03 | FMP: Sideways thinking

Maria S
3 min readOct 30, 2021

<<< For my previous post on the project, click here.

At this time our entire class was having to conduct their own seminars on a self-chosen reading. I decided to delve deeper into the concept of linear thinking with Tatiana in a seminar on a chapter from “Unflattening” by Nick Sousanis, to help expand our knowledge on thinking and visual understanding for the project.

“Unflattening is a simultaneous engagement of multiple vantage points from which to engender new ways of seeing”. (Sousanis, 2015).

What do your thoughts look like before they’re on a page?

We asked our classmates to gather in small groups and digitally represent how they would think through a situation we explained to them: visualise your thoughts on how to get home from shopping when it’s raining outside.

Participant work from the seminar.

We tried to explain the task in a way that didn’t point them towards them drawing out their thought process, specifically because we didn’t want to interfere with the results. However, we were pleased to see that none of them explained themselves by writing lines and lines of text. Instead, they each drew their own comics/ comic strip, with the exception of one participant who made a mind-map.

Thoughts are so abstract and non-linear that it is difficult to capture them only using lines of text. Even a mind-map, less visual than a drawing, shows hierarchy and information sorting that helps see in relation to other things. Sousanis argues that comics (aka the mixture of pictures and words) are an extremely powerful way to represent the complexity of our thinking. It is a way that doesn’t constrict it’s meandering, tangled nature, enabling what he calls “sideways thinking” (Sousanis, 2015).

Sousanis, 2015.

Applying to language learning.

We were able to observe most of our participants naturally resorting to communicating their thought processes with drawings. This is noteworthy, as it demonstrates the key role visualisation plays in thinking. Of course, our focus group was small, and also made up entirely of designers on our course. This is important to keep in mind as they might have approached this differently to those in other disciplines. However, we think this is still a useful insight, and lends itself to language learning.

Attaching a visual component to a word or phrase you’d like to learn allows you to add depth to your understanding: The context is deeper, you can see more than just the word and its translation. This contextualises the process in a way that helps makes sense of complicated concepts in learning rather than discussing them abstractly with words (Kolko, 2010 and McCloud and Manning, 1998).

McCloud says “words are the ultimate abstraction” (1998), which I think is especially true when it comes to language learning. When communicating there can be such a disconnect between the visual-side you are describing and the abstract representation (words) that you are using.

>>> For my next post on the project, click here.


  • McCloud, S. and Manning, A.D., 1998. Understanding comics: The invisible art. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communications, 41(1), pp.66–69.
  • Sousanis, N., 2015. Unflattening. Harvard University Press.
  • Kolko, J., 2010. Abductive Thinking and Sensemaking: The Drivers of Design Synthesis. MIT Design Issues, 26(1).



Maria S

Personal blog for MA User Experience Design at University of Arts London