The Practice & Art of Thinking

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Why is visual-spatial thinking important for individuals, business and society?

Apart form the obvious skill required to operate in our world as mentioned in the previous post, our world is changing and it is changing fast. Some of us might not perceive this, especially if we live in a quiet part of the world and surround ourselves with routine. Others see the evidence of change in more obvious ways. The truth is that change is now becoming the norm and it is exponential.

Individuals, and especially business, must keep pace. Business needs to be ahead of the game – how do they keep in front of the wave and not get caught having to play catch-up with competitors or lose market share?

We need to think differently from how we have been educated. Most education systems are like large ships; they are very difficult to manoeuvre and cannot easily adjust to change. The educational system still educates people assuming that the world is linear with predictable, negligible change. It does not understand the new paradigm we live in. We need new skills to not only understand what is surrounding us, but also to create new products, better services and be in harmony with the environment (physical and social) as it evolves around us.

These examples – illustrating an understanding of change – are  interesting and the power of the dominant paradigm is obvious:


Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind, (translated into 20 languages, entertaining and easy to read), presents a very plausible message, especially in the context of change. He holds that the future belongs to a very different mind than those currently dominating society. The era of left-brain dominance (professions such as lawyers and accountants – basically anyone who loves structured environments, who tend to be dominant, prefer words and language and generally believe that trying new ways of doing things is a waste of time) is numbered.

Left-brained people have thrived because, as Weber (German sociologist) explains, the dominant mode of action has been the ‘rational’ mode in our industrial society. Where the goals in life are achieved through ‘formal rationality’, by applying quantitative procedures (accounting) to make a decision. “To the extent that formal rationality imposes order on the world through a system of measurement and calculation, it adheres to the norms of economic accounting, proficiency and practical efficacy”, as articulated by Morrison (1997). This holds because the dominant paradigm of value has been one where order on reality is strictly numerical – ‘measurement’ becomes the governing function to reach success.

The creative culture of the future (currently referred to as post-industrial society/knowledge society) will at first have to deal with resource scarcity, overpopulation and environmental degradation (problems created by the industrial society). But in parallel, post-industrial society will be exploring the growing need/demand for self-actualization, creativity and self-expression. The emerging society will be proficient at knowledge creation – the visually creative thinkers will thrive and societal values will change. The norm will be malleable responsiveness, agility, contextuality, spontaneity, creativity. Individual initiative replaces the one-size fits all, top down control and the ‘iron cage’ bureaucracy (as described by Weber).

Image by Rui Martins

Image by Rui Martins

The ‘new world’ belongs to the right-brained individuals. Pink is using the two sides of our brain as a metaphor (with some truth to it – see a previous post here) for understanding the reshaping contours of our world. The new world economy will be dominated by qualities such as inventiveness, empathy, meaning-making and the ability of individuals in solving open-ended problems. Service-dominant logic (already a major topic in innovative businesses) will become the dominant paradigm.

Individuals who will excel in the future (some would argue that we have already arrived in this new era) will have to be proficient with complex adaptive systems and the uncertain and uncomfortable world of creativity. These are underpinned by the overarching visualization ability, without which one is confined to incremental sequential and linear thinking (requirements of any industrial bureaucracy of the industrial society).

The table below has been adapted from Lusch and Vargo (conceptual lexicon of marketing). It describes the cognitive shift involved in the transition from a rational mode of thinking paradigm to a creative economy, requiring different skills and attitudes.

Cognitive shift involved in the transition from a rational mode of thinking paradigm to a creative economy, adapted from Lusch and Vargo.

Cognitive shift involved in the transition from a rational mode of thinking paradigm to a creative economy, adapted from Lusch and Vargo.

In the future, professions will have reduced currency. Education will have to be of the liberal arts approach. People will have to be generalists to be able to deal with the multi-dimensional aspects of problems that do not fit into single categories. Professionals (or whatever they might be referred to in the future) will have to think more conceptually. Weber referred to ‘theoretical rationality’ as the ability to impose order on reality by conceptual reasoning. Individuals do this by producing an ‘image of the world’ by means of visualized abstract concepts, something that visual-spatial thinking literacy enables people to do – a must-have to succeed in the future.

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Photographs And What They Say

I find this video fascinating and cannot resist sharing the lessons.

Paul Jenkins uses the International Mission Photography Archive to explore and analyse photographs. I particularly like the way he asks questions and visually answers them. The video is 29 minutes long – enjoy.

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What is visual thinking? Part 2

Following Part 1, in this post I will further explore perception and the link to Gestalt psychology. In Part 3 I will look at visual thinking from a complexity science perspective. It will be awhile before Part 3 is posted as I think some examples and explorations in actual visual thinking will be more useful before more theory is presented.

Gestalt psychology deals primarily with sensory psychology and the perception of form. This school of thought originated in the work of Max Wertheimer (influenced by people like Immanuel Kant, Ernst Mach and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) and was formed in response to the dominant paradigm of structuralism.

In 1924, Wertheimer explained Gestalt theory as: There are wholes, the behaviour of which is not determined by that of their individual elements, but where the part-processes are themselves determined by the intrinsic nature of the whole. It is the hope of Gestalt theory to determine the nature of such wholes.

Traditional science is reductionist. Scientific investigation operates by breaking down the object of study into single parts and defining them. The sum of the parts then corresponds to the object. In comparison, Gestalt theory emphasizes the connections between humans and nature, where the whole consists of the interrelationship of the parts and the whole does not equal the sum of the parts. The principle that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (also a central principle to systems in general) can simply be explained with the image of a car. The picture of a car has a very different meaning to any of the individual parts, such as the door, tyres, paint and so on. By considering the whole, a cognitive process occurs. The mind makes a leap from comprehending the parts to realizing the whole.

For Gestalt theory, perception is structured and ordered. The world is understood as a structured whole and not as a random collection of sensory data. For Arnheim, shape perception operates at a high cognitive level of concept formation and images are only meaningful within a specific context. We attempt to make order out of chaos and create a meaningful form from seemingly disconnected bits of information.

Arnheim also challenged the traditional distinctions between thinking and perceiving and between intellect and intuition. Thought can only be productive if it disregards the boundaries between visual perception and the intellect. He argues that all perceiving is also thinking, all reasoning is also intuition, all observation is also invention. Form creation is an aspect of reasoning in which perceiving and thinking are inseparably intertwined.

The Gestalt principle of figure and ground, developed by both Koffka and Wertheimer, shows our perceptual tendency to separate whole visual images from the background. In simple compositions, there tends to be only one figure. In more complex structures there will be more things to notice. In both cases, as we shift our vision from one to the other. The form can go from figure to ground and then back again. The ground is sometimes referred to as negative space – a concept I will explore in a future post with reference to Renaissance architecture and how it can be applied to the emergence of meaning and the dynamics of creativity.

The famous ambiguous figure devised by the Danish psychologist Edgar Rabin

The famous ambiguous figure devised by the Danish psychologist Edgar Rabin

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Visual Map of Abstract Artists

Watch the video of an exhibition at the MoMA – Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925.

The primary thesis of the show is that abstraction is about relationships.

How does one best depict this?

In text?



Not only is it beautifully done. It shows the dynamics and complexity with great elegance and simplicity – allowing the observer to read the layer he/she wishes to and freely explore connections and create their own meaning from the map (they are free to tell their own story). This would not be possible if the information was presented linearly in text format.