A Taxonomy of Ideas?

Friday, January 13th, 2012

The Grades of Ideas - Information Is Beautiful
Recently, when throwing ideas around with people, I’ve noticed something. There seems to be a hidden language we use when evaluating ideas.

Neat idea. Brilliant idea. Dumb idea. Bad idea. Strange idea. Cool idea.

There’s something going on here. Each one of these ideas is subtly different in character. Each adjective somehow conveys the quality of the concept in a way we instantly and unconsciously understand.

For instance, a ‘neat’ idea is not the same as a ‘brilliant’ idea. A ‘bad’ idea is not quite the same as a ‘dumb’ idea.

But why?

I started wondering: is there an invisible language of ideas? Could there be an unseen hierarchy hidden in that language? What qualities actually make a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ idea? Could you visualize and plot the most popular words used to describe ideas? Would that unveil the structure? And would doing that be a ‘nice’ idea? Or a ‘terrible’ one?

I’m not sure. So, I’d like to share my first draft and invite your feedback and thoughts.


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  • http://www.tumblr.com/blog/inparidelicioso Francine McKenna

    Crazy either way.

  • Jean-Pierre

    “Neat” was my first thought but I’m guessing that related lexical concepts or items should be viewed 3-dimensionally. The x/y axis format is holding you back. Also, different people(s) use language different. One person’s “shit” is another person’s “da bomb”. Difficult task. Good luck.

  • http://Taxonomyofideas Meg Duncan

    I think this is a brilliant way to depict ideas. I thought of some others with the help of the Thinkmap Visual Thesaurus for the bottom right quadrant. Uncanny, unearthly, eldritch, unusual, strange, foreign, unknown. The visual thessaurus can be found at: http://www.visualthesaurus.com/

  • Neill D. Hicks

    It’s an ambitious conceptualization, but the semantic slipperiness of this project makes herding quarks look easy. There’s no end of techniques that attempt to corral the language of bull sessions into “logic models” and “action statements.” For the most part these devices squeeze entropy into pocket sized phrases that persuade the group that they’ve all agreed on something.
    Research in social psychology indicates that it is not the invisible language of ideas that matters, but the hidden self concept of the speaker. Whether “neat,” or “dumb,” or “brilliant,” the response is a meter reading of the speaker’s ego in relation to the idea, not the idea itself. The entitled generation in particular is so language impoverished that you’re likely to find that the “most popular words used to describe ideas” are simply the inarticulate squawks of the self-absorbed.

  • John

    I think if something’s totally fucked it should have a corresponding place somewhere…

  • Sheila Burke

    I like it! How about a “wonderful” idea? Seems that should be tucked in between “cool” and “neat”, near the center. Ya?

  • http://small-changes-big-returns.wikispaces.com/ suehellman

    I find this graphic ‘intriguing’ — an idea descriptor that might enhance your list. I’m not sure about your choice of ‘over-cooked’, but if you’re going with a culinary theme perhaps ‘half-baked’ ought to be considered as well? (LOL).

    More than the words themselves, I like the idea of applying a 4 part grid like this in an unexpected way to create a word spectrum. If I were still in classroom teaching, I’d be finding a use for this in with my math students. In this kind of graphic a double negative is very very bad instead of a mirror of positive.

  • Francisco Pinheiro

    Keep it going!

    What about a “sexy” idea?
    An “inspiring” idea?
    A “provocative” idea?

    Let me put my “black” thinking hat now: So, what about a “death” idea? ;-)

    Kind regards


  • BudB

    You pose a great question, supported with a terrific visual.

    Language has always been imprecise at best, and easily distorted by the misperceptions or redefinition by compelling speakers. Frank Sinatra sang that the Lady was a Tramp, because she wasn’t. Michael Jackson sang “I’m Bad” to screaming teens who acknowledged he was the greatest. Where’s the hierarchy of understanding?

    Technology doesn’t serve much better as an arbiter than language does. Debates over AC vs DC power, 8-Track stereo vs Cassette, Blue Ray DVD vs HD DVD, PC vs MAC show that quantifiable technology doesn’t even offer a definable hierarchy.

    The first time I heard that someday every home would have a computer, “brilliant” wasn’t the first word that came to mind. What would I possibly do with one? Now I can’t get by with only one. The quality of the concept didn’t change, my perception and understanding changed.

    More likely it is the ability to articulate new concepts, and the listeners ability to envision the unseen, that defines the perceived quality of the concept.

    Perception is reality, so the adjectives assigned really define the quality and mindset of the listeners, not the concepts themselves.

    In 1492 educated people fully understood that the earth was round, but the uneducated knew it to be flat. Their chosen descriptors of the Columbus junket offered little insight into the quality of the concept, or shape of the earth, but clearly defined the hierarchy of listener quality .

    Fast forward to today and there are those who would argue that it would be “great” to restructure Social Security for future generations, and legions who believe that to be a “shit” idea. Neither adjective reflects the underlying economic quality of the concept, only the beliefs and biases of the listener.

    Still – I look forward to seeing how the graphic develops.

  • Michael Porter

    One word to consider adding is “confusing” to denote an idea that seems paradoxical (maybe another choice). This may be upper right at its best, and lower right at its worst.

    For lower right, “inspiring” may fit the case of a functional idea that is incomplete (lacking structure or context). While the overall perspective suggests that ideas with low structure are less desirable, in fact most early stage ideas lack structure and inspire more structured ideas that begin to look like the upper right. Often these unstructured ideas are not expressed out loud, but when they are – the functional ones inspire.

    Finally, I wonder where the concept of abstract fits into this. Some ideas are concrete and specific, while others are abstract and general. This does not seem to fit on a weak-harmonic axis, nor on a functional-dysfunctional axis. Many ideas go through an abstract stage on their way to concrete functionality, and some die in the abstract.

    I found the diagram inspiring.

  • Gordon

    every single adjective on the taxonomy of ideas graph is inherently subjective. it is a truism that one man’s genius is another man’s folly. ergo it is impossible to establish any sort of objective or scientific measurability which, with any kind of epistemological authority, differentiates between “genius” and “the worst”.

  • piers

    I rather like it, definitely a cool idea.

    My first constructive criticism would be to drop the expressive fonts.
    Visually it’s too distracting, and though in some cases it supports the point being made (comic sans == ‘worst idea’ == genius idea), it does so too inconsistently to make up for it.

    Great stuff though.

  • mike noyes

    Three linguists (osgood, tannebaum & Souci) in 1957 released a paper and pencil test called the semantic differential. It allowed words to be judged by reader along three dimensions:
    .was the word ‘hot’ or ‘cold’?
    .was the word ‘good’ or ‘bad’?
    .was the word ‘strong’ or ‘weak’?


    You may find this differential scheme useful in building your taxonomy of ideas. I’d think you’d want to start with successful (and totally failed) ideas to see the optimum way so describe what has actually either worked or not. Based on this ad hoc approach, you could move on to new ideas using this differential screening model.

  • Andero Uusberg


    I’m very facinated by the question you raise. I think linguistic psychologists agree with you that there certainly is an underlying, probably simple and/or metaphoric logic to the adjectives we use in this case.

    Unfortunately, I haven’t got the time to play this through thoroughly, but just I couldn’t resist giving you my preliminary ideas :)

    It seems to me you need three dimensions:
    - The conceptual structure dimension, or you might simply call it simplicity :)
    - Novelty or originality dimension (boring as well as half-baked would be on the low end and crazy as well as brilliant on the high). Or you may even play with the idea that there is an optimal novelty below and above which ideas become bad.
    - Finally the functional-dysfunctional dimension (which seems just a slightly eufemistic way of saying somethings’ good or bad).

    If you cross simplicity with novelty you’d get quadrants that would include both good and bad ideas:
    novel and simple (brilliant vs crazy)
    old and simple (tried and tested vs dumb)
    novel and complicated (advanced vs over-cooked)
    old and complicated (abstract vs boring)

    Keep up the good work!

  • M. Way

    I would say: beware of too much groupthink, or brainstorming if you prefer:

  • luisa

    have you forgotten “stupid”?

  • http://www.ipcg.com Kate Shore

    Thanks for the opportunity to contribute. I’m coming at this from an innovation, creativity, and invention angle (focus of our business). One the frameworks we use frequently for explaining the distribution of ideas and inventions to people is Novelty vs. Operability or ease of implementation. The “bookends” on these axes are Simple to Wild & crazy (Novelty) and Easy to Difficult (Operability). These two characteristics seem to drive people’s reactions to ideas, at least in my experience. You’ll find that most highly novel ideas map towards the difficult end of Operability, eliciting reactions such as impossible, crazy, or too hard/too expensive. Of course these reactions are typically through personal filters (e.g. it is usually the mfg guy saying “too hard to produce”) whereas your terms seem to be focusing on the intrinsic quality of the idea (genius or silly). Just some food for thought – hope you find it helpful!

  • Andrew Carson

    I think this is quite interesting…also I find it very tell tale that some words appear twice on opposite ends of the spectrum, take crazy, for example. This may point to the theory perhaps that the taxonomy of ideas is not so much linear as it is cyclical, meaning that the more “crazy” an idea may get the more it is polarizing, yes, but importantly more able to pull of or prove what it set out to do.

  • Stephen

    Love it! My first thought was ‘wooly’ for the bottom right quadrant. Most of my ideas are like that.

    Having read through most of the comments, the word subjective pops up quite a bit. How about making an interactive ‘dart board’ of ideas where people can take the idea labels and stick them where the want on the axis? You could gather a little meta data around each person – geography, age range, gender, education etc and investigate how peoples ideas of ideas are different?

  • http://www.zephram.de Graham Horton

    i think a more interesting choice of axes would be usefulness (useful – useless – harmful) and mental challenge (within comfort zone – borderline – way outside comfort zone).

    - “good” would be moderately useful and within the comfort zone,
    - “interesting” would be useful and borderline comfortable,
    - “wacky” would be useful but uncomfortable,
    - “dumb” would be harmful/within and
    - “insane” would be harmful/way outside.

    in other words, i think people’s spontaneous reactions to ideas are driven more by how well they fit their experience/beliefs than by how “structured” the idea is.

  • Stephanie

    I’d use corpus linguistics software to find more collocates as well as finding out the most frequent contexts in which these are found. There are tools such as Wordsmith which can be used with different corpora (compilations of texts) to find all examples of words which appear next to “ideas”. A corpus-driven dictionary like Collins COBUILD might help as well!

  • Carl

    on the horizontal axis – if trans-functional has a similar meaning to multi-functional…in other words able to fit the purpose, but also others. And on the vertical axis, the top could be transcendent – beyond it’s original concept

  • http://captureexposed.wordpress.com AQ

    This is a fantastic idea.

    I think if you want a taxonomy representing a set of adjectives on a graph, you should consider plotting those adjectives on axes that are not also adjectives.

  • Mauricio

    It strikes me that your graphic resembles the Puournelle chart (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pournelle_chart_color.gif) . Furthermore, you can plot many physical, biological , and social phenomena in this kind of axis, and you will find a principle of coherence and organization. For example you can plot in the X axis the income and in the Y axis the level of education and you will find the whole spectrum of social
    types organized in the chart. Also you can add a Z axis with another variable and you will again find coherence and organization. But what does it mean?

    • Mauricio

      It means that complex phenomena can not be described as absolute categories but as a graduated distributions. Moreover, one variable is not enough to describe and categorize them. Is this classification system useful? Is it beautiful?

      • Mauricio

        I think it is beautiful because it tells a story. Also, it can be useful because it can be used to predict the consequences of the manipulation of the variables in the axis.

  • http://www.rgmcleod.com/Personal/portfolio/site/in Ron McLeod

    I struggle with the alignment of the idea chain. May be multi dimensional. These seem to be values that some one assigns to the idea. Another value could be high or low commercial value. Another value could be base or noble. and the values change over time, crazy before might not be so crazy now.

    Really enjoyed your TED talk. Thx


  • lucky semiosis

    Congratulations on this great work …
    here is an attempt to use the taxonomy to tweet an event :

  • Rick Rodziewicz

    If the dollar could be used as an expression of work, either physical or intellectual, then this may be a viable means of quantifying a concept or idea. Not only may an idea be
    worthless or valuable, it may be worth X amount of dollars. This would probably be within the realm of market research and economics.

    Best Regards


  • http://terrysthinking.wordpress.com/ Terry Prince

    Great work – here are my suggestions:

    I would add Wonderful – and also take Clever out of the negative side and put into right top quadrant.

    I’d also remove the word Shxt – maybe put Rubbish/Trash in instead – because it may put your work into mature content. This is something all might enjoy – including middle and high school students.

  • Tyler Harding

    Please, consider adding:



    Black Swan

    thanks, I enjoy your work. Tyler

  • Sisyphus88

    Makes a lot of sense if thought of as a map describing a globe.

  • david moore

    Graphs like these are fantastic in explaining the subtleties of English to my ESOL students. (of all the things i sketch on the whiteboard, this is the one they always copy into their books – what does that say for infographics?)
    My students want to convey feelings, so I have ‘good and bad on my vertical access (though coincides closely to your ‘operable/inoperable’ thinking)

    Please do more of these – great for me to use ;)
    Others i do are the Axis of Pleasure (from ‘Moribund’ to ‘Orgasmic’) and Sounds of Agreement – good luck getting that into graphical form (tonal stresses as waveforms?)

  • http://stconsultant.blogspot.com/ John Daly

    Another dimension, binary, is mine or yours.

  • http://www.aktuelblog.com ibrahim

    Created a good debate. Ideas are well supported in

  • Marc

    I think in the top-left corner would be “perverse”, “wicked”, “devious” type ideas – highly conceptualised but dystopic (or have I misunderstood the axes?)…

  • Alison

    You probably need to define the four corners in stone first (and possibly put in a bigger font size), then the rest of the words can be hung where the relate to the corners. ‘Genius’ and ‘impossible’ work well, ‘the worst’ works ok, and there is a need for a word in the bottom right corner, although I would personally put ‘weird’ there. Whenever I have done this I have stuck to five words, one for each corner and one for the centre, your version is much harder. I found five words to be very powerful, I did a presentation that incorporated a five word matrix on one slide (as explained above), and a five picture matrix on another. The five word version proved much more powerful.
    Finally, there is an international angle here too, I’m English, and if I said ‘that’s interesting’ at work, it would be code for ‘that’s not useful, and I’m going to park that idea right now’!!

  • Janice Macpherson

    This is an amazing idea.