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Main | our greatest challenge at this historical moment: denial and disinformation »
Sunday
Jan062019

mental models

Here's an interesting info-graphic (created by Michael Simmons) on mental models-- a topic I touched on in a recent post.  From the standpoint of communication design, these kinds of data-intense graphics can be very useful; however, they can also occlude awareness...most commonly because we've mis-understood or omitted an important component of the so-called "relevant universe" or (my preferred term) the systems ecology under consideration.

For example, what's the meta-message in this graphic?  Descriptively, it's cohesive and interesting.  It's also highly complex.   And I would suggest that, as a complex model (info-graphic) of a meta-model (universe of mental models) it serves (in a very subtle, nuanced way) to convey that--beyond being something to look at and grasp intellectually--this is a subject best left to experts.

Now...I am not arguing that the creator of the graphic was trying to say this.  Nor am I arguing that this facet of the meta-message is harmful.  It's truthful at a certain level: There is complexity in mental models, and in problem solving approaches.   That said, I'm also observing that--through the lens of communication design-- the presentation points toward complexity as a key take-away of the graphic, and that this subtle meta-message may in fact be the primary message for many folks.

And so what? Maybe it's just an interesting way of thinking about cognition, and how we approach problems.  This could be.  And if you are an intellectual omnivore it makes a tasty addition to the plate of ideas.  I'd also say that in the realm of design--where we are engaged with both science and art in the grounded space of solving actual problems--  this graphic represents a useful repetoire of thought-approaches which we can leverage in design work. As a designer working in the realm of complex systems, I am all for mental flexibility and a broad palette of options at every stage of design. However, it is also my position that before we consider external (so-called) mental models (some of which are represented in this graphic) there is another, much more important mental model in play: the one we have inside our own head...the one we may (or more likely may not) even be aware of...the one within which we have squirreled away years (decades depending on your age) of unquestioned assumptions about ourselves, the world around us, and how things work.  This internal mental model--to the extent that it is operating unconsciously and without question in the background--can seriously impair our efforts to co-create positive outcomes in our design work...especially when so-called "human factors" are involved...mainly because it represents a huge blindspot in our ability to perceive the dynamic and constantly shifting world around us. 

Broadly put, the info-graphic represents a core mental model of modern culture's technorationalist approch to problems-- just find an expert and/or their solution and it's all good.  In contrast, I suggest that the primary mental model to concern one's self with in ecologicl design practice (and life) is our own:   What are your beliefs? What skills are they linked to? How does your expression (via words & deeds/skills) align (or not) with your beliefs?  How do these beliefs inform and impact your design work? (And your life, for we are always designing our own lives through our work whether we acknowledge it or not.) 

When you begin to seriously evaluate your internal landscape--your map, your mental model--you are beginning to level up to the realm of ecological design...the artful problem-solving work design practitioners do when we are seeking to integrate who we are and how we show up in the world with the needs we see represented around us in our environment. 

The power of external approaches--as outlined in the graphic--is magnified exponentially when we understand who we are and what makes us tick, and when we bring that awareness to our design practice.  The inclusion of the inner work (self-relationship) is one of the things that distinguishes ecological design from technical design...and this holds true in every area of design: industrial, communication, residential, process, experience, etc.  

Cultivate a deeper awareness of your working mental model, and learn to challenge your assumptions as you become aware of them, and see how this influences your design approach and work in the world.   You might be seriously surprised at the positive yield such a practice provides.   Or not.  All for now.