## Visual Thinking

Visual thinking is a powerful tool for discovering new and unique solutions to complex engineering problems. On the one hand, this seems to be intrinsically understood. We often say ‘let’s think out of the box on this one' or ‘we need to think creatively here’. On the other hand, the discipline of engineering tends to rely on reductionistic approaches in the fear of not reinventing the wheel or to leverage an existing strategy. However, as technologies emerge, so do new challenges. Often, the cookie-cutter approach does not lead to the most efficient solution. It is useful to take a look at a wide range of disciplines to see what light they might shed on these types of problems.

In the 1940's Gestalt theorist Max Wertheimer, in his book Productive Thinking, drew a sharp distinction between

Wertheimer himself conducted numerous experiments investigating both the limitations of rote problem solving methodologies and the opportunities that visual thinking had to offer. Through these experiments, he examined the use of rule-based approaches to problem solving and then pushed the boundaries of these rules to the point of failure. The calculation of the area of a parallelogram by children is a good example of this. He presented a group of children with the following diagram:

In the 1940's Gestalt theorist Max Wertheimer, in his book Productive Thinking, drew a sharp distinction between

*productive*and*reproductive*thinking. For Wertheimer it was clear that some thinking processes were far more effective than others – particularly when confronted with a new or novel problem. As a friend of Albert Einstein, Wertheimer became fascinated with Einstein's use of visual thinking and thought experiments as a key problem solving technique. Einstein always had credited his imagination (when as a boy of 16 he wondered what it would be like to chase a ray of light) as a primary impetus for developing his theory of special relativity.Wertheimer himself conducted numerous experiments investigating both the limitations of rote problem solving methodologies and the opportunities that visual thinking had to offer. Through these experiments, he examined the use of rule-based approaches to problem solving and then pushed the boundaries of these rules to the point of failure. The calculation of the area of a parallelogram by children is a good example of this. He presented a group of children with the following diagram:

[DIAGRAM A]

This initial diagram he term as a ‘regular’ form because it’s area could quickly be determine from the formulaic approach: to draw a perpendicular line from the top left corner down to the base and apply the equation for the area of a rectangle (area = base x height).

He then, presented them with a different, irregular form:

This initial diagram he term as a ‘regular’ form because it’s area could quickly be determine from the formulaic approach: to draw a perpendicular line from the top left corner down to the base and apply the equation for the area of a rectangle (area = base x height).

He then, presented them with a different, irregular form:

[DIAGRAM B]

The initial attempts to determine the area were largely met with failure:

The initial attempts to determine the area were largely met with failure:

DIAGRAM C]

The irregularity of the form presented itself as an outlier to the standard shape and therefore could not be categorized, and the rules could not be applied.

The irregularity of the form presented itself as an outlier to the standard shape and therefore could not be categorized, and the rules could not be applied.

For Wertheimer, understanding a problem holistically was essential to deriving the solution. By cutting out the same irregular parallelogram and handing one to each of the children, they were quickly able to collectively arrive at the answer by self-organizing and analyzing the problem together.

Though the example may seem naïve to the extreme, a number of important points arise: reductionism often can be an impediment when presented with irregular or novel problems, collective or group thinking can expedite converging on a solution, and visual thinking aides in the holistic understanding of a given problem or challenge.

Though the example may seem naïve to the extreme, a number of important points arise: reductionism often can be an impediment when presented with irregular or novel problems, collective or group thinking can expedite converging on a solution, and visual thinking aides in the holistic understanding of a given problem or challenge.

*by Jaime Medina**Independent Software Engineer, Consultant*

& Creative Technologist& Creative Technologist