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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The TED talk below is a great demonstration of when we are able to Visually ‘see’ data and, even better, ask questions and interact with the data set.

Suddenly, we are able to think differently, question old Theories and correct incorrect assumptions of reality. This allows us to start to see and gain a sense of the importance of data visualisation. It also helps us to recognise complex adaptive systems and understand how they behave. This essential skill is demonstrated in the video.

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There is much debate as to what we remember and why we remember as far as visual information is concerned. The age of visualization has arrived. Now the question is: what makes a good visualisation memorable and what makes a bad one – the ones we forget easily? What are the elements, structure and colors in a visual that makes us remember it?

This question is important, especially if we are trying to design something that people will vividly remember and something that becomes useful. There is little point spending time creating a visual that would fall under the category of ‘chart junk’ as Edward Tufte calls it.

The debate is a serious one amongst visualization experts. The point of the debate is obviously about trying to get a systematic set of principles that would allow us to guarantee the creation of an excellent visual each and every time. The reason is that this is a relatively young discipline – the discipline of visual thinking – and we still are very much at the exploratory phase.

In an attempt to cast some light on the debate, research led by Michelle Borkin from Harvard, together with Aude Oliva from MIT, was presented at the 2013 IEEEE INFOVIS conference.

visualizationsThey designed a large-scale study in the form of an online-game to measure what visuals participants remembered. _They collected more than 5,000 charts and graphics from scientific papers, design blogs, newspapers, and government reports and manually categorized them by a wide range of attributes. By showing these to participants in one-second glimpses (using Amazon Mechanical Turk), the researchers tested the influence of features such as color, density and content themes on users’ ability to recognize which ones they had seen before.

The findings showed images that contained photographs, people, cartoons and logos were easily recalled because these elements are not abstract. A visual that contained some image of a recognizable object to a human was remembered more easily.

Images that were visually dense and used more colors were also more memorable as well as unusual types of charts such as network diagrams, tree diagrams and grid matrices. The surprising result was that simple bar charts, pie charts and scatter plots were not easily recalled.

Images that were natural to humans like branching of trees, as well as images that combined familiar and unique elements were very memorable.
“A graph can be simple or complex, and they both can be memorable,” explains Oliva. “You can make something familiar either by keeping it simple or by having a little story around it. It’s not really that you should choose to use one color or many, or to include additional ornaments or not. If you need to keep it simple because it’s the style your boss likes or the style of your publication, you can still find a way to make it memorable.”

If we could systematize visual thinking then we would be able to use it more effectively, faster and efficiently. Unfortunately, the researchers did not issue a set of rules for us to follow – that might be good – forcing us to use our imagination. They confidently state that all visualizations need to be accurate, easy to comprehend, aesthetically pleasing and appropriate to the context. Together with the findings mentioned above, I think we have some good guidelines.

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As promised, the solution for last weeks post is ‘Kite’. The visual makes it very simple and shows how our mind works. By having the visual, the text even seems to read differently.


We have an amazing aptitude for patterns and this is very useful and essential for conceptual thinking and problem solving. Next time you have a problem, notice how you tend to try and create images in your brain in order to make better sense of the situation you are confronted with. You do not think in text; you think in visuals and concepts.

There is also a warning – we are very good at making connections but, unfortunately, we also make connections that sometimes are simply not there.

For example: you are looking for your wallet to pay your parking and cannot find it at the exit while sitting in the car. A little while back you paid a bill in a restaurant, so you conclude that you must have left it there or dropped it somewhere.

Habitually, you remove your wallet from your back pocket (as some men do) and place it in the same place in the car every time but, because there was no place there on this occasion, you placed it somewhere else without much thought. Now that you need your wallet, you cannot find it in the usual spot.

This propensity to make connections leads us draw conclusions because we jump to a causal connection between two events because they occurred close in time. This is known as fallacious thinking.

Here is a good example – read the text quickly and answer the question:

“According to the Old Testament, how many animals of each kind did Moses load into the ark?“

Image source

Image source

The answer to the question is in fact zero. The reason is because (according to the Old Testament) it was Noah and not Moses who collected animals in pairs and loaded them onto the ark. Our mind gets caught up in the visual of the paired animals. It focuses on that image without noticing that the name was incorrect.

However, if the name was “Smith’ then we would have noticed it because both Moses and Noah are names we associate with the Old Testament and not Smith – for those that are familiar with the Bible that is.

We need to be aware of the way we think and fallacious thinking. It is why we often say that we need to think outside the box. We must break away from our biases and conditioning (and be aware of them) if we are to exploit our skills to the fullest. It is not because we have something wrong with our brain; we just need to know that this is how our brain works. Now that we know, we can do something about it and use it properly.

We take thinking for granted and, because we are so accustomed to ‘doing it’,  we do not know what it is all about, how to improve it etc. It is not an automated skill. We need to improve it and be very mindful of it – visual thinking is a skill that needs to be worked on so that we can not only take advantage of a fantastic resource at our disposal, but we will also be able to achieve things more easily and ‘see’ what we often miss.

We need to become aware of our own thinking habits and learn from them. We need to be able to move easily between ‘doing’ thinking and ‘watching’ our own thinking – the ability to operate between action and the metacognition. As John Flavell put it – thinking about thinking.

For example, the moment we realize that we are having problems understanding A, but have no problems understanding B, we are operating at the metacognition level. This skill of observing our own thinking is something we need to perfect – especially with visual thinking and pattern recognition.

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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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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.”