Visualizing business

The workshop with Matt Morasky at Frontiers of Interactions 2012 in short

by Andrea Paraggio

Visualizing business
Visualizing business

We met Matt Morasky in his workshops during the 2012 edition of Frontiers of Interaction dedicated to "Visualizing Business as a User Experience".

His workshop is characterized by multidisciplinarity: it manages to combine marketing with cognitive psychology and design in a very funny way! During the workshop, Matt encouraged all participants to imagine new business ideas, bringing them immediately on paper, with drawings and sketches, everything at that moment had something to do with the new business idea. This is a real complex translation between two different worlds: from the world of cognition, made of mental imagery, to the world of design, made of paper, brushes and pencils.

Worthy of note is the creativity with which he made sure that the groups did a kind of graphic SWOT analysis through a series of visual metaphors:

Groups insert the threats written on different post-it below the drawing of a monster with open jaws; or enter the opportunities under a "puff!" cloud, as if to emphasize the cancellation of the threats through the use of an opportunity. Finally, when all problems are solved and the right resources are allocated to the right place, the project comes to an end characterized by a bright sun, aimed to symbolize the clarity achieved in the business' design.

It's easier to talk about a concept, an idea, if you try to draw it and give it a graphical form: A sort of translation between two different worlds: from the world of cognition, made of mental imagery, to the world of design, made of paper, brushes and pencils.

Creatives’ mind is full of those so-defined "mental images" by cognitive scientists. These mental representations are confused, evanescent, but also close to the reality in terms of structure and internal logical organization (try to think of an impressionist painting).

What are mental images?

In academic world, the proper terminology to use is "mental imagery":

Mental imagery [...] is quasi-perceptual experience; it resembles perceptual experience, but occurs in the absence of the appropriate external stimuli. [...] It is also commonly believed to be centrally involved in visuo-spatial reasoning and inventive or creative thought.

Thomas, Nigel J.T., "Mental Imagery", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

The mental images are real pictorial representations of concepts, figures, schemes and logical sequences. They are really evanescent: they tend to decay from the short-term memory if they are not further processed repeatedly. They differ from verbal representations, because verbal ones are in a symbolic (arbitrary) relationship with the referent. A picture, however, is relatively similar to the object that represents in the real world: it shows physical attributes that are similar to the features and spatial properties of the object that represents. It carries all the attributes and characteristics of the represented object simultaneously, establishing an iconic relationship with the referent. The power of mental images is due to the fact that:

  • with them we can represent things that have never been experienced before through the senses;
  • and things that are not even existing in the real world.

That's why in some cases, especially during the drawing up of a concept, they can help more than simple verbal representations, such as a text document.

Our idea at workshop. Sketched.

Our concept consists of a network based combination of hardware and software, in which objects and people talk to each other by exchanging input and output, and generating new content incrementally. You are probably thinking:" well, but you have not invented anything new, this is the internet of things!". Sure, you are not wrong! Our application works exactly in this context.

We begin to describe the main goal of our application in a nutshell:

Collecting data & giving them a graphical form

This is our first insight, which then becomes our main marketing objective. The application is in the middle between the real world and the digital world, and makes sure that these two worlds talk to each other using a common language made of bit. We like to imagine a social hardware, freely configurable, applicable to objects (especially those for which we pay a bill), that can translate the output from real objects as input for software that creates visual metaphors, so as to make the output of the objects readable by human beings.

Just by example, try to imagine empty/full as a visual metaphor to represent effectively the water consumption (the bottle half full/half empty); or a red cross, initially empty, which begins to fill while donations of blood are taken at the collection points spread across the territory.

Some interesting points:

  • in many cases (such as Red Cross), the visual metaphor match 100% with the marketing objective: the objective of the Red Cross campaign is collecting 100 liters in a month. So the red cross will appear full, and software will return an output when specified threshold appears to be reached;
  • it's also possible to think to generative visual identities, which use dynamic data to generate the genetic code of the graphic artifact (To find out more: S. Caprioli, P. Corraini, Manuale di immagine non coordinata, "Edizioni Corraini", Mantova, 2005; A. Paraggio, Data Design, Roma, 2010).


The current scenario in the design world is characterized by the consolidation of a software to make graphics. What’s happening in this world today is very similar to what’s happened in the past with the creation by humans of physical and cognitive prosthesis that would extend their original capabilities: many inventions change the mind and the body of the person using the technology. Software automates processes and makes possible things that have only been thought before. The invention and the diffusion of software for illustration and graphics, has caused in many people the unaware and progressive abandonment of the habit to use paper and pencil to give birth to a new idea.

The greatest lesson by Matt has been that "creatives must return to draw", because it's the best way to bring out ideas and concepts from the brain. And even the most funny one!


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