My mentor Uwe Kruger is a very visual guy, especially for being in such an auditory business (he is a musician). We were discussing creativity and innovation one day, and many of his observations carried a common verbal theme: “Don, what do you see?”, “Every musical key has a different color”, “Start with a vision of what you want” and “When I cook, I start with a vision of a flavor.” It’s obvious that, for Uwe, everything starts with what he sees. For him, with creativity, a picture comes first.

Early in my studies of the applied behavioral sciences, I learned of a useful concept called neuro-linguistic programming, or NLP. One component of NLP helps to explain how each of us prefers to take in, process and communicate information. There are four distinct “systems” in NLP: visual, auditory, kinesthetic and digital. When you have a conversation with someone who prefers a visual representation system, you’ll hear words like we do from Uwe: “see,” “look,” “watch,” “vision” and “color.” If the person prefers an auditory system of processing the world, as I do, you might repeatedly hear words such as “listen,” “hear,” “sounds good” or “sounds like” to communicate his or her perspective.

I bring up NLP in response to a question that has been nagging at the back of my mind: Is Uwe’s use of such terms coincidental to his more visual preference, or is the creative process itself visual, for all of us, regardless of whether we are visual, auditory, kinesthetic or digital in preference? Here is what I found out.

According to the latest brain science, reality and imagination seem to flow inversely along the same paths within our brains, across what they call our “mental workspace.” Visual information that your eyes take in flows from the bottom up across the brain’s lobes. Images that you imagine travel top down but across that same area. I’ve begun to believe there really could be a visual correlation to the creative process: a foundation of imagining, or forming an image in our mind’s eye (a “vision” in Uwe’s words) of things that we cannot yet perceive through any of our senses. Perhaps creativity begins visually, whether we’re aware of it or not.

First comes a picture. What a profound statement. Those of us with a different style preference might want to start exploring that visual side of life. In fact, as a kinesthetic and auditory person who tends to process information with feelings and sounds, I think I’m actually limiting my own creative potential.

Let’s do something different – we can’t help but get better:

  1. Learn: Study a little about NLP and about yourself and how you prefer to communicate with others and process information (visual, auditory, feelings or data).
  2. Build a new muscle: Try to grow the “visual” side of yourself. It just might accelerate your creativity and innovation. At the very least, you’ll learn a new language!