Chances are, you’d describe yourself as a visual thinker. Scientific studies reveal between 65% and 80% of people fit this category. Visual thinking likely played a big role in our evolution; the ability to see a threat and react to it ensured our survival. Communicating ideas visually significantly improves effectiveness. A 1986 study from the University of Michigan showed that presentations using visuals were 43% more persuasive.  [source: ]

Visual tools help us think more creatively and efficiently, especially when grappling with complex problems or pondering big decisions. Involving your team members or colleagues will create a larger pool of ideas to help solve your challenge. The more ideas you incorporate from people who understand the problem and its complexity, the more options you will have to solve it.

Here at Cardsmith, we focus on visual problem solving every day. We’ve found that six simple steps can take you from struggle to success.

Here’s how to amp up your visual problem solving:

1: Start with a clear objective.

Before brainstorming, you’ll want to set up the problem you’re aiming to solve. Try posing it as a question. For instance, “How can we increase our sales?” Or you might ask, “80% of our sales come from one large customer. How can we reduce the risk this poses to our business?”

2: Dump out all the Legos ®.

Get all the ideas out on the table. This is where you express as many ideas as possible in a rapid flow without judging, structuring or organizing them. You don’t want to disrupt the free flow of ideas. Even the crazy ones count, and the ones that don’t seem to fit into any particular category. These ideas may be symptoms of the problem or related thoughts, fears and hopes. Don’t worry if your thoughts are long or complex, and don’t try to edit them. Whatever is in your mind, dump it out! Once you write all these things down, your mind can relax. Move on when you feel like all participants’ brains are empty. Read more about “Dumping out the Legos”.

3: Create right-sized information chunks.

When working with cards at this point, make each one discrete and stick to single sentences. Avoid using the word “and” because that will introduce too many ideas at once. A card in Cardsmith or 2” x 2” sticky notes have the perfect amount of space to enforce this rule. These constraints also help you be concise and clear about each thought. If you have longer ideas from the previous step, this is the time to edit those down to make them shorter and more focused.

Here are some examples of information chunks, right-sized by using Cardsmith cards.

Cards with information chunks

Figure 1. Cardsmith Cards with information “chunks”.

4: Remember that problem solving is a creative act.

Be intentional about whether you are in the divergent or convergent phase of the creative process. These are phases of Design Thinking, the cognitive process from which design concepts emerge. A divergent phase is when you are looking for more: lots of thoughts, many ideas, etc. “Dump out the Legos” is the perfect example of a divergent activity. At some point, you’ll want to transition from divergent to convergent thinking. Convergent means using criteria to sort, group or organize the ideas. It’s making decisions that focus on fewer, rather than many. When you transition to the divergent phase, create a new framing question or objective, then repeat the process.

divergent and convergent phases

Figure 2. Example of divergent and convergent phases in Design Thinking.


5: Get clear on the problem before proceeding to solutions.

This concept is related to #4 but worth calling out as its own step. Often we think we understand the problem at hand and jump into problem-solving mode prematurely. First, spend a moment getting clear about the exact problem, and consider if it is the most important problem to solve. You will be more effective in the long run. Ask yourself questions like, “Are we jumping into solution space too quickly?” “Do we truly understand the problem?” “Is this the most important problem to solve now?” If you are not 100% certain, use step #1 to brainstorm all the possible problems. Try constraining the brainstorm to one area. For example, if you know you are having problems with sales, brainstorm to understand all the symptoms of the sales problem before moving on to seek a solution.

Here’s a hypothetical brainstorm around this question:

problem brainstorming example

Figure 3. Problem Brainstorm in Cardsmith.


6: Select the right visual tool

Think about the type of question being asked. Would a tree, map or list best suit your problem-solving process? There are many options for mapping diagrams such as mind maps, fishbone diagrams, and affinity diagrams. We will discuss these options more in another post, but for now let’s focus on the affinity diagram. This is a great visual tool to use immediately after dumping out the Legos. Affinity diagramming is simply a way to group like with like. Cardsmith makes it easy to drag your ideas into clusters. If you are working in a team, doing this together yields benefits beyond the creation of the diagram itself, as you will discuss in detail why certain cards belong together with others. This will reveal hidden assumptions useful to downstream decision processes.  

Here is an affinity diagram example, based on the above problem brainstorm:  

Affinity diagram

Figure 4. Affinity Diagram in Cardsmith.

Try out visual problem solving to improve your own life!

Now that you know the 6 steps, try this challenge to become more experienced in creative visual problem solving:

  1. Create a Cardsmith board called “Life Problems”. Find a quiet time and place to reflect on all your dissatisfactions with your life. Add the first card to the board and title it something like, “What things in my life are less than ideal?”
  2. Take a moment to thank your mind for all the problems and complaints it tracks on your behalf. Tell your mind it’s okay to think these things, and now is a chance to get free from such a heavy burden, by putting everything on the board.
  3. Then just start dumping out all of the Legos. Write down any thought that comes, whether negative or positive. You have just practiced steps #1 through #4!
  4. Now create an affinity diagram by grouping related cards together. You’ll likely start to see themes or areas of your life that you’d like to improve. I did this myself and while I came up with 27 things that I’m not happy about, when I created the affinity diagram I realized there were only three unique areas that I’d like to improve. Most of the cards are under health and fitness, so wellness activities are clearly worth pursuing!

What will you tackle next?

Now that you know the six simple steps, what problem shall we solve next?

Tell us how you’ve used this process—and Cardsmith cards—to solve complex problems in your own work or life.