Visual methods

for working with community groups   

Steve Fisher

This article responds to requests we have received for more information on visual methods that enable productive conversations with community groups. These conversations may be around problems they are seeking to tackle, the planning of a project, the airing of views on a particular subject or other situations in which someone is facilitating a session with a group of local people.

Rather than provide a detailed description of each method, I will provide an overview and the key principles that underlie it. There are variations to each one and different ways they can be adapted to meet particular situations. I am not claiming that these methods have been developed by Community Works, although we have certainly come up with visual tools and adapted existing methods. But often good ideas have emerged from discussions and planning of workshops with our clients and partner organisations and tailored to the specific situation. This is especially the case over several years of working with Ninti One. Some of the methods described here have also been inspired by specialists in a particular subject. The best-known proponent of mind maps, for example, is Tony Buzan.


We have written about the River of Time method in a separate article about working with Minyerri community with Enterprise Learning Projects. It involves a group of people drawing the key events relating to a project or a place in a river depicted by two parallel and winding lines on flipchart papers. The river then becomes the overall flow of the history of the project or place. During an evaluation for Amnesty International, we had a similar experience of inviting activists and staff in Latin America to draw their journey through the program we were evaluating. Some chose to draw a road, others a river and some presented a set of events linked together.

Another example of a timeline came from a training workshop we facilitated for Enterprise Learning Projects in which Aboriginal small enterprises participated. One of the most valuable parts was when we drew and discussed a visual timetable for setting up a new enterprise, from sitting under a tree to discuss the idea to opening to doors of a café or a used clothes shop, for example.

Whichever timeline method is used, the value lies in a group of people discussing what has happened over time as they draw it together and then, with the help of a facilitator, making overall sense of the story and learning from it.

stakeholder maps

This method is well-established in development practice. It is easily adaptable to different situations. The basic idea is to draw shapes that represent individuals, groups or organisations that have relationships with each other or to another organisation (such as your own). The lines and arrows that connect them, the colours used to draw them, the distance between each one, the size of each shape and their position within the scheme as a whole can be used to denote aspects of the current stakeholder landscape. For example, a government department might be a large shape while women’s groups in neighbouring communities might be depicted as small shapes with close and strong links to each other, if that represents reality.

We have used this method many times. Ninti One devised a sophisticated version shown in the photo below and which grouped service providers in a community according to the sector in which they worked (such as health or youth services). The groups in this workshop then moved individual stakeholders to show how they planned to manage relationships for the future benefit of the program.

Again, the value of the method is in the conversation that ensues. If people have a different view on how the pieces of a stakeholder map should be drawn, then we can all learn from those differences and why they have occurred. For example, a government department might communicate quite differently to the CEO of an organisation than the community-based workers.

Mind Maps

We have used mind maps to encourage and record discussions on specific subjects with groups of widely-varying numbers, from three people to eighty. They work well when the purpose is to encourage discussion on a single topic, like community attitudes on road safety or the quality of housing. In these situations, the topic is written in the middle of a large sheet of paper and the facilitator invites comments from the group. Everything spoken is recorded on the map and this encourages participants to become active in the conversation, because they can see their ideas being heard.

This kind of visual mapping is especially valuable for small group work in training workshops, for example, or with boards or committees. In focus groups, drawing the conversation on a whiteboard helps people who may be reticent to speak to people they may not know. Facing the whiteboard to do the exercise, rather than each other in a roundtable setting, can be easier for everyone at the outset, depending on local cultural considerations too. It can become a lively process as the group helps the facilitator draw the conversation and then develop and connect the branches of the map as it develops.


Using the principle that all these methods are simply ways to have a productive conversation that helps a community analyse, plan or better understand an issue, mosaics work well because everyone can easily get involved. The best recent example was the model of governance we worked on with participants at the recent Knowledge-Sharing Seminar for the Stronger Communities for Children program. As people suggested components or principles or good governance, we built up a mosaic on the floor that was then presented back to participants in a visual report produced afterwards.

Mosaics, tiles or jigsaw-based methods are very flexible too, as the pieces can be moved around and the words written on each piece can be changed as the conversation develops and new ideas emerge.


Given that most development work is about growing something (capacity, knowledge, products, confidence, etc.), a tree is a very effective visual method. We have found that they work well as a way for a group to become active early in a meeting, when we might all be a little shy and apprehensive. If there are many people in the room and likely to be others arriving late, drawing a tree shape on the wall and asking people to stick notes on the branches that represent achievements or results of a program is positive way to break the ice. People arriving after the session has started can easily pick up what is going on and join in.

Being clear about the purpose is important. For example, asking people to write the results of the project so far as leaves that are stuck on the tree is a good, strengths-based exercise. To be more analytical, fallen leaves could represent unfulfilled ideas and flowers or fruits could be skills, relationships or unexpected benefits that have been achieved. A watering can could be the ongoing work required to make the tree, and therefore the project, develop and grow. A lot can be done with the use of a simple tree device, so long as time is taken to properly read and share the contributions that everyone in the group has made and to reflect on what they mean for our understanding or the project as a whole.


All the methods above require one or more people to facilitate them. The role of the facilitator is to introduce the exercise, explain the purpose, encourage and support people to get involved, tackle any problems or doubts that arise along the way and then draw out the key insights.

Using visual methods without facilitating the process properly is risky. If participants lose confidence in the process, then it can be very difficult to maintain their commitment to further conversations and to achieve the purpose for which people have come together.  The facilitator helps the group gain most from the methods by encouraging them to learn from the information produced by each visual method.