UNIX is basically a simple operating system, but you have to be a genius to understand the simplicity. – Dennis Ritchie
If you want to understand something you should start by trying to draw a picture of what’s going on. What are the parts, the things that you can see. Don’t forget that people are also part of the picture. And then what are the links, how do things flow from one part to another?
If you try and capture these two things, the parts and the relationships, you’re well on your way to starting to understand what’s going on. Some people call this a rich picture – a combination of images and icons and arrows and words that help you understand something that has more parts than you can easily keep in your head.
Now, you can have a literal “rich picture”, one that’s drawn in a way you can share with someone else but you need to be careful not to confuse your picture with the real thing. Real life is infinitely complicated and the best model of reality is reality itself. Anything else has to be an approximation, something that captures less detail. The challenge is getting the right amount of detail. Too little is useless. Too much is overwhelming. You can only make decisions when it’s just right.
Of course, no one can tell you what “right” is – you have to figure that out for yourself. But drawing a picture of what’s going on is a start. And the thing you can do, once you have a picture, is talk about it. The biggest benefit of making your thinking visible, whether in writing or as a picture or in some other way, is that you can now talk about what you think without having to repeat yourself over and over again.
One of the mistakes we make is thinking that something that looks finished is the end of the process. Take company accounts, for example. They look perfect, so crisp and clear and laid out. Surely there’s nothing more that can be said about them. If you’re an investor, however, those reports are just the beginning. You have to read them and look not for just what is there but also what isn’t there. The story is in the whitespace just as much as it is in the text.
The value of a rich picture is not in its final form – but in its ability to act as a means of communicating more effectively. And that’s the genius of a picture – if it’s used well. After all, why use a picture at all? What else would you use?
Well, there are words and there are charts. Words are good when you’re telling a story – narrating something so that people can follow what you have to say. Just like this post – it’s much more effective with words than in any other medium. Charts help you make sense of numbers – they show you patterns that are hard to see in the form of numbers themselves. But what pictures help you see is structure and relationships – the way in which things relate to other things and what helps things flow and what gets in the way.
The takeaway is this. All these things, words, pictures, charts – are tools that help you communicate more effectively. They help you to take information out of your head and put it out in front of someone else. But their real value lies not in them being there, but in helping you and others make sense of what is going on. They are tools that help you think better and communicate more clearly.
And these are the things that will help you begin to understand what’s going on.