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.

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.

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.