5 ways to create your visual vocabulary

Way back when
I remember back in the days when my “doodles” were seen as a distraction by teachers. They would say: ‘If you want to draw, do it in the creative hour, not during classes’.
They had no clue why I was drawing all the time. Until one day one teacher discovered why. After a listening comprehension test the teacher was amazed that I got all the answers right.
Maybe he thought that I had a photographic memory. That’s when he saw my notes. All little drawings. As he was reading the text, I made the “notes”. He was amused by them and showed the whole class.

How did I know what each of the drawings meant? I had less than an A4 of drawings while my classmates had written 2 or 3 A4’s full of notes. And still they didn’t get all the answers right.
It comes down to the visual vocabulary. I had unintentionally developed a visual vocabulary for myself. Back in the days I would “see” the sentence, occurrence or cluster of words as an image. I would jot down that image on paper.
Problem with this method is that words can get a different image in my mind over time. For a one time thing such as taking a test this method is okay, because the meaning of the images remains in my short term memory.

For recurring things, such as when I’m working on complex interfaces, I developed a visual vocabulary to use consistently across the projects. All these projects use their own terminology and have their own flow. So the vocabulary will grow or change over time.
Some terms remain the same, such as: user-story, database, input, output, code etc.
Visual Vocabulary

5 tips for developing the visual vocabulary.

1. Go through the whole alphabet
You can draw an image for each letter of the alphabet.
I do recommend this as practice, however it doesn’t make much sense for real life issues. It does expand your visual vocabulary nonetheless.

2. Go through the dictionary
Just randomly pick a word in a dictionary and see what images come up. Draw the image that represents the word most accurately in your opinion. This is for you, not someone else. You aren’t designing an icon set (yet).

3. Listen to other people talk
Words and images tend to appear while you are listening to a speech, reading a book or even watching a movie. Draw what you hear other people say. This is also fun to do. If the image is memorable, meaning if an image can be used elsewhere, write down what it represents and save it into your visual vocabulary.

4. Pick a random Ted Talk or Youtube video
Start the video and start drawing. Chances are you will retain more in your memory than when you are just listening or watching the video. Don’t stop the video to draw. Let it all flow spontaneously.
Pick out the images that are meaningful and add them to your visual vocabulary.

5. On the spot
With on the spot I mean while you are on a project. Most images in my project visual vocabulary are born on the spot in a project meeting or during a brainstorm session.
Today co-workers also want a copy of my work so I make it more “readable” by writing more text.
When it’s a first time term or word, I see the image, draw it and write down what it meant at that moment in time. If I draw that same image again for that same word I add it to my vocabulary. But as you may have already noticed, it’s already in my mental visual vocabulary, otherwise I would not have drawn the same image again.

Growing the vocabulary
Over time my visual vocabulary has grown and continues to grow. I retain a lot in my mind, especially when the image re-appears constantly for the same word or group of words in a context.
In the end some will remain and others will disappears in my subconscious. But it will emerge when needed.

Now I wonder, how can you create your visual vocabulary when you’re not a visual person at all?

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