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Visual thinking: Communicating better using pictures
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A is for Apple. E is for Elephant.A is for apple.

Description: This animal has big, flappy ears; legs like tree trunks; a long, flexible nose that it uses to feed itself; gray, wrinkled skin; and horns called tusks that protrude from the side of its face.

How do you think someone who had never seen an elephant before would imagine one based on that description?

Well, take a look at these pictures of elephants drawn 500 years ago based on descriptions by early explorers. Then take a look at a bestiary of possible elephants created by XPLANE. (Click these words to see a case study of something we call “The Elephant Project” in a popup WebModule window.)

Our children learn to read by putting words and letters together with pictures. Why is this so effective? Pictures are concrete representations of reality. Words are abstractions.

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Why it works

Have you ever read a book and then gone to see the movie? You were probably disappointed by the movie, and here's why: As you read a book, you build a picture in your head. Because every reader builds a different picture, it's just impossible for a movie to live up to every reader's imagination.

But if you see the movie first, the film-maker's view becomes “stamped” in your mind. Then when you read the book, you envision the film's actors as the main characters. Your imagination is conforming to the “world view” of the film-maker.

A verbal or written message is subject to interpretation. A message contained in a picture is concrete. When you commission an XPLANATiON, you are the film-maker. We help you create the picture that lives in your imagination, so your message can be communicated clearly and will not be misinterpreted.

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A brief history of visual thinking

Visual thinking is nothing new. People and institutions have been using pictures to communicate complex ideas since before written language was invented.

Cave paintings | The cave paintings at Lascaux, France, depict bison, deer, horses and cattle in beautiful, lovingly rendered detail. The animals have clearly been drawn by expert hunters — the animals are drawn with astonishing accuracy. Nobody knows exactly why they were painted, but the images may have been used to help hunters learn to identify game or review plans for future hunts.
    » Learn more: French Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication



Ancient Egypt | Some of the earliest writing combines pictures and “words” inextricably. Images of natural objects stand for phonetic sounds. Glyphs are combined with images depicting events to tell complex stories and histories.
    » Learn more: The Academy for the Advancement of Science and Technology



Asian Art | The Asian art tradition is based on a harmony between word and picture that is unparalleled in other cultures. Written language is based on forms that represent concepts and ideas rather than sounds. Pictures rarely exist without an accompanying text.
    » Learn more: ChinaPage.org



Ancient Greece | Perhaps no civilization in the ancient word was so prolific in its use of visual thinking than ancient Greece. This image, from a Greek vase, shows Hercules strangling the Nemean lion.
    » Learn more: University of Wisconsin



Bayeux Tapestry | This tapestry is considered the most important historical document of its age. It describes the story of the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
    » Learn more: Hastings1066.com



Christian Art | Perhaps no other narrative has been visualized by more artists in more ways than the Bible. Images like Peter Breughel's “Blind Leading the Blind” tell stories that contain a moral lesson.
    » Learn more: The Web Gallery of Art



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On information graphics: “The best designs...are intriguing and curiosity-provoking, drawing the viewer into the wonder of the data, sometimes by narrative power, sometimes by immense details, and sometimes by elegant presentation of simple but interesting data.” —Edward Tufte
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XPLANE | The visual thinking company is internationally recognized for our simple, clear visual explanations of complex business issues. We help you take the latent knowledge capital in your organization and turn it into a rich, living library of visual maps and stories, available on demand at the point of need.

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