Mapping the Mapper

First published in 1997 by Paul Taylor & John Wood

M. C. Escher's (1948) lithograph Drawing Hands
(See also Paul's Fuller Network and article about IDEAbase


Downloaded under a Creative Commons Attribution – ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License by agreement with Metadesigners Open Network|http://metadesigners.org/ (See more downloadable articles).

Please cite as: Taylor, P., & Wood, J., (1997), "Mapping the Mapper", a chapter in "Computers, Communications, and Mental Models", eds. Donald Day & Diane Kovacs, Taylor & Francis, London, ISBN 0-7484-0543-7, pp. 37-44, January 1997.


This paper describes some aspects of the IDEAbase project; a novel hypertext environment intended to assist researchers and students of art and design. For this group, the significant mode of knowledge is tacit rather than theoretical, deriving from a mediaeval craft guilds tradition rather than from the monastic practices of scholarship. Nevertheless, studio-based artists and designers increasingly need to inform responsible practice with scholarly knowledge, normally available in the form of serial text. For artists and designers, the clash between these two disparate epistemologies is evident in many ways including the absence of agreed source-mapping methods and library retrieval problems. This paper gives the example of one particular IDEAbase document which is non-linear in that the information purveyed was first mapped out in a multi-dimensional network to become the basis of an IDEAbase document.

The mathematical concept of mapping

This project attempts to map the ideas and designs of Buckminster Fuller, who himself developed maps: actual geographical maps and intellectual maps of fields of study relevant to design. In conjunction with a mapping of his totalistic conception of design thinking, the notion of mapping itself underpins the application of Peirce's notion of abduction, here construed as a mechanism of conceptual development and problem solving. The facilities afforded by hypertext enable the user to abductively relate disparate ideas within the field of design and outside it, in such a way that, in the process of mapping the range of concerns presented by Fuller, the user becomes aware of the issue of mapping itself, and thereby increasingly self-aware in respect of the mappings she herself develops in interaction with this hypertext environment. Thus, the user is enabled to develop a mental map of the inter-relationships between various fields and ideas relevant to the specific issues, which concern her. Beyond this, however, lie questions of mapping and modeling, which arise in the particular case of the subject matter of this hypertext. Fuller's geometrical theories can be conveniently investigated in this form, and can be tested and applied to other aspects of his work, as well as to other design questions.

BACKGROUND: The Nature of Studio Practice

It is important to highlight the salient differences between 'creative practices' of the studio, and those of other professionals. Schon points to the historical schism between scholastic research-based methods and those evolved by practice-oriented professionals such as doctors, architects and designers. These differences can be traced to their roots in the mediaeval monastic and craft-guild institutions respectively, resulting in separate epistemologies that do not correspond closely with each other.

The significant modes of knowledge used by artists and designers in their creative practice include 'tacit knowledge', received wisdom, and skills of judgement acquired by practical studio experiment and experience. By contrast, the conventional scholarly essay is linear and sequential, employing traditional devices such as syllogistic logic. Historically speaking, 'silent' reading is a comparatively recent skill and it is likely that the form of the scholarly essay has evolved from the rhetoric of public speaking. As such it is inclined to elevate the status of the author by permitting the creation of a fresh thesis from the bones of extant writings. For this reason, it is de rigueur for academic authors to cite precedent; traditionally in the form of gods, heroes, famous men, distinguished authors and, more recently, their bibliographic data, as a tacit claim to authority. This may explain the emphasis upon accurate sourcing and serial development strategies in academic writing. Likewise, scholastic rigour is a key attribute of such writing, attained only through impeccable clarity and explicitness of argumentation.

For these reasons, this notion of rigour would be inappropriate for most art and design practices, as their genres and methods emphasise implicitness, novelty, and innovation. Social acceptance for artists and designers more often derives instead from a range of attributes which are manifest in the 'studio product' itself. The capabilities of the artist/designer are therefore a more complex (parallel) fusion of tacit and intellectual abilities such as the skills of judgement, problem-solving, organisation and manipulation of materials, etc. Traditionally, all these skills should be conspicuously coherent; e.g. suitable to a currently situated context of materials, form, and function.

Nevertheless, modern artists and designers increasingly need to inform responsible practice with theoretical support in the form of scholarly knowledge. This is the result of many complex and diverse reasons. For example, modern designers are increasingly expected to become aware of ethical and environmentalist approaches in their professional practice. Similarly, many artists are bound by historical trends encouraging novel and 'avant-garde' practices. The advent of an increasingly individualistic approach to studio practices means that the modern equivalents of 'master craftsmen' are no longer accessible custodians of relevant discourse and knowledge. Instead, knowledge is more often available only in a critical and analytical mode, and presented as long strings of argumentation as serial text. It is tempting to suggest that a more relevant form of knowledge would be polysemic rather than monosemic, and intuitive rather than rule-based. For all these reasons it is not unusual to find that the immediate concerns of an artist's studio project have an apparently tenuous connection with her parallel interests in theory.

This is hardly surprising, as a major difficulty confronting artists and designers is that ideas and information that may be relevant to specific projects are often dispersed across a wide range of disciplines. As a result many practitioners find themselves overwhelmed by time-consuming problems of library retrieval and the absence of agreed source-mapping methods. Artists and designers often find themselves uncertain as to which information domain will be relevant in clarifying particular problems or in reaching fresh solutions. It has been shown that in the early phases of a creative design process, it may actually be unhelpful to predict the sequence of decisions about solutions. In this sense there may be no general correspondence between a given studio problem and a seemingly relevant tract of text from scholarly sources. Arguably, these factors could account in part for the popularity of post-structuralist and de-constructionist texts in the art and design community, as they appear to offer a more holistic, intuitive, and ambiguous domain than that of (classical) 'scientific', or linear historical arguments.

The concepts of 'mapping' and 'modelling' offer important alternatives to conventions of serial text representation, as they more closely emulate the mechanisms by which deeds can be explored either in advance, retrospectively, or at a distance, by means of symbolic or functional representation. The term 'mental models' has been used in AI research to denote propositional models outside the mind of the user. For example, Johnson-Laird has claimed that: "Mental models provide a basis for representing premises, and their manipulation makes it possible to reason without logic.

BACKGROUND: Hypertext in the Design Studio

Vannevar Bush, a scientific advisor to President Roosevelt, is credited with the original inspiration for hypertext. In 1945, aware of the explosive growth of new technologies, available information, and in the "summation of human experience", Bush called for the development of a new type of "mechanised private file and library". He had become impressed by the new psychological principle of 'associationism' and wanted a system that could work the way the human mind does. He envisaged a mechanical device with which users could make their own associative leaps; creating mnemonic codes and 'connecting' data items together into information 'trails'. Later pioneers who developed working systems claimed that these methods could actually enlarge the scope of human thought (Engelbart: 1963); and empower the human memory (Nelson: 1980).

Unfortunately, in a general learning context some studies have suggested that hypertext may be no more effective than paper-based documents. However, as we have already shown, the imperatives of the studio can differ significantly from those of a conventional classroom and it is doubtful whether readership by 'action-oriented' artists and designers is comparable to the readership of more 'theory-oriented' scholars. One of the celebrated attributes of hypertext is its 'non-linearity'. This chiefly derives from the fact that the user can read in many alternative directions, and is therefore likely to experience a more chaotic sequence of ideas than those organised in conventional linear text.

Barrett describes hypertext as "an a-cyclic, asynchronous sharing of language around central topics of concern". Whilst this notion may seem dubious to many academically trained scholars, it is curiously inviting to artists or designers who are eager for ambiguity (a more interrogative and polysemic form of stimulation). For this reason we are persuaded that hypertext can effectively serve to inform art and design studio practice, even if such methods have so far failed to find unqualified approval in a more orthodox learning context. Carlson and others have drawn attention to the radical rhetorical nature of hypertext, reminding us that all revolutions are likely to have both positive and negative effects on society. Nevertheless, we are hopeful that once an appropriate IDEAbase system is tailored to the needs of a specific community of artists or designers, a corpus of locally edited ideas will accrue that will encourage sound creative collaboration. We plan to establish this possibility across, and beyond, the campus electronic network.

Creation of The Fuller Network

The first phase of the Fuller Network was undertaken by Paul Taylor in 1991, and began with the compilation of various ideas, principles, designs and domains of interest drawn from the work of the distinguished designer, Richard Buckminster Fuller. This was done chiefly by the augmentation, concatenation and creation of indexes to Fuller's writings. The 480 items thus compiled were then graphically arranged and inter-connected on paper by lines of relation non-specifically indicating relevances such as equivalence, kinship, subsumption, etc. This process yielded a non-sequential, multi-dimensional network of interconnected items or nodes, each of which was then developed into a textual module in a hypertext document.
In the next phase, this graphic 'map' was encoded into software form using Prolog 'front-ended' with HyperCard. By framing questions about the relationship between nodes, e.g. "What is the connection between 'Tensegrity Structures' and 'Total Thinking'?", the program offered a series of annotated 'pathways' representing every concept node encountered along that particular 'route'.

Computer Aiding Design Thinking

The Fuller Network helps in the following ways:
1. It presents a detailed case study of a comprehensive designer.
2. It shows how certain theoretical matters may be related to practical design, for instance; how geometrical ideas are applied to architecture and cartography.
3. It provides checklists of factors relevant to design.
4. It discusses problem solving and heuristics.
5. It enables the abductive formation of new conceptions of disparate design issues.
6. It enables rhythmically modulated interaction between the user and the contents of the network.

Mapping The Mapper

Richard Buckminster Fuller was a mapper in two broad senses: he made an original contribution to cartography by developing a new projection, with which he produced a minimally distorting map of the world. Fuller used this "Dymaxion Map" to present ideas and information about global energy supplies and traffic patterns, amongst other matters. Beyond this, he can be seen as someone who was concerned to take account of and keep track of a multiplicity of factors, physical and social and conceptual, which impinge on design. In this sense, he was mapping such factors onto an intellectual matrix that purported to be a totalistic conception of design.
The reflexive self-awareness entailed by such an approach to design problems is readily appreciable by means of exploration of the network.
This appreciation is fostered partly by the gradual acquaintance with Fuller's work, and partly by the fact that what takes place as a result of interaction with the network is the development of new mapping s of the information presented in the hypertext onto the mental schemata of the user. The issues of mapping and modelling are, in addition, explicitly discussed in the text itself.


The notion of mapping can be related to the higher-order notion of abduction, which is itself of crucial importance in construing the modus operandi of the network. Abduction is a kind of inference that is neither deduction nor induction. It is a process whereby a surprising fact is made explicable by the application to it of a suitable proposition. The formulation of abduction is attributed to C. S. Peirce: "A surprising fact, C, is observed. But if a proposition, A, were true, C would be a matter of course. Hence, there is a reason to suspect that A is true."
Rowe quotes this and adds that "abduction includes the case where A and C are distinct from one another and only become related through the existence of some appropriated scheme, or 'view of the world', that has meaning for both A and C."

Abduction is, in Rowe's terms, "an appropriation from outside the problem space, used for its promise of providing a higher level of organisation. For instance, a designer at the outset of tackling a problem in housing may decide to make use of a particular type of configuration. Furthermore, that type becomes the model through which the problem is understood and construed".
Rowe goes on to relate abduction to heuristics: the abductive "mode of inquiry is very common in design. We often employ heuristics that allow us to import autonomous constraints into our problem spaces in order to facilitate further activity. In fact, in the case of ill-defined and wicked problems abduction is the rule rather than the exception."


The inter-relating of information from disparate domains is specifically facilitated by the network. This process is construed under the paradigm of mapping , which is in turn the basis for the enactment of abduction. Thus the user is enabled to work towards solving design problems by means of the new mappings provoked by the network.

John Wood and Paul Taylor


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IDEAbase - a preliminary evaluation
Conducted by Alessio Quarzo-Cerina, an independent qualitative researcher specialising in the advertising and product development industry. His previous experience in the field of IT includes international marketing and product strategies, and communications for Intel, NCR, and IBM.


This paper describes an attempt to provide some user feedback on the IDEAbase project through qualitative research. The principal objective of this research was:

To ascertain the relevance and appeal of a non-linear, intuitive software environment such as IDEAbase in the context of designers' culture and practices, especially in relation to knowledge.
While the concepts that frame the arguments in this survey were taken directly from the article Mapping The Mapper, it was our key concern to understand whether such concepts bear any resemblance to the way designers go about and conceive of their work, on their terms.


Four depth interviews lasting approximately one hour each were conducted with designers following a broad and holistic design course at Goldsmiths' College. The sample was chosen deliberately. The interviews were split between male and female respondents and all respondents had to be at least computer literate.
The depth interviews took the form of a collaborative process between moderator and respondent during which the various relevant issues were covered and concepts were tested for relevance and appeal.


The Nature of Designers' Work
As designers, the respondents distinguish themselves from artists in that they do not conceive of the objects they create merely as signifiers in a social space, but also as functioning as effective and relevant solutions to identifiable problems.

The respondents speak of design as a mix of the subjective and objective, of knowledge and gut feel, art and craft. Their work is thus characterised by eclecticism and an holistic approach to research, method and creative judgement.


The respondents testify to the eclectic and holistic method they use in 'researching' their work. For example, they admit to "working backwards as well as forwards", to jumping into a problem space at any point, depending on whatever triggers their imagination in the brief or anything else.

"Design is much more wide open; I think it's up to you as a designer, but you can look at the problem from underneath. In 'academic' subjects people are not going to look around something that's flat in front of them, they have to look at it and understand it. With an object you can look at it from all sides and pull things and press other things. I mean this also in a mental sense."

"If once you are given a brief there tends to be keywords that will trigger off things, you'll think about things that you have seen, that relate to that word, and then you start to draw on those."
"It works its way through like a modelling process, you can go forward or go back, until everything slots in."

Browsing is a process designers seem to use a lot to stimulate their imagination. In fact browsing can be a useful metaphor to describe the way in which experience is accessed, and restructured, by designers.
"Often if I have a project I'll go around the library for inspiration, not even for research."

A crucial part of their method is also the ability to exchange opinions, compare ideas and discuss issues with their peers and others. There is a general concern to move outside the problem space to look for models that will allow a different conceptualisation of the problem, broadening the scope of their approach.

"To be able to read around the subject....get as many points of view as you can....trying to relate them to the problem you've got to solve within the brief".

Gratification appears to be holistic. Fulfilment arises from both a sense of practical and creative achievement. There is the fufilment of being "able to answer the brief as accurately as possible", but there is also a feeling of things being right, of elements 'clicking' together. Respondents offer powerful metaphors for its holistic nature.

"Fulfillment feels... like being in love; it's like a complete light feeling. It's like taking off. It's completely physical, from the stomach out. It's a gut feeling. You just know when you've just managed to create an idea."


Looking for evidence of the 'historical schism' between the traditional modes of knowledge used by practice-oriented professionals such as designers and those of scholarly work, we find that the designer's own background has a crucial bearing on this. The split between academic and non-academic background is not complete and some designers show considerable familiarity with the scholarly method.

However, a split does exist in the minds of designers, even those who are more inclined towards academic work. All designers in the sample attribute the development of their own craft to an inclination to: "spatial awareness", "modelling and making things", or a leaning towards graphics and fine arts. While they may feel at ease in a scholarly environment, this has a direct influence on the mode of knowledge most easily accessed in their work - even the most 'academic' show a tendency towards an holistic approach based on 'total experience'.


These designers recognise the importance of being aware of wider social and theoretical issues in their work, both in providing fresh ways to look at a problem and in order to consider the consequences of their work. There is inevitably a theoretical side to their work that they want to be fully aware of.

Designers vary in their stated concern for society at large, but even those who declare they have very personal aesthetic concerns, find looking at psychology, culture and society very useful. The sort of important subjects and issues cited are 'environmentalism', 'ethics', 'psychology', 'philosophy', 'feminism'.


While designers do not appear at all hostile to books in general, there is evidence of a difficulty in integrating the linear and sequential nature of scholarly work to their work.

Designers do not approach scholarly pursuits systematically; they require mediation to turn a linear argument on a page into something designers can 'live and breathe'. Scholarly argument is subjected to a browsing process, the arguments are often restructured and allowed to 'sink in' without note-taking, then subsequently discussed with peers to cement the knowledge.

"The reason I find it difficult is that I don't think kind of logically; it's sort of like a whirlpool of thoughts and I guess I can't really express it in a sort of sequential way.."

"I don't find it difficult, but it can be complicated. For me one thing leads to another, words can easily lead to images, images can easily lead to 3-D."

"When people study music you don't start from like the very beginning. I think it is a very abstract way, to represent a frequency of sound by a dot and line. That's a very abstract way for people to begin. When you've progressed you really understand about semi-tones and tones and the relationship between notes and harmonics, which is the basic but it comes later."

"I can remember things about rooms, structures, etc. I am getting there by thinking in structures; its just the way my memory works."

"It is not necessarily easy to relate gut feel to learning. They are complete opposites: one is a completely irrational instinct, and one is thought out, has no irrationalities."


Designers find IDEAbase very exciting, in that it appears to fit in with their practices with respect to knowledge. IDEAbase allows one to browse around a topic or author, or just to play with ideas and words to see what associations they bring up in their mind and in the computer. Knowledge is thus restructured in a more convenient and palatable form allowing it to fit into the mental patterns designers make use of. At the same time, the system allows for the valued and valuable process of discussion, comparison and interaction with peers.

"If I am doing an essay on a subject, you just need one word to trigger off ideas. I think IDEAbase that has potential for you not to get stuck into one way of thinking....."

The human element in the use of a system such as IDEAbase remains very important, especially for designers, given the centrality of human beings to their work. Designers thus express a concern that they be able to suggest and set up semantic correspondences of their own, as well as have access to the authors of the various documents to follow up ideas. This sort of concern is actually very prevalent and will have to be addressed in the development of the final product.

"Computers have the potential for shrinking people's imagination, but they have a potential in education".

"Having contact with people helps, I'd like to be able to meet the person who wrote it."

Reactions to the Buckminster Fuller document depended in part to the familiarity with and interest in the work of Buckminster Fuller. Regardless of respondents' affinity with the work, though, it is possible to draw some overall conclusions. The system is very accessible and within minutes all respondents were able to use it and follow up their own train of thought, regardless of their degree of 'computer-friendliness'.

"It took me two seconds to get to the geodesic spheres. It looks more accessible than a typed-up, thick book."

IDEAbase is well received by the designers in our sample, as long as it is seen to fit in its 'proper' place as a tool, an aid to research, allowing access to more data and information than is possible with books, following different patterns, in an intuitive and playful manner.

"Personally, it would have its place; I wouldn't like to rely on this box; I want to be able to go out and read books and read those, do some interacting yourself with the computer, try and fit it in with what I am doing."

A line is drawn at the point where the computer is seen as taking over from humans, attempting to do away with books or is seen as imposing its own truths.


From our discussion of the way designers relate to problem-solving and work method it appears that the concepts of mapping and abduction on which IDEAbase is based, are particularly salient and relevant. The concept of mapping is akin to the sort of browsing and structuring of knowledge designers use in everyday experience, but find complex to apply to scholarly work. In fact, more often than once the word mapping itself was used spontaneously by respondents in relation to the sort of mental structures created when researching a subject.

"There probably is a good link between linear argument and design but I am not in that path; if you could apply mapping to essays etc. I'd probably remember them better."

Abduction also rings true to designers, who strive to look at problems from all angles, bringing in different points of view and paradigms to organise the problem space.


IDEAbase could have a definite place in designers' work: to help them research design-related issues and theories in the studio itself.

"I am sure it could help my research. Victor Papanek has a system similar to it. I think it's good."

Its strengths come from the way in which knowledge is accessed and structured, which closely match designers' own way of working. Given designers laborious way of mediating scholarly work and integrating it in the total experience they draw upon, IDEAbase can widen the scope of designers' work and free those designers who are less academically gifted from the tyranny of linear and sequential argument, while benefiting from its insight.

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