The best way to learn visual thinking is to pick up a pen and paper and start doing it. However, the following books have opened up my perspective and helped me improve my skills.
Visual thinking basics
To get started quickly, read Dan Roam’s Back of the napkin. Dan’s teachings are easy to apply and are great for a quick reference on your shelf.
If you only use one visual thinking tool, use mind mapping. Tony Buzan popularized it and although I haven’t read his Mind Mapping book yet, his techniques have influenced me from a very early age.
Finally, you‘ll need to draw objects. If you absolutely hate this, Ed Emberley’s Make a World will sweeten your progression with this beautiful book containing examples of things drawn with very basic shapes.
These will get you going and give you many simple tools you can depend on.
Collaboration with visual thinking
Visual thinking is great for group work. Dave Sibbet’s Visual Meetings and Visual Teams books are great for this. If you do a lot of workshopping, Dave Gray’s Gamestorming contains many seasoned templates you can use to facilitate workshops and group sessions.
My favourite book on facilitation is Brandy Agerbeck’s Graphic facilitator’s guide. It’s aimed at professional graphic facilitators and graphic recorders, but their high-performance skills are highly applicable for anyone with a marker and whiteboard.
Advancing with the fundamentals
I always like to read up on the fundamentals for good grounding. For this, I recommend is Rob McKim’s Experiences in Visual Thinking. McKim was a Stanford professor who contributed to the Design Programme and influenced interaction design pioneers like Bill Verplank. The book lays out the building blocks of visual thinking, useful for developing a critical eye.
Scott McCloud’s Making Comics and Understanding Comics isn’t just about graphic novels and comics—it’s also about creating impact through visual storytelling. A more humorous and compact read along the same line is Mort Walker’s Lexicon of Comicana.
If you want to improve on your drawing ability, look no further than Baskinger and Bardel’s Drawing Ideas. The book focuses on empowering anyone with a pen and paper to draw effectively and developing the professional illustrator in you.
You should practice regularly but will struggle from time to time. To get motivated, I read Lynda Barry’s Syllabus, immersive journal of her ‘Unthinkable Mind’ class on drawing, creativity and art.
There’s still tons I’ve yet to learn from books like these, but their variety helps me leverage my early years of drawing portraits, buildings, objects, people and comic books, which has paid off — it’s much easier for me to think and work more flexibly when it comes to visualising my ideas.
Do you have a favourite book on visual thinking? Do share.
I’ll be running a visual thinking workshop in Cordoba, Argentina at Interaction South America on Nov 18. It’s a practical, hands-on introduction to visual thinking applied around service design exercises. If you’re looking for a primer, do check it out.