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!