What Is Visual Programming?

Visual programming is a programming language that lets humans describe processes using illustration.

Whereas a typical text-based programming language makes the programmer think like a computer, a visual programming language abstracts the development complexity and minimizes the need to write lines of code. This way, it enables programmers to describe the process in terms that make sense to humans.


Example of modern visual programming in action.

Visual Programming vs. Traditional Programming

Visual development and traditional development are two different approaches to creating software.

Traditional development typically involves writing code in a text-based programming language, like as C++, Java, or Python. This code-based app development approach requires the developer to have a strong understanding of the language and its syntax, as well as the concepts of programming, such as data structures and algorithms.

Visual development, on the other hand, uses visual elements, such as diagrams and flowcharts, to represent programming constructs. Visual development environments typically have drag-and-drop interfaces.

Depending on the visual development tool and who it targets, it allows professional developers to accelerate their productivity, or users with no programming background to create software.


Overall the main difference is that traditional development focuses on the actual coding and writing the code, while visual development focuses on the design and overall structure of the software.

Wondering what modern visual development looks like?
Explore the low-code guide

What’s the Role of Visual Programming in the Software Industry?

For a long time, visual programming has had the reputation of being a teaching tool for beginners to get familiar with programming concepts, and to create simple user interfaces and prototypes.

The reason for that has to do with its background.

Visual programming’s hype peaked in the early 90s with CASE tools. And, as with all trends ahead of their time, the repercussions of its failure were years of underinvestment, little innovation, and lingering skepticism.

UML (Unified Modeling Language), with its promise of bringing sanity to object-oriented programming, hasn’t helped either, although much of its faults were due to the underlying complexities related with inheritance.

And even more recent trends, like Business Process Modeling, probably did more harm than good in giving credibility to this area.



CASE tools, UML, and BPM all failed to deliver on their promises.

As software development becomes increasingly more complex, with new frameworks, technologies, devices and touchpoints to be considered, developers are ordinary people with extraordinary specializations.

That complexity and specialization are badly suited to the pure visual programming of those early tools, but it also makes it increasingly hard to build rounded software engineering teams.

Yes, visual programming environments might have failed as they:

  • Aren’t extensible
  • Generate slow-code
  • Provide a painful developer experience
  • Are suitable for a limited number of simple use cases.

But where they failed, a whole cache of similar tools took the best of visual programming and combined it with text-based coding.

Whereas visual programming was “no-code” these new tools are low-code.

Low-code and visual programming

Low-code technology lets developers create software visually by drawing interaction flows, UIs, and the relationships between objects, but supplementing it with hand-written code where that’s the better thing to do.

This pragmatic mix of visual and text-based programming is well suited to the needs of modern software development.

Low-code platforms reduce the complexity of software development and return us to a world where a single developer can create rich and complex systems without learning all the underlying technologies.

Want to know what you can build with low-code? Check out this article.

Next Generation of Visual Programming: Delivering on the Promise

Visual programming held so much promise, and the problems that it wanted to solve haven’t gone away. In fact, they’re more relevant than ever.

But real-world problems demand greater flexibility than visual programming could offer. Low-code takes that promise and applies it to reduce the complexity we find in modern software development.

So, ask not "what is visual programming?" Instead, ask "what is low-code?".