Last week I described how abstract content is easier to understand when it is divided into chunks that are “clear and distinct”. But what makes chunks of content “clear and distinct”?
This week, to answer that question, I invite you to join me in making a mental leap. We tend to assume there’s a clear dividing line between the physical things that we encounter in the world – computers, whiteboards, cars and so on – and the abstract concepts we think about but can’t see or touch – justice, love, system of systems architectures, whatever:
But one of the big findings of modern cognitive science is that this dividing line is largely illusory. Rather, the way we think about abstract concepts is an adaptation of the way we think about physical things. This is a crazy, counter-intuitive idea that I will keep returning to and fleshing out in future articles and posts. I can only scratch the surface of it here.
The easiest way to see embodiment in action is by looking at language. For example, I’ve just read an article that said that (quote) “Socrates’ big idea was that reason helps us to be more just and happy.” Look at the metaphors hidden in that sentence. How can something as intangible as an idea be “big”? It can’t. Until you realise that our brains are quite happy treating abstract things as though they were physically embodied:
Read that quote again. How can something abstract like reason “help” someone? How can there be “more” of “just and happy”? How can an abstract quality like justice have a physical property like quantity? The structure and grammar of language don’t change when we shift focus from describing physical experiences to describing abstract concepts, and that’s because thinking and talking about abstractions use the same cognitive systems as thinking and talking about physical things. Which is kind of a big idea (see what I did there?!) By understanding how the brain makes our physical experiences clear and distinct, we can reverse-engineer that knowledge back to the abstract. So what do we know about the perception of physical objects? Quite a lot, it turns out.
Take the Gestalt psychologists for example, from the early twentieth century. At its simplest level, the Gestaltists were interested in the rules that describe how the perceptual system picks things out from their background contexts. Although these could be any things (sounds, smells, events, ideas), they’re most famous for describing how we perceive things visually. You will no doubt have seen examples like the one below, where most of us instinctively perceive a white triangle, even though there’s only three pacman-shaped circles:
This example was created by Gaetano Kanizsa in 1955, and it illustrates the Gestalt law of “closure” – the fact that our perception fill gaps in to create contiguous shapes. These kinds of Gestalt laws are a mainstay of graphic design training. The one rule that underlies all of them though, is the principle of “figure and ground”. This says that whenever something (a “figure”) is perceived, it is always perceived against a backdrop (the “ground”), and your brain will follow statistical rules to make its best guess as to which is which. In the figure above, you can see the white triangle as figure against a ground of black circles, or black pacmen as the figure against the white ground of the page, but not both at the same time.
Why’s this important? Two reasons:
- Your brain already has a well-developed set of rules for what it perceives as clear and distinct
- It does this mainly by detecting and interpreting the edges of things.
So when you’re trying to slice up a domain of abstract content, the solution is not to think in terms of quasi-scientific analytical ontologies, but to ask yourself “what does this domain actually look like?”, and once you have an idea what it looks like, “where are the edges?”
Imagine you’re getting people to classify the contents of a bowl of fruit. Some things will be clearly distinct: It’s hard to confuse an apple with an orange. But some things aren’t – when is something a small orange and when is it a satsuma? Pile them all together and the edges are pretty hazy.
Into the realms of the abstract
Now imagine you’re trying to create a competency framework for IT Professionals in your organisation. Your shortlist includes “technical skills”, “leadership” and “decision making”. These came about because they happened to be on the minds of the team when they ran a competency workshop.
Now let’s analyse them in a Gestalt-style frame of mind. The equivalent of our bowl of fruit is the range of things an IT professional should be able to do competently. So the key question is, where are the natural edges in this domain of experience? If the three competencies above made it through to the actual document with no further refinement, then you will have problems, because a concept like “decision making” is pretty sweetly in the middle between “leadership” and “strategic direction”:
There’s a whole field of academic research into linguistic categorisation, and there are so many other avenues to explore here (metaphor, blending, labelling …), but for now I just want to draw attention to this mental leap, the leap from seeing abstract concepts as disembodied ideas to seeing them as things in an environment. It’s the heart of everything we do here in the studio, and it takes us back to the heart of all meaning-making: Connecting with the experience of your audience. It’s also the basic prerequisite for visualising abstract content in a meaningful way. I’ve lost count of the number of times when we start drawing pictures of what clients’ content actually looks like, instead of slavishly following the categories they use to describe it, we find there are whole chunks of experience that haven’t been recognised and aren’t being talked about simply because they haven’t been named. Shift the categorisation structure back to the structure of people’s lived experience and all of a sudden people know what you’re talking about again. It’s enormously powerful.
So if you’re struggling to chunk something very abstract into clear and distinct elements that everyone will relate to, first zoom out and ask yourself what the whole area that you are trying to split up actually looks like to those people, then ask yourself where the edges naturally seem to fall. What kinds of activities are you seeing? Where? When? What do they look like? Match the edges to the edges of people’s experience and you will make shared meaning.