Maps, models and canvases

A few brief thoughts on maps, models, canvases (for Christina Wodtke who asked about this on Twitter).

Let me start by saying that definitions should always be provisional and based on context. My first answer to Christina was that this sounds like a rabbit hole. It’s all too easy to get mired and tangled up in defining things and definitions easily drift toward dogma. But she persisted so here are a few thoughts.

Mental model of a car.

A model is a facsimile or simulacrum for reality that is held in the mind but that can also be visualized, externalized, and brought into reality in some way, for the purpose of playing with it or thinking about it. For example when you put together a plastic model of a car you are not making a real car, but a model — a facsimile that in some ways resembles the real thing but in a way that makes it easier to think about it and explore possibilities. A model usually, and I think maybe necessarily, is a simplification or abstraction of the reality as a way to explore its workings. A paper airplane is a kind of a model.

Map describing XPLANE aspirational culture, 2007.

When you make a diagram of a model for yourself or for others you could call that a map.

I think of a map as a kind of model that usually includes some kinds of navigational elements. You can make a map for yourself or for others, but map-making implies exploring and diagramming a terrain in a way that may be useful later. Think of Lewis and Clark, finding their way west. The purpose of that journey was both to explore and to make a map that others could later follow.

As an artist I think of a canvas as a working space. A blank canvas is simply a white rectangle with no preconceptions other than flatness. In the context I think you mean, a canvas is a kind of template, a visualized model that is intentionally left blank for others to use. One example of this usage is Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas.

Business Model Canvas by Alex Osterwalder.

Alex’s work makes a nice example, because it allows you to think of the three elements together. A business model is an abstraction and simplification of a business that allows you to think about the core elements of a business and the various ways they can be combined. The Business Model Canvas is a tool that Alex made to allow people to think visually and diagrammatically about business models. Once you have filled out a Business Model Canvas perhaps you have created a map of a specific business model that you could then explore.

A map of Google’s business model.

To sum up, to model is to simulate, to map is to visually explore or and explain, and to create a canvas is to provide a framework for thinking.

Before closing let me reiterate that these are only provisional definitions based on Christina’s query. In general these kinds of explorations can be useful for thinking but definitions should always be provisional, fluid and contextual. That’s the nature of language and that’s what makes it so wonderful — for any one word there are infinite shades and varieties of meaning.

Dave Gray is the founder of XPLANE and author of three books: Gamestorming, The Connected Company, and Liminal Thinking.