3 steps to better visual language skills

There is one language our brain is instantly capable of speaking, from birth. It is tolerated in primary school, seriously neglected in secondary, and by the time we leave college, it’s almost forgotten. Yes, I’m talking about pictures and images. Current L&D practice doesn’t leave much room for them, even though pictures are a crucial thinking, design, and communication tool. Here are some tips to improve your visual language skills.

Acquiring skills for free

A language we all speak

A language we all speak when we are kids

Talking about bilingual families, I often hear comments about “how lucky” their children are. How so? Well, they are growing up with an extra language “for free”. No effort, no evening classes, no study work. A language for free. How lucky.

And yet we are all born with innate capacity to speak a very powerful, international language. We communicate with pictures before we can read. We learn a vast amount of information and skills as illiterate children through the use of pictures. How lucky.

School does a pretty good job at suppressing all our drawing and picture instincts, but our brain doesn’t give up: it still processes visuals quickly and with minimum effort.

Death by clipart

No. Please. Not. Him. Again.

No. Please. Not. Him. Again.

And this is why you can detect a boring learning solution at first glance. There it is, the tired sticky figure trying to tell us something important, and clearly not succeeding. In fact, its very presence makes the content that comes with it much less attractive, tired, repetitive. Death by clipart again.

If you think you don’t have the time, skills or resources to come up with your own images, I’d blame your schools and colleges, not you. They convinced you that text is king and you lack those visual skills. Time to reclaim your free gift in 3 steps.

1. Rediscover

Rediscover the basics of drawing and how it supports the thinking process. Drawing is crucially important during the brainstorming, design and prototyping phases of any learning solution. They give you an advantage by adding speed to all these processes. Books such as The Sketchnote Handbook (Rohde, M.), The Doodle Revolution (Brown, S.) or The Back of the Napkin (Roam, D.) will let you recover your dormant skills. Read at least one, and then practice.

2. Sentences

Think sentences, not words. In this text-based world, we tend to think in text units. Letters combine to form words, and words to form sentences. But it strikes me to see how many people think about images as words rather than sentences. When they search for clipart or a picture, they type just one word in the search box. But pictures can tell a whole story, with present, past and future. They are much more than an adjective or a noun. So when you think about visuals, assign them the value of a sentence, not that of a word. Doodle, sketch, draw and take pictures with sentences in mind.

3. Shoot

Your (phone) camera can help create original material with simple subjects

Your (phone) camera can help create original material using everyday items

Your camera is your friend. There are simple messages that can be easily captured using some common items found around the office and at home. Time-related concepts? Grab a watch, put it on a newspaper, take a few shots from different angles and chances are you’ll find one shot that is unique, original and relevant to the work at hand. Even if you only spend a few minutes per week taking pictures, over time you will build your own personal library. Bye-bye clipart.

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