Visual Thinking

From E-Learning Faculty Modules


Module Summary

“Visual thinking” was coined by German-born psychologist Rudolf Arnheim in 1969. His assertion was that visual sensory perception is a critical way of engaging the world beyond just language. In other words, experience and affect are important in learning from the world. In the intervening years, visual thinking has taken on different shades of meaning. Visual thinking is considered a core way to explore the invisible world—through in-depth study and application of the human imagination—in fields like math, physics, astrophysics, biology, and others. This module provides a light introduction to “visual thinking” and its relevance in online teaching and learning. This also includes some light discussion of visual literacy.


Learners will...

  • review what “visual thinking” is based on research and theorizing
  • consider why “visual thinking” is important to human learning (and online teaching)
  • consider methods for developing and training “visual thinking” skills
  • review methods to designing online learning based on “visual thinking”
  • define “visual literacy” in a general way

Module Pretest

1. What is “visual thinking” (based on both research and theorizing)?

2. Why is “visual thinking” important to human learning? Online teaching?

3. What are some methods for developing and training “visual thinking” skills?

4. What are some methods to designing online learning based on “visual thinking”?

5. What is “visual literacy,” generally speaking?

Main Contents

1. What is “visual thinking” (based on both research and theorizing)?

As noted in the intro, “visual thinking” refers to a focus on experienced visual engagement with the world as being as relevant as language-based engagement with the world. “Visual thinking” is conceptualized as a way to use both hemispheres of the brain, and is sometimes considered a form of non-verbal thinking (conceptualizing and imagining with imagery).

Visual thinking suggests

  • a focus on the human visual sensory perception,
  • engaging the human ability to interpret visual information for meaning, reasoning, and analysis,
  • applying the imagination-based ability to visually conceptualize aspects of the world that are not viewable by sight alone, and
  • harnessing the human ability to design and engineer based on visual mental conceptions.

The human imagination is a necessary aspect to interpret and understand visual information and its implications (Pushkin, 1825/1984, as cited in Vygotsky, 1991, p. 270). Psychologists have theorized that visual thinking is necessary to “coordinate different meanings of images into a complete, visible picture. Visual thinking also helps us to ontologize the results of abstract verbal thinking so that an abstract essence becomes intellectually visible. Using it to examine and analyze various works can yield new insights and a more complete understanding in fields ranging from scientific to artistic” (Zhukovskiy & Pivovarov, 2008, p. 149).

Human memory and imagery: Eidetic memory? Photographic memory? Intense visual thinking is thought to be a part of children’s developmental phases as part of their literal engagement with the world through sight but disappearing at puberty when older children form the ability to think abstractly, have greater language skills, and experience an “intensification of abstract thinking” (Vygotsky, 1991, p. 271). Genetically, older youth are not as dependent on their ability to mentally conjure concrete sensory experiences and sights because they have increased other mental capabilities and skills. Lev Vygotsky (1991) wrote:

“Visual thinking does not completely disappear from the intellectual life of the adolescent along with the appearance of abstract thinking. It only moves to another place, goes off into into (sic) the fantasy sphere, partly undergoes a change under the influence of abstract thinking and then, like any other function, rises to a higher level.” (Vygotsky, 1991, p. 276)

To clarify, while vision has a high impact on how people engage in the world, very few have perfectly detailed visual memory, known as eidetic memory. “Eidetic memory” refers to the phenomenon where mental images are so vivid and detailed that it is as if the memory is actually visible in the mind’s eye. Eidetic memory was seen as a form of "concrete thinking" and as "a more ancient, genetic mechanism" (Vygotsky, 1991, p. 267). Theorists have observed eidetic memory in some young children, but it is something that they outgrow once they are able to engage in abstract thinking (a higher level of thinking). This has also been observed in some “primitive humans” and is viewed as a kind of pathology (Vygotsky, 1991, pp. 267 – 268). To recap:

“…eidetic memory referring to the ability to view memories like photographs for a few minutes,[3] and photographic memory referring to the ability to recall pages of text or numbers, or similar, in great detail” (Eidetic memory, June 19, 2017, p. 1).

Eidetic memory has been found to exist in a few children (between two and ten percent) but not generally in adults. Actual photographic memory has “never…(been) demonstrated to exist” (Eidetic memory, June 19, 2017, p. 1), at least through the present.

While people may think that they have a deep visual model of the world in their minds, more recent research has shown that this is not so. Visual working memory itself is quite limited. Colin Ware (2005) writes:

”There is no visual model of the world in our heads. Over the past few years the phenomena of change blindness and inattentional blindness as well as studies of the capacity of visual working memory all point to the fact that we do not retain much about the world from one fixation to the next. The impression we have of a detailed visual environment comes from our ability to make rapid eye movements and sample the environment at will. What we see at any given instant in time is determined by what we are trying to accomplish. We see what we need to see. If we need to find a path through a crowd we see the openings.” (Ware, 2005, p. 27)

People only hold about three objects in their visual working memories at a time (Vogel, Woodman & Luck, 2001, as cited in Ware, 2005, p. 27). If people are focused visually on other aspects of the environment, they can miss visual information that is directly in front of them, even up to “99% or more of what is in the visual field (Simons & Levin, 1998, as cited in Ware, 2005, p. 27).

Heightened visual stimulation and autism. Dr. Temple Grandin, a researcher and well-published author, writes of her heightened visual senses as a person on the autism spectrum (and a “photo-realistic visual thinker”):

“My mind is similar to an Internet search engine that searches for photographs. I use language to narrate the photo-realistic pictures that pop up in my imagination. When I design equipment for the cattle industry, I can test run it in my imagination similar to a virtual reality computer program. All my thinking is associative and not linear. To form concepts, I sort pictures into categories similar to computer files. To form the concept of orange, I see many different orange objects, such as oranges, pumpkins, orange juice and marmalade. I have observed that there are three different specialized autistic/Asperger cognitive types. They are: (i) visual thinkers such as I who are often poor at algebra, (ii) pattern thinkers such as Daniel Tammet who excel in math and music but may have problems with reading or writing composition, and (iii) verbal specialists who are good at talking and writing but they lack visual skills.” (Grandin, 2009, p. 1437)

Harnessing visual thinking. Many have applied the knowledge of visual thinking to human endeavors in research, teaching and learning, and other applications. Visual thinking stimuli have been used to increase collaborative group creativity (Wang, Cosley, & Fussell, 2010). Visual thinking has been applied to various problem-solving contexts. Visuals are used to clarify concepts when teaching at a distance (Cyrs, 1997). Learners are encouraged to use exploratory drawing in experimental physics to theorize and search for truth (Galison, 1979). Visual thinking is applied to “imagining reality” and thought experiments by many of the achieved scientists in history, who also tended to have “correlative talents” (including visual thinking) (Root-Bernstein, 1985, p. 64).

2. Why is “visual thinking” important to human learning? Online teaching?

The argument is that “visual thinking” provides a balance against the focus on language, logic, and more cognitively analytic approaches to human learning. The idea is that both sides of the human brain should be brought into play for fuller learning, instead of relying on the language-based left hemisphere. Researchers have noted that both sides of a brain are brought into play in most learning Lateralization of Brain Function.


(The image above was created by Chickensaresocute, and this individual shared the image through Wikipedia through a CC BY-SA 3.0 license. The image was created on May 28, 2013.)

Still, there is a point to the idea that much of academic learning has focused on text with less focus on visualizations and imagery.

Not separate verbal and visual thinking channels. Verbal and visual thinking should not be treated as separate and dichotomous aspects of human mental processing (Brumberger, Oct. 2007, p. 379). Different modes of human thinking are required for different tasks.

”Each mode of thinking may have dominant characteristics that differentiate it from other modes, but it also parallels, intersects, and overlaps other modes. Thus, visual thinking and verbal thinking are distinct cognitive modes that are interconnected and comparable in their complexity” (Brumberger, Oct. 2007, p. 380).

3. What are some methods for developing and training “visual thinking” skills?

Visual thinking involves the mental conceptualization of the physical appearance of a thing, both internal and external.

Visual thinking is a human capability that may be honed and trained. This ability is thought to improve the following:

  • the synthesis of knowledge (Walker, Winner, Hetland, Simmons, & Goldsmith, 2011, p. 22)
  • pattern identification and discovery
  • engagement with the world
  • analytical thinking
  • discovery of “invisible” aspects of the world
  • creativity,
  • design through “generative visual thinking” (Sevaldson, 2001, p. 6)
  • human-computer interface design (Blevis, Sept. - Oct. 2011, p. 60)
  • problem-solving, and others.

Visual thinking includes the following applications: metacognition, creative and critical thought, visual thinking process, visual thinking skills, and content knowledge and visual thinking (Trumbo, June 1999, p. 415).

What Visual Thinking Looks Like. Visual thinking involves both intuition and intellect applied to idea generation and problem-solving.

”In short, visual thinking can be defined as an active and analytical process of perceiving, interpreting, and producing visual messages, an interaction between seeing, imagining, and drawing (McKim, 1972) that is as purposeful, recursive, and sophisticated as verbal thinking” (Brumberger, Oct. 2007, p. 381).

Visual thinking is engaged in the training of “geometric reasoning” and visual intelligence.

”Both training in the arts and verbal intelligence were strong predictors of geometric reasoning, but training in the arts was a significant predictor even when the effects of verbal intelligence were removed.” (Walker, Winner, Hetland, Simmons, & Goldsmith, 2011, p. 22)

Sketching, drawing, doodling, and engaging the visual aspects of the human intellect are yet another aspect of engaging visual thinking. In terms of visual exploration, these efforts are applied to an initial rough-cut “elementary analysis” for discovery. There is sketching as “spontaneous visualizations” on “freeform mediums such as paper or whiteboards” to aid in the brainstorming process (Walny, Carpendale, Riche, Venolia, & Fawcett, Dec. 2011, p. 2508). Freeform surfaces enable drawing with fewer constraints that some diagramming software programs may impose.

Visual Thinking Strategies (A Brief Summary). The most well-known method for developing and training “visual thinking” skills comes from Abigail Housen, who originated the Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) approach. Her work began with seminal research. One of her core findings: In viewing artworks, people interpreted the images in a “predictable manner” even across “a wide range of cultural and socioeconomic contexts” (Housen, 1992a, 2000, 2002; Housen, DeSantis, & Duke, 1997, as cited in Housen, 2007, p. 2). This finding suggests a biologically hardwired basis for how people process (complex) visual information. A rough summary follows:

Stage 1 is “accountive,” with viewers acting as “listmakers and storytellers” by making “simple, concrete observations” (Housen, 2007, p. 3).

Stage 2 is “constructive,” with viewers using their “perceptions, their knowledge of the natural world, and the values of their social and moral world” to construct a framework through which to view the artwork; this framework is built on “concrete, known reference point(s)” (Housen, 2007, p. 4).

Stage 3, “classifying,” occurs when the viewer takes on the role of “art historian.” Here, the viewer uses the “conventions and canons of art history” to place the artwork within a context of “school, style, time, and provenance”; respondents also look at the artist’s biography and strives to understand the work in that individuals life context (Housen, 2007, p. 5).

Stage 4, the “interpretive” stage, involves viewers who engage the artwork in an “interactive and spontaneous” way (Housen, 2007, p. 6).

Stage 5, the “re-creative” phase, has viewers who suspend belief and engage an artwork as something more than its physical instantiation. “The viewer sees the object as semblant, real, and animated with a life of its own…” (Housen, 2007, p. 8)

Housen’s research uses selected pieces of art that enable sophisticated educational designs to develop human viewing (Housen, 2007, p. 17). A summary of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) Teaching Methods includes the following points:

  • ”All students have the opportunity to express their opinions about the artistic piece.
  • Students all receive positive affirmations for their contributions in the form of paraphrasing and pointing by the facilitator.
  • Students learn to value each other’s comments as a means of viewing the art for multiple meanings.
  • The facilitator maintains neutrality but shows interest in each comment.
  • Each participant comment is acknowledged.
  • The facilitator points as people talk, seeking to confirm understanding but also keeping eyes on the image.
  • Teachers encourage active participation.
  • Instructors continually point at the painting, maintaining the group’s focus on the art piece in front of them.” (“VTS—Visual Thinking Strategies,” Reilly, Ring, & Duke, Apr. 2005, p. 251)

In visual thinking, digital imagery plays a number of roles:

“* as a material of interaction design;

  • as documentary observation and photo-ethnography;
  • as a form of information;
  • as a media and associated technology;
  • as a contrast and synthesis of analogue and digital worlds;
  • as a technical and compositional skill;
  • as shared and externalized memory and cognition;
  • as social mechanism of awareness and agency of social change;
  • as method and material of appearance and behavioral prototyping;
  • as a special and distinct form of the digital commons;
  • as mechanism of identity; and
  • as a key component of professional presence and portfolio construction.” (Blevis, Sept. - Oct. 2011, p. 62)

Other Teaching Approaches

Visual prompts. In various learning contexts, there are visual prompts. The analyses are open, without a predetermined analytical outcome that learners are supposed to achieve. There are spatial references for the artwork or visual prompt. Learners make visual-spatial observations; they directly practice visual cognition / visual thinking, and they use visual rhetoric to articulate.

In some cases, data visualizations may be offered without explanations, to enhance people’s ability to engage the visual for analysis.

There may be lessons for understanding visual communications terminology, formalisms, and conventions. For example, one work offers in-depth qualitative visual language details (Lemon & Lemon, 2000).

In terms of technological advancements, there is work on advancing “visual thinking machines” (Les & Les, 2008).

4. What are some methods to designing online learning based on “visual thinking”?

What are some methods for designing online learning with visual thinking?

Designed exposure to imagery. To design for visual thinking, create assignments that use imagery (pictorial forms of representation)…and that require image-based responses from learners. Use imagery that is both still imagery and dynamic (like videos, simulations, slideshows, immersive virtual worlds, and others). Make sure that the visuals are information-laden, not decorative, in order to lighten cognitive loads for learners. Visual representations play roles as teaching and learning tools (Trumbo, June 1999, p. 415).

Ability to articulate. While imagery is important, using language to articulate the learning from the image-based assignments is still important. Introduce the proper terminology to help learners express visual and spatial concepts. Help learners develop the “eyes to see” by introducing them to visual contents. Ensure that they have the language to express what they see and their interpretation and analysis of it. Practitioners have to continually evolve a taxonomy of visual terminology (Portewig, 2004).

Without accessibility challenges. Visual learning should be integrated without causing accessibility challenges for those without sight or with vision acuity challenges.

Not only can visual thinking train advanced skills in elementary school learners (Franco & Unrath, Jan. 2014, p. 29), visuals may be used to inspire learning and efforts towards learning:

“By engaging students dialogically in investigations of complex and compelling visual texts, we have observed strong investigative initiative and the genuine desire to learn.” (Franco & Unrath, Jan. 2014, p. 30)

Another pedagogical approach involves “visual thinking networking,” or the drawing of objects (concepts, phenomena, entities, and so on) and relationships between them in a visual network to aid in learning and problem-solving; in such work, color can be a fairly relevant dimension (particularly for female learners) (Longo, Anderson, & Wicht, Sept. 2002). The drawing of knowledge structures can be an important aid to learning as well

Engaging effective technologies. Advancements in computer-created visualizations have enriched people’s abilities to create visualizations that may enhance learning. Visual thinking in 3D has advanced because of technical advancements in computer games, with spillover benefits in “science and information visualization” (Rhyne, Dec. 2000, p. 154)

Create design assignments that require visualizations (Ulusoy, 1999).

For broadcast journalism students, ensure that learners train to include visualizations to tell a story (Choo, March 2010).

5. What is “visual literacy,” generally speaking?

John Debes originated the term “visual literacy” in 1969, and he tentatively defined it as follows:

“Visual Literacy refers to a group of vision-competencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same time having and integrating other sensory experiences. The development of these competencies is fundamental to normal human learning. When developed, they enable a visually literate person to discriminate and interpret the visible actions, objects, symbols, natural or manmade, that he encounters in his environment. Through the creative use of these competencies, he is able to communicate with others. Through the appreciative use of these competencies, he is able to comprehend and enjoy the masterworks of visual communication” (1969b, p. 27, as cited in Avgerinou & Ericson, 1997, p. 281).

Over time, this concept of “visual literacy” has evolved. A visually literate person is capable of the following:

“(a) discriminate, and make sense of visible objects as part of a visual acuity,
(b) create static and dynamic visible objects effectively in a defined space,
(c) comprehend and appreciate the visual testaments of others, and
(d) conjure objects in the mind's eye.” (Aanstoos, 2003, p. 2)

This would suggest that visual literacy requires sight as a perception. It also requires visual expression. It requires receptivity to others’ visual messaging. It also requires a powerful visual imagination. An elaboration of the visual literacy components is depicted as a Venn diagram within a triangle (Aanstoos, 2003, p. 2) as follows:


In another sense, visual literacy is interactive between people and interdisciplinary across fields: “of art, education, psychology, linguistics, computer science, and even philosophy” (Aanstoos, 2003, p. 1). It is conceptualized as a core competency in a number of fields. Clearly, within fields, there are even more fine-grained expectations of capabilities.

In a Visual Literacy Index that is in development, eleven (11) abilities were identified as relevant:

“1. Visualization
2. Critical Viewing
3. Visual Reasoning
4. Visual Discrimination
5. Visual Thinking
6. Visual Association
7. Visual Reconstruction
8. Constructing Meaning
9. Re-Constructing Meaning
10. Knowledge of Visual Vocabulary & Definitions
11. Knowledge of Visual Conventions” (Avgerinou, Spring 2007, p. 3)

Traditionally, visual literacies do not only involve “reading” or interpretation of visual information but also “writing” or communicating using visuals. These represent the two main approaches for developing visual literacy skills. One author describes this as decoding and encoding:

“The first is to help learners read or decode visuals through practicing analysis techniques. Decoding involves interpreting and creating meaning from visual stimuli. The second is to help learners write or encode visuals as a tool for communication. Students develop their visual abilities through use. Sinatra (1986) compares the creation of visual messages to writing word messages, in that visual messages have a combination of objects, space, light, angle, and mood to suggest a particular message or effect just as the writer uses words, sentences, and paragraphs to achieve a particular style.” (Stokes, 2002, p. 13)

In the field of professional communication, there is a push to increase visual thinking in “practice, research, and pedagogy.” One researcher describes the risk of failing to train their learners in visual thinking:

”Yet, visual thinking has received relatively little attention within the field. If our programs produce students who can think verbally but not visually, they risk producing writers who are visual technicians but are unable to move fluidly between and within modes of communication. This article examines the literature and pedagogical practices of visually oriented disciplines to identify strategies for helping students develop the ambidexterity of thought needed for the communication tasks of today’s workplace.” (Brumberger, Oct. 2007, p. 376)

It is thought that learners progress developmentally as follows, from visual thinking to visual learning to visual communication (McLoughlin, 1997, p. 7; McLoughlin & Krakowski, 2001, p. 13-8). In human history, so much focus has been on language and other symbolic forms of expression that visuo-spatial thinking has not received as much attention as the first. Over the years, though, there has been more focus on engaging both sides of the brain for “ambidextrous thinking” (Faste, 1994, p. 1).

Visual literacy also requires an aesthetic sensibility, based on trained seeing. It is critical in various forms of design thinking and studio methods. Visual literacy is important for engaging various technologies. In the academic literature, it is integrated in various curriculums, including in English, engineering (and prototyping), the health sciences, and others. Visual instructional formats are seen to enhance learning (McLoughlin & Krakowski, 2001, p. 13-2), and in online learning, the user interface should “complement learning objectives” and not “distract the learner” (McLoughlin & Krakowski, 2001, p. 13-3). A review of the literature shows a number of works that may be used to enhance the design of learning based on knowledge of visual thinking and visual literacies for “the development of learners’ visual skills in combination with their development of verbal, reading, and mathematical skills” (Stokes, 2002, p. 10). Visual representations are thought to enable different ways to approach learning materials and to enable the representation of more complex dimensionality and dynamism (changes over time) (McLoughlin & Krakowski, 2001, p. 13-3).

The “eye of the beholder” is important in visual literacy because visual literacy capabilities are developed through experiences and exposures and trainings. One of the main thinkers in this area wrote the following:

“Visual literacy is the ability to find meaning in imagery. It involves a set of skills ranging from simple identification--naming what one sees--to complex interpretation on contextual, metaphoric and philosophical levels. Many aspects of cognition are called upon, such as personal association, questioning, speculating, analyzing, fact-finding, and categorizing. Objective understanding is the premise of much of this literacy, but subjective and affective aspects of knowing are equally important. Visual literacy usually begins to develop as a viewer finds his/her own relative understanding of what s/he confronts, usually based on concrete and circumstantial evidence. It eventually involves considering the intentions of the maker, applying systems for thinking and rethinking one's opinions, and acquiring a body of information to support conclusions and judgments. The expert will also express these understandings in a specialized vocabulary.” (Yenawine, 1997, p. 1)

Today, “visual literacy” has been integrated into the concept and practice of “new literacies,” which encompass a range of high-tech and other types of literacies.



What are some examples of “visual thinking”? Google Images is a helpful image search engine for various educational concepts expressed as imagery. Do formulate text searches accurately for this to work.

How To

There are many strategies and tactics for engaging, training, and developing people’s visual thinking skills at various age levels. These are beyond the purview of a simple module. If anything, this may provide some encouragement to conduct your own further research.

Possible Pitfalls

In designing online learning, instructional designers design for all combinations of perceptions and perceptual capabilities.

Also, focusing on visual perception alone will leave out a wide swath of the population of potential learners because for many, the visual channel is a muted or unavailable one.

Having a sense of visual thinking is important for online learning design (as it is for F2F learning and blended learning). However, it is one aspect or dimension to be aware of. It is not everything.

Module Post-Test

1. What is “visual thinking” (based on both research and theorizing)?

2. Why is “visual thinking” important to human learning? Online teaching?

3. What are some methods for developing and training “visual thinking” skills?

4. What are some methods to designing online learning based on “visual thinking”?

5. What is “visual literacy,” generally speaking?


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Avgerinou, M.D. (2007, Spring). Towards a visual literacy index. Journal of Visual Literacy: 27(1), 1 – 18.

Avgerino, M. & Ericson, J. (1997). A review of the concept of visual literacy. British Journal of Educational Technology: 28(4), 280 – 291.

Blevis, E. (2011, Sept. - Oct.) Digital imagery as meaning and form in HCI and design: An introduction to the Visual Thinking Backpage Gallery. Interactions. 60 – 65.

Brumberger, E.R. (2007, Oct.). Making the strange familiar: A pedagogical exploration of visual thinking. Journal of Business and Technical Communication: 21(4), 376 – 401.

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Longo, P.J., Anderson, O.R., & Wicht, P. (2002, Sept.) Visual thinking networking promotes problem solving achievement for 9th grade earth science students. Electronic Jounral of Science Education: 7(1), 1 – 51.

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Trumbo, J. (1999, June). Visual literacy and science communication. Science Communication: 20(4), 409 – 425.

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Walker, C.M., Winner, E., Hetland, L., Simmons, S., & Goldsmith, L. (2011). Visual thinking: Art students have an advantage in geometric reasoning. Creative Education: 2(1), 22 – 26.

Walny, J., Carpendale, S., Riche, N.H., Venolia, G., & Fawcett, P. (2011, Dec.) Visual thinking in action: Visualizations as used on whiteboards. IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics: 17(12), 2508 – 2517.

Wang, H.-C., Cosley, D., & Fussell, S.R. (2010). IdeaExpander: Supporting group brainstorming with conversationally triggered visual thinking stimuli. In the proceedings of the CSCW 2010. Feb. 6 – 10, 2010. Savannah, Georgia. 103 – 106.

Ware, C. (2005). Visual queries: The foundation of visual thinking. In S.-O. Tergan and T. Keller (Eds): Knowledge and Information Visualization. 27 – 35.

Yenawine P. (1997). Thoughts on visual literacy. In: Flood J, Heath SB, Lapp D, eds. Handbook of research on teaching literacy through the communicative visual arts. New York, NY: MacMillan Library Reference; 1997:845–60.

Zhukovskiy, V.I. & Pivovarov, D.V. (2008). The nature of visual thinking. Journal of Siberian Federal University. Humanities & Social Sciences: 1(2008), 149 – 158.

Extra Resources

Visual Thinking Strategies.