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.

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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:

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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:

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

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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:

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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:

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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”.

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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

What is “Visual Meaning”?

Visual Meaning is not just the name of our company, but the name of our discipline, which is understanding the way people make sense of the things they see.

By “visual” we mean everything people see – words, diagrams, symbols – not just pictures.  By “meaning” we mean the connection between our experience of being in the world and the things we use to describe that experience.  This connection is something you feel – a sense of resonance when you see things that makes sense to you … a kind of feedback loop, like this:

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The reason our company exists is because there are too many things in the world – often really important things – that should be meaningful but just aren’t.  We use too many abstract words, pictures and diagrams that don’t connect to experiences in a way that people can relate to.  Where there is no connection between our experiences of the world and the way we are representing those experiences, meaning breaks down.  In business this happens over and over and over and over and over again:

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Our mission is to rebuild these connections and make the world a more meaningful place.  This requires us to be able to do two things:

  • Firstly, master visual language, understanding how people make sense of what they see, so that the visual models we make are read in the way we expect them to be read
  • Secondly, master the analytical skills that allow us to fully understand the content we are trying to depict, so that our visual models match the mental models of the viewer

When visual models connect with mental models, meaning is made.  Visual Meaning as a business is about doing this for clients.  Visual Meaning as a discipline is about understanding how those connections are made.