Ladder of abstraction

Ladder of abstraction is one of my favourite methodes, that I use with my students on a regular basis.

This method can be used to:

  • explore a still unknown subject,
  • argue a design statement,
  • break through designers’ blocks,
  • and give new directions for further design research.

Ladder of abstraction is a method that allows you look on the subject (or problem) from two perspectives: from very high (wide abstract view), and from very close (concrete and purposeful).

How does this method work:
Take a sheet of paper 100x70cm. Draw a table with 4 columns and 7 rows (or more). In the middle of the table,
(middle column, middle row) write your topic/subject.

Imagine a ladder on which you go up or down. The higher you go, the wider your view of your subject gets. The lower you go, the more concrete and focus your view on the subject gets.

If you want to see your subject in a broader context, you go the ladder up and ask the question “WHY?”. To go even higher, ask again a question “WHY?” and so on.

To see your topic concretely and specifically, go the ladder down, and ask the question “HOW?”. To go even lower, ask another question “HOW?” and so on.

In order to identify alternative possibilities, ask the question “How else?” and move to the column on the right or left.