Mental models are where we begin on the first level of our encounter with a solution to a problem, whether that is in any field of work or even life itself. In more complex matters, we find those mental models must be broken down in order to build another one up again. The next step to be distinguished from the cognitive schemas we adapt is learning how to put our concept into place, which is what I can mental mapping.
Mental models and mental mapping have been loosely applied sometimes interchangeably across many different disciplines in academics and even applied in business literature or even self-help books. The concept of a mental map stems from the work of the psychologist Edward C Tolman, who invented the field of purposive behavior. Like surveyors, we navigate a territory using the instruments of our perception to create a map, which will guide the course of others.
A mental model is the cognitive schema in our minds which operates self-reflexively with the tasks we apprehend. The process of mental mapping is how we translate a schema into a strategy we actually perform to create a behavioral effect. This is no different than how an urban architect articulates the image in their mind through the means of the language of materials. Think about Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Seagram Building on Park Avenue with the rich sheen of onyx glass and the beams in the interior made of two different types of metal, one visible and the other hidden. The building continues to be one of the most desired corporate office locations simply by how it translates sophisticated design concepts into an aesthetic experience, which Mies thought of as having universal value.
Mental mapping is an experience. Those experiences we create using the mental models derived from our perceptions create an effect the minds of others. Probably partly for the sake of tourism alone as well as maintaining regional traditions and dialects, Swiss surveyors built upon a national landscape of provincial pockets. They actually say in Switzerland dialects can differ even among villages. Yet, at the same time the Swiss are the most democratic culture thriving on an obsession with majority vote debate during elections. In the early 1980s Appenzell was the only Canton to stubbornly stand by the refusal of women’s rights to vote, which was the cause for endless rigorous debate.
Any organization today invested in knowledge value knows this basic impact of reaching an audience. That goal can be the measurable outcomes of business performance or its dependency on organizational behavior. Take, for example, Starbucks. The product is an aesthetic cup of coffee and its own culture driven by a certain behavior of its employees. Its appeal is so wide that even in France women actually prefer going to Starbucks than a café. The examples are countless crossing any profession. A surgeon refines his expertise through his senses, acquiring a certain dexterity of the hands to work quickly, keeping himself always on the other end of the experience. If he didn’t imagine his work this way, he would fail. Likewise, a lawyer ultimately wants to create an experience by establishing the order of things. Everyone is like a Swiss surveyor mapping out an experience of a landscape.
How can we translate navigating an experience of a work of art into a “product” given the context of a situation designed to have an impact on behavior? How did Starbucks design a product to arouse a craving for savory coffee? In art, after a slow process of sorting through and organizing perceptual information into a concept, the novice may take this schema and navigate it on the artwork as a terrain. Starbucks had a perception of the ultimate cup of coffee both with a taste and appearance. The next step was to navigate the terrain of an experience with an audience in mind. In speaking about art, the true discovery of an object seeing beyond our blindnesses is to draw out those elements of an artwork which answer our calling. Our calling is in response to that audience. The image we behold is the medium. Though somewhat of a cliché, the art expert says the image always speaks back. The artwork becomes a destination.
Creating an experience is like a game with rules. Starbucks invested their concept into the American virtues of “service with a smile” and the flow of work and leisure life. The art novice may exercise the game of unveiling the secrets they learned to perceive for themselves. Mental mapping is a technique, a strategy, or a process. It must become explicit. It is an idea, experience, and ultimately also fashions a behavior. While the terrain may be the same for everyone, each person may map out a mental model differently using their perceptions.
Any type of knowledge based profession requires this facility of mind to navigate a territory of a mental map. A basic requirement of any such professional is the ability to tap into personal experience. I knew a man, a professor of surveying from Switzerland, and he gave a talk for a distinguished award at a university in Vienna. He stewed over it for weeks with emotion because his identity as a Swiss man was very much part of what the profession meant to him. He spoke of it as a family legacy. Any other professional knows this very same feeling of individual purpose and competency in what they do. Through these eyes we project our mental models onto a map. We carry it out from a part of ourselves both drawn from affect and cognition. That is why it takes up all of ourselves.
In art history, something very interesting happened in the 1960s with the way artists thought about their work as a mental map in this very same regard. Sol Lewitt’s famous wall drawings shown in Los Angeles and New York embraced the importance of art that embodied ideas and redefined how we view quality. Nothing of these works survives except a plan. They were exhibited on the walls of galleries. He didn’t even make them. He hired young striving artists to reproduce his plans.
Those plans worked out a logical idea to the point he defined himself as a “mystic.” These lines executed with such precision and logical complexity to the point of confusion are mesmerizing. Lewitt really required of people to look as if for the first time. We see our experience rests upon the feeling of an environment to create an effect. What we take in with our eyes need not be rich in materiality. We can build a rich experience in our minds based very minimal visible information.
Lewitt’s idea pared down draughtsmanship in two-dimensional art to a skill of pure mechanical expertise. In fact, Renaissance artists thought no differently about the importance of mechanical skill. However, Lewitt did not want to advocate “elite” notions of uniqueness so that people would define his work as an expression of his inner subjectivity. He didn’t want his art to be about himself. Suddenly, art redefined itself as an egalitarian experience which actually relied upon the reactions of the audience.
The entire process he invented being the brains behind a concept executed by skilled labor actually conforms to the genius of a business idea perfectly situated in the post-war industrial atmosphere. Supposedly he dematerialized art to oppose a materialist aesthetic. He’s a paradox. A Minimalist crossing over into conceptualism, Lewitt was an artist who really did make a lot out of very little.