Problem Solving: Does Visual Representation Truly Help?

“The human perceptual system has the power to deal with problems efficiently and effectively when presented in visual form.” - Lloyd (1994)
Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Visual Representation in Solving Problems

Problem-solving isn’t always the one we encounter at work when we are tasked to “solve a problem”, it transcends way beyond that into our lives as humans and as professionals. Martinez(1998) defined problem-solving as “the process of moving towards a goal when the path to that goal is uncertain”. Simply put, problem-solving is when we try to achieve a goal without having known ahead of time how to do so.

This means, it could be something as little as “planning a dinner date” or “preparing for a court case” or “constructing a factory on a sloped lot”.  It is the process of looking for a solution. Holyoak(1995)  defined a solution as the sequence of operators that can transform the initial state into the goal state in accordance with the path constraints. Thus, problem-solving requires methods and actions to find a solution. One of such actions or methods is via visual representation. 

Visualization as a problem solving tool

Finke et al(1992) maintained that researchers who study the problem-solving process have long recognized visualization as a problem-solving tool. Lloyd(1994) explained that most people find a problem very difficult to solve mentally, and a way to solve problems is to construct a visual representation of the problem’s entry conditions.

Antonietti(1991) in his publication on “Why does mental visualization facilitate problem-solving?” opined that visual images in problem-solving may result in a notable degree of success. He maintained that figural representations are useful mentally to simulate the situation and the transformations described in the problem. According to Khan(2015), visual aids are tools that help to make an issue or lesson clearer or easier to understand and know (pictures, models, charts, maps, videos, slides, real objects, etc.). 

A picture says 1000 words

A famous Chinese proverb attributed to Confucious says “hearing something a hundred times isn’t better than seeing it once”. This is sometimes presented as being similar to the words of Alan Wilson Watts, a famous English writer and philosopher, saying “one showing is worth a hundred sayings”.

There is another maxim that ”if we hear we forget, if we see we remember, and if we do something we know it”. Napoleon is also quoted as saying “Un bon croquis vaut mieux qu’un long discours” which means “a good sketch is better than a long speech” in English. All these are not quoted to undermine the extremely valuable importance of words, rather, it’s to explain how problem-solving can be better with well-depicted visual representations and aids. 

Antonietti(1991) further explained that visualization can operate in problem-solving both after and before the problem is given. He opined that “in this way, familiar, but misleading, strategies of reasoning can be substituted with new and productive directions of thinking which avoid the “traps” created by the verbal formulation.”

In conclusion, visual representation can help tackle problems in steps and focus on one part of a whole at separate times. It can help present a problem to others in a way that they can relate to it and form a mental connection and picture of the problem that is to be solved. Simply put, it can help to understand a problem ourselves and then gain consensus with others on it.  An example of this is an attorney in a case using animation to present a visual representation of the medical damage caused to a client. This is done to the end that a decision to “solve the problem” presented before the court is solved in their favor.

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