ELC interviews Allison Crow, Visual Thinker

Allison Crow is a principal at Crow Hill Conversations, a visual thinking company. She was one of the highest rated speakers at E-Learning Symposium Austin and we are pleased to have her back for E-Learning Symposium Houston and her September 28th workshops at MicroAssist

ELC: Allison, can you tell me a bit about yourself?

Allison: I am creative professional and I own a visual thinking company that specializes in capturing and delivering information that can be processed with the whole brain for enhanced learning. I’m sure you’re asking, “WHAT the heck does that mean?”

ELC: Actually that was my question, what is visual thinking?

Allison: Simply put, it is using pictures to make meaning and to organize information. People can be visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners — or a combination of those. 86% are visual first. And often, in learning situations, people are delivering information in auditory or text formats. Visual thinking is about using pictures to help people solve problems, draw out ideas, think about complex issues, and communicate more effectively.

ELC: That makes sense. How do you go about capturing information and transferring it to a visual format?

Allison: I work a few different ways. Often, I work in a live large scale format. I have HUGE paper, at least 4 ft high and 8 ft or longer. I have a set of fancy markers and I listen, then synthesize what is being said and “throw” that on to the paper. I also have been recently working on the iPad. Using drawing apps, I can do the same process on the small screen with a stylus and my fingers. This can be cool, because some of the programs actually record my strokes so I can make a cool video of the entire process.

ELC: I’ve seen you do that. It’s impressive how quickly you can abstract the essentials of a message and display it visually.

Allison: Thanks. The tricky part is LISTENING and then converting to visuals. Over time, I’ve built up my visual vocabulary. ANYONE can learn visual language.

ELC: Our audience is focused on creating E-Learning? Can your methods translate to that medium?

Allison: I think that they can. First of all, everyone is tired of the same old PowerPoint message, don’t you think? Our eyes have become to familiar with the format and so for learning application, information is likely to get glossed over. Using visuals, even hand drawn ones, triggers BOTH sides of the brain.

ELC: What are the distinguishing features between “visuals” and what most of us create in PowerPoint?

Allison: Well, I know many people use clip art and images in PowerPoint… and that is a start. I’m a huge fan of photos because they too trigger more action in the brain that just plain type. Hand drawn images have this sneaky little appeal. They are “human” and people are often drawn to the imperfect nature of them.

ELC: True. Hand drawn implies that I have to learn to draw! I haven’t really gotten past grade school stick figures.

Allison: Ah yes. This is the biggest obstacle to overcome, and I say, NONSENSE! In grade school, most ALL of us loved to draw. We had no fear and then this inner critic crept in. There are some pretty easy tricks that I help my students learn. Funny thing is, they already know them…I guess I just show them and remind them how to use them. The artistic quality of one’s pictures isn’t the point! In fact, ugly works GREAT!

Allison: Can you draw a stick figure?

ELC: Yes, I’ve taken your class. I can draw a stick figure, card people, and even diamond figures. I am still working on developing a visual language — translating concepts to pictures.

Allison: Wanna great cheat for that?

ELC: I was going to ask you for tips.

Allison: First, there are many books out there that can help. And when I want a fresh idea, I use the Google image search feature.

ELC: Ah that’s a cheat I do use. Allison: And it most often works! ELC: It does take time and practice.

Allison: And when it doesn’t, we use lettering, bullets, arrows, or call out boxes for visual tracking. I still use tons of WORDS in my graphics. And I’ve learned (and now teach) ways to make those words stand out, demand attention!

ELC: I have to tell you, since I took your class I have a set of Sharpie’s at my desk and 11×17 paper. I do a lot of my thinking and communicating for meetings using that larger canvas. It has helped me solve some very complex problems. The large canvas alone is a help.

Allison: Exactly!

ELC: We use the methodology to create the concepts for our E-Learning, long before we create the E-Learning.

Allison: Story boarding….that is a well known visual method. Another huge value of visual thinking…..

ELC: True but for me this is a step before that. Storyboarding is often about specific steps in a learning process. We’ve used visual thinking to create the overall concept for the course. What are the important ideas we want to convey? Who is the audience? How do we communicate these complex concepts with them?

Allison: Yes! It helps you organize your information, for sure! ELC: The other way we have used visual thinking is to help us decide the direction of proposals.

Allison: That makes me happy to hear! How does YOUR brain jive when thinking that way vs. standard note taking or brainstorming with a word-processing doc or notepad?

ELC: The method jives well with my brain. My training is as an engineer. Very visual thinker.

Allison: Most people really respond to the hand drawn visuals, whether they are seeing them presented by another, or creating them themselves. Here is why: Visuals trigger the part of the brain that FEELS. And when we FEEL, things in the THINKING & LEARNING part of our brain tend to STICK.

ELC: There is a lot of research from the software development folks that “imperfect prototypes” also turn off the inner critic and people focus on the essence of the message instead of details. Perhaps this applies to hand drawn images as well.

Allison: Absolutely. I just would love other people to experience the magic of visual thinking. Either for professional use or personal. My dream would be for everyone to have a set of markers and blank 11×17 paper at their desk! I can help teach anyone the basics….and that is all anyone needs!

ELC: Allison, I look forward to seeing you at E-Learning Symposium Houston. I have to say, your workshop was the most fun workshop I’ve attended. I noticed a lot of students came for a half-day session and decided to stay all day.

Allison: Thank you. I’m looking forward to teaching it again! Markers UP, folks! Let’s draw!

Allison: And leave the inner critic on the side of the road somewhere.

Interested in more info on visual thinking? Register for Allison’s workshops on September 28th in Austin and come see her present in Houston at E-Learning Symposium 2011 Houston on October 25-26. 

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  1. jnjcej6 says

    Can you say more about the link between graphic information and emotion. It seems like different members of any audience would have different emotional reactions to an image – any truth to that? Any advice on choosing the right graphic metaphors, etc.?

    • AllisonCrow says

      Naturally, individuals in an audience, since they have different experiences, may have different emotional reactions. In using visual thinking, what they feel isn’t as specifically as important as THAT emotions are engaged. The emotions lead to more thought and greater retention.

      When visual images are used in learning the awaken the senses in the primary visual cortex. Learners identify images in graphic organizers to define their symbolic meaning with the ventral stream. In the dorsal stream, the physical location of the graphic image contributes to the logic of the image and its meaning as a part of a greater whole. As the information is further processed in the lymbic system (the emotional brain) of the brain, individualized meaning for the individual is triggered.

      As far as choosing the right graphic metaphors, there are some great visual dictionaries out there. Also, keeping images simple is enough to get the brain to do the function you need. The key is using images that most everyone could interpret.

      These notes http://crowhillconversations.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/proxy.php_.jpeg from a Viz Note taking class show how some simple images can be created…and I teach a basic intro vocab in the courses with Microassist.


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