The Practice & Art of Thinking

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Problem Solving – Learning and Sense Making

Explaining how something works is important, not only for the sake of knowledge itself, but because explanations can lead to solutions and improvements of our understanding of how something works or behaves.  You cannot fix something if you do not understand what has gone wrong.  You can’t prevent cancer cells from growing if you do not know how and why they started to multiply in the first place.  To interfere in the process, you must understand the process in all its enormous complexity. You need to start somewhere and a theory is the beginning.

This post is a hybrid; it uses observations and years of teaching and solving problems as the source to attempt to explain problem solving.

A large component of problem solving is learning. When we solve problems of relative complexity, we have to go through a stage of learning. I will explore this within the context of problem solving in a future post. For now, let us accept that a good chunk of what we do, when we solve problems, involves learning. The link between learning and sense making is also made.

Learning is a natural process that originates from us and enables us to interact with the environment. Learning is something we ‘do’ – we do not acquire ‘learning’. Like breathing, learning is a normal function of living. The activity of learning originates from our desire or need to make sense of our experiences; to manage the unknown and uncertain aspects of life; and to take action in the best possible way to ensure our survival and security.

Humans are constantly making meaning. As William Perry said: we are wired to organise meaning. We make sense of our experiences and give them meaning.

We learn to make sense of the chaos and confusion of the raw uninterpreted ‘data’ surrounding us and we learn to develop ways (methods, heuristics etc.) to best respond to and interact with the environment (external and internal). We also learn to define who we are and our personal view of the world. This filters and conditions how we interact with the ‘world’ and how we choose to ‘see’ and make sense of it.

We do this thing called learning instinctively. Current research proposes that our brain is intensely aggressive and is designed to learn throughout life – learning is an inbuilt survival strategy of our species. We create meaningful patterns from the environment that we then use as constructs that make sense to enable our survival.

unknown image source

unknown image source

Sense making (as explained by Karl Weick) refers to how we structure the unknown so as to be able to act in it. Sense making involves coming up with a plausible understanding of our perceived reality of the ever-changing world around us. It is a mapping process that attempts to give structure to the unknown.

This process enables us to “to comprehend, understand, explain, attribute, extrapolate, and predict”. It is a cyclical process that we go through, as we obtain more information. We refine our understanding through the patterns and associated meaning we have created and which we constantly test, verify and refine. Eventually, the complex unknown situation becomes ‘tamed’ and we reach a higher level of understanding at this point. We have learned and created new knowledge that we can call on to solve our problems. Learning from a constructivist point of view is essentially a sense making process.

From what we have seen, there are three conditions required for learning:

  • Enough raw data or experiences must be available with enough repetition and variations on themes to allow for the differences in patterns to emerge;
  • Enough time for the patterns to emerge naturally; and
  • Sufficient, prior meaningful perspectives to be able to handle new experiences productively. If these do not exist, then a longer learning process is required or this can be acquired from other people we trust (we do this with caution).

Learning is dialectical. It is a process that involves interaction through discussion and reasoning by dialogue, whether carried out internally with oneself or eternally with others. This dialectical process explores alternative viewpoints in order to develop an integrated point of view, resulting from the best aspects of all the alternatives we have been exposed to up to that point. The process goes on as new alternatives emerge and it is interactive because we generate meaning by exchanging information with the environment and integrate the meaning into a constructed whole. We construct our knowledge.

unknown image source

unknown image source

There are many aspects that affect our learning, such as past experiences (these can act as a barrier or can enhance our learning). We also have preferred learning styles (a fascinating topic on its own, which I will try and explore in a future post); cognitive styles (a term referred to more by psychologists); preferred learning strategies (visual, auditory and Kinesthetic) and our mental models, to name a few.

Learning is central to problem solving. Our ability to solve problems is affected by some of the aspects listed below:

  • Independent learners – the degree to which we are able to communicate and learn from the meaning created by others – we create meaning for ourselves without reference to others. Some people need to learn things for themselves, whilst others are quite happy to develop a shared meaning through interaction with others;
  • Ability to communicate – learning is dialectical –our ability and how rich our vocabulary is and other non-verbal expressions such as drawing gestures etc. Our ability to understand what needs to be stated and how best to communicate that.
  • Mental flexibility – how prepared we are to adjust our own learning and theories of the world around us. Some people can be quite stubborn (or mentally lazy) and are not flexible or open to adjust their opinion about their worldview. Good problem solvers are highly flexible but critical and keen to reassess their mental models. They are agile and curious. They know that the world is in constant change and, the best strategy to survive, is to make sure they adjust their knowledge to meet the new changes. Their mental models are constantly being renewed and tested against new data and information;
  • Ability to actively re-examine personal constructed theories – we place our ‘self’ at the centre of our reality. The meanings we assign to reality, together with our constructed theories about life and reality, enables us to operate in the environment – without these we are lost and paralyzed. However, at the same time, a good learner and problem solver is very mindful of the fact that these maps of reality are only temporary and approximate reality. The good problem solver will not objectify these maps but, instead, will re-evaluate them eagerly when presented with new information and patterns that emerge and will adjust reality to match the new meanings.
  • Critical thinking – the rigour in critical thinking allows us to evaluate the data, make sense of it and assess its usefulness within the context of the problem to be solved.

The above aspects are important for us to be aware of when we solve problems, especially if we want to be good at solving problems. The objective of this post was to provide background and I will be referring to some aspects covered in future posts. It was also important to make the link to sense making, as I often use the term and will be using it frequently, especially as I start to elaborate on a problem solving method we have been developing.

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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.


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Beauty in the Tech Age Part 1

The notion of beauty is one of those cyclical arguments; we will never have a universal set of rules that defines beauty.

The reason for this is really not too complicated – we are all individuals and culturally diverse. The problem is that humans have a tendency to be imperialistic, controlling and arrogant. In our ignorance, we seem to be quite comfortable imposing our value system onto others. Possibly, this is the reason for many of the problems we are faced with today (such as wars and national conflicts) but this is another conversation.

The structuralist paradigm of ‘one size fits all’ is a form of small-minded parochial thinking. For some reason, we are threatened by ‘otherness’. We seem to want to force everyone else to our way of thinking. This is the case with politics and religion, even music. My opinion, my taste, my view is better, correct and the only one acceptable. Why is this the case? I will not attempt to explore this complex question in this post. Rather, I am hoping that we are now in an age where it is not only okay to be unique but, also, we have come to see cultural diversity as something that should be encouraged, respected and celebrated.

Globalization does not help but rather than seeing it as a destructive force, we can see it as a reason to strengthen, invigorate and give us a conceptual base to reinterpret our unique traditions and evolve them within this new context of globalization and technology.

iToday, diversity is ‘beauty’. If we were all exactly the same, that would be a terrifying ‘desert’ and the ‘ideal’ human would very quickly become ugly and boring to us. Beauty is a consequence of the times we live in. It has shifted to being of a passive nature to one where we, as a society, are participants and co-creators.


We need to mature further as humans to accepting and appreciating the pleasure of what other people see and treasure as beautiful.

I will explore beauty in the age of technology next week in Part 2.

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The Shape of Stories

This post is based on a link that Patrick Lambe (Straights Knowledge) shared an Facebook in early March.

An infographic by Maya Eilam.

An infographic by Maya Eilam.

The infographic above is a creatively re-imagined work of Vonnegut’s musings on the universally plottable shapes of stories by Maya Eliam. Here is a great way to consider stories. Kurt Vonnegut developed this idea and presented it as part of his Master’s thesis in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. In Vonnegut’s words: “… stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper.”

The thesis was rejected at the time because it was considered to be too simple. He left the university to work for the public relations department at General Electric. This, however, did not stop him from vigorously talking about his theory with humour and charm, both in writing and public talks like the one in the video below.

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Shaping and Reshaping

Here is an excellent documentary of how a simple image can become the source and inspiration for ideation. It illustrates a few of the points I make in previous posts.

“This … video … [is] about the new language of data and its impact on culture. The video [was] … created for the VISUALIZED conference, Nov 8 & 9, 2012, in New York City”.

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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.