Explaining the world one sketch at a time

Biz Stone quote: Timing, perseverance and 10 years of trying will eventually make you seem like an overnight success — illustrated by someone on the tip of an iceberg with a whole lot of it underwater

Overnight success

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone is fond of saying: "Timing, perseverance and ten years of trying will eventually make you seem like an overnight success." Rarely have I heard someone so clearly articulate both what it usually takes to do well at something and how commonly we misrepresent the path to success. Biz Stone explains his story in Things a Little Bird Told Me.  Also see: the long nose of innovation, survivorship bias, optimism bias, Hofstadter's law, Kitty Hawk moment
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The Pyramid Principle - Barbara Minto: a muddled message of a burst water main becomes clear that the school is closed when someone uses the pyramid principle

The Pyramid Principle

The Pyramid Principle is an approach to getting your message across by starting with the main idea supported by the relevant facts or arguments grouped by linking ideas. In this way, the writer clearly makes their point and shows how each idea supports it rather than having the reader try to piece it together as they muddle through.* As everyone is different, we can't help others draw inferences different than we intend if we present each point in isolation. Instead, leading the reader through by first showing where you're going then raising and answering questions in turn, helps make the reader's life easier. Barbara Minto, who presented this idea in her book The Pyramid Principle, distinguishes between our everyday approach of thinking through an issue where we often start bottom-up and ultimately get to, or figure out, our main point at the end. While this may be fine for a memo to reschedule a meeting, it's not ideal for an important proposal. Communicating bottom-up makes the reader work harder throughout and risks losing them along the way. Minto advocates doing the work upfront of organising your ideas and presenting them top-down, in a pyramid fashion, to get to the outcomes you want. Rather confusingly, a related writing technique for journalism is called inverted pyramid writing. *I first wrote the last sentence here in reverse while thinking through my point: "In this way, rather than having the reader wonder as they go through what point you're making and how the ideas fit together, you have instead done this work for them." Interesting to compare the two.
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Greeble or greeblie illustration: showing a panel of buttons on a wall and a ship in a spaceport rather like the Millenium Falcom full of small elements that give detail and scale


A greeble, greeblie or greebly, is the name for the small elements that add detail and scale to models and, often, help make them look more advanced and realistic. Greeble can be both a verb and a noun. Greeble or greeblie, George Lucas' term, originated on the early Star Wars sets when creating the impressively detailed and realistic models. You can take a simple ship, wall or rooftop, and by adding switches, boxes, cabling, lights and buttons, hey presto, there's a whole lot more technology involved. You can add greebles, or greeblies, to something, or you can greeble it. A common modelmaking technique for adding elements and greebles to make a design look realistic and sophisticated is to scavenge from existing model kits. Borrowing other parts and repurposing them on a new model is called kit-bashing. Speaking personally, it's also very satisfying making up greebles to add to a LEGO build (MOC—My-Own-Creation)—sometimes the most fun part. Here's Adam Savage, an ex-Star Wars modelmaker discussing greeblies and kit-bashing (video) or an ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) model shop greeblie (video) used on Star Wars Episode 2. Greebles also make an appearance in the fascinating documentaries about the making of the Star Wars films, Empire of Dreams, and the making of episode 9, The Skywalker Legacy. Sometimes, the making-of is more interesting than what was made. I remember the same feeling watching the making of the Lord of the Rings films, too.
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Whose job is it? or The Responsibility Poem illustration: four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody. Everybody is given a job but in the end Nobody takes responsibility for it

Whose job is it?

There’s an old short story called “Whose job is it?” that goes like this: This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody. There was an important job to be done and Everybody was asked to do it. Everybody was sure Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody's job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it but Nobody realised that Everybody wouldn't do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done. It used to be up on the wall in my secondary school many years ago. Its message of taking ownership and responsibility and not assuming others will do what you don’t want to do has stuck with me ever since. It’s rather like the famous advice to be the change you wish to see happen. Litter doesn’t clean itself up. Broken things don’t fix themselves. It might be up to you. (see the Bystander effect) The story seems to be a condensed version of a longer piece by Charles Osgood called "The Responsibility Poem," though I couldn't find an original source anywhere. Also see: For want of a nail, the story spine, the Accountability Ladder, RACI
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Affordance illustration: one person effortlessly pushes open a door with a flat plate while a victim of poor design struggles to pull open a door with a bar handle and a discreet push sign


An affordance is what someone can do with an object. When you see a well-designed everyday product, the perceived affordances should indicate how to use it. You shouldn't have to struggle to figure out how to use your shower to take a shower, and you shouldn't have to use trial and error—perhaps drenching yourself in cold water in the process. The design of an everyday thing should make it evident. An object should communicate a good part of how to use it through its affordances. A recessed button affords pressing it. A sticking-out dial affords twiddling it. A toggle switch affords toggling. An apple affords tossing and catching it; an anvil doesn't. A high stool affords sitting, leaning against or standing on it. Don Norman, who popularised the term in his classic book The Design of Everyday Things, talked a fair bit about doors. We can push or pull a door or slide it to the side. Sometimes, doors open upwards (though rarely downwards). In something as fundamental to our everyday living as a door, you might think that we had nailed their design sufficiently not to misuse them. However, I'm willing to bet that, like me, you have pulled a door when you needed to push it. A common culprit is adding a bar handle to a door on the side you need to push. While a flat plate attached to the door affords only pushing, a bar handle begs you to pull it. Often, a door designed this way gets a sign saying "Push." As Don Norman says, if your design needs a label, consider another design.  Once, I nearly walked away from a library with my two small boys because of door confusion. After going through an outer set of glass doors that slid open automatically as we approached them, the next set of glass doors stood resolutely shut. Concluding that the library must be closed, we were just walking out when someone walked up to the second set of glass doors and simply pushed them open. The first set of automatic doors had so cued me that the second set would also be automatic, and the glass doors held no clue that they would operate differently from the outer set that I almost failed to get into an open building. Don Norman became so well known for pointing out the flaws of everyday objects that poorly designed products became known as "Norman doors." Don Norman's frustrations are mostly for everyday things. If you are an air traffic controller or an astronaut flying a space shuttle, it's reasonable to expect that some training may be wise to use all the advanced functionality. Yet in specialised environments like healthcare, good design—like avoiding storing drugs in alphabetical order—is critical to reduce the potential for failure. Digital products struggle to provide affordances. Apple's touchscreen interactions and trackpads have little discoverability of what you can do with them: swipe down from the top-right, swipe up from the bottom, double-tap the side button, long-press on an icon, two-finger swipe right, triple-finger tap—all effectively invisible. Interactions like these reward repeated use and require learning to be effective. However, I think it's reasonable to expect a warm shower in a hotel on your first try without requiring training. Also see: mapping, forcing function.
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VUCA illustration: Examples of Volatility (a stock-like chart), Complexity (a circuit-like confusion), Uncertainty (a direction splitting into 3) and a person sweating over Ambiguity (a Necker cube).


VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. The VUCA framework is a reminder to consider how to lead and adapt to the challenges of living in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. In his book Leaders Make the Future, futurist Bob Johansen provides counterpoints to each that leaders can use: Volatility yields to Vision Uncertainty yields to Understanding Complexity yields to Clarity Ambiguity yields to Agility We live in a VUCA world, but we can handle it. The VUCA framework originated in the US Army War College. VUCA is an acronym, as opposed to an initialism. Also see OODA Loop.
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Blending buildings illustratiion: example of two large distribution warehouses one coloured in greens to blend better into countryside, and one in shades of blue to blend better into the sky.

Blending buildings

While historic buildings in an ancient city centre make tourist attractions, most people would prefer the giant distribution warehouses that power online commerce and our world of delivery-everything to remain out of sight. Several recently constructed distribution warehouses have started using enormous blocks of colour at scale to gently lead the eye and help buildings of exceptional size blend better into their surroundings.—greens to blend into countryside or "a beautiful sky blue" (video) to blend better with the sky. Having passed both buildings with the patterns in this sketch, I can attest that the effect, in the right angles and light, is compelling—even though I noticed them more than ever as I spent time thinking about how well it works. Read more about buildings designed to disappear into the landscape in Rowan Moore's Guardian article ​"A shed the size of a town:​ what Britain's giant distribution centres​ tell​ us about modern life" This effect also reminded me of dazzle camouflage.
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Anchors and tugboats illustration: a swimmer thinking negative thoughts is pulled back by an anchor and thinking positive thoughts is pulled forward by a tug. Confused fish look on.

Anchors and tugboats

Anchors and tugboats. One holds you back, and one pulls you forward. Negativity can act like an anchor holding you back, narrowing your focus and restricting your potential. Positivity, by contrast, acts like a tugboat pulling you forward. It's expansive. It opens us up to the opportunity we have, gratitude or joy. I heard this analogy from sports psychologist Justin Ross. It's a curious thing, he points out, that we don't actively learn how we should talk to ourselves; it just happens. If you're out running and things get tough, or if you're having a hard time at work or as a parent, our self-talk starts about how things are going and how we got here. But rarely do we consciously think about how we should talk to ourselves. To get to positivity from a place of negativity, he says, the first step is awareness and noticing the negativity anchoring us down. Only then can we think about transforming the negative thoughts into positive ones and starting to feel the pull of the tugboat. This example is sports psychology, but it applies throughout our lives. Justin discusses this from 29:40 in the Löw Tide Boyz podcast episode 193. Also see swimrun, the fun scale
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