Tag Archives: visualization

Shapes & Sizes of Creativity

It’s summer time, a favoured time of those of us in education because we generally have time to pursue whatever is on our minds. My husband has many interests, among them SketchUp, architecture, and sustainability, specifically, green architecture. Over the years he has used the first of these to create the second of these in digital format; then he’s used tools such as pipe cleaners, straws, wood, paper and poster board to craft tangible versions. Now he has gone a step further and created a prototype of an idea that he’s been mulling over for awhile.

I’ve been working on a prototype curved space frame using 1x6s, 2″ PVC pipe, and dry wall screws. The prototype frame is finished and came out quite well given all the things I had to figure out while constructing it.




Start with a couple of summer days, enough time to tinker, an idea that’s been percolating, and tools for the task. Mix them together, and the result is creativity come to life. :-) Being able to exercise one’s creativity is crucial to cognitive well being. And using one’s hands to create, playing in the proverbial “mud”, is a wonderful way to involve multiple senses. Indeed, in early September our two sons (age 18 and 25) are going to play in the mud at this Cob Cottage Workshop.

Visual Aphorisms

An aphorism is a handy means of expressing an idea succinctly and cleverly. And aphorisms are WORDS. But words are not the only means of expressing ideas!

The Eide Neurolearning Blog, which is devoted to “neurologically-based approaches to learning and learning differences”, has a poll on “How Do You Solve Problems” that offers a number of choices, only one of which involves using words. 

Indeed, it is not always possible to come up with the words you want when trying to describe something. Although, if stumped, here is an interesting online application, Tip of My Tongue, that tries to help you “find that word that you’ve been thinking about all day but just can’t seem to remember.”

In Thinking in Images: Nine Tips for Communicating Visually, Stanley Leary quotes Aristotle:

There can be no words without images

and shares a suggestion I have heard elsewhere – that of using charades to coax thinking visually about ideas.

My husband naturally thinks visually. Here are some of his visual aphorisms, created with SketchUp. You can see the more of these visual aphorisms at Design With SketchUp. (Note, the images will soon be catalogued under 9 & 10 ‘08.)

Pearls of Wisdom


Esoteric Idea


Thinking along the same lines


Thinking outside the box



vizthink: Dave Gray


If you were creating your own alphabet comprised just of symbols, how many symbols would you utilize and what would they be? The “visual alphabet” you are designing will have its utility in being used “to represent an idea”. That is the task Dave Gray gave himself when he set out to design a visual alphabet.

Gray’s alphabet consists of twelve symbols. The first six he calls “Flows” and likens them to vowels:

  • point
  • line
  • arc
  • angle
  • spiral
  • loop

The second six are “Forms”:

  • circle or oval
  • football
  • triangle
  • square or rectangle
  • 5-sided
  • cloud

With these twelve symbols you can draw a representation of anything, according to Gray. During Dave’s vizthink session he demonstrated his point by quickly creating a number of drawings. That’s where I learned the term “sweatles” – motion lines that show energy, like little beads of sweat coming off someone’s brow or the motion lines behind a vehicle. To further his ideas, Gray has a self-published book that appears to be continually in the works, Marks and Meanings, version zero, which you can purchase on Lulu.com

I’ve written a bit about Dave Gray and much of my previous writing covers, more or less, the content of Gray’s portion of the Global Online Visual Thinking Workshop webinar.

Gray’s visual alphabet, along with my husband’s many SketchUp models, has gotten me thinking about the ways in which people process information and think about what they hear and see, in particular within the world of education. My next post on this topic will be more visual than textual.

Organizations/Programs dedicated to visual thinking in schools:

vizthink: Karl Gude (+ some)

Karl Gude “is the former Director of Information Graphics at Newsweek, now a professor at Michigan State University’s School of Journalism.” He was also the third presenter at the Global Online Visual Thinking Workshop webinar, in which I participated last month. In addition to Gude’s presentation, my post concludes with two additional “views” on presenting graphical data.

During his hour, Gude illustrated how to use graphs, charts and maps to present information, and shared innumerable examples, often depicting various stages of a particular graphic as each iteration improved upon the original. Gude’s message is that “the point of charts is to clearly illustrate data and not to be creative works of art!”  and the point of design is to make “order out of chaos”, and to help accomplish that task you might want to consider using GRIDS as your foundation. Grids “are your friends” in that they provide a framework from which you can create just about any type of layout. To the right is a screen shot of a 6-column grid, which was part of a 2-page grid spread Gude used to illustrate his point. He went on to show several examples of layouts made with this grid.

To help keep your design consistent, Gude talked about the usefulness of having a style sheet, style samples, and avoiding Word Art at all costs, going as far to suggest that it be flushed down the drain.

Why bother with the quality of graphs, charts, maps or, for that matter, any other form of visual representation, be it graphic or text or some combination. Quite simply, to paraphrase Gude, if your data presentation looks sophisticated and can be easily understood, it leads to credibility and greater understanding. For more on information design Gude points to Nigel Holmes on the VizThink site.

In August of this year the New York Times printed the article Lines and Bubbles and Bars, Oh My! New Ways to Sift Data. The focus of the article is Many Eyes, a social sharing site for visualizing data. Many Eyes is an interactive site that lets people experiment with some 16 different ways to visualize both their own data and data supplied by others, and get feedback on the visualizations they create. For more about this process check out Richard Hoeg’s Many Eyes tutorial and his related blog post with additional links.

If you haven’t already watched Hans Rosling “debunking third-world myths with the best stats you’ve ever seen”, take a look at his February 2006 TED Talk. His company, Gapminder, unveils “the beauty of statistics for a fact based world view” using the Trendalyzer software developed by the company and acquired by Google in 2006.

Prelude to vizthink

On September 16, 2008, I stayed home from school to participate in a webinar entitled Global Online Visual Thinking Workshop, presented by vizthink.

A Visual Thinking workshop is all about the visual, including seeing who the presenters are, so I hope the folks at vizthink will not mind my copying and pasting of the above graphic. The workshop was WONDERFUL, but before describing the sessions, I want you to have a sense of what my digital day was like. 

I teach middle and upper school Flash animation electives, and due to the timing of the vizthink sessions, it was possible to teach my classes from home. Thanks to iChat and screen sharing between my Mac at home and Mac in the computer lab, we had two “teacher in the box” classes.

Dave Gray’s session, which conveniently had technical difficulties (not a problem as I was able to view his presentation after the fact), allowing me to spend time with my Mom, who was here to see our older son who was home for a few days (after living in Japan for four years) before he headed off for school in Olympia, Washington

upper school Flash class – answered questions about their current animations and showed them how to post their swf files to our class wiki; we ended 10 minutes early


David Sibbet’s session

grabbed a quick lunch and ate at my computer while checking emails

middle school Flash class – explained how to scrub the playhead through frames, answered questions about their first animations, and reminded them to have someone post the Daily Scribe to our class wiki

Karl Gude’s session

whew, took a break from the digital!

Nancy Duarte’s session

I found the day rather exhilarating for its uniqueness, as compared to a typical school day, yet also rather tiring for all the time I spent sitting in my chair. All of the digital experiences were fully engaging, but by the end of the day I was more than ready for a break from my computer.

An idea floated by my husband (who is the Director of IT where I teach) is to have our school’s professional development day be a simulation of how we might carry on school if there were a flu epidemic requiring everyone to stay home. He thought this would not only be useful for seeing that school could, indeed, take place without everyone being in the same physical space, but would also be a way to introduce folks to a wide range of collaborative digital applications.

Faculty and students already use a number of such applications. However, a simulation would both allow exploration of a number of programs not currently part of most teachers’ toolboxes, and provide an opportunity for ideas to emerge regarding distance learning, and use of digital tools in the process of schooling.

My Visual Thinking

As a kid, the walls and door of my room resembled giant bulletin boards that I crafted in a patch work of collages. The door looked like it had been decoupaged. You can get a sense of what my room looked like from this picture of my office wall.

I loved to doodle and make home made birthday cards for relatives. People used to, and still do, complement my hand writing, and I did the calligraphy for our wedding invitations.

Listening to lectures and talks, unless the speaker is dynamic or I take notes, has always been difficult. Same goes for listening to lengthy podcasts.

In my early twenties I took classes at the School of Visual Arts in NYC, and my first two jobs provided opportunity to focus on layout and design. It quickly became apparent to me, however, that my strengths were elsewhere, as I was more people-oriented than design-oriented.

Teaching combines my interests in people and visual design, coupling daily personal interaction with the presentation and design enabled by teaching and computers.

I marvel at the sketchbooks my husband fills with doodles, tinkerings, thoughts and words. His SketchUp designs are both digital doodles and fully formed creations.

Every time I’ve participated in a drawing workshop – Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain or the CAIS sessions on visual thinking led by Dave Gray – my brain has been (re)ignited. Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen blog and book by the same name and Nancy Duarte’s blog slide:ology and book are among my favorite resources.

And all of the above is why I took the plunge and participated in yesterday’s Global Online Visual Thinking workshop. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but you can be sure the experience will find its way into my blog!

Words, Wordle, Visual Word Maps

For those of you who have read some of my previous posts, you may recall I’ve mentioned the program Wordle, which is a free online app that lets you create a word map from a selection of text. And if you’ve read my most recent posts, you know a current topic of interest is visual thinking.

Well, now that both the Democrat and Republican presidential conventions are over, and with just about 8 weeks to go till the next U.S. president is elected, with the aid of a visual word map, here is a look at how the content of the conventions stack up. (p.s. Thanks to Andrew G for sending the link to this article.)

The graphic comes from, and you can read a few sentences of accompanying text, as well as see it full size, at: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2008/09/04/us/politics/20080905_WORDS_GRAPHIC.html

CAIS: Dave Gray on Visual Thinking in Practice

My last workshop of the CAIS conference was Dave Gray’s session on Visual Thinking in Practice. He charged us with an exercise designed to assist with empathetically contemplating our students, particularly those who have issues with school.

We were each asked to think of a student whose name might come up in a conversation with other teachers when discussing students with issues. Next came the visualization of that student.

  1. Draw a large oval on the page. This oval represents the student’s head. At the top of the page write the student’s name, and under that write the question that might spring from the student when s/he is talking to you about their issue. In my case the question was: Why should I spend my personal, after-school time on school related issues?
  2. Next add to the head, in the upper right quadrant, an eye peering to the right. In the lower right quadrant add a mouth talking to the right. Between the two quadrants, on the outline of the head, draw a nose pointing to the right.
  3. On the left side, on the outline of the head, draw an ear. Add some hair to the top of the head, and draw a dotted line down the middle of the head, labeling the top left Pain and the top right Gain.

The drawing represents an empathy map. Once the picture is drawn, the next steps are to fill in the portions of the map the way you think the student would fill them in. What would the student be seeing, saying, hearing, doing (the bottom portion of the head) and feeling (the top portion of the head)?

Dave suggested that in addition to having teachers draw such maps, have the students in question draw one for themselves.  While this may be a time consuming practice if done for every child whose name comes up in conversation, even doing one such map periodically would help teachers remember that there are always reasons for why students perform and behave the way they do.

Another helpful exercise is one Gray calls Node Generation, which has two objectives, both leading to “as the person would think or say it in his/her own words”. The idea is to generate questions using silent sticky note capture.

  1. A question or fill-in-the-blank statement is posed.
  2. Everyone quietly writes one reply on a sticky note, filling out as many sticky notes as possible in the time allocated.
  3. Attach each sticky note to a large board or wall.

This process gives everyone a voice. Ideally, everyone is so busy generating their own sticky notes that they do not veto others or self-censor themselves.

The next exercise is called a Bottom-Up Tree. This is where all those stickys on the board are prioritized and organized. At this point you can appreciate why sticky notes are used; they are very easy to move around. As the organization process starts to jell, think about possible “headlines” for each group of notes. Eventually, you wind up with a sense-making system.

Other than art teachers, I have never heard of teachers using visual thinking techniques when thinking about their craft. I am reminded of Ken Robinson and others, who have commented on how schools teach creativity and drawing right out of kids. Those kids grow up and some of them become teachers. How many of us were those kids?

Here are some additional resources on visual thinking.

VizThink, Jan 2008 – video interviews with Lee & Sachi LeFever-Common Craft videos and Scott McCloud-comic book author

Visual thinking school on squidoo

Dave Gray’s post – Visual thinking practice: Draw a stick figure

Online Encyclopedia of Western Signs and Ideograms

Visual Thinking Strategies

Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch – working memory model referenced by Dave Gray during this session

CAIS: Dave Gray on Visual Thinking, an Introduction

At the August CAIS conference Dave Gray began his keynote, an Introduction to Visual Thinking, with a wonderful opening graphic depicting DaVinci, Galileo, Newton, Edison, Ford, Einstein, Picasso, Feynman and Hawking. Coupled with these thinkers were an equal number of drawings. Our task as the audience was to figure out who drew which drawings.

While I was still marveling over the opening theme, Visual Thinking Leads to Discovery, we switched gears to create a drawing of our own. You can try it now. Grab a piece of paper and something with which to draw. Your task is to draw how to make toast. The objectives of this exercise are two fold.

1. You will visually “express your mental model
2. You will discover that “you can draw

Dave explained that nodes are the concepts or ideas. In the case of my diagram the nodes are the bread, toaster, and the toasted piece of bread with a knife and butter. The links are the connections between the nodes, in this case the arrows linking the nodes. According to Dave, “when folks diagram there are usually 10 to 12 nodes maximum, regardless of the complexity of the concept”.

Compare your drawing to mine.

I am willing to bet they are different. In our audience of 160 or so, we each had different visuals, and we each were correct in what we drew. We had variety and accuracy. Otto Neurath, designer of isotypes, said

Words separate, pictures unite.

Isotype, which stands for International System Of TYpographic Picture Education, is a means to visually describe information in a format that is simple to understand. Initially, the information being described was quantitative, of the type that we might typically place in a spreadsheet table and then graph.

What this all boils down to is that we can and should try to use our own power of creating visuals to express ideas. Indeed, we may find that expressing ourselves visually may lead to more creative solutions.

For more on visual communication check out:

Dave Gray’s blog: Communication Nation
Interview with Dave Gray, CEO of XPLANE

Dan Roam’s blog: The Back of the Napkin
Dam Roam’s Authors@Google talk

Karl Gude’s blog: Visual Editors
Interview with Karl Gude

TED 2008 BigViz Book by Kevin Richards and David Sibbet

And if you’d like to explore some more of this and feel a seminar might be helpful, next week on September 16, 2008, there will be a Global Online Visual Thinking Workshop sponsored by VizThink.

CAIS Images

Tomorrow you’ll be able to read about today’s second and final day of the CAIS conference. Last night I had a light and healthy dinner with a glass of pinot noir, followed by a not-as-thick-as-I’d-like hot cocoa and a scrumptious chocolate mascarpone cheesecake.

Be it the wine, caffeine, sugar, or something else, I didn’t manage to fall asleep till way after midnight (perhaps I should have practiced a thing or two from LeAnn Nickelson’s session on nutrition!) and was up at 6:15 in the morning (David Eagleman would grimace at my lack of quality sleep!)

After a full day in Connecticut and an almost two hour drive home, I have actually run out of steam and am falling back on this (hopefully) clever post. Clever, because both the last keynote and one of the last concurrent sessions (the one I attended) were presented by Dave Gray, founder and chairman of XPLANE, the visual thinking company.

I leave you with visuals of Avon Old Farms School, Avon Old Farms Hotel, and a page from my notes during Dave Gray’s keynote. Consider it some visual thinking, of sorts, to tide us over till tomorrow.

correction to my notes: The name of the Isotype designer is Otto Neurath.