The Practice & Art of Thinking

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Visual Problem Solving

This blog has up to now explored many aspects of visual thinking directly and indirectly.

The aim was to have diversity on the topic that would explore some aspects of thinking, rationality and simply how to think better so that we can contribute positively with our interventions.

The topics have not been exhaustive, the aim was to simply map the range and diversity of how we think and make sense of the world.

I am not one for quotes, but the ones below make the point better than if I were to write an essay.

“Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.

“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”

“And he has Brain.”pooh

“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”

There was a long silence.

“I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”

A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh


“Don’t you understand that we need to be childish in order to understand? Only a child sees things with perfect clarity, because it hasn’t developed all those filters which prevent us from seeing things that we don’t expect to see.”

Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

The point I am trying to make is that we sometimes get too clever and forget the basics and loose trust in out own capabilities. This leads us to desperately seek the magic formula out there, because we have lost the confidence in our basic abilities of thinking and making sense of the problems we are faced with.


The basic principles of thinking and asking critical questions – dumb questions – like the ones that children sometimes ask – is important and we should become confident to explore basic principles.

Visual thinking, although it might come across as a fad, I deeply believe is a very basic skill that we have lost confidence in. It is not a technique nor a method, but one of those skills that we as humans are excellent at and should reignite our innate abilities and use it with confidence.

In future posts I will be exploring more frequently issues related directly to problem solving and specifically how to use visuality to make good informed decisions.

There are tons of methods that promise to help us solve problems – I do not criticise any, I only suggest that there is a danger with any approach that promises that if you follow x and y steps this will be the panacea to all your needs.

The only caution I make is that there is the danger that one loses the basic skills to think and hands over control to a method that in many cases has been removed from ‘the context’, thereby loosing the essence of its original intention because it is being used incorrectly or applied incorrectly resulting in and creating more problems than the one’s we truly solve.

We tend to clutch at quick fixes because we deeply fear to make mistakes. This attitude was drilled into us at school. We learned that mistakes are bad, and we were punished for making them in some way. Yet, if you look at the way humans learn, we learn by making mistakes. We learn to walk by falling down. If we had never fallen, we would never have walk. The same with thinking, we need the courage to think again.

As Toni Morrison said, if “You wanna fly, you got to give up the s..t that weighs you down.



Brain Music by Masaki Batoh

Imagine creating music by simply using your brain. That is exactly what Masaki Batoh (formerly the frontman for the experimental rock group ‘Ghost’ formed in Tokyo in 1984) has done.

By using a science fiction-looking contraption strapped to his head, Masaki is able to generate eerie theremin-like sounds (see Youtube video to see what a Theremin is).

The musical instrument, referred to by Masaki as a BPM or brain pulse machine, consists of headgear and a motherboard. Brain waves are picked up from the parietal and frontal lobes and then sent by radio waves to the motherboard, which then converts the radio waves into a wave pulse that is outputted as sound.

Masaki Batoh - Brain Pulse Music Machine

Masaki Batoh – Brain Pulse Music Machine

The goggles that are part of the BPM have indicator lamps synchronized with the motherboard, allowing the musician to see her/his brain’s musical output. According to Masaki Batoh, it requires quite a bit of practice to learn how to control one’s mind in a way that produces a pleasing sound.

The music might not be to everyone’s liking but it remains fascinating and I think it is the beginning of many new technologies.

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Data Tells Stories

Still keeping with the theme of the power of data, the video below by Dataveyes is a beauty. It is a promotional video but it is well done and illustrates the point very well.

“Dataveyes is a start-up focused on interactive data visualization.

Data visualization turns large volumes of raw data into a meaningful piece. It creates a visual, esthetic and kinetic interaction, which directly reaches out to the user’s intelligence.

At Dataveyes, we want to create a new visual grammar, a new way of telling stories with data. We think this appears as necessary, for complex information is better memorized by the human brain through a visual form than words could ever be.”

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The Visual Information about YOU

Communication researchers have shown that within a fraction of a second of meeting someone, even before individuals open their mouths, people have already started to decide about who you are. Fair or not – it is what happens.

Within 7 seconds they even start to decide if they trust and like you. If they cannot decide within that time frame, they then spend the next 30 seconds assessing you and trying to measure you up and deciding if you are worth their time.

Image - source unknown.

Image – source unknown.

First impressions are based on visual queues and information we transmit; clothing, handshake, eye contact, posture and personal grooming.

Many studies have been done on this issue at places such as UCLA and Sonoma State University. I do not really have to list the research, as we do it all the time; yes, even you – subconsciously or not. The research shows that 55% of the information received by others is non-verbal and is mostly transmitted by facial expression and body language. Yet, we all either do nothing about this or fail to accept this phenomenon. We might say it is ridiculous and be offended that intelligent people do it – making assumptions and even judgements about you and me.

I know the image below is of cats, but we do not argue that cats are visually communicating with us – we do the same only more subtly sometimes.

So – what were those lessons we received from our mothers? After all, we are all social animals; we like to be liked and want to be accepted by others.

  • Smile (a genuine friendly warm, sincere, non-forced smile). The type that shines through the eyes. It actually draws people to you.
  • Making eye contact (not doing this is saying … I have no confidence, I do not want to be here, I do not like you etc. – true or not?). Please do not stare.
  • Good posture (this reflects self-confidence and energy – people who feel good tend to carry themselves well).
  • Clothing – you design the look you want that tells everyone who you are, what social group you belong to and what you think of yourself. Clothing is massively important. It is a very important reflection of YOU and you are the one that is the designer of the look and information symbolized within the look.
  • Personal grooming – again – you are the decider of what you want people to think of you.

Looking at these very simple criteria, it actually makes sense. We are the ones who decide what we want people to think of us. We use visual thinking to inform people. They are not making inaccurate decisions about us, we are the ones who decide what people see.

Image from INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2009

Image from INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2009

Have we lost the art of creating signs and symbols of ourselves?

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Signs and symbols – triggers from Bhutan

Posts like this are always difficult as they can be quite long and the attention span can wander. However, I still think they are important, especially if one is making links and exploring ‘newish territory’. One can always come back and refer to parts of the post over time. I hope so.

Before writing about my recent trip to Bhutan, I decided that a post on terminology would be useful. I will be exploring culture, particularly from a visual perspective and will be looking at meaning expressed through signs and symbols.

The obvious assumption is that humans are primarily meaning makers; we make meaning through our creation and interpretation of ‘signs’ and ‘symbols’. We use the terms symbol and sign interchangeably but they actually mean different things. It’s important to clarify and it’s also important to note that some authors swap the meanings but there remains a distinction.

The term sign, as I will be using it, designates something that stands for something else, following the Triadic theory as developed by Peirce and later refined by Umberto Eco (Italian philosopher and author).

In this theory, signs can be words, images, sounds, odours, flavours, acts or objects. However, these things have no natural meaning and only become signs once humans construct meaning around them. Anything can be a sign as long as someone interprets it as ‘signifying’ something – referring to or standing for something other than itself. We interpret things as signs largely unconsciously by relating them to familiar systems of conventions.

 Charles Sanders Pierce

Charles Sanders Peirce

For example:

Using a silhouette of a man or a woman to indicate a restroom/toilet.


The simplified picture of a fork and knife used to identify a restaurant.

Indicating a public telephone (payphone) by using a silhouette of a handset.


These signs are therefore able to communicate information to the person interpreting or decoding the sign.

There are essentially two theories that explain the way signs acquire the means to transmit information; the Dyadic and Triadic models. Both theories agree that the property of a sign is the relationship between a number of elements.

Ferdinand de Saussure’s structuralist theory, the dyadic model (self-contained model of the sign) explains the sign as consisting of two parts:

  • the signifier (significant – the form that the sign takes – being a sound or image) and;
  • the signified (signifié) as the meaning that is conveyed or concept it represents.

The sign is the whole that results from the association of the signifier with the signified.

Using a linguistic example of the word open – if we encounter the word open hanging on a shop door, the invested meaning becomes a sign consisting of:

  • signifier: the word open;
  • signified concept: that the shop is open for business.
Image by David Bleeker

Image by David Bleeker

Saussure saw this relation as being arbitrary and created by social convention. This theory is mostly used in the study of linguistic signs. Of interest to note is that a linguistic sign is not a link between a thing and a name; but between a concept and a sound pattern. The value of the sign is dependent on its relationship with other signs within the system – a sign has no ‘absolute’ value independent of this context.

The other major semiotic theory developed by Peirce, and elaborated by Umberto Eco and others, defines the sign as a triadic relation as “something that stands for something, to someone in some capacity”. The diagram below shows the definition of the sign as a triadic, using an example of the traffic light.

C.S. Peirce's  triadic definition of sign. Image by Rui Martins

C.S. Peirce’s triadic definition of sign. Image by Rui Martins

Peirce uses specific terminology, which I have changed in the diagram but the original is:

  • An Interpretant: not an interpreter but rather the sense made of the sign. The term is also referred to as Concept, which is the same as signified. CONCEPT = Signified. However, it has a quality beyond that of the signified: it is itself a sign in the mind of the interpreter – the mental concept.
  • The Representamen: the form the sign takes. It is also referred to as Vehicle, which is the same as the term signifier. VEHICLE = Signifier.
  • An Object: to which the sign refers. What the sign ‘stands for’ or represents – the things to which the sign refers. It can be anything from a concept, object, place, thing or person. Object = Referent.

Having briefly outlined the two theories, the second one (Triadic) is of particular relevance to visual thinking. Unlike the Dyadic model, which approaches the understanding of signs from a linguistics and phonology perspective, the Triadic model enables us to characterize the sign as the means to understanding where all thought is in signs according to Pierce. The result is a theory of the production of meaning, and it rejects the idea of a static relationship between a sign and that which it represents, its object. It is holistic in my opinion and incorporates the notion of complex adaptive systems.

The aspect of interest to me about this theory is that it is not limited to linguistics. In fact, the theory has been elaborated on by Goodman’s ‘Language of Art’ and Mitchell’s ‘pictorial turn’, where they draw largely on non-linguistic sign system, with emphasis on the point that creation of meaning is not solely dependent on language. Mitchell proposes that semiotics is “a host of new figures or theoretical pictures that must themselves be interpreted.”

Roland Barthes goes further and explicitly includes the visual image, linking back to Pierce’s icon-index-symbol. The point of departure is the acknowledgement of the fact that meaning is not created from a linear mode, but from a complex interaction of the sign itself; the code or the systems into which signs are organized; and the context/culture into which these codes and signs operate – the complex whole, where learning becomes the emergent property of the sign creation – the process of sign creation and the way it is absorbed into the cultural milieu.

I agree with Mitchell’s notion of ‘new visuals that need to be interpreted’. The process itself becomes the sense making process of learning and creation of new knowledge in the form of a visual image. Umberto Eco and Rosalind Krauss agree and propose that every cultural phenomenon (including the visual) can be internalized as a form of communication. To me, this means that meaning is emergent from the image and forms a discourse between the visual, context and observer – my interpretation and understanding the sign in visuality.

Model by Rui Martins - visual / context / observer

Model by Rui Martins – visual / context / observer


Now that we have an understanding of icons, let’s explore what is meant by the term symbol.

A symbol is a system of signs, which has multiple layers of meaning. In other words, a symbol means more than it literally appears to represent. Signs have a specific meaning, whereas symbols have layers of meanings, often composed of a system of signs. The emergent property is the meaning that settles around the symbol, which is agreed by the society through its usage and reference.

The more layers the symbol has, the denser the meaning is with its interwoven stories and references. The units are signs and these combine to form visuals expressed as pictures, emblems, paintings, dance form or rituals. Architecture and sculpture can be symbolic expressions of the culture and society.

Often symbols will have at least three associations:

  • Personal: We all have associations with things in our experience.
  • Cultural: Different symbols may have quite different meanings in different cultures. A lion can represent Christ in Christian culture; in Sumerian culture, the sun represents the god Marduk. In Chinese culture, dogs represent devotion and faithfulness; in Islamic culture, dogs represent impurity.
  • Universal: Jungian psychology, along with other theories, argues that some symbols have universal meaning, for example, Lions suggest deity in a variety of cultures.

A symbol should not be confused with metaphor.  Symbols are used more consistently and widely than metaphors. Symbols can be private or universal; these then become archetypes, like for example Jung’s archetypes; and they occur across cultural boundaries. The common element in symbols and metaphors is that the literal, conventional meaning is exceeded or negated by a non-literal meaning.

In the next post, I will look at the National Emblem of Bhutan and, in the following few posts, I will look at a few festivals and architecture in Bhutan from the symbolic and iconic point of view.  My objective being to reinforce and explore the power of visual sense making and its importance in our ability to solve problems, make decisions, surface complex interactions and capture fleeting knowledge and give it its rightful place of importance in our global civilization.

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What is visual thinking? Part 1

The previous posts on thinking – here and here – deal with an explanation of thinking. It is not a simple topic to define or even explain. It is a topic in evolution and this evolutionary notion fits well into a poststructuralist perspective. From this perspective, theories do not provide final true knowledge; they simply provide a way to make sense of that reality for the time and context. Knowledge is contextual, constricted and constructed. It emerges through a dynamic process of interactions of a variety of stimuli. This is the view I will take.

The notion of perception, as the act of gaining information through our senses from the outside world, has been and still is a preoccupation for philosophers.

Cover image to book: Techniques of the Observer by Jonathan Crary.

Cover image to book: Techniques of the Observer by Jonathan Crary.

That means not only is the sense of sight used in perceiving, we also use our sense of smell, touch, hearing and taste. However, the sense of sight remains the most important sense, estimated at giving humans 80% of information about our outside world. Levin goes even further and points out in his book, Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision, that Western thought has been dominated by a vision-centered paradigm. I agree with this but with a qualification – it has been dominated by the Newtonian/modernist paradigm.

Thinking and sensory perception emerges from a dynamic interactive process of our five senses with the world. John Heron describes how sensory interaction between the individual and the world informs our cognitions. It intuitively seems to be a direct and immediate access to reality.

Langer is particularly important for explaining what visual thinking is. She proposed that thinking is a continuous process of meaning-making through vision and central to thinking is the need to symbolize. Her contribution was the distinction between discursive versus presentational symbols. Discursive symbolization arranges elements (including words) that have stable and common meanings into a new meaning. Presentation symbolization on the other hand, functions independently of elements with fixed and stable meanings. The important aspect to highlight is that presentation cannot be comprehended by progressively building up an understanding of its parts in isolation. It must be understood as a whole.

Heron describes discursive forms as being a one-to-one relationship between a set of signifiers and the signified. While presentational symbolic elements are characterized by a whole that is not divisible into its component parts.

This aspect is the important and key element  in explaining visual thinking. It is not only an integral part of thinking but a very special dimension to thinking – augmenting and enriching thought – the whole that is not divisible into its component parts. To explain this, one needs to turn to complexity theory. I will explore this in Part 2.

Arnheim establishes the notion that the visually thinking mind is not simply mechanically recording images and regurgitating them repetitively. He insists that perception is intelligent. Vision and perception are not passive processes that simply register reality. Instead they are active. To him, vision orders reality and it is a dynamic between the elements and the observer that reality emerges. Our access to reality is through sensory experience, not only thought, seeing and touching, but also including mental images and knowledge-based experience. All this constitutes our worldview.

Perception structures reality that allows us to gain knowledge. That knowledge, however, is based on objective reality. And perception is an objective fact. I do not believe that objective truth is or will ever be possible. It is contextual, constructed, temporary and evolving.

For Arnheim (and I agree) visual thinking is mainly about the development of forms and thereby fulfilling the conditions of the intellectual formation of concepts. It has the ability, by means of these forms, to give a valid interpretation of experience. Vision and perception are the active, creative, interactive processes through which meaning emerges.

Lift The Veil - Rui Martins

Lift The Veil – Rui Martins

The image has the essential ability to transmit meaning through sensory experience. On the other hand, signs and language are established conceptual modifiers; they are the thin layer of actual meaning. It is important to point out that perception arranges the forms that it receives as optical projections in the eye. Without form, an image cannot carry a visual message into consciousness. It is therefore the structured form(s) that delivers the visual concept that makes an image legible, not conventionally established signs such as language.

There is a strongly held belief that language is the main mechanism through which thinking takes place. So much so that some hold that the more eloquent, the better the quality of thinking. To this Arnheim explains, language is in itself without form. One does not think in words because words do not contain objects. Language is instructed by sensory perception. It codifies the given knowledge through sensory experience. This does not mean that language isn’t very important and significant to thinking. The point to be made is that language is the vehicle through which we have acquired the act of perception and, in so doing, it establishes and preserves the concepts it forms.

In the following post, I will be exploring perception and Gestalt philosophy as well as complexity science. Until then!