Visual Thinking and Career Planning

By Katharine Brooks posted 19 days ago


September 8, 2020 

Kate S. Brooks is the Evans Family Executive Director of the career center at Vanderbilt University. 

Grace J. Foy is the associate director of the career center at Vanderbilt University. 

We all know how handy a grocery list isIt saves us from forgetting that one important ingredient for our recipeAnd we also know how pie charts and other visual elements help us better understand the data we are presentingSo why wouldn’t visual elements help our students with their job search? 

Years ago, I worked with students at Dickinson College who were both gifted and had attention deficit disorder (ADD)I would help them prepare for their tests and write their papersI made an early observation that while they might have a jumble of ideas in their heads, if we could write down their thoughts on a piece of paper, they could organize them, and make sense of everything. Their grades greatly improved. 

Because I was also running the career services program at Dickinson (at the time it was called “The Counseling and Placement Center”) I soon discovered that my liberal arts students displayed the same type of thought pattern when it came to their careersIt wasn’t that they didn’t know what they wanted to do—they simply had too many ideas, and too many things they wanted to do 

I had been using mind maps for years myself, and I came to think that maybe a mind map would help the students organize their career thoughts. Soon the “Wandering Map” was bornBased on several ideas— the famous quote that “not all those who wander are lost,” and Dr. Herb Simon’s concept of the “network of possible wanderings” we have in our minds based on our lives—the Wandering Map became a quick way to organize the threads and themes in someone’s lifeSometimes it points to a specific career idea, but most often it identifies key strengths and interests that a student can incorporate into their career plans 

And that’s how my interest in using visual thinking in career planning beganI soon developed another visual exercise called “Possible Lives” that involved having students put down on paper all the career ideas they’ve consideredOnce they’re on paper we can see any patterns that might emerge (Health professions? Helping professions? Technical fields? Leadership roles?), and often students are quickly able to eliminate ideas and discover the top two or three contenders for their immediate attention and focus. From there, we can quickly identify the steps needed to move forward with the career plan.  

That was in the late 1980sLet’s fast-forward about 35 yearsIn this time, I wrote up my visual thinking exercises in my book, You Majored in What? Designing Your Path from College to Career. (NACE allowed me to create a training program called the Wise Wandering System.) I have also published a variety of blog posts on individual visual thinking exercises—starting with a basic list of “who am I” which can help students identify their strengths and interests. 

In this time, I have discovered the true value of visual thinking in career coaching. It is the preferred method of learning for approximately 65 percent of the population. And yet so many of our services focus on auditory learning: workshops, panels, programs, etc. Adding visual exercises to your bag of tricks can greatly enhance your coaching skills and servicesVisual exercises don’t work for everyone, but when they do, the results can be magicalStudents suddenly get insights and new vision for their futuresThey quickly realize why that career they were planning to pursue really isn’t right for them—and why their passion lies in a different directionThey become more confident, and are better able to identify their strengthsThey craft better responses to interview questions, and they clearly identify their goals.  

And now, my colleague, Grace Foy, and I have authored a workbook called “Picture Your Career” which presents over 50 different visual thinking exercises you can use with students and clients, regardless of ageThe workbook is free; you can download it on our site at the Vanderbilt career center.  This workbook is yours to download and use freelyYou can pick and choose exercises that fit whatever concept you are teaching in a workshopYou can use them in a one-on-one session with a studentYou can copy the exercises and pass them out as desiredThe workbook has a Creative Commons license which means you are free to use it as long as you don’t sell it or change it and you keep Vanderbilt’s copyright on it 

Grace and I have also established a LinkedIn group called “Picture Your Career: Visualize and Plan Your Career Path” and you are welcome to join usWe are going to be seeking your examples of student work: how have you used visual thinking with your students and the great art they created. Oh, and if you’re wondering, you don’t have to be an artist to do these exercisesVisual thinking isn’t about art: it’s about the basic design and layout of the informationWe had funding from a generous donor, and hired a wonderful illustrator, Emily Mills, to create our images for the book, but our own drawings aren’t nearly as nice—and yet they work! 

Please download the book and take some time to review the exercisesGrace and I hope that you will find them helpful and interestingAnd we want to hear your ideas—how did the workbook inspire you to try other visual thinking activities?  What has worked best for your students?  Please share your ideas so that other NACE colleagues can benefit from your experience