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Understanding Visual SenseMaking

Updated: Nov 13, 2019

What Is the Difference and Does It Matter?

We have been practicing Visual SenseMaking at Humantific since our inception in 2001, and I have personally been practicing it for 20+ years. About 10 years ago, there was a boom in visual thinking. We see this interest continuing to rise in how visual thinking can contribute to complex change-making in organizations and societies. We are happy campers!

However, what has come with that rise of visual thinking is also confusion regarding the value and differences between various visualization techniques and approaches.

In this short post, I will share how we see the key differences between Visual SenseMaking and the popular activity known as Graphic Recording. Both add value but they do so in very different ways. One is not the other.

Photos begin to tell the story:

At first glance Graphic Recording and Visual SenseMaking might appear similar to some observers. There are a few similarities but these are two very different skill-sets, useful in different contexts and leading to very different outcomes. Let’s look deeper:


The central value proposition of Graphic Recording is to visually record a meeting from the perspective of the recorder who is listening. The primary application of Graphic Recording is noting real time group conversations visually. From our perspective, a Graphic Recorder is a visual stenographer.

Typical characteristics of Graphic Recording:

  1. Purpose: Create a visual record/memory of what was presented/spoken in a meeting or conference to engage participants and enhance its memory

  2. End product: Often a large mural like drawing/illustration

  3. Graphic Style: Illustrative and artistic

  4. Skills required: Real-time listening, synthesizing, and visualizing/ illustrating

  5. Place of Activity: Back or side of the room

  6. Type of Activity: Passive/Linear/Individual

  7. Role: Transcribing visually

  8. What it looks like: The Graphic Recorder interprets what he/she hears and creates a drawing on the sidelines, without interacting with the group/asking questions.


The central value proposition of Visual SenseMaking is to help others make sense of complexity using visual methods and tools. From our perspective, a Visual SenseMaker is a complexity clarifier and organizer of thinking.

Typical characteristics of Visual SenseMaking:

  1. Purpose: Bring clarity and understanding to complex situations to inform and facilitate action/change, often in a meeting format

  2. End product: Often a series of interconnected visuals/diagrams

  3. Graphic Style: diagrammatic and infographic

  4. Skills required: Real-time listening, synthesizing, visualizing/diagramming, and problem solving facilitating (process mastery)

  5. Place of Activity: Front of the room

  6. Type of Activity: Active Facilitation/Iterative/Collaborative

  7. Role: Facilitating understanding.

  8. What it looks like: The Visual SenseMaker facilitates the process from the center of the room, ask questions, engages all participants and synthesizes/ aligns the group’s thinking by creating a diagram or series of diagrams.


At Humantific, we apply sensemaking within complex and challenging situations and have created a 5-Dimensional SenseMaking Model of where we apply it:     


  • Making Sense of the Opportunity/Challenge

  • Making Sense of the Human Behaviors in the Opportunity/ Challenge

  • Making Sense of the Data/Information in the Opportunity/ Challenge

  • Making Sense of the Project Teams Thinking Styles

  • Making Sense of the Opportunity/Challenge Owners Thinking Styles

Why are clear definitions for Visual SenseMaking and Graphic Recording important?

We are fans of clarity… being in the clarity/understanding business!

This is especially important, given how numerous forward thinking organizations including The Institute of the Future have identified SenseMaking as an important future work skill. If you are up for the SenseMaking journey, understanding these differences will help you get skilled in the right path.

Happy SenseMaking!



We have been teaching Visual SenseMaking to organizational leaders as part of our Complexity Navigation Program for more than 12 years. This skill-building program is Humantific’s version of Design Thinking, beyond product, service and experience creation.

In the program, we supercharge Visual SenseMaking by combining it with Strategic CoCreation and Design Research. We believe that combined these three streams represent extraordinary 21st century leadership skills, and our client’s continue to think so too.

Program Note: In addition to our Complexity Navigation Program we teach introductory Visual SenseMaking virtually as part of our partnership with The Future Work Skills Academy.

This is a new program designed around the future work skills identified by The Institute of the Future in California. You can find more information here: The Future Works Skills Academy.



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