On perception, and frames.

Think about a stone you pick up from the bank of a fast flowing river.

Perhaps granite. Tumbled matte by the forces of water and other things it repeatedly rubs up against.

The shape is an expression of the relationship between its internal structure and the forces of its environment.

If we hit this stone with a hammer and it fractures along some internal fault line, is it now two stones?

A philosopher like Daniel Dennet might say so, particularly from the perspective of his physical & design stances.

A designer with cognitive interests, like Donald Norman, would probably agree with respect to the perceived affordances of the stones.

A systems thinker like Donella Meadows would remind us that no matter which lens we use to look at a situation, the things we see through that lens are all there.


From a purely physical stance, of course, it’s now two stones. They are now separate from one another, I can pick one half up and take it away with me to the other side of the planet. They are separated by space, they’re non-contiguous, discrete.

With respect to use, thinking of Dennet’s design stance and Norman’s perceived affordances, these two new stones have the affordances of their previous whole, I can pick one up and throw it at something, I can use it as a paperweight, I can break it further, or use it to break something. These two new stones also have a new affordance — they can be joined. The new surface that emerged when we broke the bigger stone is connected to its other half in a way that suggests “let's get back together”.

These are still two stones, but they’re also halves.

Affordances are one kind of perception. Let’s think about another kind. That original smoothed surface implies that these two halves were once whole. We can look at the two rocks we have in front of us and see a broken river stone. Much like one of those optical illusions where a cube flips back and forth between concave and convex, the objects before us cycle through these states of two rocks, two halves and a broken river stone.

What are we to do? Which of these is true?

Danah Meadows comes to our rescue, reminding us that whenever we use a frame to analyse the world, we are also adopting a “rationality”, or a “stance” as Dennet might call it. Meadows reminds us that whichever frame we use to look at the world, the things we see through that frame “are all there”. If I look for discrete objects, I see two rocks. If I look for affordances I see two halves. If I look for constructed meaning, I see a broken river stone.

Why this, why now?

I work in the area of design. In all our projects, understanding and framing the problem space is the most powerful lever we have. I’m interested in how frames emerge, and how this emergence can be communicated.