The Practice & Art of Thinking

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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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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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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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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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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.”