Flipping the Frame

Posted On: 2021-05-17

By Mark

For as long as I can remember, I've had a habit of reversing the framing that others use. Sometimes it's been a source of jest or merriment, but often it's given me valuable insights into the designs of systems - both those in games and those in our everyday lives. It's my hope that today's post will encourage you to do the same - even if it takes conscious effort, flipping the frame will be worth it.

What is Framing?

Framing is, to put it simply, a way of decorating an idea to change how it appears. Thus, changing the frame can influence how the underlying idea appears without actually making a change to the idea itself. Consider, for example, a footrace between two people. In such a race, one person wins and the other loses* - but one can change the framing to change how things appear: one person comes in first and the other comes in second - or perhaps one is dead last, and the other is not last, etc. Importantly, framing is often used to influence others' opinions, and often involves omitting undesirable details. For example, one may boast about coming in second - while omitting they were one of only two contenders.

Inverting for Amusement

Branding and advertising often plays up an idealized frame to make the product/company look better. As most companies use similar framing to their competitors, the result is often an arms race into one particular frame: the best X or most Y. For amusement*, I've picked up the habit of reflexively inverting the frame, and then applying the same exaggeration. Thus, when an advertiser boasts about the largest roller-coaster (for example), I will immediately understand that it is the least small roller-coaster - and then wonder what it would be like if that were the target of the framing arms-race. Who would have the "world's smallest roller-coaster"? What would that be like? What attributes would they praise, who would it cater to, etc.

Inverting to Win

When strategizing in games, this habit of inverting the framing can often help make more informed decisions. Options are generally framed in their best light, so it can be sobering to consider the opposite frame. For example, when choosing between dealing more damage or having more health, I can flip the frame and consider choosing between dying sooner or having fights take longer. These inverted frames can often reveal strategic implications that might not be immediately evident - often improving my choice overall. If, for example, the prior choice of more damage versus more health were in a game with a time limit, the inverted frame would illuminate that the "more health" option may increase the time pressure - despite being originally framed as the more cautious choice.

Inverting to Work Better

When studying real-life systems, inverting the frame is also useful - especially since the framing is often uncurated. When looking at software systems, for example, the framing is often influenced more by the process and alternatives considered rather than what appears favorable/unfavorable. Thus, when considering what task to tackle next, one might be choosing between making a system "less slow" versus adding support for some shiny new feature. Flipping the framing could well reveal more concrete benefits: making a slow system faster may be a measurable productivity boost (ie. workers can go from X items per minute up to Y items per minute) whereas providing support for a new feature may eliminate users' needs to work around being without it. Importantly, the productivity gains from eliminating a workaround can also be measured, so this framing enables apples-to-apples comparisons* between an apparently "technology-focused" feature (performance) and a "user-focused" feature (supporting the new thing).


As you can see, a habit of flipping framing has served me well in a variety of contexts. In highly curated situations, inverting the framing can help to fight against the bias that the frame introduces. In uncurated situations one may need to consider a variety of different frames before finding which ones make sense to consider together. Lastly, choice of framing is an important part of persuasion: as you can see by my various "often"s in this post, I can (and often do) leverage framing in service of building my argument. After all, most people aren't particularly interested in reading about a habit of mine that occasionally doesn't help.