Concept Triptychs

Simple yet powerful method to better understand things!


If you want to solve a problem, or create really awesome things, or better understand something, a good place to start is with the underlying principles. That is, the really base level ideas which are the foundation of whatever it is you are working with.

That sounds great in theory but actually discovering those underlying principles is something often much easier said than done.

This is where Concept Triptychs come in. They are a very simple means to help better understand something.

So what is a Concept Triptych?

A triptych is a piece of art, composed of 3 different sections. A Concept Triptych is 3 simple diagrams, each portraying a different stage or version of an idea or concept. Label each diagram with it's stage or version and also label the entire triptych with the idea or concept.

The Diagrams

There are a few simple rules to follow for the diagrams:

  • You may only use dots and lines.
  • The lines may have arrows on the ends of them.
  • You may not combine the lines and dots to make a picture (such as a smiley face or house etc).

Here is an example for the concept of Education:

Triptych Eduation

The point of the diagrams is to illustrate or model flow. The dots represent entities (they could be physical things but don't necessarily have to be). The lines describe the flowing of something. What is flowing could be many things. It could be knowledge, effort, people etc. Illustrating the flow of a particular resource is often the best way to understand or discover the underlying principles.

Lightbulb momentYou should create the diagrams such that the dots and lines represent the same entities across all 3 diagrams.

In the above diagrams, for example, the dots respresent topics the students are studying and the lines represent their expanding knowledge and ability.

The Stages

Picking the stages or versions (what 3 models we wish to describe) may seem easy but often can benefit from taking a bit more time to think about it. Some approaches we could take include:


  • Good
  • Better
  • Best
  • Poor
  • Good
  • Awesome


  • Small
  • Large
  • Huge
  • Slow
  • Fast
  • Ludicrous speed


  • Bored
  • Engaged
  • Excited
  • Person
  • Gathering
  • Crowd

But these are just a few examples to get you started. You will probably come up with better stages, more suited to your particular area or problem.

You will also notice that I have avoided average in my stages. I have gone with either:

  • Below average
  • Above average
  • Way above average


  • Above average
  • Higher above average
  • Seriously above average

If you want to use average as one of your stages then that is perfectly fine but personally I find it better to put more of a focus on the positive extremes. If you are undertaking these types of exercises it is typically because you want to achieve greatness. If you want to achieve greatness then you need to avoid average. There is often much better understanding to be gained from venturing as far away from average as possible. The point of this activity is discovery and understanding so we want to get as far out of our comfort zone as possible.

The Underlying Principle

In order to create the most elegant solutions to a problem, it helps to understand the underlying principle of the problem. That is, to grasp what is at the heart of the problem. When you create solutions from the point of view of the underlying principle of the problem, they are often cleaner and more effective.

A large part of problem solving is discovery. This is the part that Concept Triptychs help with.

Concept Triptychs introduce a different way of looking at the problem or topic. One in which you are very limited in terms of how you may describe it. Because your language (dots, lines and arrows) is so simple, you are forced to craft your description in a very basic way. You are forced to get to the heart of the problem, the essence of it, as you are not allowed to add any detail or specifics on top.

Doing this is not easy, so don't be surprised if your first attempts aren't quite right. The value in Concept Triptychs is how they get you to ponder the problem or topic.

Here are some questions to help you get started on your journey of discovery:

  • What actions are happening and what is the motivation for those actions?
  • What characteristics or resources are changing or in motion?
  • What are the different entities involved (the dots) (remember, they don't necessarily need to be physical).

Activity Ideas

CollaborationConcept Triptychs are very flexible in how they are used. They are also great starting points for generating discussion or questions. Here are some ideas for how you may use them:

By Yourself

  • Create an initial Concept Triptych for your problem or topic. Then create another one based upon a different set of stages. Spend some time thinking about and listing all the questions which arise from this.
  • Create a Concept Triptych regarding the way you work (or the qualities of what it is you are working on). Print the diagram out and stick it somewhere you will see it regularly whilst you are working to remind you and keep you on track.
  • Cut some paper up into small squares. Randomly draw different diagrams on these with no particular purpose. The idea is just to create random diagrams that look like they should describe something really deep and meaningful. Take these diagrams and arrange into random sequences of 3. See if any inspiration arises from this.

In your team

  • Ask each member to draw a Concept Triptych for the problem or topic, then explain it to the group. Allow discussion to flow naturally on from this.
  • Assign a different set of stages of the problem or topic to each member who then draws and discusses their particular Concept Triptych.
  • Ask the members to create a Concept Triptych for how they feel the project is progressing/ should be progressing, etc.

In the classroom

  • Ask the students to create a Concept Triptych modelling this weeks work. Then get them to explain their models to a friend next to them.
  • Ask the students to create a Concept Triptych at the beginning of session, half way through and again at the end. Ask them to discuss how their understanding of the topic changed over time.
  • Create a Triptych but leave out the labels of the stages. Ask the students to suggest what the diagrams represent.

But these are just starting ideas. I'm sure you will come up with more opportunities for Concept Triptychs once you get more experience with them.


PonderingApart from the basics, 3 stages, diagrams are made up of lines, arrows and dots only, you have a lot of flexibility in terms of how you use Concept Triptychs. Here are a few tips to help get the most out of them:

  • They are not a silver bullet. They should be used in conjunction with other tools to explore a subject, problem or idea fully.
  • Don't be afraid to throw a model out and start again if it is not working. You may decide to take another approach with the models. Maybe you'll explore a different set of stages to model the problem from a different perspective. Either way, when you encounter this problem it is actually a good thing. You are discovering flaws in your current way of viewing the problem and are now exploring alternatives.
  • Concept Triptychs are great for getting discussion happening. You should encourage this because that discussion can be very productive.
  • Keep your diagrams as simple as possible. When your diagrams start to contain too many dots and lines it can be a sign that you're straying away from modelling the real underlying concepts.
  • I like to stick with just black for the dots and lines to make sure it stays simple but you could try experimenting with using different colours.


Here are a few more examples of Concept Triptychs to give you an idea of where you can go with them.


Triptych Teams

(The dots represent people and the lines are their effort. Toxic: everyone is going in their own direction. Productive: everyone is pulling in the same direction. Dynamic: They are tending in one direction but exploring others and supporting each other.)


Triptych Art

(The dots are the subject or inspiration and the art itself. The lines represent influence. Boring: the art is a replica of the subject. Interesting: the art combines several subjects. Provoking: the art also uses itself as inspiration and has an impact on the subject.)


Triptych Technology

(The dots are the piece of technology and what you are trying to achieve with it. The lines represent the use of the technology. Fad: the technology seems useful but doesn't actually achieve. Useful: the technology achieves things but with a bit of tweaking. Awesome: the technology directly achieves outcomes.)

(These are obviously just my opinions on these. Most likely yours will vary.)

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