Heat flow patterns in the presence of natural convection have been analyzed with Bejan's heatlines concept. Momentum and energy transfer are characterized by streamfunctions and heatfunctions, respectively such that streamfunctions and heatfunctions satisfy the dimensionless forms of momentum and energy balance equations, respectively. Finite element method has been used to solve the velocity and thermal fields and the method has also been found robust to obtain the streamfunction and heatfunction accurately. The unique solution of heatfunctions for situations in differential heating is a strong function of Dirichlet boundary condition which has been obtained from average Nusselt numbers for hot or cold regimes. The physical significance of heatlines have been demonstrated for a comprehensive understanding of energy distribution and optimal thermal management via analyzing three cases. Case 1 involves the uniform and non-uniform heating of bottom wall with cooled side walls. The studies illustrate that the heat flow primarily occurs from the central regime of the bottom wall to a very small regime of the top portion of side walls. A large portion of central regime of cold side walls do not receive significant amount of heat. In order to maximize the thermal energy distribution, the distributed heating at the middle portions of the bottom and side walls have been considered in case 2 and heatlines clearly depict the distributions of heat from the hot walls to the large regimes of the cold wall. Further case 3 illustrates the enhanced heat flows in presence of heated bottom and left side walls. Heatline is found as an effective numerical tool to visualize energy distribution in order to establish a suitable heating strategy. © 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.