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Jorge Arango's

No. 21
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How to understand a complex subject

Sometimes need to understand a complex subject. When getting into it, you’re faced lots of new concepts and ideas, unfamiliar language, unexpected connections between terms, etc. There’s lots of information to digest. Where do you start? How do you make sense of it all?

Understanding complex subjects is a meta-skill: a skill that helps you become better at acquiring other skills. When you hone your ability to understand, learning new things becomes easier. Improving your sense-making skills is a powerful boost for your effectiveness.

Concept mapping is the best practice I’ve found for making sense of complex subjects. A concept map is a visual representation of the relationships between concepts that affect a particular problem or domain. In contrast to a linear exposition of the subject, a concept map lets you pick the starting point for your investigation and allows you to see details in the context of the big picture. A well-crafted map achieves the goal Richard Saul Wurman laid out for information architects: to help others find their own paths to knowledge.

The best conceptual mapper I know is Hugh Dubberly. The Dubberly Design Office website has an entire section dedicated to showcasing their beautiful and insightful maps. A post on the site’s blog also shows you how to create concept maps. They don't need to be elaborate or polished to be valuable. I use this approach with my students and in my professional work; it’s the best way I’ve found to understand complex subjects.

Upcoming information architecture workshops

Information architecture is more important today than ever before. However, many digital designers working today don’t realize there’s an area of practice dedicated to structuring information to make it easier to find and understand. That’s why I created my Information Architecture Essentials workshop. It’s a great way to get started towards making more valuable and relevant digital products and services.

I’ll be teaching the workshop in Zurich in February as part of World IA Day Switzerland, and in Orlando in March as part of the IA Conference. Can’t join us for either of those events? Well, I can also lead bespoke instances of the IA Essentials workshop to help internal design teams come up to speed quickly on information architecture. Please get in touch if you’d like to have me teach the workshop at your organization.

Other things I've been thinking about...


About Living in Information

Living in Information book coverThe book's description and table of contents are on its web page. If you want a succinct overview, my presentation at UX Week 2018 is a good introduction. You can buy the book from... 

... and other fine purveyors of the printed word.

“To attain knowledge, add things everyday. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.”

― Lao Tse

Thanks for reading!

-- Jorge

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Copyright © 2019 Jorge Arango, All rights reserved.

Jorge Arango
P.O. Box 29002
Oakland, CA 94604

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