Figure It Out Cover

Figure It Out

Getting from Information to Understanding

By Stephen Anderson & Karl Fast

Published: May 2020
Paperback: 432 pages
ISBN: 978-1933820-96-5
Digital ISBN: 978-1933820-95-8

Information is easy. Understanding is hard.

From incomprehensible tax policies to confusing medical explanations, we’re swamped with information that we can’t make sense of. Figure It Out shows us how to transform information into better presentations, better meetings, better software, and better decisions. So take heart: under the guidance of Anderson and Fast, we can, in fact, figure it out—for ourselves and for others.

Who this book is for

  • Mid-career professionals who are ready to think more critically about how they work with information.
  • Product Managers, Software Engineers, Project Managers, Content Strategists, Product Strategists.

Hear the authors on The Rosenfeld Review Podcast

Paperback + Ebooks i All of our Paperbacks come with a FREE ebook in 4 common formats.


Ebooks only i All ebooks come in DRM-free Kindle (MOBI), PDF, ePub, and DAISY formats.


More about Figure It Out


In this illuminating and profoundly unique book, Stephen and Karl have cracked the code on how to make complex concepts not only simple but tangible. And, as they show, that makes all the difference. When you need to give your ideas body, form, and shape, you need this book.

— Dan Roam, Author of The Back of the Napkin and Draw to Win

Figure It Out is about learning tools + spaces—perception, representation, metaphor, models, systems, interaction-in-the-world, thinking-with-things—and design. Required reading for designers and anyone else who needs to explain things.

— Hugh Dubberly, Principal, Dubberly Design Office

Figure It Out won’t just change the way you think, but it will change the way you think about the way you think. Figure It Out is an intellectual tour de force, a cogent and compelling synthesis spanning art, science, design, and philosophy to create an elegant picture of how the world shapes our minds and vice versa, and how the meaning we make from our world is what makes us irrepressibly, irreducibly human.

— Jesse James Garrett, author of The Elements of User Experience

We all think. But we rarely think about how we think.

Stephen and Karl dissect how we naturally make sense of the world, using not only our minds, but also our bodies and our surroundings. They break down the process into its different constituent parts and lay out the mental operations, physical behaviors, strategies, and activities we all use on a day-to-day basis.By revealing and describing these processes in a structured way, they provide the reader with a rich and actionable toolkit for sharpening their thinking and extending their capabilities for understanding and reasoning.

— Eva-Lotta Lamm, designer and visual thinker

The challenge of making sense of the oceans of information brought to us by digital technology is the truly significant task of our era. Not since Pinker’s 1997 tome has anyone addressed this important arena with the breadth and clarity it deserves. We will never create machines that understand their world until we can wrap our heads around the more daunting question of how humans understand it. This book brings us a step closer to that day.

— Alan Cooper, author of About Face and The Inmates Are Running the Asylum

Designers need to help users make sense of an increasingly complex world. Karl Fast and Stephen Anderson have laid out an invaluable toolkit to design for understanding.

— Julie Dirksen, author, Design for How People Learn

Table of Contents

Part 1. A Focus on Understanding

Chapter 1: From Information to Understanding
Chapter 2: Understanding as a Function of the Brain, Body, and Environment

Part 2. How We Understand by Associations

Chapter 3: Understanding Is Fundamentally About Associations Between Concepts
Chapter 4: Everyday Associations: Metaphors, Priming, Anchoring, and Narrative
Chapter 5: Everyday Associations: Aesthetics and Explicit Visual Metaphors
Chapter 6: Closing Thoughts and Cautionary Notes About Associations

Part 3. How We Understand with External Representations

Chapter 7: Why Our Sense of Vision Trumps All Others
Chapter 8: An Intelligent Understanding of Color
Chapter 9: Ways We Use Space to Hold and Convey Meaning

Part 4. How We Understand Through Interactions

Chapter 10: Interacting with Information
Chapter 11: A Pattern Language for Talking About Interactions

Part 5. Coordinating for Understanding

Chapter 12: Seeing the System of Cognitive Resources
Chapter 13: Coordinating a System of Resources

Part 6. Tools and Technologies for Understanding

Chapter 14: A Critical Look at Tools and Technologies for Understanding
Chapter 15: A Perspective on Future Tools and Technologies for Understanding


There comes a time in every professional’s life when they wish to make a model.

This may sound silly at first glance, but as you dig into a body of work by any prolific thinker, you’ll see attempts to organize that knowledge in order to clarify the problem they are studying.

Darwin drew rambling tree diagrams as he contemplated the origin of the species. Zaha Hadid sketched, but you would expect that from an architect. Grant Atchatz and Michel Bras, renowned chefs, both made simple models of their complex dishes. Marie Curie and J.K. Rowling did, too.

Sometimes a thinker will attempt to represent a model with words, a “dancing about architecture” attempt. When people say that all teams need three things: someone who knows about business, someone who understands the customer, and someone who understands how to make things, you are hearing about a model. You might picture it in your head as a Venn diagram or a three-legged stool, because it is a model.

Some thinkers will tentatively draw something—helped along by the proliferation of tools, such as PowerPoint’s SmartArt. Steve Blank, the “father of modern entrepreneurship,” made this diagram to explain how one finds customers. The ideas are good, but the execution leaves something to be desired.

Of course, academic papers are full of terrible charts and diagrams.
I was in the thick of this problem when I started running workshops on social software design. I knew what I wanted people to consider when they added social features, such as forums or commenting. But I couldn’t make a model, which was shocking to me, because I am an art school graduate. Yet drawing is not the same as modeling. I took Karl and Stephen’s workshop on “Design for Understanding” in 2014. Karl was the academic who knew why things worked, Stephen was the design expert who knew how to make things that worked, and I was the lucky ignoramus who got to ride along (after all, ignorance is curable.)

The last few years have been filled with discussions, in the real world and online, as we pieced together the mysteries of why some things are good and some things are not, why things are the way they are. And I was the lucky one who got to read the book you are now holding in its many stages, from fumbling in the dark to shining a light on the problem. Through my conversations with Karl and Stephen, I learned that we don’t think with just our brain, we think with our bodies and our environment as well.

This journey to understand how we think has paid off for me. It helped me understand why some teams fall apart and some don’t, so I could write my book on teams. It gave me a way to teach students at Stanford to design more effectively and think more clearly. You are at the start of your journey, and as the cliché goes, I envy you.

This book is full of ideas, big and small, theoretical and practical. When you are done, you will not only speak a new language, but you’ll be able to dream in it. And best of all, there are plenty of pictures to help you understand. Pictures are not just for children—they are for anyone who wants to engage more of their mind.

I agree with Alice: “What is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversation?” (Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

Figure It Out is both, and it is a supremely useful book.

—Christina Wodtke, author of Radical Focus and The Team that Managed Itself and lecturer in HCI at Stanford University