Relationships vs. Categories

I read a lot about Western vs. Eastern thought. For clarity of the terms Western and Eastern, they can be identified geographically. A Westerner’s paradigm stems from the ancient Greeks and includes much of Europe, Western Russia, Australia, and the Americas. The Eastern paradigm roughly includes Asia through Israel, and parts of Africa. There’s quite a big difference in how Easterners view the world compared to the worldview of Westerners, and it fascinates me as a designer.

In everything I design, there are many factors to consider:

  • What is the problem?
  • Who are the people it affects?
  • Is the solution accessible and inclusive?
  • Did I follow predictive design patterns?
  • How does the solution make someone feel?
  • Does the solution align with the company’s style guides?

While working to answer these questions, I never considered the worldview of the person for which I was designing. I always figured, in general, everyone shared a similar worldview. I’ve come to realize this isn’t the case. Below are some examples that I’ve been thinking about lately.

Categories and Tags

In WordPress, we offer categories and tags by which a user can organize their content. This is purely westernized thinking that originated from the ancient Greeks. Easterners don’t categorize things by attributes or rules; instead, the focus is on the relationship one item might have with another.

For example, Jorge Luis Borges writes about an ancient Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge wherein animals are classified accordingly: “(a) those that belong to the emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies at a distance.” This seems like madness to someone who relies on a set of rules to govern categories, right?

Another example is a test conducted by Liang-hwang Chiu, a Developmental Psychologist, who showed pictures similar to the one below and asked participants to group the objects that belonged together. Chiu found that American children grouped objects based on their “taxonomic” category while Chinese children grouped them based on relationship. In the picture below, Westerners would group the chicken and cow together because they belong to the same category, ie. animals. Chinese children grouped the grass and cow together because the cow eats the grass.

Example of item measuring preference for grouping by categories vs. relationships. The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett, p.141

Now you don’t have to be an Easterner to experience the confusion between categories and tags in WordPress, but maybe this understanding helps us Westerners empathize with an Eastern worldview. To help our software be more inclusive, are there other ways in which we might identify relationships between the content that aren’t subject to categories?

Design Systems

Expanding this topic beyond WordPress and into the general practice of design systems, there’s a movement that advocates starting small and piecing together components to create a greater whole. One such example of this practice is Atomic Design by Brad Frost. The argument is thoughtful and logical, especially from a Westerner’s point of view. It works well for the Western paradigm which sees the world as static objects grouped in categories by unchanging rules and attributes. But what about the Eastern worldview which thinks that one can’t understand the part unless they understand the whole? The Eastern paradigm is bound in relationships that vary according to context and are thereby always changing. While Atomic Design makes sense to a Westerner, it’s quite backwards for an Easterner.

So while one design system might appear to be the answer, we should always consider that maybe it isn’t for everyone. What’s logical for me may not be important for another.  My hope is that by identifying differences in these worldviews, we might be exposed to something we didn’t know existed. Perhaps a holistic approach to a project that explored these components in context to different situations and environments might achieve a more inclusive result.


Let’s take a look at personas, another possible point of division. As a Westerner we might create a persona, apply some static attributes to them, and attempt to create rules that would allow prediction of their behavior. This makes sense to a Westerner that can easily use adjectives and attributes when describing ourselves universally. For example, I might say, when describing myself, “I’m a compassionate, just, and positive individual”. I’ve successfully identified myself as an object with a set of static attributes. But an Easterner only uses adjectives in context to relationships. So an Easterner might say, “I am happy and friendly when I’m with my family, but I’m serious at work”. The context has everything to do with their attributes. So when it comes to personas, a Westerner might view them as static behaviors, but an Easterner, instead, would examine them in context. A personality trait isn’t necessarily constant, but dependent on the situation. Rather than basing our objectives on a persona, we might extend our focus to the environment of that individual.

Final Thoughts

For the past several years this Eastern thinking has been making its way into the practice of our designs at Automattic. We’re considering the user’s experience, their emotions, and pushing further to understand the relationship between people and our products. We’re examining their “jobs to be done” so that we might build something that serves a need. This worldview is extending beyond our software and into our entire company. Our brands are being realigned based on relationships, not categories, which is providing a holistic unity. It’s all a struggle to get right though. So often do we default to static attributes that organize everything nicely into their boxes, but sometimes things need to flow and change. And when this happens, context is everything, and relationships bind it together. It helps to be aware of these different worldviews and hold them simultaneously in hand.

This is where empathy comes in. I have to remind myself that there are people who have a worldview entirely different than mine. I have to pause when creating something to consider if I’m being inclusive. And when I do this, new solutions arise that may not have been found any other way.



Chiu, L.-H. A cross-cultural comparison of cognitive styles in Chinese and American children.  International Journal of Psychology, 7(4), 235-242. 1972

Nisbett, Richard E. The Geography of Thought. New York: Free Press, 2003

By Mark Uraine

I design.