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Graphical sense making; the forgotten part of remembering

Graphical sense making

An important (and often missing) part of understanding and solving complex challenges together

I think we all agree with the over-used line “We live in a time of ever-increasing complexity and accelerating pace of change.”

What if there was a way to grapple with these emerging and often confusing challenges. A way that improves our memory retention without excluding anyone and is actually…dare I say it… fun!? Well, there is! It’s called graphical sense making. Let’s explore just what that means, how you can start to adopt it in your day-to-day life and how we can increase the size of that butterfly net in the above graphic.

Compared to the amount of time that we humans have been bumbling around the earth, it is only in the last blink of an eye that all of the world’s information has become readily accessible to everyone, in one place. Introducing, a little thing called… the internet.

However, it is precisely this new and rapidly expanding bounty of information available to us, that makes finding, understanding and retaining what is actually meaningful and useful harder than ever before.

As the pace of change accelerates, we too must adapt and improve our ability to grapple with complex ideas and challenges in a way that includes everyone and can be understood by all.

Thankfully, there is a lot of room for improvement in the way that we convey and comprehend ideas! A strong starting point is taking a closer look at the way in which our brains actually prefer to work.

The clue in our Physiology - Working with what we’ve got

OK bear with me for a second… Given the choice of a speed boat or a horse to get to an island in the middle of a lake. It’s unlikely, or at least unwise to jump on the horse. I mean sure, the horse is capable of it, and will dutifully swim across, splurting and puffing whilst you sit, semi-submerged upon it’s back… But it’s simply not what they’re optimised for.

It’s an obvious (and ridiculous, but we’ll return to it later) example, but it turns out that we continuously ignore our most optimised internal system in a way that seems almost as silly.

It is now widely understood that humans are highly tuned for visual interaction with the world. This probably comes as no surprise to you, however it’s worth taking a moment to understand just how stark the visual advantage is, when compared to some of our secondary sensory systems.

Check out just how brilliant and impressive your visual hardware is at scanning, digesting and retaining information:


  • The brain can see images that last for just 13 milliseconds.

  • Our eyes can register 36,000 visual messages per hour.


  • 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual.

  • Visuals are processed 60,000X faster in the brain than text

  • Visuals have been found to improve learning by up to 400 percent.


People can remember the content of 2500 pictures with over 90 percent accuracy 72 hours after looking at them for only 10 seconds. A year later participants can have 63 percent recall of those same images. With traditional lecture format delivery, students only remember 10 percent of the material 72 hours later. – (Crockett)

Send the above paragraph into your long-term memory by looking at it this way:

So why do we remember images for so much longer than what we hear?

Well, part of the reason is that information comes into your brain via different pathways and gets parked in different locations. In other words, the information that you hear doesn’t get stored in the same place or way as the information you see.

Furthermore, it just so happens that the “carpark” where your visuals go is the same space as your emotions, the medial temporal lobe of the brain. ...perhaps one of the reasons why images link to long term memory more strongly than oral instructions.

University of Illinois Extension, found that: Although only 10 percent of secondary students are auditory learners, 80 percent of instruction is delivered orally. In fact, it turns out we usually start forgetting oral instructions about 8 seconds after hearing them!

So why do we persist with a system that is not optimised for us? Why do we keep jumping on sodden horses to get across the lakes?

Wait. Are there any visuals that my brain doesn’t want? …Yes!

If you’re reading this and thinking, ‘Got it’, I’ll just whack a couple clip art images on this and I’ve ticked the “Visual learning” criteria. I’m afraid it’s not quite so simple. In fact, it turns out that there are certain visual markers that can actually inhibit peoples’ ability to engage with material, serving as a red flag to the participant that “something boring awaits!”

Here are a couple visual no no’s:

- The same old tired stock images or clipart in your presentation

- Generic graphics and shapes – the dreaded powerpoint flow chart

- Poor quality, compressed, stretched or pixelated images

- Inclusion of images that are off topic or inappropriate to the content

It seems that although our brains are hungry for a hot plate of visual information… they are also rather discerning, and have quickly learnt how sniff out, and refuse yet another bland meal from a mile away…

So let’s talk discuss some cooking tips that are sure to get your brains attention

Metaphors and Themes – Keys to unlocking memories

Metaphors allow us to grasp complex concepts by relating them to something we already understand. Let’s take the current example… You would be familiar with the terms “Digesting information” or “food for thought” for example…

In fact, some time, Hintzman, a cognitive psychologist, used the metaphor of a cows stomach having 2 chambers, one for short term memory and one for long term memory to help explain what could otherwise be a rather nebulous concept.

Seeing a visual metaphor can also serve as a key to unlock a broader, more detailed memory. To return briefly back to our poor old soggy horse from earlier… It’s admittedly not the strongest metaphor and frankly a rather ridiculous concept, BUT it is a rather amusing scene and just may serve as the “memory key” that helps unlock the broader concept of the evolutionary advantages of harnessing our inherent optimised systems for learning and understanding in the future! All that from an old soggy horse!

Simplification – Focussing in on what’s important or useful

The visual medium also has a knack of condensing vast amounts of information in one place. The below “scribe” holds all the key concepts of this entire article in one place. It may not have all the details of an 1800-word article BUT it can be scanned in seconds and serves as an excellent way of unlocking the most important concepts from our memories.

Portrayal of concepts in a visual format also naturally lends itself to Categorisation, Logical sequencing and Hierarchy of information all at once. Check each one of these above.

Visuals are also brilliant at conveying the abstract and complex at a glance. Take the below image as an example:

Written description

Picture a non-symmetrical shape with seven faces. It has a blue border about seven pixels thick around the outside and one that cuts through the centre of an angle. There is a concentration of varying green dots in the right-hand side towards the top...etc

You get the point!

A picture of inclusion

I’ll go for a bold statement – “not everyone is interested in sifting through 15,000 word dissertations on Google Scholar.” OK, maybe not that bold… But the point is, there are large portions of our respective communities that experience low levels of literacy or layers of trauma that prevent them from engaging with material in the format that it is most widely available.

Graphical sense making can be used as a beautiful level setting of the “learning field”, enabling access and engagement with information in a way that all pockets of our society can grapple with equally.

Attacking the Idea, not the person

Another advantage of creating a visual representation of a concept is a natural defence against the ad hominem attack. In other words, by creating a model of the idea to stress test, we are then attacking and improving the model, rather than directing those same messages directly at a person that has put forward the initial suggestion.

This can also be extremely helpful in developing group ownership of a concept in a collaborative environment rather than it being protected by one person as ‘their baby’. If we pull the idea away from the individual and attack a representation of it together, we increase buy in and ultimately end up with an improved outcome.

Sometimes you can make it personal

Perhaps somewhat conversely, using personalisation and familiarity in the right ways in graphical sense making can be one of the best ways to engage people with ideas and improve retention of information. Understandably, people are much more likely to respond to a graphic that incorporates elements that uniquely mean something to them.

Including images that are of familiar objects, known people and local places increases engagement, and when done with care, can be an empowering way to build pride and add a bit of fun to otherwise dry topics.

It’s OK to have a little fun!

If you’ve ever tried drawing a concept in front of others, with characters and icons, you may have found that your own hilariously tragic version of a drawn soggy horse sparks a round of giggles and lightens up what might have otherwise been rather dull. This is a good thing! Research shows that introducing play and fun into group work or learning environments increases social cohesion, creativity and imagination whilst minimising narcissistic traits.

So, which of the above tips and tricks is best to take advantage of going forward?

The ultimate – A delicious combination

To go back to our food-based analogies from earlier; it is when combining and balancing these ingredients that we create the perfect recipe for learning, understanding and working together in an increasingly complex world.

Stanford University's Robert E. Horn, explained this relationship clearly "When words and visual elements are closely entwined, we create something new and we augment our communal intelligence ... visual language has the potential for increasing ‘human bandwidth'—the capacity to take in, comprehend, and more efficiently synthesize large amounts of new information."

So whether you are simply upskilling in isolation, or part of a team collaborating on the complex and esoteric problems of our times, take a moment to think about the smartest way to work, with the hardware you have.

At the end of the day, when you think about it, being optimised to learn and understand best when collaborating, playing, touching, listening, laughing and drawing is really a good news story worth celebrating!

So, cast aside the conventionally bland and embrace the colourful, creative and collaborative world of graphical sense making… your brain will thank you for it.

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