Visualizing Images

Or: An introduction into the visual language

Visualizing Images

This is the third post in a series on the basics of utilizing visualization, with focus on working with pen and paper. If you haven’t yet, I recommend starting with the first blog post.

Whenever I use a flipchart, it is always the images which excite some people about the visualization. Almost never do people realize the time and effort put into the other elements that together create a whole. Being able to draw imagery excites people the most. It provides the greatest return of investment for the time spent learning it. And it is not difficult at all.

How images work

Before I let you in on how to draw effective imagery, I want to give you a short overview on what kind of effect an image has on a person “reading” it.

There are great effects that images have on a viewer, which add to understanding your message in many ways. Not to mention the aesthetic pleasure of looking at an image!

If I had to summarize the effect of images (a bit unfairly) in just one word, I would choose the word emotion. No matter how simple your image is, it can illicit an emotional response that words simply cannot create that easily.

You don’t have to be a talented artist to make an image impactful: A small number of simple strokes can deliver a lot of emotions.

To be a bit more nuanced, these are some key differences between images and traditional text:

  • Images are processed as a whole first. Whereas text is processed in a linear way (word by word, sentence by sentence), the human brain can take an image in as a whole.
  • Images are processed faster than text.
  • Images have a much more subjective effect on a reader. People have agreed upon the meaning of the words they use quite well. Compared to most images (except for signs, e.g. in traffic) we do not have this level of agreement, making words more objective than images.

What I will show you, what I will NOT show you

There are a million different ways to create an image. Decades and centuries of art and artists have engendered a myriad of different approaches: From hyper-realistic paintings to minimalistic strokes.

If you are expecting to learn how to paint wonderfully realistic and artistic images, you will be disappointed. As I already mentioned several times in my introduction to visualization: Visualization is design, not art.

If we look at drawing images from the perspective of a designer, we can define several requirements for drawing images:

  • Drawing has to be fast. You do not want to invest more time per visual than you have to. Each image is just one part of a larger whole; so spending days, weeks or months on one image is absurd.
  • Drawing has to be systematic. A working system enables you to adapt quickly to new challenges, for example visualizing new, complex concepts.

How to draw simple and effective imagery

When it comes to writing text, we have already learned the basics in school. So when writing my blog post on visualizing text, I could safely assume some basic knowledge on text. We unfortunately don’t learn to visualize images in school. Therefore, I won’t start with the basic how to, but instead I want to explain to you how images and text are related. Based on that, you will have a much easier time developing skills in visualizing images. So let’s get started!

Images are just words and letters!

Have you ever written down the word “catoptromancy? Do you think you can write the word down? I think you can, and you should as well.

And there is a simple reason for that:

Even if you don’t know a word (or haven’t written it down yet), it is still made out of the same letters you always use.
If each image consists of simple letters as well, visual words” can be written just as simply as normal text.

Simple imagery works the same way as text:

  • It consists of letters: Simple geometric forms that make up every single word.
  • Letters make up words: Adjecent letters create a meaning.
  • Words can be arranged in sentences: Words can be combined to sentences to create a larger meaning than a single word could do.

Learning the Visual Language

To give you a more visual summary for this very visual topic, enjoy this flipchart-styled summary to put everything into context:

With these insights, we can dissect visualizing images into the three skills you need to learn in order to visualize great images:

  • Visual Typography in order to draw the basic forms (or letters) which your images will consist of.
  • Visual Vocabulary in order to know (or, once you have some experience, create) the fitting visual word for what you want to express.
  • Visual Grammar in order to express more complex things that a single visual word simply cannot say properly.

Visual Typography: Practicing visual letters

If you want to write text, you need to be able to draw every letter of the alphabet. If you can do every letter from A to Z and a to z, there’s no limit to the words you can produce. The same is true for imagery.

Martin Hausmann’s UZMO example from my introduction to visualization just contains “visual letters” that are also used in text. If you want to draw images, you can of course use a variety of “visual letters” that don’t exist in the English alphabet:

Practice makes perfect. No matter whether you choose to learn the letters by practicing them one by one or within images: The more practice you get drawing the simple, repetitive letters that make up every word, the better your images will look.

Visual “Spelling”: Order is key!

In any language, spelling is essential to write a word. In text, that almost always means ordering letters from left to right: Writing the word “cat” means first writing a C, then an A, then a T.

In the visual language, spelling does not only happen from left to right. In visual spelling, the order of putting the letters depends on how easy it is to draw.

In most cases, there’s several working ways to spell a visual word. The best way to visually spell an image is by starting with the most defining parts first:

In this piece, the rectangle is the best way to start. From there, everything else can be easily “added” to the base form.

Visual Vocabulary: Getting to know some essential words

Once you feel generally comfortable drawing visual letters (which might not take long, considering that we all have drawn a circle and such once or twice in our lives), it is time to move to the more exciting part: Drawing visual words!

If you have read my first post on visualization, you might already have drawn some words (like an UZMO light bulb or some comic faces). Now that you know how the visual language works, it is time to develop a larger vocabulary. Let me give you some inspiration:

I like to use this flipchart in my visualization workshops to introduce the first visual words to participants.

Like in any other language: Before you know a decent amount of words, using the language will be very inefficient. The best way to develop a basic vocabulary is: practice, practice, practice. The more you use the visual language, the easier it will be to remember words you used and – even better – the easier it will be to develop your own visual words.

This might be tough in the beginning. This is why I’d like to show you some sources for nice visual words to get you started:

  • Google image search: Type what you want to visualize into Google. The image search has a special type filter for Clip Art. What you will find can be a great inspiration for your images.
  • Icon search: Icons have become a key staple for applications. Therefore, a large collection for icons can be found easily on the internet. Using icon search engines like Iconfinder can be a great way of getting easy-to-draw, simplified images for you to copy.
  • Visual vocabulary books: The easiest way to find the right visual word is probably using a book, that offers a direct translation of “English to Visual”. Books like this exist. I am very happily using the BiKaBlo developed by the German faciliation consultancy Kommunikationslotsen.
  • Getting inspired by other people’s work: There’s no shame in looking at other people’s work. To be honest, I have not met a single sketchnote artist or visual facilitator that has not copied colleagues at some points in their career. Especially under the term “sketchnoting”, you can find an endless amount of brilliant work made by others. A quick online search should yield enlightening results, for example sketchnote collections like this one.

And now go practice!

And with this, a longer post on all the basics of the visual language comes to an end. Before going deeper by learning about visual grammar, I highly suggest getting familiar with spelling words and building a basic vocabulary first.

And once again on that note: by just reading about this, you will not learn much. If you want to learn to communicate in this visual language, start practicing letters and words. It’s not just incredibly fun, you will also quickly learn how to WOW other people with the way in which you can brush up your own notes.

Have fun using the visual language!

Author: Michael

Creative Idealist, Whole-Minded Designer, Passionate Educator, Loving Artist

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