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Visual Thinking: A Prerequisite for Democratic Design

May 2019 Presentation
Michael Keeling (IBM Watson Group), Owen Keeling (student)

This presentation applies the theory of visual thinking to software architecture design and provides a method to help architects make abstract ideas concrete.


Software Engineering Institute




The tangibility rule of design thinking tells us that the best way to share abstract ideas is to make them concrete. For software architects, this often means diagramming. As kids we had little trouble expressing our ideas visually, but we’ve noticed that lots of adults have trouble putting pen to paper (or marker to whiteboard) to draw a picture of what’s on their mind. At some point along our journeys to earn diplomas and advanced degrees, many of us lost the ability to think visually. Drawing complex ideas became difficult. This is a major problem for software architects since our job requires us to reason about and share complex ideas.

Visual thinking is a prerequisite for democratizing design. This means everyone needs the ability to think visually. Drawing pictures—the right kinds of pictures—and using those pictures to tell stories allow us to make the abstract more concrete, the complex seem simple. Think of it as a form of analytical literacy that is just as important for architects and developers to have as quality attribute scenarios or decision trade-off analysis. In any democracy, education is the key to success and literacy is the basis of education. If our goal is to decentralize design authority among a team, then the whole team must have the ability to think visually so they can spread the design ideas that enable decentralized decision making.

In this session, we will learn about the theory behind visual thinking and how it applies to software architecture design. We'll also gain firsthand experience through practice. All participants will leave the session with a workbook they may use to continue advancing their visual thinking skills.