The Power of Abstraction

Abstractions are powerful tools for generating creative ideas and solving challenging problems. We keep hearing that the devil is in the details, and sometimes it really is. But stripping the problem from at least some of its details is often a great way to explore new directions and find new opportunities. Sooner or later, we will have to deal again with the finer details, but the ability to play with abstractions creates a whole new playground for us to experiment in.

Focus on One Trait

Abstraction creates a new perspective on the subject we are looking at. When we use abstractions, we zoom out and blur some of the details. We focus on just some aspects of the subject and ignore others. When we do that, we can explore the aspect we focus on more thoroughly and play with it.

Let’s say, for example, you wish to design a new type of computer mouse. If you start with all the bits and bytes of how such a device operates, what parts it has, what materials it is made of, how many buttons it has, etc., you will soon feel overwhelmed. All these details are essential, but to come up with ideas for an innovative new design, most of these details can be ignored for the time being.

When you look at the mouse abstractly, you strip away all the details and are left with an object that fits in your palm, capturing some form of motion and translating it to the pointer’s movement on the screen. At this level of abstraction, it is much easier to pick one aspect and experiment with different ideas. How about changing the shape of the mouse? Will other shapes be even more usable from the user’s perspective? Or how about capturing motion differently? Do we need to move the mouse, or can we think of a device that stays motionless?

Such abstractions allow us to engage in thought experiments or even physical mock-ups without worrying about the details. Once we find a potential idea, we will have to bring back the details into the picture and validate the idea against them.

Unexpected Analogies

When details blind us, it is often more difficult to see similarities between our challenges and concepts from completely different domains. Different concepts become similar with abstractions, and the analogy can open our minds to finding solutions in unexpected places.

When I think, for example, about writing at an abstract level, I think of the following parts: collecting raw material, designing a piece of content, writing it, and finally editing it. Obviously, there is much more to it, but when I use this level of abstraction, I can find similar processes from other domains, use them as metaphors, and adopt new ideas. Cooking is one such metaphor because the process is identical at an abstract level. So, what can I learn from picking raw materials for a fantastic dish? What can I adapt from this cooking-related activity to the process of writing?

Mix and Match

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With abstractions, connecting and fusing concepts from different domains and creating hybrid ideas is also easier.

At an abstract level, a keyboard is an input device, and so is a touch screen. When Apple introduced the MacBook’s TouchBar, they merged these two types of devices to create a hybrid experience: a small touch screen that is part of the MacBook’s keyboard. It is used as a keyboard but has the capabilities of a screen to present different graphics representing different functions. The abstract view of both devices enabled Apple to identify how they could be mixed and create a new experience.

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