Experiences in Visual Thinking Revisited

Kim S van den Berg
4 min readOct 27, 2016

How can we use visual thinking to get into a healthy mindset and be creative when we want to solve a problem? To make the concept of visual thinking tangible and explore how we can develop it I dove into the book ‘Experiences in visual thinking’ by Robert H. McKim (Stanford University, 2nd edition published in 1980). A pleasant and intelligently written book, with many practical exercises. Here I sketch the points that struck me in a visual summary of the book. Elaborated with recent insights and my own notions.

Here you can read an article on how to implement McKim’s insights.

The key point is that visual thinking consists of three elements: Seeing, Imagining and Drawing — which reinforce each other and each have their own line of training and development. The basis for effective visual thinking boils down to a focused state of attention.

I like how the book centers around thinking and not only focuses on drawing. Since thinking determines a big part of our being I want to explore ways to make it more productive and creative.

Because our visual processing power is enormous, I am especially interested in how we can put this capacity to boost our thinking.

McKim analyses the elements of thinking. The first distinction he makes is conscious and subconscious thinking (of which we now know that part determines 95% of our actions). To solve problems we (often automatically) perform a range of thinking operations (e.g. analyzing, abstracting). The results of these operations reveal themselves in respresentations or so-called vehicles for thought. This can be a feeling, a bodily gesture, a mathematical notation or a sensory image — however your thinking is respresented to your consciousness.

Visual thinking techniques help to broaden your range of thinking operations. They offer a vehicle that allows holistic, spatial, metaphorical and transformational operations.

You can develop your visual thinking power by exercising in each of its three composing elements. Let’s begin with seeing — a logical start for visual thinking. By finding a visual form for your problem you can look at it from different perspectives. This is how many big discoveries where made (e.g. the dna string). To discover new things you need to develop the way you look. Can you recognize where it is ‘stereotyped’ and where it is focused on what is in front of you?

By improving the accuracy with which you look at things, you train your mind’s eye. McKim describes how your imagination determines the frame through which you look at things. What you see and what you do not see.

Sketching your ideas facilitates your visual thinking processes. To make this process fluent, you need some skill in drawing, so you can respond faster and with ease.

You can consciously choose visual thinking strategies to unlock your creativity and boost your problem solving capacity. Exploring questions in a visual way sets a productive frame for your unconscious to do its job and increases the change of the ‘Eureka!’ experience.

Do you want to get a jump-start in visual thinking? You can download a free crash course here.

And here you can read about how to implement McKim’s insights.



Kim S van den Berg

I write and teach about visual thinking to facilitate learning and change www.visualsinprogress.com