The Practice & Art of Thinking

Simple Techniques to help our Visual Thinking

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This post looks at two techniques to assist our visual thinking: the humble Venn Diagram and the Concept Tree.

Visualization is the fundamental element of reasoning. This is an argument that Aristotle proposed and many more have affirmed, including Grim, who I make reference to in this post.

Before getting to the actual techniques, we need to step back and clarify some basic building blocks.

We use words, sentences, concepts etc. The point is: how do these things relate to each other; what do they mean; and what does it have to do with visualization?

Words are just signs. The physical word is nothing more than a combination of sounds or marks when written. The word becomes of interest when it has an association with ideas. Concepts lie behind the words. The words themselves are meaningless. It is the ideas associated with those words that are of interest.

To illustrate the point of words versus concepts, consider the blue object below ….

blue car

Car (English), Coche (Spanish), Voiture (French), Kotse (Filipino), Auto (Italian). The word changes in the various languages but the concept remains the same in all the languages.

Concepts do not just float around randomly; they have relationships and structure between them. For example, Cactus is a kind of plant. We can see the relational structure between those two concepts (‘cactus’ and ‘plant’).

Words express concepts and concepts apply to things (in general terms).

The importance of visualization in this sense making process is important and actually fundamental to the act of thinking and reasoning. Concepts are the fundamental elements of all thinking; concepts are what we think with (the mental image, idea, the construct).

For example, if we say: place all cars on earth into a freestanding pile – we can imagine this but, physically, it would be impossible to execute. We are able to visualize the concept of piling cars into a huge pile as depicted in the image below. We use visualization of concepts or groups of concepts to assist our thinking.

car pile

The notion of concepts behind words indicates that it is not the words that have meaning but the concepts that we construct (these have an inherent structural relationship). A good technique to visualize this is the humble Venn diagram.

In the statement: ‘all pigs are mammals’ – how do we make sense of this?

By using a Venn diagram, we are able to visualize the relations between concepts in terms of their extensions (the way concepts apply to things).

You can form a conceptual fence in which you place pigs into and gather them in thought. Then, if you place that conceptual set inside another fence (set) that contains all mammals, you are easily able to visualize and make sense of the proposition.

From the visual below, it is easy to see that all pigs are mammals but not all mammals are pigs. In Venn language, one set is a subset of the other. Aristotle referred to this as genus and species as ways of referring to something (for those with time, a in-depth explanation can be found here and here).



As a visual – how easy is that. If you describe this in words only, written or verbal, the meaning could get lost. You can also start to build on the diagram and, very simply and quickly, capture relatively complex relationships and structures that would be taxing on the brain to comprehend if not seen. The beauty of it all is that there might be information (not originally intended) that others might see and construct new meaning from. Emergence happens not by plan or design but because of dynamics made accessible easily (by a simple visual in this case).


The other visual tool is the Concept Tree – this is an expanded visualization – allowing you to see hierarchical organization of categories and subcategories, sets and subsets.

From the example below, we are able to visualize the evolution of language by using the tree diagram. Conceptually, we are able to visualize, make sense and easily trace the link between (for example) Portuguese or English to the original Nostratic language.

The simple branching of the tree from the trunk to the branches, and all the way to the twigs, allows you to take advantage of the relatively simple concept and use it to see very complex clusters, layers, sets and sub-sets. This approach can even be used in disciplines such as statistics where hidden data patterns are easily revealed.

This visualization takes advantage of our perceptual and inference abilities simultaneously. By combining these two abilities, one is using low-level information processing, together with high-level information processing – that is why visualization is so powerful and we should use it fully.


Language Families, their relationship and Origins (I apologize for the quality of the image) Photo credit:

Language Families, their relationship and Origins (I apologize for the quality of the image) Photo credit:

Considering the organizational structure of the tree, the story that puts it together is composed of words, concepts and propositions. The story, or information if you like, is the shaping force driven by concepts. It is a powerful, yet simple, visualization showing the origins as well as evolution of language. By adding the percentages of people who speak the various languages in the world (in the example), it makes the visual more useful.

Two simple techniques that visually can be very powerful.

Author: Rui D S Martins

Creative Director and founder of MindVision Technologies

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