Visual thinking

This concept refers to the capacity or ability to combine images, representations, models or structures in different ways in order to achieve a solution in a technological system. An historical well known figure who exemplifies in a memorable way the possibilities of the visual thinking is the artist and engineer Leonardo da Vinci. His drawings and comments reflect the peculiarities of the results he produced by analogical procedures. An example of this cognitive process can be found when Leonardo compares muscles with levers, or the flight of a bird in particular moments with the turn of a screw. Consequently some contributions were made by him and others in the Renaissance to the creation of a visual language, which has a remarkable influence in the following years. The different techniques intended to the mechanization of drawing produced since the 16th Century prove the interest in establishing rules and routines in this sort of knowledge.

perspectographPerspectograph, Ludovico Cigoli, c.1610 (

The meaning of visual thinking in history and in the transmission of knowledge was compared with other similar mental skills and experiences not codified. Karl Polanyi attributed to these cognitive dimensions a central role in his book Personal Knowledge (1958). Later on he published the book Tacit Dimension (1966); so concepts such as “tacit knowledge” and “know-how” acquired a particular significance in the epistemological approaches to human activities and practices. The relevance of this type of experiences in the domain of technology was noted by Eugene S. Ferguson in the 1970s. Particular interest had his seminal paper untitled “The Mind’s Eye: Nonverbal Thought in Technology” (Science, 197, 1977) which covered the main historical, cultural and psychological issues involved in the process of thinking with pictures. There he examined topics such as the role that nonverbal thought had played in technologists practices since the Renaissance; the traditions of illustrated books; the emergence of new trends in education that paid special attention to artisan work and trades; the techniques aimed at the reproduction of images, and last but not least, the use of objects in teaching. A great part of these activities are not the result of the simple application of analytical geometry mental tools.

In a later publication, Engineering and the Mind’s Eye (1992), Ferguson extended the issues above mentioned to other observations and evidences. There is for instance a reference worth mentioning to visual patterns that defines the “personal style” of inventors. In the case of Thomas A. Edison -the example attended in the book- it was identified a “visual thread” that connects his different creations. As Ferguson puts it, taking into consideration Reese Jenkins historical studies, “Edison used again and again an array of mechanical combinations that he adapted to such diverse machines as the phonograph, the printing telegraph, the mechanical teleautograph […] the kinetoscope […] One combination of elements of style that appeared in Edison’s designs was a rotating drum or cylinder” (26-28).

Along the course of history there have been numerous efforts made to transmit visual knowledge (drawing techniques, perspective machines, cameras obscura, projection devices, printing processes…) and to systematize the principles of mechanisms (see the “mechanical alphabet” by Christopher Polhem or the Essai sur la composition des Machines by José María de Lanz and Agustín de Betancourt, 1808). Nevertheless, as Dennis R. Herschbach states, this type of knowledge “cannot be easily expressed formally. Descriptions, diagrams, and pictures help to explain tacit knowledge, but it largely results from individual practice and experience” (Herschbach, 1995, 35-36). And this is common not only in mechanical arts but in the so-called high-tech industries, electronics and telecommunications.

References and further reading

Rudolf Arnheim, Visual Thinking, University of California Press, 1969; Dennis R. Herschbach (1995), “Technology as knowledge: implications for instruction”, Journal of Technology Education, 7, 1, 31-42; Eugene S. Ferguson (1977). “The Mind’s Eye: Nonverbal Thought in Technology”, Science, 197, 827-836; Eugene S. Ferguson (1992). Engineering and the Mind’s Eye. Massachusetts, The MIT Press; Klaus Hentschel (2014). Visual Cultures in Science and Technology: A Comparative Study, Oxford University Press; Anthonie Meijers, ed. (2009). Philosophy of Technology and Engineering Sciences, Amsterdam, Elsevier, vol. 9


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