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Free Thinking: Drawing people in


Martin Shovel of CreativityWorks urges trainers to stop talking and get drawing; read on to learn more about the power of pictures.

Imagine this nightmare scenario … you're caught short in a foreign city, many miles from home. You don't speak the lingo and they don't speak yours. You're desperate to find the nearest loo. What do you do?

A recent mobile phone, TV ad came up with an elegant solution. Before going on your trip, you load pictures of everything you might need onto your mobile camera phone. So now when you feel the urge, relief is at hand. All you have to do is flash a picture of a toilet at a passer-by.

In a situation like this pictures leave words standing – they are the ultimate lingua franca because they resemble the things they represent. In some circumstances a picture can even fool us into believing it is the thing itself. Think of one of those hyper-realistic trompe l'oeil paintings. You know it's only a picture but suddenly a painting of a bowl of fruit makes your mouth water and you're tempted to reach out for a non-existent strawberry. The brushwork looks for all the world like a real strawberry's blood brother but turns out to be a stranger - a case of mistaken identity.

Words are very different. From the outset, a word's relationship to the thing it represents is more like a second cousin twice removed – the possibility of mistaken identity just doesn't arise. Pictures are always pictures of something – a particular man, woman, orange or whatever – they are concrete. Words, on the other hand, are abstractions. A word is a collection of arbitrary marks, or sounds, that become attached to a particular thing or meaning through usage and convention.

If, for example, all English speakers decided that from today onwards the word 'apple' should be replaced by the word 'poddle' it could, in theory, happen – as long as everyone agreed to implement the new usage. But it just wouldn't make sense to try the same experiment with a picture of an apple and a real apple, because for a picture to make sense it always has to look like the thing it stands for. A picture of an elephant is not going to bring to mind the image and sensation of an apple.

Pictures came first …

In the history of our species, we were drawing pictures long before we came up with writing. And for all we know our early ancestors may even have drawn pictures before they developed speech. What is certain is that in the development of the individual human brain, thinking in pictures comes before thinking in words. In fact, thinking in pictures makes thinking in words possible – if language is a building then it's one that's erected upon the foundations of our mental imagery. Our journey into language begins with looking, pointing and naming: 'mama' and 'dada' mark our first tentative footsteps on the way.

These are just some of the reasons why cartoon drawing can be such an invaluable communication tool for trainers and educators. Cartoons offer the possibility of instant and direct comprehension to people of very different ages and backgrounds. And if you're trying to help people who don't speak the same language to communicate with each other, get them drawing cartoons too. The impact of pictures is more immediate and memorable than that of words because our brains are wired to make instant sense of them. The benefits of this for anyone involved in communication, learning and development are clear.

So next time you’re planning a presentation, training session or learning experience, think about where and how you could use pictures instead of words – or pictures to support your words. If you can draw your own pictures, so much the better, it's really not that hard. A simple cartoon is all that’s required – and if you need any encouragement to get started, have a look at the article below to remind yourself that you can do it!

Martin Shovel is co-director of CreativityWorks, a learning consultancy that transforms people into more effective thinkers and communicators by developing their visual thinking abilities. Find out more by visiting

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