The Rules of
Graphical Thinking

The purpose of Graphical Thinking. The human brain has the capacity to make a vast number of fine and subtle distinctions and to comprehend a large number of simultaneous causal connections. Unfortunately, when we think and communicate using only linear words and text, we tend to revert to simplistic common denominator generalizations and we abandon our holistic awareness of the interconnections between things in order to emphasize a single narrative stream. Graphical Thinking is a tool that encourages us to make, record and communicate, subtle distinctions and rich interconnections. It helps individuals and groups to review their default views of reality, and to update them to take account of new experiences, new evidence, new contexts, new interpretations.

Left Brain / Right Brian. Some people think that linear (one dimensional, past to future) thinking takes place in the left brain and that parallel holistic simultaneous (now) thinking takes place in the right brain. My left brain thinks this will probably turn out to be an oversimplification, but my right brain can see what an important distinction this is. If this left brain/right brain idea helps you to grasp that important difference between these two ways of thinking, then use it. Here is an interesting video link on left and right brain differences video link.

Graphical Thinking has its roots in a systems analysis technique called 'Entity Relationship Modelling'.

You may want to see an example of Graphical Thinking - to get an idea of where we are heading. This diagram was drawn by Tom, a dyslexic 9 year old, during a 2hr discussion to consolidate / summarize what he had learnt in a school history project on Tudor England. He had not seen the Graphical Thinking system before but he quickly worked out the natural essentials of the process.

The text based rules that follow are expressed in the kind of language that experienced adults would use to discuss the main elements of the process. This rules based language style would not have been an effective way of communicating the technique to (inexperienced) Tom.

Once Tom (or should we say his neural networks) had worked out from experience how the system works (detected the recurring associations between shapes and things, lines and relationships), we can start to consolidate and enhance his technique, by introducing relevant aspects of the rules, as and when, appropriate situations arise. Without prior personal experience, the rules would have no meaning. They would be confusing and counter productive.


The Process - in adult speak

Step 1) - The System Boundary - unless you are planning to model your understanding of the entire universe - it is a good idea to set limits to the focus of your attention, so draw a line around the edge (near the edge) of a piece of paper to represent the system boundary. Give it a meaningful name.

The act of defining the boundary will naturally focus our attention on what is inside the boundary, so we must also make a conscious effort to pay attention to the resources, control and influence that flow across the system boundary and connect the system under investigation into its wider environment. Studying the system's internal mechanisms can tell us HOW it works, but to understand WHY it is the way it is, we must look at the role the system plays in the larger system.

Be aware that systems boundaries distort our perception, filtering and obscuring some features and amplifying others. A man with a hammer can only see nails. A financial expert only sees money. A politician only sees voters.

Step 2) - Objects - draw a shape (circle, square, etc.) to represent each of the important things in the situation. What is a thing? - it can be an object, a class of object, a specific person, or a class of person, an idea, a concept, a process.
When you are deciding which things to include in your diagram - think very carefully about their-

Essential properties - properties that a thing, person or idea must have in order to be a valid member of this category
Variable properties - a collection of properties that a member of this class may have - for example, we all have an age but the value will vary between 0 and 130, or may not be know accurately. Some of us wear glasses, some don't.
a Name - which doesn't have to be meaningful and descriptive - but obviously it is better if it is.

These properties are crucial to the process of Graphical Thinking because we are going to group together (into classes or categories) things which have identical essential properties, similar variable properties, and the same relationships to other objects.

Step 3) - Relationships - draw a line to represent each of the relationships between the objects. There can be more than one relationship between two objects.
Pay careful attention to the relationship's properties. They too have -

Essential properties - the relationship between these two things will always have this property
Variable properties - the relationship between these two things may have this property - in certain specified circumstances
a Name - which may or may not be meaningful and descriptive.

Types of Relationship.
A meaningful name for a relationship will always include a verb, an action word, e.g. The teacher teaches many students. Relationships usually have an element of cause and effect. We use a wide range of words to describe relationships but they usually fit into one of the following categories;

Cause and Effect - more precisely - create/move/maintain/transform/destroy

Create = open an account, elect a government, enroll at the school.
Move = attraction/repulsion - towards and away from - often associated with fixed or variable goals, or threats
Maintain = keep a thing the same despite pressure for it to change
Transform = increase, decrease, a change of form or nature/behavior
End = close the account, leave the school, elect a different government.


One-to-one - one-to-many - many-to-many
Conditional - responsive to varying circumstances - if this > then that - compulsory, optional


Is a member of - is of the type - participates in

Your understanding will grow as you think about any situation.
It is not necessary to identify all the objects and relationships at the outset. Understanding evolves. Add new elements (objects, relationships, properties, filters, etc.) as you become aware of them. Try to keep your models of reality up-to-date. A big problem with humans is that we often work from mental models of reality which we created (often long ago) in the past, in response to some apparently significant historical event, but the model is actually out-of-date because we have not updated it to take account of new evidence, new interpretations, new experiences.

Introducing new elements into a diagram may cause significant changes to ripple through the diagram - that's good - that's what we want - that is thinking.

- as your understanding progresses you may need to group separate objects together into a higher, more general object, IF, in all imaginable situations these elements all have the same essential properties, behaviors, reactions, and relationship with other objects.

- and you may need to break an object down, into two or more separate objects, IF the original object was too general - IF it was trying to contain elements which do not have exactly the same essential properties, behaviors, reactions, relationships in all possible situations - and therefore need to be separated into separate objects.

Historical distortion and boundary filters
- Humans cannot see the world directly. Our perception is framed and distorted by our previous experiences, and the decisions we made in the past about how to interpret those experiences. When a Marxist, a Capitalist and a Theologian look at the same situation they see very different things. Their system boundaries filter out some elements and amplify others. The Marxist sees social class, labour, ownership of the means of production, central planning and control, etc. The Capitalist sees investment, profit, markets, contract law, property rights, opportunity, individuality, etc. Be aware of the different filters and amplifiers we ALL bring to our perception of reality.

Diagrams Vs Text

Use text for what it's good at - describing and listing the essential and variable properties of objects and relationships. Use it concisely and completely. Do not distort your description in order to comply with current literary style rules - do not change the names of elements, or omit essential elements, simply to avoid repetition. Do use bullet points.
Use diagrams for what they are good at - representing the systemic - the dynamic, simultaneous interactions between the elements.
Working in groups - diagrams can and should include everyone's view point. Conflict is ever-present and often leads people to operate hidden agendas, and to attempt to distort and misrepresent reality. Distortion also occurs within loyalty groups (political parties, religions, gangs, cliques, for example) - where there is pressure to distort our perception of reality, promoting (amplifying) some aspects of a situation and omitting (filtering) others, to fit in with the group's current approved view of the world. Because Graphical Thinking diagramming gives equal regard to all elements, these attempts to distort the presentation of reality are much more obvious than they are in everyday speech and discussion.