Beauty is not a substitute for meaning

“Allowing artist-illustrators to control the design and content of statistical graphics is almost like allowing typographers to control the content, style and editing of prose.”

– Edward Tufte

I’ve been re-reading Tufte recently, and this comment jumped out at me. Although the subject is data visualisation, the same is true for any kind of visualisation. If you’re going to create a meaningful representation of concepts, then you have to understand what those concepts mean. And if you’re going to understand what they mean, then you’re going to need either a lot of prior knowledge or the ability to ask a lot of really good questions.

Beauty is important, but if your intention is to communicate then it is not a worthy substitute for meaning.

Show don’t tell: A simple way to be more impactful

“You make meaning for people by connecting with their experience.”

I remember the first time I realised this. John Kotter’s book “Leading Change” had just come out, and there was an example of a procurement guy who wasn’t getting any traction with the board, so he got a pair of every type of workglove used in every factory in the company. When the board showed up for the meeting, there were 424 pairs of the same type of gloves on the table, each with a price tag ranging from $5 to $17.

Everyone was speechless – in an instant, an abstract commercial problem had become real, and his business case was signed off.

As it happened, I was doing change and comms on a procurement programme myself at the time, so I gave it a try. I spoke to all the category team leads and got them to find the most ridiculous purchasing examples they could find, and send them to me. It wasn’t hard. Purchasing were ordering on behalf of the business by SKU number rather than description, so they didn’t actually know what they were buying. Suppliers could literally charge whatever they wanted. Here are a couple of my favourites:

1 x cable tie = £32 (actual manufacturer’s price 4p)

1 x hardened RF BNC connector = £150 (actual manufacturer’s price £17)

… and so on. We took these objects on roadshow around different sites and got people to guess how much they thought they cost, waited for their jaws to come back up from the floor, and then got them engaged in the changes the programme was making.

What this demonstrates is the power of showing rather than telling. Pictures work well because they’re closer to experience than words, but if you can find a way to do it, avoid symbols altogether and go straight to the reality you’re trying to convey!

Another example. I took my kids to a science fair last summer, where an anti-smoking charity had a jar sat on their table (I see these are now available for sale). This is the amount of tar that an average smoker takes into their lungs each year. My 7-year-old picked it up, asked what it was and said “eeww that’s gross!”

Whenever the subject of smoking comes up now, she mentions the jar … just think how much stickier that is than someone telling her “don’t smoke when you’re older because the tar is bad for your lungs”.

I’ve noticed this technique has become ever more popular in mainstream presentations. They’re often a feature of the highest rated TED Talks:

Jill Bolte Taylor producing an actual brain and nerve stem to talk about strokes (2:32):

Bill Gates releasing mosquitoes into the crowd to talk about malaria prevention (5:02):

Jamie Oliver turning over a wheelbarrow of sugar to talk about school meals (13:17):

The pattern is the same in each case: If meaning is connecting with experience, then the ultimate way to make meaning is not to talk about things but to let the audience experience them directly.

* Health warning before doing this in a commercial environment *

One last thing. The most interesting thing about my procurement campaign was the difference in reaction. Among leadership and among the rank and file, everyone loved it. Among middle management it was divisive. Many people said it would reduce morale, that it might be perceived as a slight on the teams who had made the purchases, that it could turn into a witch-hunt, and so on.

I find this fascinating, because it tells me a lot about why corporate communication is the way it is. If people are driven primarily by fear then obfuscation is a great defence. Stick to words, preferably jargon-laden words and no one will complain. Connect with reality and you might just find you’ve trodden on a hornet’s nest. This is the double-edged sword of meaning – handle with care!

Start with when

When people see our conceptual maps for the first time, they often ask “Where do you start?!”

It took us a few years to notice that we actually always start in the same place.  When we’re trying to figure out the underlying structure of a visualisation, the first question is not actually “where” but “when”.

Here’s the outline of a typical transformation story.  I’m going to illustrate the point using a drawing, but the same logic would apply to any type of diagram or map or slide you want to create:

“We’re constantly spinning plates – we spend more time trying to get IT to work than we do serving clients, and the chasm between them and us keeps getting wider.  The competition is getting smarter, so If we don’t do anything it will be so easy for them to steal our business.  Once the new IT platform is built, we can re-train staff to get them spend more time with clients.”

So if you were going to draw a picture of this, where would you start?  If you’re a graphic recorder, you’re probably already picking up on the metaphors of spinning plates, chasms, stealing etc.

But this is like building muscles when you don’t have a skeleton.  You need to get the structure right first.  And the key to doing this is to start with time.

What are the timezones here?  You’ve got the current state (“we are spinning plates”), the future state with a new IT platform (“we can re-train staff”) and the future state doing nothing (“competition steals our business”).  What each element looks like is a secondary consideration – first of all you have to delineate the areas that they will appear in:

The structural challenge of visualisation is that you’re trying to condense the four dimensions of everyday experience into two dimensions of a static image.  You can use perspective to trick the eye into seeing the three dimensions of space, but what do you do with the fourth dimension of time?

The answer as ever is to go back to experience.

Experience is hierarchical.  Right now I am sat on a chair, in a studio, on the third floor, in an office building, in Oxford city centre, in Oxfordshire, in England, in the United Kingdom etc. etc.  But no matter how many degrees of spatial containment I extend the hierarchy back to, time as I experience it will always be a dimension “outside” of these spatial ones.  The people outside the window are in a different space, but at the same time.

What’s slightly confusing is that we do use metaphors to reify time (i.e. treat it as a thing) – “time is passing slowly”, “we’re running out of time to do this” etc. – but these are descriptions of subjective experience – even if time appears to be moving slowly in here, we don’t believe everyone outside is in the future!  We assume that the outermost frame boundarying our collective experiences is a shared timeframe.

What’s the significance of this?  It means that when you’re mapping anything that involves some kind of change of state, you need to start by figuring out what the time zones are that the content exists within.  This applies just as much whether you are mapping a complex system, graphic recording, making a mindmap or composing a Powerpoint slide.

The use and misuse of metaphors in organisations

The history of employee engagement is littered with inappropriate metaphors.  I remember a client once insisting that we structure a big picture about financial services around the metaphor of a nuclear waste processing plant.  It did make me wonder about their culture. But the bigger problem I think is not so much inappropriateness as lack of clarity – what does the metaphor mean?

For some people the diversity of interpretation is actually the whole point.  As long as the picture gets people talking then does it really matter what’s in it?  If the conversation is entirely exploratory then maybe that’s true, but in my experience that’s not why most managers are using visual language.  Most managers want to catalyse conversation that is relevant to their outcomes.  And most managers want the core elements of their story to be interpreted in a consistent way.

So how do you avoid metaphors blowing up in your face?  Metaphor theory has been a hot topic in linguistics for a few decades now, as academics have started to realise just how pervasive a phenomenon it is, and how basic it is to all of human thought.  If you’re like me then it was just another figure of speech you were taught in English class, alongside similes, oxymoron, alliteration and so on.  But on a more basic level, metaphor is really just saying something is like something that it is not.  And if you think about it, from this perspective all of language is metaphorical, because the words we use are not like the things the words refer to.

The reason we think of some phrases as being more metaphorical than others is that some comparisons are more obviously “wrong” than others.  To say “this project is miles off course” is just as metaphorical as saying “this project is a hamburger”.  If all speech is metaphorical to some degree, then the key for avoiding subjectivity in interpretation is to choose metaphorical expressions that accord most closely with universal experiences.

Joseph Grady has called these more basic associations “primary metaphors”.  Grady’s idea is that there are experiences that are so baked into normal human development that we can effectively take their interpretation for granted.  We’ve made a series of cards that we use to teach this idea in our training – here are a few examples:

Ideas like “power is up” or “time is motion” are not novel, linguistic creations.  They are hard-baked into our experience from childhood.  It’s really hard to imagine someone saying “our relationship has cooled” or “we have moved further apart” and interpret that as meaning that the relationship has got stronger, because our experience as babies is that our primary caregiver provided warmth and closeness.  The metaphor is baked into the language, and makes sense to anyone with a normal upbringing.

So rather than just completely embrace or completely castigate metaphors en masse, we find it more helpful to distinguish between creative metaphors on one end of a spectrum (“the project is a dragon boat”) and primary metaphors on the other (“the project is big”).  If you want to avoid subjective interpretation then stay toward the primary end.

Is there a place for creative metaphors in business?  Absolutely!  But their natural fit is for sensemaking and innovation, not for communication.  Think about it – metaphors are a way of drawing comparisons between disparate concepts, so asking a question during a group session that explicitly demands a metaphorical response (“that’s like what?”) is going to reframe the content through a new lens for the whole group.  In a situation that is ambiguous (or equivocal, as Karl Weick would say), using creative metaphors increases the chances of someone coming up with a new way of describing the situation that yields better insights / makes more sense / points to a solution.

The story above about project dragon boat is facetious, but this sort of thing happens all the time.  The thing is, it’s only a joke for the people outside the room.  For the people inside the room it feels really good.  Even a completely ridiculous metaphor will feel good if it helps you make sense of your situation, because making sense always feels good.  It’s only once it moves out of the environment in which it was created, and in which it made sense, that you start to have a problem.

This isn’t to say that a creative metaphor can’t be used on a broader scale.  The Walt Disney Company is famous for using a studio metaphor across the company, with employees as cast members and so on.  But if you’re going to attempt this then you need to be really sure that your metaphor is going to generate the feelings and associations you expect, and you need to invest massively in making the metaphor ubiquitous, not just across comms materials but job titles, department names, marketing strategy, internal brand etc etc etc.  But we’re now well outside the realm of visual language.

To summarise, if you’re thinking about metaphors as something you might choose to use in your picture making, then think again:  Metaphors are pervasive, whether you like it or not.  Instead, think about them as a spectrum between primary associations (power is up, time is distance, stress is pressure etc.) and creative associations (power is a mustard seed, time is a honeypot, stress is a hamburger etc.), and stick to primary associations unless you’re prepared to deal with the fallout of having your imagery interpreted in a multitude of different ways.

If you’re new to these ideas but find the subject of metaphor intriguing, then you might be interested in exploring the young discipline of Cognitive Linguistics – this is the book most people start with.

Making visual language less subjective

I once heard about an argument breaking out in an ISO committee meeting about whether or not pictures should be included in the specification of a new management system standard.  The pro-picture lobby argued that the wording was too hard to understand without a diagram.  The anti-picture lobby argued that including pictures would introduce an element of subjectivity, whereas the words could all be rigorously defined in the prologue.

I think a lot of this stems from a misunderstanding of what visual language should and shouldn’t be used for.  We’ve written before about this – try explaining a 2×2 matrix, or the shape described by a quadratic equation, or the outline of North America – in words!  But when you start trying to visualise more conceptual content – business models, social systems, customer journeys and the like – the question remains, to what degree will the visual meaning be subjective?

This is a problem we’ve struggled with a lot over the years, and we’ve discovered that while you can clearly never completely eradicate subjectivity entirely, you can go an awful long way.  Once more, my favourite everyday example of this is the way we use maps.  When you pull up Google maps, you don’t spend your time thinking how subjective the visual language is, because you’re too busy using the visual language to explore, locate yourself, or find a route.  The reason is that wherever possible the visual language of the map corresponds with your experience of the world – trees are green, rivers look blue, and so on.

Now what’s true of maps is also true of conceptual pictures.  The more your visual language corresponds to the way people experience the world, the clearer the meaning will be.  Just to be clear, I’m not saying that pictures aren’t subjective.  The point is that there are ways of depicting things that 99% of people will read the same way.

There will always be 1% who see the world in a beautifully, stimulatingly non-conventional way.  But the point of all types of language – whether visual or verbal – is to convey meaning.  If you want to create visuals that 99% of people read the same way, then there are a number of principles you need to understand about the mind and the visual intelligence.  One of the main purposes of this site is to share what these principles are … stay tuned!

How meaningful is your management model diagram?

One of our ambitions is to find a way of evaluating the “meaning quotient” of diagrams, that is, how much information the diagram conveys that you wouldn’t get from just reading the text.  You would get it by measuring the % of non-verbal information conveyed proportional to the volume of visual language employed.  Even without the rigorous measurement system though it’s still a useful concept to play with.  Let’s try it out …

Here’s the famous McKinsey 7S model of organisational design.  It’s a brilliant example of how little a diagram can add to the concepts it’s intended to illustrate.

The first time I saw it I remember thinking “that’s not a model, that’s a list!”  And of course, if you look at the text of the many management books in which it’s cited, it is indeed accompanied by a list that describes each element in turn:

  • Hard elements:
    • Strategy
    • Structure
    • Systems
  • Soft elements:
    • Staff
    • Skills
    • Style
  • Central element:
    • Shared values

Now, this list of words is clearly meaningful (and presumably helpful, given how frequently it crops up).  But what meaning does the visual language of the diagram add?

The colours merely represent the categorical hierarchy already explicit in the hierarchy of the list.  The lines connect everything to everything, so don’t say anything beyond the rather obvious “these concepts are interconnected”.

In fact, the only meaning the diagram conveys significantly better than the list, is the fact that Shared Values are central.  You can’t show a spatial concept like “central” in a linear form like a bullet list.  But otherwise, it’s just a list.  You could rotate the outer balls around however you want and no meaning would be created or destroyed.

This isn’t to say the diagram isn’t useful.  The 7S framework is extremely useful, and having a recognisable visualisation makes it, well, recognisable.  But what the lack of specifically visual meaning says to me is that the 7S framework is more of a list than a model.

Google around and it’s easy to find even more extreme examples.  Check out this HR diagram, which I found on Pinterest:

hrms-diagram

At least the 7S framework has some implicit categorisation.  Here there’s nothing, it is literally a list.  If you think of my rough definition of a meaning quotient as the amount of conceptual information that the visual language conveys over and above what is conveyed by the words alone, then in this diagram the quotient would be approaching zero.

In fact, the visual language here actually gets in the way of meaning.  Is there a reason why the shapes are circles?  No.  Do the colours mean anything?  No.  Does the particular arrangement of the circles mean anything?  No.  The only visual meaning I can pick up is that the concept of a Human Resource Management System is in some way superordinate to the other concepts.  But that’s because it’s the title of the list:

Human Resource Management System

  • HR Management
  • Payroll Management
  • Recruitment Management
  • Training Management

Why do we end up with diagrams like this?  It happens because most models in business start out as a series of bullet points on a flipchart during a brainstorm.

management-bullets

If you want to publish it internally or externally it has to look decent, so it goes to a designer.  The designer doesn’t understand the meaning of the content because they weren’t in the session, but they do know how to make it look nice.  You end up with an aesthetically pleasing list, but a list nonetheless.

Here’s another famous model – Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  It’s usually drawn something like this:

blog-piramid-2-03

Now this is not just a list.   The verticality of the diagram represents levels of dependency in a hierarchy – the upper blocks would not be there without the lower ones to rest on.  This is not the same as a list – if you switched the order here, it would mean something different.  The closest you can get in text is an ordered list:

  1. Physiological needs
  2. Safety needs
  3. Love and belonging needs
  4. Self-esteem needs
  5. Self-actualization needs

But of course the point of the model is not that the elements are discrete, but that they form a chain of dependency – you can’t meet one level of need without satisfying all the needs below it.  Saying that they’re ordinal and putting them into a chronological list ends up visually inverting the order of the pyramid.

The point is, the visual language is instantly conveying meaning to the viewer on an instinctive level that would take a paragraph to explain verbally.

The reason the pyramid works instinctively is because the visual structure matches the concepts in a way that agrees with our experience of the world.  In the world, the downward force of gravity means support always comes from underneath, because objects fall downwards:

blog-piramid-2-02

You sometimes see progressive leadership teams inverting their organisational structure diagrams, because they see themselves (or want to be seen by others) as supporting the organisation, not the other way round:

blog-piramid-2-01

The support metaphor still works because of the implicit force of gravity working downwards.  I’ve always found these diagrams unlikely, not just because gravity makes it look like the organisation is going to fall over, but because another basic meaning of verticality is that power comes from above.

But this is a problem with the concepts, not the visual language.  Whether the pyramid is upside down or the right way up, the visual elements have meaning that’s not conveyed by the text.

So, visual language can convey things that are very hard to illustrate using text alone.  A simple example is the 2×2 matrix, which adds a huge amount of meaning over the corresponding words.  Try explaining a Prisoner’s Dilemma using text alone, and see how much longer it takes:

prisoners-dilemma

Any management consultant worth his or her salt will struggle to get through a day without spotting a 2×2 matrix somewhere.

And this I suppose is the difficulty of mastering visual language:  It’s not enough just to be well versed in design principles.  You need to understand the conceptual structure of the content to be able to match it to the appropriate elements of visual language.  And a really good test of this is to ask yourself strictly, how much meaning do these visual elements add?  If they don’t add very much, then what you’ve really got is an aesthetically pleasing list.

Now let’s finish by looking at some really effective visual language, in one of the most popular business diagrams of the last five years:

business-model-generation-canvas

This is XPlane’s visualisation of Alex Osterwalder’s business model canvas.  If you reduce it to just a list of words like this …

Business model canvas

  • Key Activities
  • Value Proposition
  • Customer Relationships

… look how much meaning is lost!  It’s clear that the visual language is conveying meaning over and above the list of words, for example:

  • The distinction between vertical and horizontal blocks has meaning: Vertical blocks represent delivery elements, whereas horizontal blocks represent financial elements
  • Size of gaps between blocks has meaning: The gap that the arrows fit in represents an organisational separation between producer and consumer
  • Interconnections have meaning: Notice the tabs on the left, which represent collaboration
  • The icons have meaning, acting as a mental shortcut to the concepts they represent.
  • And so on …

So, the Meaning Quotient.  Maybe some day we’ll be able to measure it.  In the meantime, why don’t we ask ourselves the next time we visualise a management model, how much meaning is the visual language actually adding here?  And if it’s not adding anything, was it really a model to begin with, or just a list?

Visualising the journey of transformation

Here’s a great visual tool we made this summer for anyone who wants to get people talking about organisational change.  Just click on the link and use the interface to pan and zoom in like you would with Google Maps:

The Transformation Journey interactive rich picture

We’d like to develop this tool further, so do please give us your feedback on what you’d like to see in future versions.

Everything is a thing

If there’s one thing that will transform your ability to make intuitive conceptual visualisations, it’s to start thinking of abstract concepts as physical things.

There was a great episode of The West Wing once in which all the characters periodically told each other over the phone “sorry, can’t talk right now, we’ve got a ‘thing’”. The idea of a “thing” as “a complex situation that would take too long to explain” became a thing in itself.

We use the word “thing” to describe anything and everything – objects, events, ideas, emotions, perceptions, illusions, relationships, events, you name it. But no matter how abstract whatever you’re describing, your brain is always thinking of it in terms of things, and the archetypal thing is a physical object.

Understanding that all things are modelled by your brain on physical objects is immensely powerful, because it means the question “what does that look like?” always makes sense, even when the thing is an abstract concept.

image007

Most of our work involves mapping operating models, so we’re typically depicting things like departments, processes, teams, IT systems, meetings, reporting lines and so on. These are all abstract concepts to some degree. But thinking about them like physical objects begs questions like “Does it have a size or a shape?”, “Does it have hard edges?”, “Does it have a weight?”, “What other things does it look like?” and so on.

As a really simple example, take the evolution of a typical Powerpoint slide. You make a slide and create a bullet list of the things you want to talk about. In a business context these will almost invariably be abstract concepts. For example:

image009

A week before your presentation, you send the slide to the graphics team, who apply a corporate template, the right branding colours and some whizzy lines:

image011

Or, more likely, you do it yourself, applying random text box styles so that at least it’s not a set of bullet points:

image013

Now, blur your eyes slightly and see what the brain sees in the first millisecond of viewing these slides, before it has time to read the text. What it sees is five things. It can tell they’re things, because they have size, shape, edge, position, just like real physical things in everyday life. But apart from the fact there’s five of them, the visual language gives you no assistance whatsoever in intuiting what they are, or how they’re related to each other.

Now, looking at what these terms mean, it’s very clear that they’re not at all the same kind of thing. But having five boxes, especially when they’re the same colour as in the branded version, tells your brain that they are. So it’s not just that the visual meaning of the slide is limited, it’s actually tricking you.

The first thing to do in this situation is to analyse the concepts and categorise them properly, so that you know which concepts are conceptually similar and should therefore look similar. In this example, service levels and efficiency rates are both measures of team performance, whereas staffing levels and staff satisfaction are aspects of the team itself. Recruitment is an activity, not a measure. So if we just make similar objects look similar, you end up with something like this:

image015

If the brain treats abstract concepts the same way it treats physical objects, then similar things should look similar and dissimilar things should look dissimilar, because that’s the way we experience things in the physical world.

This is just one application of the principle that everything is a thing; you can ask yourself anything about concepts that you can ask about physical objects. How hard edged is this thing? Is it solid or fluid? Does it have a length? Is it bright or dark, clear or opaque? Where is it in relation to other things?

Thinking in this way, the shapes, locations and flow of objects can start to tell a story. In the following version, you can tell a lot of what the slide is saying before you’ve even read it:

image017

So, in conclusion, there’s no big divide between the world of physical objects and the world of conceptual things. In our mental models of the world, everything is a thing.

In our experience, this is not so much a rule as a state of mind. Once you start seeing everything as a thing, figuring out how best to represent abstract ideas becomes a whole lot easier. Try it!

Making the world a more meaningful place

I like to talk about “meaning”.  A lot.  I believe that a more meaningful world is a better world, and I want you to believe that too.  And I want you to realise that making the world a more meaningful place is not some arcane mystical notion, but a practical skill that you can learn and put into practice every day.

Now, first up, meaning has two related senses, the first to do with significance (“that was a very meaningful experience”) and the second to do with things making sense (“I know what that means”).  Interesting as deep and meaningfuls can be, I am not going to talk about the first sense, only the second i.e. what is happening when you look at something and know what it means.

Imagine this situation.  You’re driving home from work and you
unexpectedly find your normal route is shut – for roadworks say.  So you take a diversion down some roads you’ve never used before.  At some point, the new roads reconnect with the old roads you knew before, and you probably say something like “Oh, I never knew that’s where that road went”.

diversion

In other words, your mental model has just been updated and now better reflects your experience of the world – a bit like adding an extra bit of map to a SatNav.  “Meaning” may sound a fancy word, but this is all it is – it’s the feeling that your mental model of the world (and the symbols you use to represent that mental model) corresponds to your experience of how the world actually is.

And boy does it feel good!  Every time you learn something in this way, your brain releases a shot of dopamine.  Sometimes this is dramatic (like when you smile because the film’s twist ending puts everything in place) and sometimes it’s subtle (“ah that’s where that road goes”).  Sometimes it’s conflicted (like when you get a terrible diagnosis, but it at least lets you make sense of six months of baffling symptoms).  But it’s always there.  And if you identify with this, then it’s not a huge leap to realise that a more meaningful world is also a happier world.

So how do you use this to make the world a more meaningful place?  Well, very simple.  When a diversion forces you offtrack, the meaning comes when your new route (of which you have had no experience) connects with your old route (of which you have).

In the same way, you make meaning for your audience when you connect with their experience.  It really is as simple as that.  Everything else on this blog elaborates this central principle.  So use examples that will have experience.  Use the language that they have experience using.  Use pictures of things they have seen before.  And (most importantly), structure your content in the same way your brain structures experience.  But that’s a subject for another day