How A Designer Captures Reality

A closer look at how my brain deconstructs the complexity of the world and reconstructs my reality through internalizing and externalizing information.


A few months ago, I attended World IA Day, where I heard a talk called Designing for Intelligence by JD Vogt from Salesforce. One thing I deeply resonated with were his slides showing a hexagon of how the world informs humans, and how humans act on the world.

This led me to examine my own thinking process, as much of a designer’s job is to consume information and visualize it in various design artifacts.

A slide of JD's talk at World IA Day

A slide of JD's talk at World IA Day

In this article, I’m just going to share some of my practices as a design consultant on how to “internalize”/capture information and “externalize”/communicate it in a meaningful way. I’ll also share my toolkit on how to train your brain to tackle complexity.

If you ever wonder why designers like to draw on whiteboards, use post-it notes, or create all sorts of diagrams, you may find some answers here.

Internalization.

Here, internalization means a process to craft your understanding and translate perceived reality into your brain. Imagine scratching a lottery ticket. As you start to scratch the surface and it reveals unidentified shapes, you wonder “do I win the prize?” As you continue scratching, it shows more and more details until you see enough of the full picture and realize “oh crap, I didn’t win it,” or “yay, I just won myself a trip to the moon!” You might want to scratch harder or look closer into more details to confirm the reality before you.

Internalization happens all the time in design process, such as onboarding a new project, learning different domain knowledge in client consulting, interpreting client requirements, taking in feedback, etc. Designers need to effectively internalize information as it is a way to turn “heard” and “seen” into “understood” and “learned.” Therefore, it is a starting point to get the right stuff done. It also grows our knowledge bank, helps gather different perspectives, and broadens horizons, as well as deepens our learning in certain areas.

Externalization.

There are two types of externalization. I call the first one “immediate externalization,” which is a synchronous subconscious process and quick response to internalizing things; for example, taking notes while listening, and having a back and forth conversation. A second type is “after effect externalization.” This can be an intentional act after a certain time, and is more well thought-out or drives things further in a more organized way; for example, a speech or an article.

For designers, externalization comes in different ways such as clarifying requirements, design deliverables, design critics, presentations, etc. It can be part of the validation of the success of internalization. It’s a great way to measure how much you’ve really understood, or learned, regardless of your ego. In other words, it validates if you really grasp a matter of fact in the design process. In return, it helps you better understand something, and reinforce that understanding. You can also use it to demonstrate your thinking process to your team. It benefits whoever is involved in the project. Sometimes, it can offload what’s in your mind, and shift your senses to see things in a different way. It is also a great way to share out to a broader audience to arise interest or call for action.

An example from my own work.

Here I want to color code my internalization and externalization processes to give you a tangible idea of how the two help me design.

Once I was tasked with designing a new "zoom" feature for a map. My client gave me some initial requirements, and I sketched out some early concepts.

Then we had a meeting to go over the design and development constraints.

“When you zoom in to next level this way, that happens…”

We’d been talking for an hour on the interaction and information display of zoom-in and zoom-out, but couldn’t land on an agreement.

At one point, I realized although we were using the same word “zoom," we meant two different things. One was to literally zoom the scale of a map -- for example, from 100% to 200% -- and another was to semantically zoom -- for example, from global, to regional, to country, etc. levels.

Once I realized that, I instantly visualized a matrix in my brain. I quickly grabbed post-it notes and a marker and sketched out the different zooming states, drew the matrix on the whiteboard, and annotated it with the notes.

This took me less than five minutes.

I called the team to the board and explained the discrepancy in our understanding. We started to point to the board and add additional notes. This quickly cleared up confusion and relieved tension in the discussion. And it helped us to arrive on a feasible solution for that time being.

Post-its, whiteboard, notes in action

The reality capture loop.

As I reflected on experiences like this as a designer, I summarized five major steps in the reality capture loop that involves information internalization and externalization. It may require more cognitive or brain research support, but here’s a start:

  • Input. Our senses are the receivers of information and the first step to initiate the internalization process. What we see, hear, feel feeds the information to our brain processing.

  • Process. How our brain takes in information and makes sense of it. It can be knowledge creation or pattern lookup in the knowledge bank. Our brains internalize and process information, and generate thoughts to feed into externalization.

  • Output. The starting point to make thoughts tangible. Here our senses play an important role, especially speaking, writing, and crafting. For designers, you could talk it out loud, write it up, or get hands dirty.

  • Validate. Our brain receives information all the time, but how effective does it process and really take it into knowledge bank? That’s when validation comes in. I found the most straightforward way to validate the internalization is by externalization.

  • Strengthen. When a new piece of knowledge arrives, the brain creates a first impression which may be a weak link, therefore it’s important to strengthen it by repeating the whole process.

  • Tips and tools.

    So, as designers, how do we better internalize what’s needed to design?

  • Keep an open mind and growth mindset. If you shut the door for information, then even if you receive it, your brain will have a hard time accessing and processing it. Therefore, it’s important to keep your mind open, give each piece of information a chance to prove itself, and think twice before you say it’s impossible. Maintain a strong curiosity and proactiveness to learn.

  • Constantly activate receiving sensors. This requires us to sharpen our senses that initiate the internalization process, especially in seeing and listening. Multitask on the present internalization process and actively sense what’s unfolding, instead of multitasking on such as checking on emails while you are in a meeting.

  • Be proactive in externalizing information. There often will be discrepancies between what you think you understand and the reality you experience. It doesn’t hurt to confirm and validate your understanding to make sure you are on the same page.

  • For designers, there are so many tools to help better externalize information. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • “What’s your definition of XYZ?” Words can mean different things to people. Ask the question often to align the understanding.

  • Post it notes. A good way to post thoughts up and easily move them around and reorganize them.

  • Paper & pen. Whiteboard & marker.

  • Note-taking. The most straightforward way to surface your understanding while you are soaking in all the information. There are a lot of tips of note taking, including sketch-noting.

  • Conceptual diagrams. Solidify abstract concepts and their relationships. A great way to capture the big picture and refer to later when creating specific designs.

  • Play dolls. Legos. Quick and dirty, tangible and effective.

  • Voice recording, video recording, or a mirror. That helps me prep for an important presentation. May be strange at first, but a great way to validate and reflect on my externalization.

  • Last words.

    You may have noticed that a lot of time internalization and externalization are intertwined as it becomes subconscious. Meanwhile, it's important to be more conscious of capturing your own reality and also contributing other’s reality creation.

    Your externalization can be someone else’s starting point of internalization. Be mindful and purposeful about what you are saying and writing. When you start to internalize someone else’s externalization, keep in mind your interpretation can be different than others’, and remember to embrace diverse perspectives.

    "Language works its magic only to the extent that it is shared by speaker and listener. And there’s the key clue to how to achieve the miracle of re-creating your idea in someone else’s brain. You can only use the tools that your audience has access to."

    - TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking by Chris Anderson.