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.

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.


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:


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:


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


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:


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:


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!