The other day I took part in a naming session conducted by another consultant. He'd assembled a group of twelve: three namers and nine members of the client's management team. He'd briefed us on the assignment, but I wasn't prepared for our first exercise: draw a picture of the client's "solution."
For a couple of seconds, I froze.
A picture? Oh no. I'm not a picture person. I'm a word person. Don't make me do this!
The panicky feeling passed, and I managed to create a semi-intelligible pastiche of arrows and little boxes. No one pointed and guffawed. Whew!
I'm rarely asked to draw a picture; our culture considers drawing to be the special domain of professionals like artists, designers, and architects. On the other hand, my own specialty, writing, is not very special at all. Everyone writes, even nonwriters, even if all we write is an occasional email or a note that says "Back in 5 minutes." But we can survive our entire adult lives without ever drawing so much as a stick figure.
During the naming session, I was, briefly, a fish out of water: a writing person in a drawing world. And now I'm wondering what it feels like to be the opposite: a drawing person in a writing world.
I've found a very good guide through this terra incognita: an essay by Gerald Grow called “The Writing Problems of Visual Thinkers.” (The essay originally appeared in 1994 in Visible Language, a journal published by the Rhode Island School of Design.) Grow, a journalism professor at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, is undeniably a verbal thinker. But he's thought long and sympathetically about the struggles of visual thinkers, and his conclusions made me reconsider some cherished prejudices.
To me, and to other verbal thinkers, it's simply natural to organize a piece of writing by story, focus, sequence, drama, and analysis. When I encounter someone who's deficient in these techniques, I think: "Too much television." Or perhaps: "Bad teaching." Or even, to my shame: "Lazy!"
But, says Grow, none of these "natural" skills is "native" to the visual thinker. "The writing of a visual thinker is like a map of all the possibilities," Grow writes, while "a verbal thinker writes like a guided tour." To a verbal thinker, writing is meal presented as a carefully prepared sequence of dishes. To a visual thinker, it's the whole menu.
Grow says visual thinkers have trouble writing expository prose--the kind of writing required in school, and often in business--because of three fundamental problems:
- Lack of words. "Visual thinkers who have writing problems use words in an imprecise sense for the simple reason that words don't matter," Grow writes. "The real thought is taking place in another dimension." One giveaway that a writer is a visual thinker: the use of thing as an all-purpose noun. Visual thinkers may even be afraid of words, says Grow, because words "interfere with many nonverbal processes." Words force us to analyze, to be precise; visual thinkers are more comfortable in the realm of "unverbalized skills and feelings." And they're comfortable with a simultaneity that's impossible in writing. As an example, Grow points to the image I've reproduced here, which was inspired by a painting by the Peruvian visionary artist Pablo Amaringo. Boat, sun, eye, man, water, and sky are folded together and can be interpreted in many ways. (As a verbal thinker, I yearn to impose a story on the image, but I'm stumped.)
- Difficulty with sequence. As Grow points out, there's a big difference in meaning between "Dog bites man" and "Man bites dog." In English (though not in Latin or Russian), sequence matters. But to a visual thinker, sequence is irrelevant: a picture can show everything at once. That's why, when they write, visual thinkers stumble over transitions. One giveaway here: the habitual use of and as a connector. (Listen to a young child and you'll notice the same pattern: "And then I...and then he...and then we...") When they try to use other connectors, visual thinkers often grasp the first ones that come along: "Albeit my apprehension" instead of "Despite my apprehension." Other giveaways: the overuse of the passive voice and all forms of the verb to be, because to visual thinkers, says Grow, "everything tends to happen at once and at the present time."
- Difficulty with context. Verbal thinkers know that without context, writing lacks clarity. But, says Grow, to visual thinkers "a thing does not gain its reality the way words do, by existing in a network of comparisons, contrasts, and shadings of meaning; it simply appears. It is what it is." Visual thinkers don't introduce topics; they simply launch their word-boats into the void. Grow offers this example of a visual thinker's writing: "What is a Western point of view towards ethics? How about Eastern views? Are there differences, similarities? A good topic to discuss further is how interrelated the two might be." Grow points out the verbs in this passage: is, are, be. Another giveaway: the habitual use of there is or there are to introduce a concept.
Grow suggests a few approaches to overcoming the obstructions of visual thinking. Drama, he says, "may provide a fruitful link between experience and exposition." Mixed-media techniques can be helpful, too. (The rise of the graphic novel in the dozen years since Grow published his essay would seem to be the visual thinker's clever revenge.) Surely visual thinkers would find aesthetic pleasure in the Visual Thesaurus tool. And since Grow compares the writing of visual thinkers to haiku--"jumping from island to island"--maybe haiku and other verse forms can encourage visual thinkers to refine their skill. (For an interesting example of how verse can influence business blogging, see ksblog.)
I even think a return to sentence-diagramming--once a hugely popular part of the elementary-school curriculum, now unjustly dismissed as Neanderthal--might inspire visual thinkers to feel friendlier toward writing. In a new book, Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences (highly recommended!), Kitty Burns Florey describes diagramming as "a bit like art, a bit like mathematics. It was a picture of language. I was hooked."
I feel hopeful that one or more of these approaches could work. I'd love to welcome visual thinkers to my world--a world in which creating beautiful pictures with words is every bit as satisfying as creating them with pencils, paint, or clay.