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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What about Design and Visual Thinking?

Design has certainly become the new black in business. It has become fashionable as has Innovation. These are new buzzwords. They are the terms of the decade. They have taken over from the term ‘quality’, which was the buzzword of the 80s and 90s.

We could say that design has become the holly grail for business. Without any doubt Bruce Nussbaum, Assistant Managing Editor of BusinessWeek, is to be credited for the attention he has brought to design and innovation.

In 2006, Google referenced approximately 3 million instances of the word ‘innovation’ within the domain. Companies were in a frenzy to find ways to integrate creativity into their product development processes.

The terms design and innovation are being used interchangeably but they are distinct activities. I will consider the term innovation in another post but, for now, I will say that that it is essentially an action-oriented activity that translates an idea or invention into a good or service that creates value for which consumers are prepared to pay for. I too have been guilty of this blending of the two terms for the sake of simplicity but this needs to be corrected.

C. M.Vogel views innovation as a thoughtful and insightful application, delivery, extension, or recombination of existing technologies . . . the key is that an innovation is a valued leap from the viewpoint of consumers whether or not it is incremental from the producer’s standpoint.

This post will explore what design is. Design is distinctly different to innovation and is the vehicle through which innovation is expressed.

There is a lack of understanding about design. We see the results of ‘design’ everywhere but we seem to have a problem defining it. Is it difficult because it is one of those things that humans do naturally – does it have anything to do with the way we think? Is the process of design similar in any way to the process of thinking, which we also have difficulty in defining?

Peter Lawrence explains: Design is the term we use to describe both the process and the result of giving tangible form to human ideas. Design doesn’t just contribute to the quality of life; design, in many ways, now constitutes the quality of life.

Design is linked deeply to providing a framework for human life and activity -from culture through to relationships and communication.

Is it ‘design’ or ‘Design’? There is a difference. Design with a capital ‘D’ indicates that it is a discipline of its own and not a small part of a larger discipline of business, engineering or science.

I am not suggesting that it should not be intertwined with other disciplines, such as innovation, but it does need to be recognized as a discipline on its own so that we fully appreciate the potential of this thing called Design.

The intertwining of design and innovation. Image source: JOSE BALDAIA

The intertwining of design and innovation. Image source: JOSE BALDAIA

Back in 1976, Bruce Archer described design as being distinctly different to both art and science. More recently, Fatina Saikaly, Harold Nelson and Erik Stolterman agree that design is not a subset or derivative of science, or a form of art, nor is it a mid-point between the two. We hold the idea that design is its own tradition of inquiry, as well as action, and is among the oldest of traditions.

Herb Simon notes: “The natural sciences are concerned with how things are . . . design on the other hand is concerned with how things ought to be”

While those working in science and humanities rely heavily on inductive and deductive reasoning, those engaged in design activities embrace abductive reasoning (see previous post). This is a very important distinction. This type of reasoning is concerned with shaping, form-giving and articulating reality into the unknown. Abductive reasoning manifests itself in an iterative application of a theory to a real-world problem – a process of creation made up of both inductive and deductive influences.

Design is emotionally charged and very human. The structuralists amongst us will have difficulty with this; for them only the strict ‘logic’ devoid of humanity is acceptable. This is where the problem arises. Logic is a human activity, not a utopia.

Design requires both analytical thinking and reflectivity. These are universal human characteristics, yet people seem to have difficulty with the unified duality. The combination of logic and illogic is where the power and energy of design lies and this is one of the major differences between design and disciplines like science and engineering.

Design is the physical manifestation of thinking – something that Saul Bass firmly believed in.

I think there might be a case to explore the explicit link between design and visual thinking.

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Is Visual Thinking a Science or a Pseudo-Science? Part 1

I will consider this question over two posts; I do this for the simple reason that long posts are difficult to read.

The first part will define the terms science and pseudoscience. The second part considers if Visual Thinking is a science or pseudoscience; after all, visual thinking could be nothing more than a flash in the pan.

The history of any discipline takes shape and emerges in various changing social and intellectual contexts. The boundaries are not predetermined. They are dependent on the conditions of their constitution and also on the developing relationship with other disciplines that are also, in turn, contingent on their own histories.

The history of science is fascinating and the beginnings of all disciplines are rather like a strange attractor forming around forces (contexts), people with like-minded interests and burning questions humans have at the time.

When we say ‘I think scientifically’, we are essentially referring to an objective process of putting claims to rigorous and systematic ‘test’ and to test if beliefs we have about the world are true or not. All scientific knowledge and theories are based on observation and consistent logic. A theory is a logical explanation for observations.

The term ‘test’ refers to a process of investigation of whether the real world behaves as predicted by the hypothesis.

The question is really about how to draw that line of demarcation – the ‘fence’ between science and pseudo-science. For instance, is astrology a science or a pseudo-science?


We might have a gut feeling or even a strong position, but how do we explain the difference in rational terms? Not in  ‘I believe’ terms, but in “I must explain logically” terms’.

Humans have a natural curiosity for understanding the reasons we behave the way we do but, more importantly, we need to be able to make decisions based on fact and we need to be confident that our theories about the world are correct. The reason we develop theories is so we can describe, explain, predict and control. We need to be assured that the knowledge we have is reliable for us in order to make decisions.

It is for this reason that we test and re-test until we start to be confident that the knowledge we have is reliable.

Why do we need to make a distinction? Well, I could state that I believe in fairies that live in the bottom of my garden. Do they? Because I make the statement that they live there – does it make them real?

The point is how do we make the distinction between science and pseudo-science?

image source modified by Rui Martins

image source modified by Rui Martins

The issue of objectivity and subjectivity is a difficult one and not one that we should be flippant about. Postmodernists would argue, as stated by Stephen Gould (evolutionary biologist and a non-Postmodernist) “Science is a social phenomenon… It progresses by hunch, vision, and intuition. Much of its change through time is not a closer approach to absolute truth, but the alteration of cultural contexts that influence it. Facts are not pure information; culture also influences what we see and how we see it. Theories are not inexorable deductions from facts; most rely on imagination, which is cultural.”

In other words, life has just become a little more difficult and not straightforward. Nevertheless, we still need confidence about what we know so as to move forward.

The traditional way to define science is that it is inductive. It builds from individual experiences to theoretical generalizations. This is correct. Science does proceed in this fashion but so does pseudo-science. It is a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition for something to be scientific.

Because of this, we need a better qualification to test between science and pseudo-science. The Vienna circle offered the notion of ‘verifiability’ as the mark of science.

What makes something scientific is that it is verifiable. Collected data or empirical evidence is required to verify the theory.

Karl Popper had a problem with this criterion as well. He thought it was too easy – “once your eyes were … opened, you saw confirming instances everywhere: the world was full of verifications of the theory”. Once you ‘got it’ one starts to see things and reinterpret them to verify one’s point of view. For instance, seeing Stonehenge and then stating that it was built by extraterrestrials, the same with crop circles etc.


Popper claimed that a theory must, in principle, be falsifiable in order for it to be valid science. A theory must make predictions that can be tested. For example, evolution is theoretically falsifiable. People keep on testing it and, while the results are significant, it remains a scientific truth.

However, at any point in the future, the current ‘truth’ can be falsified when more knowledge and resources (new experiments and technology) become available. In such a situation, if an observation contradicted the principles and falsified the idea of evolution, at first the observation is questioned and if future observations keep on falsifying the theory, the established theory then becomes suspect.

Even Charles Darwin stated: “if it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”

Taking the example of Astrology and Fung Shui for instance, both have a history of disciplines that cannot be disconfirmed. They do not set themselves up to be falsified. They are insulated by the way there have been set up.

Astrology, for example, is a theory that states that our destinies are controlled by the stars under which we were born. This theory has not been put forward in a way that it could be falsified; the history of astrology is not about a group of people looking for ways and tests to falsify the theory (i.e. looking for falsifications in order to look for better theories). Instead, it is a history of people making money from fortune-telling.

The way to build a pseudoscience is to build a theory that cannot be falsified. There is nothing that can be said or tested that can defeat the theory. Any argument can be rejected and deflected.

For instance, going back to the ‘fairies that live at the bottom of my garden’ – If I say the fairies are invisible and undetectable by any means that can be manipulated by mammals – there is nothing that can be said to disprove this statement. It cannot be tested by touch or CT scans. It is invisible to all mammals (humans are mammals – no argument). It cannot be falsified – it is a pseudoscience. Unfalsification has been built into the theory.

Another way to build a pseudoscience theory is to make it a moving target, where the theory changes slightly when scrutinized. An example is the Ptolemaic Astronomy theory of the universe – the planets and the Sun circle the Earth. However, this is easily falsified by simply plotting the motion of Mars across the sky – we see retrograde motion (observed backward motion of the planet). The theory then gets quickly modified to say that there are invisible pivots that circle the Earth around which planets turn and this appears to address the issue of retrograde motion.

The Ptolemaic system of the universe explained many things and defined which questions were legitimate and which should not be asked.

The Ptolemaic system of the universe explained many things and defined which questions were legitimate and which should not be asked.

Unfortunately, this theory does not fit careful observations of Mars either – oops! The theory is further modified by saying that the planet circles around a point that circles around another point that circles around the Earth. We can then keep on adding post hoc modifications to the theory. All this is the ideal making of a pseudoscience. If one does this often enough, the theory becomes unfalsifiable.

A footnote to the Ptolemaic Astronomy – the reason that people at the time expended so much effort in forcing this theory was that they were obsessed with their belief that the Universe could be described through elegant and beautiful mathematics, which in turn enabled them ‘logically’ to mathematically calculate and predict their future and when some event would occur. What is fascinating is that even Galileo is on record as having cast astrological maps for his children. That is how powerful a theory can be, even if false, on the way we live our lives.

For this reason, I think it is important that we seek to know that what we are basing our decisions on is as accurate as possible and not some falsehood that makes us build castles for the fairies living at the bottom of my garden!

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Essential Skills for 2025 – A Case for Liberal Arts Education – Part 3

Illustration by Brett Ryder. In Middlebury Magazine.

Illustration by Brett Ryder. In Middlebury Magazine.

I am not going to describe what liberal arts education is. I am assuming most people know. If you don’t, here is a pretty good explanation.

Instead, I strongly advocate the need to be able to think – the assumption is that you get good training and learn to think as the fundamental skill in a liberal arts curriculum. You also learn how to learn. Lifelong learning is a fundamental ability one needs. With these two skills – life will be that much easier and one will be able to navigate the unknown with confidence.

Although I listed 8 skills as important for the future in the previous post, I suggest that if you are excellent at thinking and a lifelong learner, you can theoretically acquire most of the other skills.

Thinking is not something you are born with; you learn how to think. Thinking has its own orderly structure and set of rules. Interestingly, being exposed to a variety of subject matter seems to help acquire the thinking skill.

As humans we think – the question is how well do we do it?

We need thinking tools for: creative conceptualization; critical analyses; logical inference; rational decisions; effective reasoning; and rational argument. These combined tools enable us to be better thinkers.

The future requires us to be simultaneously more creative, logical rational, inventive and ‘hit the target’ often, rather than a 50/50 hit and miss probability.

You need to start off education as a generalist – to love knowledge and have good judgment. To be such a person, you really need to be a philosopher of sorts – that is essentially what philosophy is about – thinking. You need to have an interest, and be comfortable in, many disciplines (mathematics, statistics, psychology, science etc.). You needs to be “intellectually omnivorous’, as Patrick Grim would say.

We need to be able to evaluate our own thinking and be aware of how we think, as well as how we can think better. We need to be able to describe our thinking skills and know how we ought to think – being critically aware of our individual shortfalls in thinking. We must operate at a meta level and be able to critically evaluate ourselves.

We should develop techniques and strategies for thinking more clearly and with greater focus, as well as being able to apply stronger patterns of argument. This is possible if one knows how to be a life long learner – it does not happen sequentially as in A-B-C-D. Rather it is cyclical and one is constantly relearning and improving on ‘the self’ – previous knowledge. This enables us to create new knowledge – the essence of surviving in the future.

Needless to say, visual thinking is at the core. It acts as a facilitator of all thinking and operates at a sub-linguistic level. It is the core of the self – the whole. Humans have a fundamental aptitude for patterns and visualization. We need to leverage and explore this aspect for maximum benefit. We need to unlock the power of visual thinking to acquire the other thinking tools.

Image by Ladyann, modified by Rui Martins.

Image by Ladyann, modified by Rui Martins.


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Essential Skills for 2025 – A Case for Liberal Arts Education – Part 1

I’ll be discussing this topic over three posts. In this post, I look at the drivers of change; in the second post, I discuss the actual drivers; and in the third post, I address the proposition contained in the heading – Liberal Arts approach to education is essential for our civilisation to move forward into the next level of progress (see here for background to this notion).

I have commented before (see here) that I believe a Liberal Arts approach to education is important and that I also think our current educational system is poor.

The premise of my argument is around the notion of ‘THINKING’. I am also proposing that our future (coming decade) is going to require us to be exceptional thinkers. Thinking and its variations (visual, creative, critical etc.) is the core ability we will require to be able to add value and standout in an extremely crowded market place. We will need special skills to survive the very different working landscape that is evolving right before our eyes. I discuss the rate of change in a future post as being in the shape of a J’ curve.

The first question one might ask is how do we know this? The answer is that we do not know anything about the future with any certainty. However, we can look at trends from the past and see clearly emerging patterns. We can conceptually visualise (an important tool at our disposal) what these trends are and where they are heading. We can see what the emerging drivers for change are and, as a result, make broad, accurate predictions as to what the future is going to look like. Talking about the next decade or so, it is not too difficult to make an educated proposition of the future.

The figure below tells a very interesting story.

Smoothed Changes in Employment by Occupational Skill Percentile, 1979–2007.  Original graph by Daron Acemoglu and David Autor found in Journal of Economic Literature 2012. Adapted by Rui Martins.

Smoothed Changes in Employment by Occupational Skill Percentile, 1979–2007. Original graph by Daron Acemoglu and David Autor found in Journal of Economic Literature 2012. Adapted by Rui Martins.

Goos and Manning (2003) describe this phenomena as ‘polarization’ of the labor force, where job opportunities in the US, Europe and most industrialized countries have become sharply polarized over the last three decades and with no end in site. The phenomena describes a reality where job opportunities are expanding in both high-skill, high-wage occupations and low-skill, low wage occupations. This is coupled with contracting opportunities in middle-wage, middle-skill white-collar and blue-collar jobs. The figure above describes the restructuring of the work force that is taking place. The data for the figure is for the US but very similar results are emerging in other industrialized countries as shown by Goos and Manning.

Employment has shifted from middle-skill routine, task-intensive work towards the two tails of the occupational skill distribution. Occupations at the two tails are labelled as non-routine, however, they differ greatly in both skill and pay. The occupations on the right-hand tail of the distribution require skills that focus on problem-solving, abstract reasoning and decision-making. This group is composed of highly educated individuals with tertiary education degrees. Those on the left-hand tail encompass low skill, non-routine activities that require skills of basic human adaptability but little in the way of formal training or education. This tail is composed of labour and operative occupations.

The middle-skill routine jobs at first were being absorbed initially by outsourcing, but even this trend is shifting to replace these with technology – robots and computerization.

From this, it is not too difficult to deduce that the people who will directly support the changing landscape of the future economy are the high-skilled individuals.

This is the picture now. What else might be happening that is not obvious to us just yet? Or rather, what have we not noticed? – just like the frog in a pot of cold water on a fire (the frog dies because it does notice the gradual changes in the water temperature).

We need to look at what the key drivers might be that will shape the future. What might the essential future work skills be – proficiencies and abilities that will be both supporting and driving the change into the future? The information was obtained from a variety of sources (institutes such as the IFTF of the University of Phoenix, papers and observations).

The basic drivers are:

  1. Emergence of smart machines;
  2. Longevity of the population;
  3. New media;
  4. Imbedded technology;
  5. Global connectedness; and
  6. New Organisational structures.

I will discuss these drivers in the next post. In the third post, I will address the question of Liberal Arts education.

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A Retrospective of Visual Thinking

I thought I would do a retrospective of some ideas on visualization that I have explored during 2013.

Because I thought that people will be more interested in having a good time and catching up with family and friends over the Christmas holiday period, I am posting this in January. I am still in Bhutan by the time this post appears and, when I get back to New Zealand, I am looking forward to sharing some of the different insights gained during my trip.

Here are some of my thoughts:

  • Vision is one of those things that humans do very well and naturally.
  • The human brain has a very large portion dedicated to vision and visualization – this must say something!
  • We are awake more than asleep. This means that we are ‘doing ‘vision’ the majority of the time in our lives.
  • Through evolution, we are designed to ‘do vision’.  Again, this must say something very obvious about the importance of visualization.
  • Visualization is more than passive seeing.

My question is: does this mean that visualization is a massively important component in the way we make decisions and make sense of the world? Yet, we have not really defined this capacity and fully understood it. Is it too difficult or have we considered it to be one of those nice but not serious topics? I think this is about to change, especially as we are making a social shift towards recognizing the importance of design, innovation and creativity as a powerful component to the future survival of our civilization. The dominant ‘left brain’ (I have used this mostly as a metaphor) is not able to suppress and dominate the centre stage of our thinking anymore. Balanced critical thinking includes creativity.

Creativity is not about rearranging the furniture or choosing the wall colour to match the curtains. It is hard, yet everyone has this capacity in varying degrees and it must be cultivated seriously.

We live in a visual jungle. How do we articulate this skill so that we can use it mindfully rather than simply doing it? A sprinter runs, so do the majority of humans, but not all humans run like a trained athlete – can we, in a similar way, harness and understand our visual skills so that we become fantastic at thinking and, as a consequence, leap into another realm of awareness and understanding?

Visualization is a new language of cognition. With this skill we are able to zero in on the emergent factors, variables and otherwise hidden patterns in front of us and, in so doing, unlock new knowledge.

We need a high Visual IQ (V.I.Q) to deal with nuances and subtleties in the noise of life. As a society, we have progressively been increasing our I.Q in general – this means we are getting smarter as a species. But we need to define our Visual I.Q so that we can survive in the dense, visual jungle, make sense of it and not be afraid of it.

Visualization is a form of knowledge compression, as expressed by David McClandless. This allows us to identify not only the gestalt but make and design new knowledge. Knowledge has become a construct that gets reconstructed within new contexts by individual observers. Individuals are now the curators of knowledge and visualization has become the means to creatively explore and innovate our new futures.

I think we should celebrate this ability and use it to its full potential to enable us to unlock the creative spirit dormant in all humans. Everyone needs to be able to see that the emperor has no clothes. We need to change out thinking from a mindset that can only tolerate the logic of  2 + 2 = 4 to one where we can see the message captured in 2 + 2 = 5.

Tom Fletcher by mywonde - modified by Rui

Tom Fletcher by mywonde – modified by Rui