Think of information as light, not liquid.

In the recent Zenko Mapping video, I talked briefly about a new idea, a lens through which to see the world; we should focus on thinking of information as light, not liquid.

It’s the fundamental philosophy at the heart of this year’s TENETS project, and will no doubt form the basis of Smithery’s work moving forwards. I’ll share more at length in the new year, but the thought of ending 2020 with ‘a clear vision’ is too good a pun to pass up…

Below you’ll find the relevant excerpt from the longer film, followed by some extended thoughts from the project so far.

Information is everywhere

The language we use to describe our work is more important than we might think. Whether we realise it or not, it forms and shapes our actions, especially when it comes to the use of metaphors. I’ve been thinking about this with particular regards to information.

This reflection started back in January. I was asked to give a talk about the different ways of seeing the world I’ve created over the last 12 or so years. Looking back, it was very apparent that all of my work was about ‘information’ in one way or another (arguably, perhaps, everybody’s is).

For instance, think about the information shared in workshops and classrooms, shaping new products, living inside services, informing strategy work, rolling down a production line, creating understanding in niche communities and broader societies. Despite different sources, characteristics, uses and so on, might all that information have similar qualities?

What if there was a consistent way of thinking about information that would offer ways to apply things learned in one domain to another?

After all, information is ‘the distinctions that make a difference’ (see Dennett), a collection of things that stimulates action in all of these situations; from the inputs gathered for an innovation workshop to the profile screen inside an app.

Information as liquid

When you look at frequently used metaphors in speech and text, it becomes clear that information is often described as if it were a liquid. Here are a just a few examples, from an extended project glossary:

  • Let’s have a brainstorm.
  • We’re drowning in the detail.
  • It’s backed up in the cloud.
  • Data is the new oil.
  • Our thinking is a bit stagnant.
  • We’re going against the tide.
  • It’s a stream of consciousness

No doubt you’ve often heard or used phrases like these. Whilst they refer to different activities, they all employ the same metaphorical base; information is comparable to a liquid, a resource for us to store or direct depending on our needs.

Yet it is perhaps not helpful to imagine information as an homogenous liquid, a pool into which we plunge, a tank we seek to fill, a tidal wave from which we must protect ourselves.

Too often the language used to think about information defaults to this idea of it. And the metaphors we use matter more than you might think.

Metaphors matter

Now, from one angle, you might perceive that the metaphors we use to describe information as unimportant. Surely people don’t believe that information is a liquid, pourable from one vessel to another?

Well, they don’t need to believe such a thing for it to behave as if it did. As Lakoff and Johnson describe, in their seminal work on metaphors;

The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays central role in defining our everyday realities.

Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Basically, we need metaphors to help us work together, as they are ‘defining our everyday realities’.

Therefore, not just any old metaphor will do in order to create alignment. Our concepts about our work, and the metaphors we use to describe it, will structure how we see tasks, projects, goals, cooperation, competition and more.

Knowingly or unknowingly, our language defines our plans and actions, setting our priorities for how we look to make progress.

Which means if we think and speak of information as if it were liquid, our actions will reflect this.

Imagine our task is to ‘prevent news leaking out’. We’ll look for holes, and ways to mend them.

What if we’re asked to ‘cascade information down through the organisation’? We may readily imagine the ‘water’ channels and structures that help us do that.

And if we’re told ‘data is the new oil’? Our immediate thoughts turn to how to secure it at source, and make money from putting it in a barrel.

From light to liquid

If we rely simply on the metaphors of ‘information as liquid’, we only concern ourselves with the containers in which it’s held, and the channels through which it flows. Which means we’re not thinking about what information actually is at the moments where it is most useful and important.

Information is useful because of the differences we find in it, and the decisions it helps us make.

Separate pieces of information come together to help us focus, gain new perspectives, or fire our imaginations.

Therefore, the nature of this assembled information is not that of a homogeneous liquid melted together forever. All the contributing pieces can be taken apart and paired with other information to form another view, or even just reassembled to look like something else.

With this in mind, it is potentially very beneficial to employ a metaphor for information which readily works with this aspect of its nature. We want our actions and behaviours to be driven by what we actually want to achieve.

Information as light

Consider, then, thinking of information as light. Individual particles or pixels coming together to form a view, a glimpse, a perspective… something to inform the mind of those perceiving it.

The language we already use on a daily basis helps us see how often we do employ this metaphor anyway; once again, a selection from the glossary:

  • We need some clarity.
  • What’s the outlook?
  • It just dawned on me
  • She brought a fresh perspective.
  • Let’s pause for reflection.
  • It was a glaring omission.
  • Is this in scope?
  • This is pure speculation.
  • It was a real lightbulb moment.

If we shift our thinking as information as the light, not liquid, we can begin to question every piece of information we see, understanding its true nature; it is fleeting, hard to perceive, and transitory, rather than solid, permanent and additive.

Additionally, we can start to depict the processes by which information flows through everything, from the individual to the organisation level, and map out where we might intervene to improve our processes.

Casting a critical eye

Following this line of thought, every particle of information can be split out into constituent parts to help you understand more about it.

Whether it’s a slide in a presentation, a quote in a review section, an article in a newspaper, a link in a tweet, ask yourself a series of critical questions about its composition. Where do this come from? Who set conditions for its collection? Why was it created? How was it created? When was it formed?

The more you can reorient yourself to this way of describing information, the better you can interrogate the world.

Each new piece of information is not just another drop from the well of knowledge, but rather a glimpse of an uncertain vista, and one for you to compare to other things you’ve seen. Critical thinking is critical viewing.

What comes next?

This idea, that we should think more of information as light, not liquid, forms the basis of the TENETS project (“Ten Tools To Transform How You Think“). The tools are a wide variety of things, from group thought-experiments to system-view frameworks.

Overall, they simply help people, teams and organisations interrogate how they use information. That can be in forming strategy, creating new environments for innovation, creative problem solving, designing products and services, and more besides. Do get in touch if that sounds interesting for you.

‘The Infinite Anvil’ – a representation of all the tools, from which we can shape an infinite number of new tools.

Yet perhaps what matters most about this thinking right now, in the midst of COVID-19, is that none of us is seeing the world as we used to.

For organisations used to bringing people together in large containers, great big offices where the intent (or the interpretation) was that ideas sloshed around, mixed together and produced the forward momentum that pushed the business forward.

If you think of information as liquid, you’re probably still trying to recreate the containers and channels.

Think of it as light, however, and suddenly the actions you take become focussed on bringing the right view to the right people at the right time.

Zenko Mapping – A Video Introduction

I was delighted to be asked to speak about Zenko Mapping at the Marketing Society’s Brave Get Together conference last month, especially given how many people are looking for new ways of working at the moment.

I put together a little film as an introduction to Zenko Mapping, a tool I’ve been developing for the last six years or so.

It’s a mapping tool which helps you to ‘do the next right thing’, whether when collaborating with others inside and outside of your organisation, or making decisions on where to go next. It makes your strategy and tactics visible.

Once you’ve watch the film, you may want to do one of three things.

Firstly, you might want to play around with the basic Zenko Mapping template, just to get a feel for how some of your own projects might play out.

Secondly, you might do this for a bit and think “well that’s interesting, but I need help applying it with my team”.

Give us a shout here, and we can totally help with that. We’ve been exploring different ways of using it with client for years, from running rapid orientation settings with teams, to designing custom versions for whole businesses to deploy.

Thirdly, I was also making an origami fox throughout the film, and so thought I’d share the instructions for that too so you can have a go.

Playing the hand you’re dealt

I’ve been thinking a lot about Assemblage. It’s been prompted by Anab’s inclusion of it in her More-Than-Human-Politics manifesto, pointedly positioned against Systems (“Assemblages are diverse, indeterminate and precarious… Acknowledging the entanglements without the desire to have the ‘full overview’”).

It also took me back to some of the thinking I originally did around Artefact Cards specifically, and more recently working with information particles generally, and a few other conversations and pieces I’ve been working on in the background.

This week, I started playing with a short explanation, which felt worth sharing:


An assemblage is like being dealt a hand of cards for the first time, in a game you don’t know the rules for.

You have these five cards in your hand, of a mix of suits and numbers, and you have to work out what to play, and how to do it. When the time comes, you play some cards as best you can, but you lose that first hand. Yet you saw what was going on, and figure that you might have a better chance at working out the overall game come the next hand.

Except when you are dealt your new hand, it contains a new suit you’ve never seen before, and a number that you didn’t know existed. You’re not sure what the new suit means (is it more senior than other suits? Equal?), and from what you know of numbers, you try and establish where this one might fit in a ranking. Additionally, the previous work you put in to trying to establish the rules of the game is now potentially of lower value, though it’s hard to let go of answers you think you’ve worked out.

You play, and of course you lose that hand as well. But again you learn more about how to sort through the cards you’re likely to be holding in the next round.

So when the third hand arrives, containing another unfamiliar suit, moderately taxing algebra, a postcard from a relative, and some cheese and pineapple on a stick, you’re at least a bit more prepared for the possibility that different things will turn up that don’t fit in with your expectations.

Thinking in systems asks that you work out the rules of the game.

Thinking in assemblages helps you become better at playing the hand you’re actually dealt.


Postscript: There’s a lot of diverse and interesting debate and discussion around what Systems Thinking actually is, of course, but I’m blithely operating under the following rule of thumb for now – “If you mean constantly moving and changing things, maybe you shouldn’t use the word ‘system’?”

What does good thinking look like?

Earlier this week, I posted up the four images above on a twitter poll and on instagram, and asked the simple questions; A, B, C or D? No context, just that – of the four images, which would you choose. I’d said I’d explain a bit about it, but first though, what were the results?

Twitter folks go for D, then A:

Instagram folks are kinda similar, though it’s a much smaller sample size. The reactions, when people sent some additional thoughts, are also really interesting, but in particular I’m going to draw attention to Richard‘s comment here:

The real extremes in the test are A and D, to my mind.

The former is a solid, simple structure that’s trying to do one thing. All the colours are aligned, all the gradients are consistently directed. As Fraser said in his response, “a designer’s designer would say A“.

The latter, D, has a whole lot of things going on.

At first, it just feels a bit like random chaos, especially in context with the others. But then as you scan it a bit more, looking more closely, or holding it at arms length, it starts revealing different things. Richard’s idea about it making the mind feel ‘kaleidoscopic’ is bang on, I think.

Beyond playing with delights of isometric shapes and gradient effects though, I did promise to explain a bit more about what it’s for though.

Last year, various streams of work and teaching the Innovation & Future Thinking course at IED in Barcelona made me start wondering about revisiting the underlying tools and frameworks of Smithery’s work (Strategy, Prototyping, Culture, Design, Innovation… etc), and how all of those things connect. The last time I’d done this was back in 2014, when a month of blogging every day produced a set of theories and practices which formed the backbone of the following five years’ work.

Back in January, in ‘the before’, I gave a talk called “A Blacksmith Makes Their Own Tools“, which set the seeds of the reading and reflection on our work so far since starting in 2011. Then these past couple of months have provided a brilliant opportunity to get torn into that work properly, and start to shape a few early parts of the new work, of which the images are part.

What I’d been working on was a graphic representation of a basic information process, from sensing what’s out there in the world, through to the actions people take as a result. It pulls on a few pre-existing models already (Boyd’s OODA loops, some of Boisot’s information space) as well as some other reading I’ve been doing, and it’s not finished as yet. As a basic general framework, it’s a fairly useful starting point for me at the moment, and would already serve as a useful tool in asking questions of clients or students (Where do we get information from? How do we process it? What filters can we identify that prevent some information getting it?) in order to identify intervention points and practices to deploy.

I’m not going to dwell on it a lot now, but come back instead to the “A versus D” thing from above, as to which best represents the ‘in here’ part of the model. In short, what does the processing of information look like internally, be it as an individual (the things in your head) or an organisation (the knowledge we hold)?

Now, if I’d framed a question around this (perhaps ‘which of these represents thinking?’ or something similar), and presented people with the four images, I would imagine the answers would be very different. We are aware of the unstructured nature of our own minds as much as we are of the information and knowledge that resides inside the organisations we populate.

I would argue though in this context, the neatness and perfection of A is likely not what we’re looking for in these terms; the Sisyphean task of organising all our ideas and workflows into perfect order, I think, will remain forever beyond the grasp of people. Which opens up the question; if striving for perfection in structure is a futile goal, then what should we be aiming for instead? What does good thinking look like?

Anyway, that’s the next couple of months of thinking and writing sorted – pursuing the above and the themes obliquely sketched out below. I’ll be sharing more as soon as it is ready (and maybe an additional post on why it’s not following the same process as a month’s worth of blogging from the last time). Thanks to everyone who played along with the picture experiment.