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Visual Thinking: Symbolic Ways Of Representing Ideas

by Nancy Margulies

After more than twenty years of visual recording, Christine Valenza and I are still intrigued and challenged by the possibilities it presents. Thousands of teachers as well as business people also record their ideas visually in order to make them more clear, compelling and inviting.

One of the visual mapping areas that sometimes poses a problem is the process of coming up with and drawing symbols. Recognizing this challenge, Christine,, and I wrote a book called Visual Thinking, Tools for Mapping Your Ideas. In the book we include a Symbolary with hundreds of images that can be copied and used for mapping. We will share examples of them in this article.

Although the notion that some people can draw and others can't is one of the myths of our culture, in fact, learning to draw simple images is easy. It can be accomplished by following the step by step methods shown below and then later by simply copying the images shown on the sample Symbolary page. Not only is it OK to copy, it is central to learning to draw.

Try the step-by-step method of drawing the following symbols, or just look closely at the images to see how simple they are when broken down into their component lines and shapes.

Step by step drawing method by Nancy Margulies


Here is a sample page from the Symbolary:

Symbolary (symbolic dictionary) by Nancy Margulies and Christine Valenza

The Role of Symbols

"Symbols are profound expressions of human nature. They have occurred in all cultures at all times, and from their first appearance in Paleolithic cave paintings they have accompanied the development of civilization. However, symbols are more than just cultural artifacts: in their correct context, they still speak powerfully to us, simultaneously addressing our intellect, emotions and spirit. Their study is the study of humanity itself." - The Secret Language of Symbols, David Fontana

Throughout history human beings have used images. Symbols that express specific meaning have been used for centuries in disciplines such as science, mathematics, musical and dance notation. As we develop international symbols and recognize the value of visual intelligence, more symbols appear daily. When people who speak different languages come together in a global culture it is natural that we are inventing a new language that can convey complex ideas using images as well as text. We are a culture that is currently including more icons and symbols to communicate than ever before.

"The soul never thinks without a mental image" -Aristotle

Symbols of all sorts – pictograms, icons, logos, international signs, can be used when visually mapping ideas. The process allows you to see the parts and the whole and notice the relationships between them. If you aren't familiar with various forms of visual mapping such as Mind Mapping, Mindscaping and Inspiration software, you can read the articles. Here you will be introduced to the benefits and how-to of visual note-taking.

Although the benefits of visual mapping have long been established, another important aspect of making ideas visible is often overlooked. Making ideas visible, using both words and images, means that we are making our very process of thinking visible. Often attempt to solve problems without a conscious awareness of our own process. Visually mapping means that our ideas now exist on paper -- outside our brain where we can explore them in greater depth.

Many teachers have discovered that mapping ideas helps communicate with students by creating an engaging experience that is also more memorable. Adult learners, whether parents, teachers or others, can use this same process to record their ideas, explore concepts and present their thinking to others.

"The use of visual tools creates a shift in classroom dynamics from passive to interactive learning for all to see" - D. Hyerle, 1996

Symbols in the Classroom

You can introduce symbols to the students while teaching any subject matter. Try drawing a number of symbols and ask the students to come up with ideas about what the symbols might represent. Write a number of concept words such as "integrate" or "above" or "constitution" and ask the students to come draw symbols on the board. Since there is no right or wrong and no one answer students can draw many symbols for each concept.

Notice that for most symbols there are multiple interpretations. The same symbol can have numerous meanings. That is why it's important to use words along with images to avoid confusion.

You can set the tone by demonstrating symbol drawing, then your students can create their own images using the Symbolary for inspiration or drawing upon their own memory and imagination. Let your students know that the root of the word imagination is image. We each have an inner source of visualizing what we want to draw – it is our own imagination.

Templates for Inspiration

Another element in the book Visual Thinking, Tools for Mapping Your Ideas is the introduction of templates. Templates are designed to give students, teachers and business people a framework that they can fill in. Templates encourage everyone to think not only in terms of the information they wish to impart but the relationship among ideas as well.

Many of the templates in our book are similar to those used by global corporations in order to organize information for thousands of people to grasp. Visual images often transcend cultural and linguistic differences. Seeing a plan for the future or looking at how to bridge gaps between the present reality and future goals is just as useful in business settings as it is in the classroom. We encourage you to share your templates with your family and consider using them to make family plans and set personal goals.

Here is an example of a template:

Another template you can create shows an arrow (drawn large enough that you can write inside it). The arrow fills most of the page and points to a large bulls eye. The bulls eye represents a goal. You could use goal posts or a large cloud to represent the goal as well. By filling in your future vision using symbols and words you can then fill in the arrow with the actions, support and resources that will enable you to reach your goal.

The best way to begin visual thinking is to jump in and create a map of something meaningful to you. And to enjoy the process!

About the author

Nancy Margulies, M.A., is the author of many books, videos, and comics in the field of education. She also works with educational groups and corporations worldwide. Her unique form of graphic representation, mindscaping, enables learners and business people to take notes and present ideas in a form that clearly conveys essential concepts, relationships, and patterns.

If you wish to explore this topic further you can visit the web site of the author, Nancy Margulies: and that of Nusa Maal Nancy's site contains sample maps and a list that includes a video, comic book and newly revised edition of Mapping Inner Space. These resources will provide many examples and methodologies for teaching visual note-taking.

©September 2005

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