If you’re a student who wants to be a manager one day, there’s an important skill you need to learn: visual communication.

If you learn how to use visual communication properly, you’ll be able to have a real impact on the teams you manage. You’ll be able to share information clearly and concisely, have more people remember it, and make even the most abstract of concepts easy to understand.

In fact, according to publications like the Harvard Business Review, visual communication as a must-have skill for any manager (or would be manager):

“Visual communication is a must-have skill for all managers, because more and more often, it’s the only way to make sense of the work they do.” - Harvard Business Review

But what is it, and what makes it so important to future managers?

Well, in this article, we’re going to show you. You’ll find out what visual communication is, how it’s used, and how you can implement it while you’re still in college.

What is visual communication?

Visual communication is the act of sharing your thoughts, ideas or insights in a form that can be seen.

To show you what we mean, let’s use a simple example. Below is the description of an item or object, and you’re going to see if you can guess what it is. Ready?

It has four sides. Each of the sides is of equal length, and they join together to make a right angle in every corner. The outside lines are black, and the colour on the inside is orange.

You probably guessed it’s an orange square with a black outline. But it took a lot of words and effort to get you there. It would have been much quicker and easier to show you the image below:

Orange square

That’s one example of visual communication. But, this doesn’t only apply to describing shapes and images.

Up to 65% of the US population is what you’d call a “visual learner”, people who benefit from seeing objects, images or demonstrations to help them understand a concept or idea. These tools are often called “visual aids”.

If you like using social media - especially YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram - you can see just how popular pictures, videos and memes are.

There’s also evidence to suggest that written content—from reports and presentations, to articles and social media updates—that uses visual aids can be more engaging. This can be important to you as a student, and in your future role as a manager. Which brings us to our next point.

Want to graduate and become a manager? Visual communication is a must-have skill

Nowadays, many managers have a communication problem.

It’s become harder for them to get their point across and have their teams understand the data, information or targets the company is working with or towards.

This is because information has become more “abstract”. They don’t always have a physical end product, or an easy to visualise process. Instead, there are lots of concepts that only exist on paper.

Take “customer satisfaction” as a metric. You can’t base this only on how many smiles you see on a shop floor, or positive comments you hear on the phone. It has to be measured using surveys and feedback scores that are added to a database.

This can be hard to picture in your mind's eye if you’re being told about. But it’s easy (or easier) to understand when it’s displayed in a graph or table that can be explained.

But this doesn’t just work for statistical data, either. It’s important for all types of interactions and discussions you’ll have with your teams. Why?

Because visual communication comes with a lot of benefits:

  • It’s clear and easy to digest
  • You can present a message with less room for interpretation
  • Individuals can recall visual information quickly
  • It’s more engaging than text-heavy materials (you can see we’ve tried to use visual cues a lot in this article)
  • You can display progress, facts and figures in an easy to understand the way

Let’s say you’re doing a six-monthly review for a member of your team. You’d like to show them their sales statistics and how they’ve performed in comparison to their sales targets. It’d be effective to put together a graph that shows them exactly that:

It’s clear and easy to understand. There’s no room for interpretation. It’s engaging (and encouraging) to see what the numbers say. And you can easily pick out points to discuss. For example, what happened in March that didn’t happen in April?

There are lots of tools and aids available to help you to communicate visually, and they’re not complicated to use or implement.

7 easy-to-use visual aids for future managers (and how to create them)

01. Objects

Objects are a really useful visual aid to help represent an abstract concept.

One example of this is how personal trainers often use objects, like Apples and Strawberries, to show the difference between fat weight and muscle weight. Muscle is denser than fat, so it’s smaller and takes up less space in your body. So if you were to “swap” muscle for fat, you’d be smaller.

This works because people can hold them in their hands and see the comparison before their eyes:

visual communication objects

It’s simplistic but effective in getting the point across.

When you’re presenting or working with someone one-on-one, objects can be a great way to communicate a point and make it stick.

02. Posters

Posters are an effective aid that can be used around the office, or in designated workspaces.

In the classroom, you might be used to looking at posters stuck to the wall. They often display core concepts or themes about the topic you’re studying for. This technique can also be used in a work environment.

If you have a focus for this period of the year, or you’re trying to implement a new idea to a team, posters placed strategically around the office can be helpful.

We’ve got some great poster templates you can create for free here at Canva. Why not get started with either our Art of Thinking or Dress For Success templates?

03. Graphs and Charts

Graphs and charts are excellent ways to display tricky data and information.

You can lay out the different points that are being made, and highlight specific sections or areas. If you’re tracking progress, or want to show one of the more “abstract” concepts you’re working on, these are great.

They also make a great addition to reports, articles and presentations to create easily digestible sections that catch the eye.

You can create these charts quite easily in Canva. When you create a document select the “Charts” section under the “Elements” tab of your Canva dashboard:

This will then show you a wide range of customisable charts you can input your data into. These are useful if you want to make your point beautifully, and not in a boring way like some of the more traditional office suites.

04. Maps

Maps have become an increasingly more popular way of visually communicating information. Heck, there’s even a complete Reddit forum dedicated to it.

These aren’t your traditional roadmaps showing you where the nearest mall or service station is. Instead, they take an area of land, like the USA or a city, and use it to display data. It’s easier if we show you.

As seen on Reddit forum, the map below shows states with a smaller population than Los Angeles County:

It’s a pretty impressive map, right? It shows a lot of information which can be interpreted in just a few seconds.

These maps are great for making comparisons. But you can also use them to show your impact or targets for locations and specific areas. You could even show growth of your company, like how many states or countries you’ve helped people in.

05. Videos

Videos can help you clearly make a point, with little interpretation, to your team. They can also add humour and recapture attention for presentations.

There are two types of video we suggest you use:

  1. Curated: These are videos you find on YouTube or social media websites
  2. Created: These are videos you’ve created for that purpose

Both can be helpful and useful, depending on what you’re trying to communicate. They add an extra level of depth that’s easy to understand for lots of people.

06. Infographics

Infographics are a cool way to break down long essays or presentations into short, actionable, visual content.

You can use infographics to tell a story. Share ideas and progress. Add depth to your handouts (more on those next). Or, to print off and use as posters.

Don’t worry; infographics aren’t hard to make. You can put them together quickly and easily using Canva’s infographic templates. Why not try our Educate Kids Charity, Detailed App Usage Statistics or Pet Survey Results Infographic to get started?

07. Memes, GIFs and Social Media Updates

Memes, GIFs and screenshots of social media updates are images we’ve all grown accustomed to seeing over the last few years.

visual communication meme

Using these types of images are great for presentations or meetings where you want to make a point, but keep the tone light and enjoyable.

How can you begin to use visual communication in school?

It’s good practice to learn how to use visual communication before you even become a manager. You can begin to implement it into your school work so that you’re well versed in it by the time you have to use in a real-world scenario.

Here are some ways we recommend you get some practice.

01. In your presentations

If you’re giving presentations at school, you can add visuals to your slides to help you make clearer and more concise points. For an extra challenge, you can try using images in place of some of the usual slide layouts, like bullet points.

This is a great place to use:

These images can be seen in all sizes of rooms and can make displaying data or findings much more visually friendly.

If you’d like to create a presentation with a focus on beautiful design, you could try using one from our presentation templates library, like our Simple Visual one below.

Blue and White Book Report Presentation

02. In your case studies

Case studies and reports can often be a little text-heavy and hard for people to read through. Why not make them easier on the eye, and more fun to read, by including some imagery in there?

Case studies work well with:

Because they can help you effectively display the data or findings you’re talking about. Especially good for those more “abstract” pieces of information.

03. Create graphics for your online study groups

If you’re part of an online study group, you could try creating a visual round-up of what you’ve learned, or helpful information, to share with other members.

This can easily be done by creating an Infographic that mixes text and images, in an easy to follow way. It could even end up being posted on a blog or social media feed!

A simple template to start with would be our Classic Green infographic. You can change the icons and update the text to quickly and concisely show your major takeaways.

Climate Change Infographic

How can you tell if your visual communication is working?

Gathering feedback on your visual communication is a great way to see if it’s working, and how you can improve on it.

As a student you can do this on the people around you who see your presentations or work closely with you. But, if you find yourself managing a team, this can be done on them as well.

There are two types of feedback you can gather:

  1. Intrinsic feedback: This is feedback that you have to judge from the actions and output of the people around you. Some positive signs of this are: people asking more questions, looking more engaged and alert, talking about specific data points or something they learned. (Bad feedback could also be the opposite of this.)
  2. Extrinsic feedback: This is feedback you get back asking the people around you. You might want to ask them if the aids helped or not, or if they feel they’re retaining more information? You could also ask questions about the topic to see what they remember.

If you begin to use the methods of visual communication you’ve read about in this article, I have no doubt the feedback will be good about what you’re doing.

But if you feel like you’re not making any progress with it, you can always try mixing and matching different methods and mediums to see what works for your time. Tailor the visual communication to your team as much as possible.

Wrapping this up…

Visual communication is a must-have skill for any future manager. All it means is that you use imagery, objects or videos (also called visual aids) to help you make points and display data.

This is because visual data is:

  • Easy to remember
  • Engaging with the person who sees it
  • Helpful for understanding “abstract” concepts

There are lots of visual communication tools available to you as a student. You can take advantage of objects, posters, graphs, maps, videos, infographics, memes and GIFs.

You can also begin to use visual communication while you’re still in college. You can try different methods in your presentations, case studies or reports, and study groups.

To test if your visual communication techniques are working you should gather feedback. This can be done by using intrinsic feedback that you observe in the people around you. Or by asking for extrinsic feedback from your colleagues or team members.

James is the founder of the Freelance Writers School where he teaches normal people how to make money through freelance writing even if they failed English at school.