The Practice & Art of Thinking

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I normally would present the complete ‘picture’ – in this case, the ‘method’ for problem solving – and then explain what I mean by the individual components of the method. This assumes that the method consists of a combined set of components, which is the case here.

I am using this approach for the simple reason that I think the ‘journey’ (to use an over-used term) is important, allowing us to develop and visualise a personal version of the whole, which would be negated if presented with the conclusion upfront. I will add, many principles of the method have already been touched on throughout this blog.

The method consists of a mix of concepts and specific principles. In this post I will be looking briefly at aspects of the concept of ‘Reason’.

The notion ‘reason’ is important but we tend to park it in the ‘hard basket’ for the simple reason that it has connotations of ‘philosophy’ and such discussion can have the feeling of talking to someone who has forgotten to take their medication – it all seems a bit ‘random’ – as some New Zealanders would say.

Let us quickly look at why reason is important. A great example is that captured in one of Popper’s books (title at end of post), where he suggests that a healthy society is one that is open to ideas and reason. In contrast, non-open societies are (as Popper states) ‘barbaric’, with no capacity for sympathy or understanding for others and diversity of opinion (I could not agree more. We can currently see this happening in our world).

urlWithout the ability to reason, we cannot progress and understand the world around us. We reason to consciously make sense of things and to establish and verify facts. This is exactly what one needs to do to get to grips with any problem situation.

We tend to confuse the term ‘reason’ with logic and use them interchangeably but they are different. To explain, we can use the example of the difference between movement and locomotion. All locomotion is movement but not all movement is locomotion. A tree moves but it does not locomote because it is rooted in the ground. Likewise, all logic is reason but not all reason conforms to the standards of logic.

If logic is the map of what’s really “out there”, reason is the process of trying to read and follow the map. Using another example – reason is the application of logic to one’s perception of the real world, like engineering is the application of physics.

Simply put, reasoning is the actual process of evaluating information and applying logic to arrive at an appropriate (correct) conclusion.

It might now be clear to see why refining our skill of reasoning is essential to good problem solving. It should be considered as the overall concept of the method of problem solving – the balancing force.

I have used the metaphor of the spinning top before (see here in relation to design thinking). We could consider reason as the overall resultant force that keeps the spinning top performing at its optimum – in this case, good problem solving could be seen as a spinning top humming away, where reason is the element that feeds all the other forces and ensures they are performing at peak condition.

From this, it is not too difficult to see why it is vital that we are eloquent at reasoning and understand the importance of reason in relation to good problem solving practice. The cartoon below by Luiz Oswaldo Carneiro Rodrigues stresses the point that data should not be forced and distorted to do what you want it to do. One needs to use reason at all times.

Treat Your Data with Reason - Not With Force. Cartoon by LOR

Treat Your Data with Reason – Not With Force. Cartoon by LOR

I look briefly at reason and ‘listening to data’ shortly in the future.

Book: By Karl Popper – The Poverty of Historicism; The Open Society and Its Enemies. First published in London in 1945, Russia in 1992 and US 2013. This book was on the Modern Library Board’s 100 best nonfiction books of the 20th century. It criticizes Marx, amongst others, for relying on historicism to underpin their political philosophies.

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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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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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Heat Maps

Heat Maps is a simple yet powerful technique that leverages the human’s superior visual cognitive capacity to gain deeper and faster insights into data and information.

Cormac Kinney coined the term in 1991 to describe a 2D-display depicting real-time financial market information.

A heat map is any data visualization that uses color to represent data values in a two-dimensional image. A simple heat map provides an immediate visual summary of information. More elaborate heat maps allow the viewer to understand complex data sets.

There are many different types of heat maps used in different disciplines, each referred to by the term “heat map”, even though they use different visualization techniques.

The reason heat maps work so well is because of our ‘Pre-attentive Processing’ ability. The term refers to the ability of the low-level human visual system to rapidly identify properties, such as color and size, in less than 250 milliseconds.

According to Van der Heijden, we unconsciously accumulate information from the environment ,which is pre-attentively processed. The brain filters and processes what is important based on what stands out the most. Once the individual’s attention is captured (based on what is of relevance to what the individual is thinking), at that point the information is selected for further and more complete analysis by conscious (attentive) processing.

It is a two-stage process, which happens in seconds, and this is why heat maps are so powerful.

Heat maps are being used in many sectors and that is great. The best way to demonstrate these is to show you examples. I use some examples as shown by John Brandon in a slide presentation.


Marketing people created the map above. By using eye-tracking devices, a heat map is created showing where attention of the user is focused on display pages. The map above is a sample heat map of a Google search result.

A dominant pattern for search engine results is the “F” pattern showing the eye being drawn to the upper left (hot colors) and then moving down and across from there (shown as the blue colors). There are, however, factors (such as the inclusion of images, graphics, and additional columns) that can significantly alter this pattern.

This heat map displays risk by location. It was created by RMS (risk management company) to show risks related to catastrophic events: Earthquakes, hurricanes, severe storms (including tornados and hail), wind storms, wildfires and volcanoes. An insurance company might use it to determine the “probability of loss” related to such an event.

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This heat map shows the reality of fraud attempts in real-time using live data. A red dot pops up to show a fraud attempt. ThreatMatrix culls the data from 1,950 customers, which includes about 9,000 websites, and tracks about 360,000 cyberattacks per day.

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 9.38.35 am

This heat map from MarketProphit shows buzz and sentiment around specific stocks. The larger blocks indicate the most buzz (or discussion) around a stock as culled from Twitter. The colors show sentiment; the red blocks denote negative comments and the green denotes positive comments. In an instant, financial planners can see general trends with stocks based on social media posts.

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This heat map shows the movements of customers in a retail store aisle. Red areas represent the spots where most customers shop. Retailers can use the heat map for product placements and to see whether a sales campaign was successful.

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This heat map shows the age of buildings in the Portland, Ore. area. About 544,000 structures are represented, including about 4,500 erected in the 1800s and 10,265 buildings constructed in 1978 alone.

Justin Palmer created this heat maps based on public data released by the City of Portland. It shows the age of buildings. This can help municipalities see which neighborhoods hold the greatest concentration of structures that may need repairs.

Click on the link ( to see the map in large scale, iit s beautiful. It shows the nearly 10 million buildings in the Netherlands; some in central Amsterdam are more than 1,000 years old.

Some would argue that heat maps are very specific – “the heat map is a treemap-like graphical technique used to represent a two-dimensional array of data” as shown in the example below.


Many techniques illustrated in this post, as argued by the purists, are not heat maps. I agree and I disagree. The principle of using color to very quickly highlight the issues of concern, attention or importance is extremely valuable and it is a perfect example of how we work better with visuals than with coded jargon. The fact that it is called a heat map – well, does it matter? Notionally, it is a perfect description even though it might not be as it was originally labeled – I think this is a good and natural evolution of the principles. I will call these techniques ‘heat maps’ – it works and it is powerful.

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Simple Techniques to help our Visual Thinking

This post looks at two techniques to assist our visual thinking: the humble Venn Diagram and the Concept Tree.

Visualization is the fundamental element of reasoning. This is an argument that Aristotle proposed and many more have affirmed, including Grim, who I make reference to in this post.

Before getting to the actual techniques, we need to step back and clarify some basic building blocks.

We use words, sentences, concepts etc. The point is: how do these things relate to each other; what do they mean; and what does it have to do with visualization?

Words are just signs. The physical word is nothing more than a combination of sounds or marks when written. The word becomes of interest when it has an association with ideas. Concepts lie behind the words. The words themselves are meaningless. It is the ideas associated with those words that are of interest.

To illustrate the point of words versus concepts, consider the blue object below ….

blue car

Car (English), Coche (Spanish), Voiture (French), Kotse (Filipino), Auto (Italian). The word changes in the various languages but the concept remains the same in all the languages.

Concepts do not just float around randomly; they have relationships and structure between them. For example, Cactus is a kind of plant. We can see the relational structure between those two concepts (‘cactus’ and ‘plant’).

Words express concepts and concepts apply to things (in general terms).

The importance of visualization in this sense making process is important and actually fundamental to the act of thinking and reasoning. Concepts are the fundamental elements of all thinking; concepts are what we think with (the mental image, idea, the construct).

For example, if we say: place all cars on earth into a freestanding pile – we can imagine this but, physically, it would be impossible to execute. We are able to visualize the concept of piling cars into a huge pile as depicted in the image below. We use visualization of concepts or groups of concepts to assist our thinking.

car pile

The notion of concepts behind words indicates that it is not the words that have meaning but the concepts that we construct (these have an inherent structural relationship). A good technique to visualize this is the humble Venn diagram.

In the statement: ‘all pigs are mammals’ – how do we make sense of this?

By using a Venn diagram, we are able to visualize the relations between concepts in terms of their extensions (the way concepts apply to things).

You can form a conceptual fence in which you place pigs into and gather them in thought. Then, if you place that conceptual set inside another fence (set) that contains all mammals, you are easily able to visualize and make sense of the proposition.

From the visual below, it is easy to see that all pigs are mammals but not all mammals are pigs. In Venn language, one set is a subset of the other. Aristotle referred to this as genus and species as ways of referring to something (for those with time, a in-depth explanation can be found here and here).



As a visual – how easy is that. If you describe this in words only, written or verbal, the meaning could get lost. You can also start to build on the diagram and, very simply and quickly, capture relatively complex relationships and structures that would be taxing on the brain to comprehend if not seen. The beauty of it all is that there might be information (not originally intended) that others might see and construct new meaning from. Emergence happens not by plan or design but because of dynamics made accessible easily (by a simple visual in this case).


The other visual tool is the Concept Tree – this is an expanded visualization – allowing you to see hierarchical organization of categories and subcategories, sets and subsets.

From the example below, we are able to visualize the evolution of language by using the tree diagram. Conceptually, we are able to visualize, make sense and easily trace the link between (for example) Portuguese or English to the original Nostratic language.

The simple branching of the tree from the trunk to the branches, and all the way to the twigs, allows you to take advantage of the relatively simple concept and use it to see very complex clusters, layers, sets and sub-sets. This approach can even be used in disciplines such as statistics where hidden data patterns are easily revealed.

This visualization takes advantage of our perceptual and inference abilities simultaneously. By combining these two abilities, one is using low-level information processing, together with high-level information processing – that is why visualization is so powerful and we should use it fully.


Language Families, their relationship and Origins (I apologize for the quality of the image) Photo credit:

Language Families, their relationship and Origins (I apologize for the quality of the image) Photo credit:

Considering the organizational structure of the tree, the story that puts it together is composed of words, concepts and propositions. The story, or information if you like, is the shaping force driven by concepts. It is a powerful, yet simple, visualization showing the origins as well as evolution of language. By adding the percentages of people who speak the various languages in the world (in the example), it makes the visual more useful.

Two simple techniques that visually can be very powerful.

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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.”