, poorly labelled (wiith inconsistent label content), or with inconsistent use of symbols.

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