Figure It Out: Getting From Information to Understanding
By Stephen Anderson and Karl Fast
Two Waves Books, 2020

Disclosures: This book was provided to me for free as a Rosenfeld Media author. Also, both authors are my friends. I first read it towards the end of its writing process and then when it came out. Recently, I re-read it again in preparation for the workshop on knowledge gardening that Karl and I facilitated at the 2022 IA Conference. Which is to say, I’m not a neutral reader.

Figure It Out is about how we can help ourselves and others make sense of confusing information — how we manage, shift, or reduce the cost of understanding. Information is a raw material (“more like wheat than bread”) that we can mold towards understanding.

Information alone is not the answer. It’s what we do with the information that matters.

Thinking doesn’t happen exclusively in the brain. Instead, we think with embodied minds that take cues from and interact with our environments and the things and other beings in them. Thus, we can configure things in the world to help us think better.

The authors share principles for how to think, work, and create understanding with information:

  • Attend to every association
  • Make learning interactive
  • See learning as a communal activity
  • Make concepts tangible
  • Make concepts visible
  • Design the environment
  • Explore multiple frames
  • Use the whole body
  • Make it safe to share

At its core, thinking happens when we make associations between ideas. Knowing this, we can create conceptual associations (e.g., metaphors, narratives, framing) to help us and others think better.

These associations can be conceptual (i.e., using language to articulate concepts), but they can also be visual/aesthetic. For example, when joining two elements with a line in a diagram, a thicker line will suggest a stronger relationship than a thinner one.

Associations vary in complexity and explicitness. We can try different associations, and switching between them can help us understand things differently.

As helpful as they are, associations can be a double-edged sword. E.g., we can inadvertently create conceptual relationships that hinder our understanding. Thus, we must be more intentional and thoughtful about the connections we imply.

Among our senses, vision is the most evolved. We’re primarily visual processors, honed to picking up subtle visual differences. Knowing this means we can use visual principles (e.g., Gestalt principles, mindful use of color) to increase understanding.

We use our environments to help us think and communicate. The authors use the example of how chefs use mise en place to aid in their cooking: laying out all the required ingredients and tools aids the cognitive process of meal preparation.

Herbert Simon: “Solving a problem simply means representing a problem so as to make the solution transparent.” We represent ideas by modeling them in the environment. The authors propose a universal pattern behind all visual models, consisting of:

  • Objects
  • Placement
  • Territory

Our relationship with these things we make around us isn’t static. Instead, we interact with them in various ways that affect our understanding. Four interaction themes:

  • Foraging: locating resources that lead to understanding
  • Tuning: adjusting resources to align with understanding
  • Externalizing: moving resources out of the head and into the world
  • Constructing: forming new knowledge structures in the world

We must approach cognitive resources as a system, not as individual components. The authors make an analogy with Malcolm McLean’s invention of containerization in logistics. McLean’s innovation wasn’t the shipping container but an entire system that included specialized docs, trucks, processes, etc. Not one single component, but a whole working in concert. The result: significantly reduced shipping costs and, ultimately, a transformed society.

Similarly, we can coordinate resources to improve understanding. The authors provide a framework to coordinate understanding among people:

  1. Shared standards (i.e., ways we communicate)
  2. Invisible environments (i.e., ways we align conceptually)
  3. Visible environments (i.e., ways we collaborate)
  4. Psychological safety (i.e., ways we behave)
  5. Perspective (i.e., ways we see — and see differently)

The book wraps with a look at tools and technologies for understanding, both present, and future. Not all tech is good, but more thoughtful representations can help us think and act better. The book cites great examples, including an impressive guerrilla redesign of a confusing parking rule sign.

As I mentioned in my notes on The Extended Mind, designers must understand how we understand. Figure It Out explains embodied cognition theory in a practical context: how we can shape our environments and the things in them to improve understanding for ourselves and others. As such, it’s required reading for designers.

'Figure It Out' book cover

Buy it on