Visual Thinking for (PhD) Researchers

Lecturer: Sebastian Kernbach

Modality: In presence

Preliminary workshop: 09 - 10 August 2024

This two-day workshop is free of charge for participants of regular workshops (week 1 or 2) or can be booked by itself for a fee (200 CHF).


Workshop Contents and Objectives
The overall aim of this workshop is to help participants enhance their thinking and communication skills through the use of visual thinking, such as diagrams, knowledge maps or visual metaphors.

Working on a dissertation or research paper can be frustrating at times. Sometimes it may be because we feel overloaded with ideas and thoughts (cognitively), or we may feel overwhelmed and not motivated (emotionally), or we feel disconnected from our supervisor or peers (socially). Visual thinking is promising to overcome those challenges and work more productively and enjoyable.

This workshop will provide participants with the foundation of what visual thinking is and why it is beneficial for our thinking and communication. Based on these foundations, participants will learn more about the benefits and risks of visual thinking. Participants will see different visual forms through examples (tree diagrams, empathy maps and many more) and acquire sketching skills to express themselves visually (You don't have to be a good draftsman or be creative to be able to sketch!). Participants will apply what they have learned to visualise the story of their PhD or research project and the process of conducting a literature review. In addition, you are more than welcome to bring your current research problem or challenge so that we can tackle it visually.

The objectives of the workshop are that participants should:

  • know

…what visual thinking is and why it is relevant for researchers
…the benefits and risks of visual thinking
…what to visualise (visual templates, basic shapes, symbols)
…when to visualise (triggers)

  • be able

…to sketch visual templates (diagrams, metaphors, knowledge maps), basic shapes, symbols
…to apply visual thinking to their own research projects (e.g. the story of your PhD)

  • approach

…value the (visual) process (concept of rapid prototyping from Design Thinking)
…value failure/mistakes as a healthy part of that process
…think visually (automatically) when approaching future problems and challenges

The workshop will be hands-on, with short inputs from the instructor and time to work on the exercises and own projects visually, where the instructor and peers will operate as sparring partners in a friendly environment.

The course has no specific prerequisites. An open mind and curiosity are very welcome. Please note that visual thinking does not require any specific drawing skills. In fact, drawing too beautifully can take away from the value of visual thinking. So please, don't be shy and join even if you think of yourself as a not-so-good draftsman.

Recommended Reading
Clark, J.M., Paivio, A. (1991). Dual Coding Theory and Education. Educational Psychology Review, 3(3), 149-210.
Eppler, M. (2004). Visuelle Kommunikation - Der Einsatz von graphischen Metaphern zur Optimierung des Wissentransfers. In Wissenskommunikation in Organisationen: Methoden, Instrumente, Theorien, 13-31. Berlin: Springer.
Eppler, M.J. and Pfister, R. (2011), Sketching at Work: A Guide to Visual Problem Solving and Communication, MCM Institute, St. Gallen.
Koffka, K. (1935). Principles of Gestalt psychology. New York: Harcourt, Brace.
Larkin, J., Simon, H. (1987). Why a diagram is (sometimes) worth ten thousand words. Cognitive Science, 11(1), 65-99.
Mayer, C. (2007), Hieroglyphen der Psyche: Mit Patientenskizzen zum Kern der Psychodynamik, Schattauer, Berlin.
Tversky, B. (2001). Spatial Schemas in Depictions. In Spatial Schemas and Abstract Thought, 79-112. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institut of Technology.
Tversky, B. (2002), ''What do sketches say about thinking'', available at: (accessed 21 March 2011).
Tversky, B. (2004). Visuospatial reasoning. The Cambridge Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning, 14(9), 209-240.
Tversky, B. and Suwa, M. (2009), ''Thinking with sketches'', in Markman, A.B. and Wood, K.L. (Eds), Tools for Innovation: The Science Behind the Practical Methods that Drive Innovation, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 75-85.