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Specification for Structural Outliner Computer Programme

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Annex 15 of Visualization of International Relationship Networks (1992)
Also distributed separately under the title: Conceptual Keystone Design: a computer-based "structural outliner"


Many documents of fundamental importance to societies, organizations and groups (or even to an individual's creative processes) are based on sets of principles, values, qualities, policies, initiatives or other points (eg declarations, charters, action plans). These are usually listed out as a numbered sequence, possibly with sub-points. The conventional method of producing such documents favours linear thinking at a time when non-linear, contextually-oriented approaches are often believed to be more appropriate to ensure higher levels of integration amongst the elements of the set. A number of computer-based text "outliners" are now widely available to facilitate production of such hierarchically structured documents.

This proposal suggests the need for a computer-based structural "outliner" to facilitate a non-linear approach to the creative production of such "conceptual keystones". The need for a more integrative approach may be seen in the occasional efforts to group conceptual elements into a table, a pie-chart, a diagram, or even into a form of mandala. In each case the structure is seen as providing the integrative perspective that links a variety of disparate, but complementary, elements that together ensure the viability of the larger pattern.

It is envisaged that the proposed PC-based structural outliner would be used in a manner somewhat similar to the conventional text outliners. However the software would offer many ways of configuring the evolving set of elements within a variety of non-linear structural frameworks, whether in two or three dimensions. The geometric and symmetric properties of these would be used to suggest levels of coherence and integration absent from conventional presentations.

User approaches

The user would be offered a number of ways of building up the conceptual "keystone". In each case, the result would take the form of a geometric (and normally symmetrical) structure in two or three dimensions with elements of text attached to its features:

Structural templates

The user would be able to draw upon a library of structures and symmetric designs: Text processor

Two main modes can be envisaged: Both of these exist in simpler form in conventional text outliners

Thesaurus links

The thesaurus would be designed to provide facilities beyond those usually provided by such a function. 

Other features:

Indexing / Access Applications

The major emphasis in each of the following cases is to enable the user to articulate a complex pattern whilst maintaining a sense of coherence and ensuring a configuration of functional checks and balances. Geometrical bases

Many of the geometric operations basic to fruitful operation of such a structural outliner are detailed in a classic study by Robert Williams: The Geometrical Foundation of Natural Structure; a source book of design (Dover, 1979). Part 3 of that work details 10 principal methods through which polygons and polyhedra can be generated or have identity changes. These include: vertex motion, fold, reciprocation, truncation, rotation-translation, augmentation-deletion, fistulation, distortion, dissection, symmetry integration. It is such operations which are required to explore transformations between structures whose features are used to carry conceptual (and even symbolic) significance.

Williams focuses on the creation of a "form language" as a tool for design in all areas of human activity, whether dealing with physical matter or the patterns in social and conceptual activity: "As in any developing, changing, and vigorous area of human concern, design integrates both knowledge and methodologies from other areas and uses new information in solutions to design problems. Unlike those in many fields, the designer finds many areas of human concern relevant to his field. For example, designers, artists, architects -- those who make form -- have consistently borrowed from science, religion, and nature in order to give a unified or integrated view of man and the universe." The early part of his book clarifies the tragic consequences of lack of familiarity with a sufficiently rich form language in ensuring "variety without chaos and order without rigidity".

The case for the "visualization of mathematics" has been established by Ralph Abraham and Christopher D Shaw in such works as: Dynamics; the geometry of behavior (Santa Cruz, Aerial Press, 1981. Visual Mathematics Library). It is to be expected that with the rapid move towards placing educational materials onto interactive video-disk and CD-ROM there will be strong pressure to adapt the visualization of mathematics and geometry to those media. But the argument needs to be made for the association of non-mathematical information with those structures in order to broaden the range of uses to which they can be put.

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