The Seduction of the Box and Semiotic Visualisation

Originally posted on April 8, 2020 @ 1:38 PM

I remember speaking at a safety conference on humanizing safety and my presentation was followed by an IT presentation and then morning tea. Once I had finished my bit this IT person got up and showed how he had developed a checklist on an iPad. Then it came to the lovely spread for morning tea: cakes, slices, barista coffee and snacks. As it eventuated I was the only one at morning tea and every participant at the conference was lingering around the IT expert drooling at his iPad, mesmerized by the box that went ‘bing’ ( ). Ah! The seduction of the box, the engineers delight. It was no surprise at this conference to see all these safety people hovering over the box as if safety was a checklist on an iPad. How small is the safety world. Surely we can imagine safety as more than a checklist in a box or a box in a checklist?

One of the benefits of playing with semiotic visualization (in playful imagination – is that it brings insight into relationships between the subject and object. This is the power of the dance of dialectic.

When we think visually through exercises like ‘mapping’, ‘visual dialogue’ and ‘poetic visualisation’ we open up opportunities to ‘see’ relationships and social interactions normally hidden by checklists, forms, tables, box-models and static graphic interfaces. We can do this with any model for example, Kasperson’s Social Amplification of Risk (SARF) (Figure 1).


When we study this model we can fall for the seduction of the box. The seduction of the box is similar to the seduction of the coloured matrix or, seduction of the bow tie. Unfortunately, all models entice the perception that the model is complete within itself.

When we move the SARF model from the seduction of the box to what happens around the box, we visualize amplification beyond the SARF model. For example, all concerts involve: performers, pre-amps, fold backs, feedback, audience and poetics in dance, song, rhythms etc. When we visualize a concert we step beyond the amplification box and envision the social context in which the box sits. We think much more about the filters outside the box as well as filters inside the box.

We could visualize something like this:




or this:


or this:


The way we semiotically visualize something draws us away from the seduction of the box to a holistic understanding of all the interrelationships involved in and about the amplification of risk. This is why the use of engagement boards ( in risk visualization is much more effective that paper checklists.

In semiotic visualization we realize that signals in pre-amplification can distort and filter signals before they enter the SARF box. All the amplification box does is now make more noise and cacophony from the distortion fed into it. This is what happens when the safety industry amplifies the signal of zero. It creates a cacophony that distorts all that follows and its noise is deafening. Similarly, a checklist on an iPad is still a checklist. It tells you nothing of the bias of the designer, its embedded distortions or ways it attenuates critical thinking or stifles imagination, learning and wisdom.

Many of the models that populate the safety sector tend to close critical thinking and amplify the seduction of the box, this is particularly amplified in models like the bow tie, coloured risk matrix and pyramids.

In the semiotizing of vision and perception we are able to get much more out of models that are bound by data, counting and measures.

When we study The Social Amplification of Risk ( and Holistic Ergonomics ( we incorporate skill development in playful visualization. Visualization involves practice and skill development as was evidenced in Brian’s recent post on his walk in a Vienna Forest ( ). When you understand the world and culture as a semiosphere (Lotman) you see more than boxes and checklists. When you learn how to semiotize your perception you envision things way outside of the box and often surprise people with what you see.

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