Thinking Visually

Artsy close-up of my eye

I’ve blogged previously about slides that use (video here and three years ago here) – these are fundamentally, when used correctly, a visual tool; I thought it made sense to talk more generally about thinking visually.

Most of us have been trained in how to communicate using words and numbers but a visual sense is something that many have not picked up.  And, thinking visually is especially important when you are designing products – two dimensional or three dimensional – for folks to interact with.  Just look at software that is more than 15 years old and realize how it makes your eyes hurt.  We’ve come a long way.  And, as an early stage company, your product’s “look and feel” is part of your message, your brand and even your value proposition.

The good news is that, even if you are an engineering grad with a clothing ensemble that is mostly mismatching tshirts and jeans, you can teach yourself to think visually.   The following are six things to begin to understand, to work on.  Mostly, thinking visually is mostly about being mindful:  this is the difference between the way a regular movie goer views a film and how a director might.  The latter thinks about and understands the structure, purpose, methods used to make the film and the references embedded in a film she is viewing.


Color is rarely what it seems and selecting colors for a slide deck, UI or product can be a challenge.  Start by looking carefully at the colors in natural settings – your garden, the beach or the mountains.   Ask yourself – challenge yourself really – what colors sit side by side and note how different they are from what you might think.  Skies are often not blue, earth isn’t dark brown and flowers can have an intense combination of colors that you wouldn’t think should go together.

Color selection tools like ColorBlender or ColorCombos are helpful  when selecting colors for a slide deck or collateral but it helps to have a trained eye when using them.


Developing a solid compositional sense, particularly in two dimensions, will help you work on UIs slides, websites and collateral – it is essential to make these visually appealing.  You can begin to think this way by thinking analytically about things you think look good.  How is it laid out?  Where is the central axis?  Are portions of it symmetrical?  Squint your eyes as you look at that collateral you are designing so that you can see the forms on the page and understand how they are laid out.  Move blocks around, simplify.  Test.


Very important if you are a working with products, less if your focus is software, understanding three dimensional forms should be an important piece of your visual sensibility.  As you look item items you use every day (Your shaver, coffee maker, stove, car) ask yourself “What does this look like?” “What are the components of its shape?”  and “How does changing illumination affect how I see this object?”  Note how some everyday objects have been carefully designed, others not so much.

Visual Metaphor

This is my favorite part of communication: how we use visual metaphors to communicate ideas and, more important, use ones that are nuanced, have power and, above all, are not clichéd.  What images communicate the idea you are thinking of.

Stock photos do this badly – a couple of white guys shaking hands to indicate a business deal, an arrow and a growing bar chart to show growth.  You should be able it images that are both more powerful and subtle than this to get your point across, whether in a slide deck on your web site.


Typography is one of those wonderful crafts that sits right under our noses and that, most of the time, we are completely oblivious to.  Our tendency – not a bad one – is to use simple, more “modern” types like Arial or Helvetica.  These have geometrically designed letters and lack serifs (the end “tail” on letters used in fonts like Roman or Cambria.  Again, the challenge here is to become mindful of type that is being used and how it looks on the collateral, document, website or slide that you are preparing.  Does how it “feels” align with what you are trying to communicate?

Microsoft, in its ability to commit the most heinous visual crimes against humanity, provides dozens of fonts in its productivity suite, some of which are butt ugly and most of which are useless.  Stick with the simpler ones.

When you have some time, watch the film “Helvetica”, which tells the story of the design of this type style and its effect on the modern sensibility.  We take this type style and its children for granted – they are a ubiquitous part of our post modern world.


Any designed item  – your cell phone, website, shaver, iPad or automobile – has design antecedents.  Before Apple there was Braun, before Braun, the Bauhaus, before the Bauhaus, the functionalist movement and so on.  And, style has become much more heterogenous:  you have office mates who dress like hipsters, others with a slight retro-hippie touch, still others looking like one of the cast in Mad Men.  This should give you both comfort and pause.  Comfort because you cannot create anything truly original and so shouldn’t get to fussed about this, pause because whatever you design, will likely be shadowing someone else’s creation.


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