Visual Thinking and Risk

Visual Thinking and Risk

One of the most profound weaknesses of paperwork/checklist methods in the risk and safety industry is that they don’t lend themselves to visualizing relationships between critical elements of risk. Most of the ways the risk and safety industry attacks paperwork is through text that gets completed and sits in a file somewhere. Most of these files/forms are linear, tables and text-based. It doesn’t actually matter too much about the structure of the text (eg. Usability Mapping) particularly when one considers the low levels of literacy in operators and workers who face the greatest risks at work. So many operators and workers just sign the paperwork as a ‘tick and flick’ exercise and are rarely motivated to participate in the method, nor find it easy to recall the method. Most operators and workers in high risk work are aural, kinesthetic and visual learners. And yet, the dominant form of recording thinking about risk is stored as tables or text.


We know a great deal about visualization, aural communication, visual thinking, visual perception and visual recall/memory. Some of the following research is a good start:

  • Harris, R., (1999) Information Graphics, A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference. Visual Tools for Analyzing, Managing and Communicating. Oxford University Press, New York.
  • Noble, I., and Bestley, R., (2005) Visual Research, An Introduction to Research Methodologies in Graphic Design. AVA Books, Singapore.
  • Tufte, E., (2001) The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Graphics Press, Connecticut.
  • Ware, C., (2004) Information Visualization, Perception for Design. Elsevier, Amsterdam.
  • Ware, C., (2008) Visual Thinking and Design. Elsevier, Amsterdam.
  • Wildur, P., and Burke, M., (1998) Information Graphics, Innovative Solutions in Contemporary Design. Thames and Hudson, Hong Kong.
  • Yantis, S., Visual Perception. Psychology Press. Sheridan Books.

We also know much about visual learning through extensive research in Education and Teaching (eg. ). Yet, it seems the risk and safety industry has little interest in tackling the challenges of visual and spacial literacies when tackling risk yet, loves to speak about ‘learning’ as if it knows what learning is ( ).

It is for this reason that I developed the iCue Engagement Method ( ). It is in learning the iCue Method that one moves away from the common numeric and text-based literacies in risk and safety to visual, aural and kinesthetic literacies that connect much more powerfully with operators and workers ‘on the tools’.

The iCue Engagement Method uses a simple quadrant and icons of Workspace, Headspace and Groupspace and a range of shapes in concept mapping that helps workers visualize (and remember more easily) what they have discussed. Similarly, it doesn’t take long to learn how to use the Method because visual/aural/kinesthetic learning is multi-sensory and taps into the foundational literacies we use to develop language. Aural/visual/kinesthetic learning is the foundation of language, it’s how we learn language years before we will ever learn text. Aural/visual/kinesthetic learning is embodied learning.

One of the most powerful aspects of concept mapping risk through iCue Listening is the visualization of relationships between critical factors in work. Such ‘mapping’ also helps visualize connection to possible cause and dependencies in decision making. This is all documented in the latest books: It Works, A New Approach to Risk and Safety (  ) and the iCue Engagement Manual ( ).

Visualizing with others is a profoundly social psychological activity. It is through sharing visually that others ‘see’ and understand what others are thinking and how such thinking ‘relates’ to the discussion about factors in Workspace, Headspace and Groupspace. At the conclusion of a an iCue risk assessment one simply takes a picture of the board and that becomes the record of risk assessment. And it is because visual memory is engaged that recall is much easier even years in advance or when revisiting the risk assessment. The visual iCue process also creates much high levels of motivation and participation that text-based methods.

The reason why we teach iCue Engagement in an Introduction to the Social Psychology of Risk (SPoR) ( ) is because SPoR understands risk socially and relationally rather than the mechanistic worldview that understands safety as the control of hazards documented by text.

The iCue Engagement Method is only available for those who have undertaken education and training in SPoR.

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