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Visualization is the process of a visualizer transfering a concept or design to an image. Visualization supports the creative process by bringing one's ideas to life in a picture, thereby incoporating both verbal and visual thinking. This tool can be utilized by anyone and is particularly useful during concept development, brainstorming sessions and work sessions (e.g. courses or workshops).

    General Description

    This tool description is based on the way a Dutch industrial design company (JAM) puts visual thinking in practice (http://www.jam-site.nl/). This tool assists in BwN projects in clarifying a certain issue at stake, including roles and responsibilities of people involved. It also helps in illuminating project objectives and to gain a distinct overview of the situation. The results serve as a communication tool for all people involved in the project.

    Context, purpose and results

    Visual thinking is the process of translating one's thoughts to relatively simple images on paper. This process has proven to be very useful in assisting the development of concepts, identifying key elements, and synthesizing group ideas. Building with Nature has implemented this tool during workshops to translate conceptual designing discussions into conceptual design visualizations. It follows the idea that “an image speaks a thousand words”.

    A good visual translation starts with understanding stakeholder positions and what the essence of the actual issue is. Often this is not clear for many people involved. Visualisation assists in gaining understanding of the problem and its related aspects. By the process of visual thinking the main topic is questioned in order to clarify the issue at stake. Hereby the problem statement is converted into tangible pieces so that coherence can be visualised and missing elements of the issues can be identified. Subsequently these parts can be discussed and filled in. In addition, visualisation can also be used to entertain or inspire people; this depends on the setting and objectives. Often organisations state new idea totally elaborated in words, clear for the designers, but not so easily understandable for others; the thing missing is a clear drawing, showing the concept in one glance. Also, when visualising thoughts, people may find gaps in their plan. Visual thinking helps to finalise the proposal into a more clear design.

    The result is a holistic drawing or sketch of the issue, which displays the whole state of affairs in one glance. Often the drawing is combined with written explanation or words in the sketch in order to raise understanding and increase recognition. The drawing provides an overview of the situation and contributes to effective communication.

    Usage skills

    Depending on the chosen setting and purpose of the visualisation process certain skills are required. In case of a workshop a professional visualiser is needed who teaches the basics of how to draw. In case of a session or project an experienced visualiser is required who is able to sketch quickly and at the same time is able to integrate with the discussion as well. Furthermore a facilitator is required who is able to lead the discussion and who summarises what is being said in between. In this way it is easier for the visualiser to translate things being said into a sketch and to synthesize group ideas. In both cases it is favourable if the visualiser has an industrial design background and is able to think process wise, analyse issues and conceptualise ideas.

    BwN interest

    Within Building with Nature projects it is a task to bring different parties together, to develop new ideas in cooperation with stakeholders and to synthesize group ideas. New concepts need to be disseminated to the wider public in order to settle and grow. Especially as BwN design are often ‘soft’ natural measures, and consequently less acquaint with this concept compared to the traditional technical solutions. Visualisations can hereby assist, to clarify the BwN concepts. With this in mind, the tool functions as an ideal means to inspire people raise new ideas and creativity. Also it invites stakeholders to become part of the design process. Furthermore, visualisations serve as a tool to stimulate communication and gain attention of the public. Also it assists in clarifying objectives, roles and responsibilities and maps different parts of a project in one overview.

    Project applications

    The tool is applicable in many different kinds of projects, especially when issues at stake have a high level of complexity. Furthermore it is an appropriate means to inspire or entertain people, but also to set out new visions or future designs. Though, the tool is probably less suitable for people in textual work fields, like lawyers for example.

    Project phases

    Visual thinking is valuable in project phases where creativity plays a major role. Therefore, it is probably most effective in the first two phases of a project; the initiation phase and the planning and design phase. 
    In the initiation phase the tool can be seen as an invitation to creative solutions and thinking in wider perspectives. Though, at the same time it can be applied to set clear objectives and to scope the project. 
    In the planning and design phase the tool helps to involve, communicate and interact with actors, stakeholders and experts. By analysis of the situation, one gains better understanding of the system.

    Furthermore it assists in clarifying roles and responsibilities and to tighten and strengthen the design by identifying white spots in the proposal.

    How to Use


    Basically, to place things in a very simple perspective, the process can be seen as the shape of an hourglass. The start of visual thinking is quite broad as everyone involved brings in ideas and time is taken for discussion about the issue at stake (top of the hourglass). Then all important elements of the issue concerned are derived from the conversation and drawn in a sketch (the middle of the hourglass). This drawing is discussed and adjusted where necessary. In the result people see their own contributions of ideas and this creates a support base. Then the drawing can be used as a reference in further discussions and functions as a means of dissemination and communication to wider public (bottom of the hourglass).

    Three possible settings

    There are three different situations of settings where visual thinking can be applied. Though before pointing out these, it is important to mention that each project is different in its own way and visual thinking is scalable.

    • Sessions: A session never takes longer than one day. A group of people discusses a certain issue and in the same time the draftsman draws a visual translation of the proceeding conversation. Almost no time is taken to evaluate the drawing and it is not adjusted; rather a new one is drafted. The purpose of visualisation during the session is to inspire, entertain or create better understanding of the issue (or concept, view, vision) at stake.
    • Project: A project takes longer and certain steps need to be taken to come to the end result. Instructions or explanations are provided by the project team, and the drawing is reviewed and modified till it satisfies the requirements. This setting is made more explicit in the section ´How to use´.
    • Education/workshop: In a workshop people are educated on how to make simple drawings themselves and how to use visualisation in their own project management. One learns the basic principles of thinking by means of pictures. This supports improvement of the process of thought and to share ideas.


    Preferably two visualisers are attending the setting, with the intention that reflection and deliberation between the two are possible in order to gain the best result. In this way they can amplify on each other. Also hereby the meeting becomes more dynamic and vital, as the visualisers together are more agile and collaboration enhances their capability. Though, if this is not possible, one drawer will do.

    A group facilitator is essential to ensure that the visualiser(s) is linked properly to the on-going technical discussion.

    Pencils in a couple of different colours are useful as well as large papers or something else to sketch or draw on (e.g. blackboard). It is also possible to draw on maptable (link), a computer or wall, though normal paper and pen are preferred. Other materials are actually only favourable if the goal is to entertain. Otherwise, these materials are distracting. The advantage of paper sheets is that they are easy to lay next to each other. Also it shows to be more handcraft and looks more real as it is very clear what happens; somebody making an illustration. Other materials are cursory and vulnerable for other applications like pictures (from internet for example) or already existing cartoons or icons. This creates non-desirable distance due to technical implications and potential disturbances. In most projects it is essential that most important stakeholders attend the discussion in order to gain a thorough coverage of the context, processes and needs.

    Within a project, two teams are required: a core team is requisite taking decisions about the end product; and a stakeholder team is necessary to recognise the issues at stake and agree with the end product.

    A workshop or educational setting requires motivated people who are willing to learn how to visualise their thoughts.

    Phased plan process visual thinking in projects

    Step 1: Kick off, starting at the problem statement and working towards visual solutions. In this step one decides on which medium will be used (e.g. maptable, paper and pencil, wall drawing).

    1. Analysis of the problem statement
      In this stage a lot of sketches are made, discussions are held with the different stakeholders and re-sketching is done. Here drawing is a very iterative process and the drawer is part of the dialogue. It is important to involve the different stakeholders from the beginning as this creates wider support for the project and they are plausibly part of the solution. When sketching the different parts of the issue together in one overview, the context, processes and the stakeholders with their needs become more transparent and clear.
    2. Overview of solutions
      The different elements assemble in (parts of) an overarching metaphor. By choice of composition and scale one illustrates the importance and value. Elements can be drawn up in detail or stay on a vague abstract level in the sketch. This visualisation also makes it literally possible to really see solutions.
    3. Solutions in a conceptual frame
      The solutions clearly develop and the roles of different stakeholders become more straightforward. The jointly established concept contains a new story about the issue which is more bright and comprehensible. Though not only solutions are issued, also the current situation can be clearly visualised.

    Step 2: Design for application

    1. Style and content for target group
      As by visualisation the concept is clear now and the idea is elaborated on, it needs to be computed in the intended style and poured in a sufficient medium. Depending on the purpose of the visualisation, a choice is made whether textual explanation is added to the drawing.
    2. Feedback and adjustments
      The drawing needs to be very precise both on micro and macro level. Here, strong cooperation between client and draftsman is required whereby the target group serves as the basic principle. Feedback and adjustments are made several times, until the drawing really highlights the issue.
    3. Final design
      The drawing is processed up to an appropriate means of communication. This can be a combination of print, presentation or animation. The result can be used by the client and other stakeholders.

    Step 3: Implementation

    1. Involvement of target group
      The target group will be involved and their comments on the result are taken along.
    2. Processing feedback
      The necessary adjustments for different target groups are processed, whereby some important elements get more attention in the result.
    3. Adjustments for implementation

    When the visual design is familiar at all different levels of stakeholders, it can be used as reference. Communication becomes more efficient by the visual metaphor. The core team and stakeholders are trained to properly use the result and explain it in an appropriate and understandable way.

    Phased plan process visual thinking in workshops

    Step 1: Kick off, dare to draw
    Explanation on the fact that everyone can draw. Participants are urged to let go their insecurity and get the pencil on paper. 
    Step 2: Learn how to draw basic elements (adjusted to their professional environment), people (individuals, groups and specific professions), environments, relations and compositions.
    Step 3: Practice and application. Participants learn by doing. To more advanced drawing participants is learnt how to draw action, reading order, shadows, cross-cuts, systems and perspective. In between each new topic there is a practice by drawing it.
    Step 4: Custom made exercises

    Setting of activity

    As long as the requirements are in place, visual thinking can be applied in various settings like conferences, congresses, assemblies, meetings, symposia or workshops. It can also be used in rudimentary locations without any modern facilities. Also for illiterate people this tool can be very convenient to gain an overview of the situation and to discuss the issue.

    Advice and recommendations

    Some practical recommendations can be given, learned during the Visual Thinking sessions, held within the BwN program.

    • It turns out to be efficient to have one visualiser for every discussion group, with each discussion group being ideally between 5-8 participants (including the facilitator).
    • Consider training local design students to assist in the visualisation process (minimum 2 days intensive training needed with high quality design students).
      Group facilitation is key to ensure the visualiser is properly linked to the technical discussion and needs to be part of the interaction.
    • Provide the visualisation team with word lists and the course preparation material to aid in their preparation and familiarise themselves with the terminology.
    • Take the time to more thoroughly explain some of the more complicated aspects of the discussion to the visualiser (technical, scientific and socio-economic components).
    • Have the visualisation team produce visualisations during lectures as well during discussion sessions.
    • A thinkable disadvantage of visual thinking is that it deprives fantasy. This is comparable to a book which is filmed. The fantasy of the reader is not prompted anymore, as the story is already shown by the ideas of the director. The same thing happens by the ideas of the draftsman who visualises the issues at stake. This doesn’t have to be a problem, but one needs to be aware of this occurrence.

    Practical Applications


    The tool was applied in two projects within the BwN Singapore case. In the project ‘eco-dynamic design for coastal defence’ several local and regional scientists, consultants and employees of governmental agencies were brought together in a two-days course. Visual thinking had to initiate, stimulate and support communication among the participants of the course. The program consisted of 3 steps.

    Step 1: 
    Firstly two days were taken to educate five local students of the Singaporean art and design university how to visualise and synthesize ideas in a clear sketch. This training was given by two employees of JAM. For the students this was a training whereby they could gain credits for their degree.

    Step 2:
    Within these two days of training a practice session was held with people of Building with Nature and the students in order to exercise. Discussions were held and students made visualisations during these. Results were discussed afterwards and feedback was given.

    Step 3:
    The actual course started and discussions were held on four different cases during the two days. Students made visualisations when dialogues proceeded, resulting in several conceptual designs.

    Contribution of results to the project
    As a result of the two days course tangible conceptual designs were made. The visualisation stimulated communication among the participants and created co-ownership. The drawings served as an attractive means to share knowledge, gain attention and disseminate ideas.


    Visualization team that EcoShape and SDWA worked with in Singapore when providing an Eco-Engineering Course:

    JAM | visual thinking
    Mr. Wouter Boog , JAM - Visualizer (wouter@visueeldenken.com)
    Mr. Joost Fluitsma , JAM - Visualizer (joost@visueeldenken.com)
    JAM website

    National University of Singapore - School of Design & Environment
    Ms. Selene Chew , NUS - Visualizer (secret88kid@gmail.com)
    Mr. Willie Tay , NUS - Visualizer (willi3.nakata@gmail.com)
    Mr. Chua Heng Huat , NUS - Visualizer (henghuat@gmail.com)
    Ms. Mei Zhen Chang , NUS - Visualizer (meiz.mz@gmail.com)
    NUS School of Design & Environment website

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