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The Four A’s of visual intelligence

Rear view of a guy looking at an art exhibition.
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Looking probably isn’t something you need to practice. People believe they can apprehend a painting at a glance. They read coworkers’ messages and assume they understand a situation. Or they witness an event and tell others what happened, confident that their memory captured a perfect historical record. 
Yet, while looking may come naturally, it’s not the same as perceiving.
Consider: Paintings hide many delightful details that take time and effort to uncover. Similarly, a colleague’s tone and body language can clue others into aspects of a situation shrouded by a written account. And research has shown that people’s recollection of events is more personal reconstruction than mental recording.
Fortunately, perception is a skill you can improve through practice and effort. Art historian Amy Herman calls this ability “visual intelligence.” In this video lesson, she explains how her Four A’s of visual intelligence can help you better comprehend your environment—at work and in life.

Visual intelligence: The ability to assess, analyze, articulate, and adapt to visual information in one’s environment

  • Visual intelligence can enhance your:
    • Situational awareness (knowing and articulating your physical situation)
    • Long-term situational awareness (knowing and articulating your life situation).

The Four A’s of visual intelligence

  1. Assess your situation. Ask: What do I have in front of me? What information is here?
  2. Analyze the information. Break it down and decide what’s important.
  3. Articulate your observations. Put them into words.
  4. Adapt to the situation. Take the information from the first three A’s, make a decision, and act on it.

Let’s walk through an example of the Four A’s in action. In the video, Herman applies them to a murder case, but given her love of art, it is also fitting to perform this thought experiment with a painting.
When assessing a painting, you’ll want to go beyond, “This is a painting of a [fill in the blank].” To the uninitiated, that can feel daunting, but the key is to ask questions. For example:

  • What materials are being used and how are they applied?
  • What about the size? Do you have to lean in and squint, or step back and crane your neck?
  • What’s the subject? How is that subject framed in the image? Is there even a discernible subject?
  • What colors are being used? Are they vivid or diffused? Are they concentrated around certain figures?

When you answer such questions, you’ll reveal information specific to your experience.
But as Herman notes, no two people will experience a painting the same—or any object, event, etc. You may focus on color and subject matter, while another observer may clue into the texture of the brush strokes. Through collaboration, you can share your mental lists, expanding each other’s perceptions in the process.
You can then analyze the painting to decide what information will be necessary, ancillary, or nonessential to your decision. To do that, you must be able to articulate that information. Here’s where things can get tricky.
Just as in the relationship between looking and perception, there’s a distinction between speech and articulation. Children acquire speech without being taught, but articulating an idea competently and precisely is a skill. It takes study, practice, and dedication.
And as Herman’s murder-case example makes clear, the right word at the right time is the difference between a clear message or a communication breakdown. That’s true whether you’re trying to come to a decision as a group or by yourself. People may imagine they’re always clear and honest with themselves, but psychological phenomena such as motivated reasoning reveal otherwise. Learning to articulate well is critical—not only to relay information but in reaching decisions unclouded by doubt and self-deception.
When you adapt, you make a decision based on the previous three steps. In this example, that decision could be as simple as deciding how you feel about the painting. Do you find it alluring, grotesque, mysterious, childish, evocative, etc.? Or your decision could be more complex, such as determining if the work has a deeper meaning for you.
Whatever your decision, the Four A’s offer you more solid grounding for why you reached it. Sure, new information or revelations may change the calculus, but your decision at that moment will be defensible and useful.

Visual intelligence in practice

  1. When you assess: Ask others to collaborate. Invite them to tell you what they see.
  2. When you analyze: Categorize information by what you need, might need, and don’t need.
  3. When you articulate: Be mindful of every word you use.
  4. When you adapt: Act according to your observations. Make thoughtful and purposeful decisions.

The Four A’s aren’t a technical troubleshooting guide for art enthusiasts. They represent visual intelligence’s mode of thought, one you can utilize in a range of applications beyond an afternoon at the MET.
At work, they could help you write more effective memos, have more productive one-on-ones, or better read the room during a presentation. They could help you better analyze and articulate your career roadmap or life plan before making important decisions. Heck, there’s even an argument to be made that they can up your hobby game.
The reason you’ll want to recognize the Four A’s many and varied applications is that each allows you to practice visual intelligence. Such repetition can eventually make the process automatic for you—in much the same way you drive a car without consciously thinking through each step. And when the Four A’s become a habitual mental tool, you can stop worrying about the process and enjoy engaging in your experiences more fully.
Cultivate visual intelligence at your organization with lessons ‘For Business’ from Big Think+. At Big Think+, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to teach essential skills in leadership and career development. Join Amy Herman for her expert class, The Art of Perception, and learn lessons in:

  • The Four A’s of Visual Intelligence
  • Assessing What You See
  • Analyzing Your Biases
  • Articulating the Pertinent Negative
  • Adapting to the Digital World
  • The ADOPT ME Model of Leadership

Request a demo today!

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