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  • Andrew Gale

Drawing a line under a problem: We should use visual language

Updated: Nov 11, 2021

Probably, everyone is familiar with brainstorming. It’s often the first thing we think of when we need to generate ideas or to try to solve problems, but it doesn’t always work as well as we would like.

Art Markman’s Harvard Business Review article (2017), discusses a technique called, “6-3-5”. Essentially, this approach slows things down, is inclusive and is argued to generate more ideas. A group of six people work, on their own, each generating three ideas. They then pass their ideas to the person sitting next to them and then everyone develops the ideas they’ve been given. The process is repeated five times, ensuring that everyone is engaged in generating and evaluating the ideas.

The 6-3-5 technique can also involve drawing - using visual language. Betty Edwards (2013), an advocate of “developing the abilities of both modes of the brain,…to enhance learning and understanding across disciplines”, explains that drawing is a right-brain activity, basing her teaching of drawing on the differential functions of right and left-brain hemispheres. Simply put, drawing is controlled from the right hemisphere, which controls our creative brain processes. Logic and mathematical processes are controlled from the left hemisphere. Edwards argues that our left-brain function interferes with our right brain processes and that artists need to moderate left-brain influence, in order to draw perceptively. Generating ideas in visual language may sound strange to some people, but we all read visual language, consciously and subconsciously. If we default to words alone, that suggests that we are ignoring our essence of self, where our perceptions and creative ideas spring from.

Interestingly, according to McGilchrist (2010): "the right brain is attuned to the apprehension of anything new". Artists are taught to focus on process, with outcomes arising. This is not how most of us produce, make or provide outcomes.

My own experience in teaching conceptual design to combined groups of engineering undergraduate civil engineering and fine art postgraduate students, is that they learn from each other, become less siloed in their own specialisms and learn to value the tension between process and product.

I was once involved in a large European Union funded research project entitled: Value Improvement through a Virtual Aeronautical Collaborative Enterprise (VIVACE). I asked aerospace engineers, working in the aviation supply chain, to each draw a picture representing their future visions of aviation, using some nice oil pastels with which I had supplied them. We then pinned up their pictures, discussing each one in turn. The quality of discussion was inclusive, respectful and constructive. The group engaged with more than just their logical positions. They generated deep insights and scenarios too. This task helped to introduce participants to visual language which helped them in their own visualisations.

Where does this leave us then? Well, I think that there is an evidence base to support radically different approaches being adopted when we are faced with the need to think critically about ideas; whatever we need those ideas for. I suggest that in the future we shall need to come up with new ideas, more quickly and effectively. Recent global events demonstrate this. Arguably, these events are symptoms, rather than causes, of our changing environment. As Timothy Morton (2017) would say, “Everything is connected”. We need to use both brain hemispheres to write, draw and think our way through the problems ahead.

My article was published in the October issue of In-Cumbria magazine.


Edwards, B. (2013) The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, 4th Edition, New York, Penguin Group

McGilchrist, I. (2010) Reciprocal organisation of the cerebral hemispheres, Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 12(4) pp. 504-515

Markman, A. (2017) Your Team Is Brainstorming All Wrong, Harvard Business Review, May 18.

(Accessed: 2 September 2021)

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