Categories
Episodes

Boon Yew Chew on Roam


Download this episode

Boon Yew Chew is a strategic designer at Elsevier and a leader in IxDA, the Interaction Design Association. In this conversation, we delve into Roam Research, which Boon uses to take notes and tame “an ever-evolving multi-dimensional beast of knowledge.”

If you’re enjoying the show, please rate or review it in Apple’s Podcasts directory:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-informed-life/id1450117117?itsct=podcast_box&itscg=30200

Show notes

Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links.

Read the transcript

Jorge: Boon, welcome to the show.

Boon: Hi. Thanks for having me, Jorge.

Jorge: I’m very excited to have you here. For folks who might not know you, would you mind please, introducing yourself?

About Boon

Boon: Sure. So, I’m a principal-level strategist and designer. I currently work at a publishing and analytics company called Elsevier. And I work within the publishing part of the business where I try to help my colleagues and the company at large figure out how to improve our user experience across all our different platforms and products and services.

I’m also a part of a community of designers called the Interaction Design Association, or IxDA for short. Through that I’ve played a number of different roles: I’ve served on the board for a number of years, I’ve volunteered through a number of initiatives, but mostly I’ve been running our local chapter in London, IxDA London, for many, many years along with a number of really dedicated volunteers. There’s a small group of us. And we typically host events around topics of strategy and design here in London. But now I guess it’s all global because, you know, everyone’s kind of joined us from different parts of the world since we’ve gone fully remote.

Jorge: Well thank you for your work, particularly in IXDA. As a member myself and having participated in Interaction, The Global Conference, it’s an amazing community. And if anyone is a designer and not a member or unaware of both the organization and the events it puts on, I strongly encourage that you all check it out.

But the reason I reached out to you is not directly related to the work that we share in common in interaction design, but because you published a post in Medium called “Adding Life Back To My Notes: Roam After 4 Months.” And I was hoping that you would tell us a bit more about that. And for a bit of context, Roam in the title refers to the note-taking tool, Roam, right?

Roam Research

Boon: Yeah. So, for the listeners here if you want to check it out, it’s roamresearch.com because the word Roam on Google might not… might get you a whole bunch of different things. So, to find it you need to use the full term. It’s called Roam Research. That’s the name of the tool. So, yeah. I mean, a lot of people have been talking about Roam for a while now, since its beginnings. I can’t even remember when they launched the tool.

And it’s surprising because, since its inception, it hasn’t really changed much in terms of its core functionality and its look and feel. It’s added a whole bunch of… I suppose, creature comforts? You know, luxury features that make it a lot more smooth, a lot more accessible as a core user. Things like the help tool, tips, things like that, you know? Just to kind of make it easier for you to go, “oh yeah, I have access to that tool. I have access to that top key” or what, you know, “what if I want to use that fancy feature, what do I do?” You know, it built-in little things like that to kind of maximize the benefits of what it offers.

And I suppose I think of it almost like Unix commands. I used to be a former developer, and if you’re a developer and you’re working away on your little console, you’re basically typing up commands, right? Issuing commands right into the computer, as opposed to using a graphical interface. A lot of these tools, these commands, were written by somebody else. They were written by other developers to do specific things. You know, where there’s concatenate strings, or go fetch this to the files.

It’s very similar to that in that, you know, you got a whole bunch of little functionality built into the tool, but what it does really well is kind of… it doesn’t force you to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of that functionality. It hides it quite nicely, through the use of keystroke commands or little kind of text-based features that can be accessed if you understand what the keys are, what the commands are. It almost feels very developer-friendly, so it lends itself to someone who loves to just be stuck to the keyboard all the time and everything is at the tip of your fingers.

It’s also an outlining tool. And so it’s not the first outlining tool that’s occurred in the market. There have been a number of really fantastic outlining tools that’ve been around for a while and have had huge numbers of users and fans using them. Things like OmniOutliner, which is a really fantastic one. I’m not a user of it, but I know that it’s a really popular tool. And basically, an outliner is a supercharged bullet list. Everything is structured as bullets. Every sentence, when you hit enter becomes a bullet, and then if you hit tab, it becomes a sub-bullet.

You know, it’s literally just bullets everywhere. If you don’t like using bullets, you won’t like using Roam. But the benefit of having everything structured in bullets is that there’s an implicit hierarchy, right? And so, you know whether something exists on one level or a sub-level or a sub, sub level… things have a natural kind of a Petrushka-doll hierarchy to them and it incentivizes you to organize your content that way. To think in terms of the hierarchy that’s structured.

There are, of course, limitations to this way of working, this way or kind of an outlining way of working, because there’s an overwhelming amount of hierarchy and lots of scrolling through lots and lots of bullets. And so, what Roam tries to do is to build in this feature it’s called bi-directional linking, to make it possible for you to connect things to each other, whether it’s words or terms or phrases just by making them into a link. And the moment you make it into a link, it creates a page for that term that you’ve just created into a link. It creates a page for it if it hasn’t already been created for you. And if it’s already been created for you, then it’s just the link. And the way it does that is that it creates the page and it also creates a link back to the original link that you created.

And so, it does a number of these small little things, which seems really insignificant, but when you add it up to, you know, hundreds and thousands of notes, it’s quite powerful because you don’t have to manually link every single thing. Imagine trying to recreate the entire Wikipedia. It’s just going to be insane! So, you know, this cuts down the amount of effort very severely.

Jorge: I’m glad you brought up Wikipedia there because when you were describing it, I was thinking that it’s something of a cross between an outliner like you said, and a wiki, right? In this sense that you… you alluded to the fact that you can very easily create inline links that generate new outline nodes somehow. And I’ll also say that, for an episode-long explanation of Roam research, we had Rob Haisfield on the show in Episode 43 talking about it. And since we recorded that, I’ve become a Roam user myself, so I’m a little more versed in how it works.

Note thinking

Jorge: I wanted to quote back to you a couple of passages from the Medium post that stood out to me. You said that, and I’m quoting here, “I use Roam for what it’s good at: note thinking.” And I’m curious about this phrase, “note thinking.” What is note thinking?

Boon: So, remember what I mentioned earlier before where this kind of tool Roam and outliners lend itself really well for people who really get… like to stick to their keyboards. And that process means that you don’t have to worry too much about the tool… what you need to do to the tool, because you’re already familiar with using the keyboard. All you have to just be comfortable with are the commands to make use of the tool itself.

And so, there’s some memorization to familiarize yourself with, but basically, you’re just typing. And it just kind of lets you sink into that Zen space a little bit easier. And once you get used to that… actually you get to a point where you then consider or maybe reconsider what can I use this tool for? What are its strengths, right?

It advertises itself as a… what does it?… I have to go to the website to see it… a note-taking tool for connected thought, or something like that. And so, working backward from the original intent of the tool… I mean, it has been designed that way. I say, there must be some basic assumptions on how the founders or the people who create the tool, have intended for it to be used. And originally, when I started using Roam, I started using it very much at how I use Evernote at the moment. Which, you know, there are folders and categories and notebooks and things are in boxes, which are then in more boxes, and I actually tried using Roam like that.

I tried to create my own pages, which were like boxes, and put boxes in the boxes. And it was very natural for me to say, “let me try bringing over that setup to Roam!” And it didn’t work. It just… it just made it more complicated. And I said, there’s this thing in front of me, it’s called a daily page, a daily note page. It’s in front of me and I’m like, it must be telling me I need to just use this and not worry too much about what is all the rest of the stuff? There are no folders. There are no categories, no tags… You know, it’s literally like these things kept staring at me. And that’s where you put your notes into; it’s on this daily note page.

And gradually I found myself falling into that way of working, and I almost exclusively now capture all my notes on a daily note page. And the process of that doing is basically cutting away a lot of the extraneous stuff so that I can literally just focus on capturing notes. That’s kind of part of the note thinking thing I’m talking about. The outlining also helps because it gives me something very basic to work with. And I don’t have to think about the underlying structure that I need to set up. It’s automatic by default. It’s a hierarchy, basically. If I can’t work with a hierarchy, I have bi-directional links.

And so, between these three things, the daily notes, the outlining, and the hierarchies and the bi-directional linking, which then incentivizes certain type of information curation, which all just terms anyway. You’re reusing your own content as information notes, right? You’re not having to create a separate node and call it something… a formal thing, like a category label. You use your content as nodes. I guess I’m using a network metaphor here, nodes and links, right? Your notes are nodes in a network and that cuts away a lot of the extra stuff. And you’re just focusing on creating notes essentially.

Jorge: So I’m hearing two things there that go into this notion of “note thinking.” One is the lower friction, or perhaps the ability to get into a state… kind of like a state of flow, due to the fact these keyboard-driven commands that you can just start typing in and there’s… I’m reading now into it. You don’t have to be clicking around and pecking at a UI somehow. It’s like you’re thinking with your fingers somehow. And, the other aspect to this that I’m hearing you say there is that you are somehow liberated from the top-down hierarchical structure that is inherent in many… let’s call them traditional note-taking apps, which themselves are modeled on things like three-ring binders with their sections, right?

Boon: Metaphors, yeah. They’re like metaphors from the real world, I think. And they’ve been ported over to the digital space. Folders and categories are things that are instantly familiar to a lot of people. And so, they become a lot more accessible for most people. And I think that’s kind of the allure of these tools… that they become kind of a more general audience if that makes sense.

Whereas a tool like Roam has none of that. It is quite a flat tool. And you mentioned that word top-down, I’m not quite sure whether I would find a tool like Evernote, a top-down tool. I would say that it’s a tool with furniture in it, you know? You go into a room or a house, it’s got furniture in it. It affords certain use cases because these objects are familiar to you. A folder, a category, a tag, you know, these are familiar terms brought from the real world into the digital world. And so, people go, “oh, okay. I can kind of use it like that.”

I think it’s only when you start to struggle with scale and certain types of very advanced use cases in the software and digital space where information is so… I don’t know, it’s loose. It’s messy. It’s emergent. It’s kind of, you know, it’s all of that, right? Where they’re not objects, they’re not physical, tangible things. You can put them into real boxes or real folders. They’re just abstract constructs. You make it up. Somebody invented these things and they exist on this screen, you know? And people just decided to call them folders and then suddenly people think they’re folders. “Oh no, it’s not really a folder!”

Jorge: I used OneNote for a long time and OneNote doesn’t use the concept of folders, but it uses a concept of notebooks that have sections in them, kind of like in a binder. But it’s the same idea. And I love this idea of these things being a tool with furniture in them. Things that we find familiar, like familiar affordances from the real world. And I’m guessing that that is in contrast with something like Roam which in many ways, kind of lacks that kind of furniture. So, maybe it’s a little harder for folks to get into. But to your point, it gives you the ability to work on different types of problems.

“An ever-evolving multi-dimensional beast of knowledge”

Jorge: And here I’m going to quote again something from the Medium post that stood out to me. You said, ‘”forcing structure down an ever-evolving multi-dimensional beast of knowledge to make sense of it, is an act of futility.” And this notion of an ever-evolving multi-dimensional beast of knowledge seems to me to be a different type of problem than the sort of notes that somebody would take casually with a tool like Evernote or OneNote. Could you speak more to what that beast looks like, at least for you?

Boon: Yeah. So, I think that that beast actually resonates a lot more with the thing you said about top-down. That knowledge has a certain structure, a preconceived shape. Because people talk about it, they reference it. They say, “it’s this, it’s that — it has a definition.” And so, there’s a kind of formality associated with that knowledge where I suppose people will start with if they ever need to think about a piece of knowledge or a topic, or what have you. I suppose if you really wanted to go deeper and enter the scholarly world there are, you know, tons of scholars building up bodies and bodies upon bodies of knowledge, which also form a kind of top-down type of structure, almost telling people, “this is what it is.” Right? There’s no argument about it.

Maybe it’s not quite to that extent, but there’s a kind of “known known” about knowledge. I can’t remember where I’ve heard it, but I’ve heard it multiple times and I’ve definitely heard it from the information architecture community, this thing where information doesn’t exist on things, they exist in people’s heads. And knowledge comes from that. It comes from people’s heads. And so, if it comes from people’s heads and people’s heads are always thinking about things in different ways all the time, then it can’t be that top-down hierarchy all the time. It has to live in this space where it’s always changing depending on the context or the situation or the perspective or whatever it is, right?

That’s what I mean by the beast. It’s always dynamic in people’s minds and that’s actually what happens when you’re writing notes. You know, you’ve got all these thoughts that are flying in your head because of the way our brains work. There are associative, and then there are all kinds of signals and materials that are in front of you. And either you are thinking about or whatever. It’s recent or they’re serendipitous. They come from all sorts of places. It’s hard to control that. And I think that’s what the beast is; there’s this sense that it exists on its own and you can’t really control it, even though it’s a part of you.

Finding associations

Jorge: The distinction that comes to my mind is between something like a linear stream of thought where one idea leads logically to the next, and there’s a clear, sequential connection between them, and something more perhaps freeform, where a thought might spawn several other possible lines of thinking. And there is no particular shape upfront. I think the phrase you used is, “preconceived shape” when talking about top-down knowledge versus something that sounds more like emergent knowledge, as you start making sense of a problem domain, by discovering connections that perhaps may not have been obvious in the get-go. Is that a fair take?

Boon: Yeah, there’s the stuff that you capture and that has a structure because you’ve chosen to capture it in a certain way. And actually, that structure itself doesn’t really matter. Or you can decide to capture it however way you want, but I think that what Roam allows you to do really well is find the associations quite easily. And regardless of how you have chosen to document your content based on the structure that you’ve used, right? Whether it’s kind of… so I’ll give you an example, right? Recently over the few months that I’ve been using Roam, I’ve developed a certain habit of capturing notes a certain way.

I come across a lot of different things. They are websites or articles, quotes, videos, podcasts. And so whenever I come across a thing like that, I will just literally go… you know, I’ll type out article double colon, which turns into an attribute — it’s a Roam feature. And I’ll type out the title of that thing, whether it’s a podcast or an article. And then I’ll literally write out a whole bunch of supplementary stuff, like referential stuff. Like, “podcast something, something, something, Jorge Arango, you know, This Informed Life,” and then I will not start to create a sub-bullet just yet. I’ll literally continue writing and then copy and paste the URL there.

Just because I want to contain that whole thing in that block. That’s a Roam… every bullet is a block in Roam. They call it a block. And the reason why they call it a block is that there’s a lot of really cool features they build into what that bullet does. So it’s not just a bullet and a bunch of text. It actually does a lot of cool little things. So that’s the reason why they’ve called it a block. But what that allows me to do is number one? It helps me worry less about the structure of it.

Because what Roam allows you to do is allow you to search for blocks and pages. And when it returns a result, it returns a result of pages and blocks. And when you scroll down a list of blocks, the search results give you a list of the visibility of the parents of the block. So, you know what it’s being referenced from, and an easy way to kind of open up the substructure of that block, if there are more sub-bullets and more sub-blocks, which then makes it easy for you to kind of move from one part of your notes to another part in your notes, just for a simple search result. That means you don’t have to worry too much about how you structure your notes. And in this case, it has incentivized me to kind of create these sort of single-line references that if I wanted to, I could add a sub-bullet and say, “actually, I want to write a note underneath this one podcast because I thought it was really interesting.”

You know, Kourosh Dini, who was talking about DevonThink, I wanted to write a few notes on that. Oh, you referenced a bunch of tools. I’ll add that underneath the bullet. You know, I might do that, and sometimes I might do it in a way that’s inconsistent with the way I capture other notes. But I prefer working like that because then I don’t have to worry too much about the structure because I can’t memorize too many things.

Changes to workflow

Jorge: You published this in April of 2021 and in the title of the post, you mentioned that you had been using Roam at that point for four months. We’re recording this at the end of November. So, I’m guessing by that timeline that you’re coming up on a year of working this way, or so. And I’m wondering how this way of working if any, has changed how you approach your work and take notes in general?

Boon: I have some real-life examples or case studies, little stories that I’ve… I should write it down. But, they’ve just happened in the last week or so where people have asked me permission, “Hey, can I share the notes that you captured during that meeting? It contained a whole bunch of really good material that we were discussing on that call. I want to share it with the stakeholders,” right? Over the years, I’ve developed the skill of being able to capture notes live, in a session, through another hobby or activity that I do, which is sketchnoting. And sketch noting for me is the art of capturing notes in real-time. Fundamentally to me, that’s the core skill that I’ve gained from that habit.

And I’ve applied that… a lot of the kind of real-time capturing, paying attention, and synthesis of notes in real-time to Roam as well. And I think it’s a natural tool for people who capture notes live because it gives you the basic components to capture just enough of the right information and not have it too messy, but not worry too much about some of the extra stuff like formatting, which tends to eat into your time when you’re time-pressed on a Zoom call and you’ve got tall stakeholders all talking to each other! Yeah, so I’ve been capturing a lot of meeting notes, all exclusively using Roam. Anyone and everyone, and I’ll have a tag for “meeting” basically, and if I wanted to, I could look for a meeting very quickly.

And that’s changed, I think a lot of the ways we have worked, it’s not just me, but we across the business have been working because we have an information challenge. I work with stakeholders who work across multiple departments in the business. And each unit has certain ownership over certain platforms, and they all run various projects within their own domains. There’s a lot of cross-functional collaboration. And so the information that I capture on these meeting notes and beyond is really, really important because I will never know, like when a piece of information will start to surface again, and I also need a way to find it really quickly just through an associative search. This person said this. When? About this project, you know? Or something associated with it. Is it somebody that they’d been working with? You know, it’s something associative that I’ll try to capture in my notes so that when I refer back to it, it’s easy for me to find. And Roam’s search capability is pretty fast. It’s able to kind of fetch back a huge volume of these notes. So it kind of lends itself to those use cases.

Closing

Jorge: I want to encourage you to write them up and publish them because I do think that it would be valuable for folks to see how other people are using this stuff. If, and when you do, where is the best place for folks to find that? Like, where can folks follow up with you?

Boon: I usually interact with people on LinkedIn. It’s a bit old school, but it’s linked to my professional profile and I’m relatively active there. I used to use Twitter a lot, but I don’t use Twitter so much now but if you want to, you can find me. Search for @BoonYCH. So it’s basically my name with the letters, Y C H behind. That’s my Twitter call sign. Or you can search for me on LinkedIn. Use my full name Boon Yew Chew. Or I run monthly events through IXDA London. We have a meetup page, meetup.com/ixda-london. And yeah! If you join our events, just ping me and say, “Hey, you know, I came across the podcast you did with it Jorge.” yeah, we’re a pretty informal and friendly group. It’s always up for meeting new people. And obviously, I try to publish on Medium. I don’t… I’m not as good at getting a large amount of stuff up there, but I’m trying to build up that habit.

Jorge: Well, fantastic. I’m going to include links to all of those in the show notes. And I look forward to hearing more from you and how it’s going, you know, with using these tools to tame the beast. Thank you so much Boon for being on the show with us.

Boon: Thanks, Jorge. Pleasure!

Categories
Episodes

Dan Klyn on the BASIC Framework


Download this episode

Dan Klyn is co-founder of The Understanding Group, an information architecture consultancy based in Michigan. Dan has also created useful and influential IA frameworks, and in this conversation, we focus on his latest: the BASIC framework.

If you’re enjoying the show, please rate or review it in Apple’s Podcasts directory:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-informed-life/id1450117117?itsct=podcast_box&itscg=30200

Show notes

Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links.

Read the transcript

Jorge: Dan, welcome to the show.

Dan: Thank you.

Jorge: It is such a pleasure to have you here. As I was telling you before we started recording, you’re one of the people that I originally thought of having as a guest on the show, when I first conceived of the show. I am constantly inspired and just amazed by the contributions you’ve brought to our field of information architecture. And I’m honored to have you on the show and looking forward to hearing about you. In particular, about a framework that you’ve been sharing recently.

About Dan

Jorge: But before we get into that, I’m hoping that you will tell us about yourself. Who are you, Dan?

Dan: Sure. Let’s see… I was a fat baby.

I think the reason that I have the pleasure of talking with you today… we can blame Chris Farnham, who is an information architect in Southeast Michigan. I went to a conference about information architecture in 2009. My first professional conference had ever been to in any field, and I didn’t know if I was particularly welcome or fit well into the field of information architecture, but I had a mentor who encouraged me and that was Peter Morville.

So Chris Farnham and Peter Morville, these two guys from Ann Arbor are the only people I thought I knew at this conference, which was true for about five minutes. And as we were walking to the opening reception, Chris said, “Hey, those two guys walking in front of us… those guys are architect-architects. Like, you know, like what you’re interested in, Klyn!” Because even back then, the architecture part of information architecture is what I was mostly interested in. And walking in front of me on the way to this opening reception at the IA Summit, as it was called back then was Jorge Arango and Andreas Resmini.

And I never talked to Chris again for four or five years, I think. And I have held fast to Jorge and Andreas ever since. And I’m so grateful to have had… I’ve been given by you guys permission to be as excited as I am about the architecture part of information architecture. Which is so different than my experience with other professionals in the built environment.

When I started enthusing about information architecture and the ways that I think what makes places good for people in the built environment has something immediately relevant for us to learn from, as people who make digital products and services…. they’re not into it. They scold me for not having consulted the correct sources. Or having the wrong opinions about some buildings or what have you. And you and Andreas both welcomed my amateurism, at a time when you could have just, you know… I don’t know! So that’s why I’m here.

Hi, my name is Dan Klyn. I’m an information architect and I am fascinated by — I am on fire about — the ways that architecture in the built environment can teach us how to do things with digital products and services. And any second now, metaverse-icle products and services and such.

So that’s what I’m interested. I’m interested in the spatiality of meaning. That is a mouthful that nobody wants to hear, but that’s how I say it sometimes. And I have drawn most of my ways of thinking about and seeing this from an increasingly intensive pursuit of Richard Saul Wurman from a biographical standpoint. I figured if I could learn everything that he knows about information architecture, then that would be pretty good. So I’ve been trying to turn him upside down and shake him, and catch what comes out of his pockets for about seven years or so now. So, that’s what I do.

Jorge: That’s a great intro and I feel like this episode is turning into the Jorge and Dan mutual appreciation society. But I think that we can’t wrap up the intro without also naming the fact that you are a co-founder of The Understanding Group,

Dan: right?

The Understanding Group

Dan: That’s right. Yes! And Mr. Wurman having been so essential to the founding of our company. Bob Royce and I, when he… he as a serial entrepreneur was in the school of information and library studies at the same time that Peter and Lou were back in the day.

And so, as somebody from a business development background standpoint, interested in information architecture, his interest in it went all the way back to Richard Saul Wurman. And the first time I saw Richard in person was a speech that he gave at the University of Michigan and the only person that I knew in the audience and we sat right next to each other right in the front row is Bob Royce.

So yeah, together, our enthusiasm for information architecture, digital strategy… whatever ways that we can apply architectural thinking to usually large-scale software and information systems, that’s what we wanted to start a company to focus on. And certainly we were inspired by and got to learn through their advice.

Peter and Lou having operated the world’s first really large scale information architecture consultancy, which was called Argus, which operated back in the late 1990s and disbanded, about the same time that a lot of things did in March of 2001. Yeah, there’s probably a way that you could have a business that focuses on information architecture and that… we want it to be that.

So, that was 10 years ago and TUG continues to be among the… if you were to say, “Hey, who should we get to help us with information architecture?” people would probably say, Jorge Arango, Abby Covert. An aspiration that we’re just pleased that we are often in that same sort of three or four things that you would just know about when it comes to taking on significant information architectural challenges in software and digital products and services, yeah! That’s what we’ve become.

“The spatiality of meaning”

Jorge: I want to circle back to this phrase, “the spatiality of meaning.” And you referenced being inspired by Mr. Wurman. And you also talked about “Being on fire about the architecture of the built environment,” and talking about gravitating to Andreas and myself at that first information architecture summit. And one thing that the three of us have in common, the three of us being Mr. Wurman, Andreas, and myself, is that our background is in building architecture. But that is not your background, right?

Dan: Correct. Library science over here.

Jorge: Library science. So, I’m wondering what drew you to the architecture of the built environment?

Dan: It’s gonna sound… it’s exactly… think of the most boring cliche way to answer your question and that’s the answer. Since I was a little boy, I had a Crayola drafting set of a T-square and a triangle. And big paper. And my parents got me a tilty desk. Like it was the only thing I knew that I wanted it to be until I didn’t think that I could because I was bad at math. So, for as long as I can remember, I wanted to make the shapes that I make on paper turn into an experience that people could have. Especially me, but other people may be also. And since then, and especially since becoming a consultant who travels a lot, I have had an extraordinary opportunity to go to buildings.

And I have had my cognition, my heart rate, my pulse, my skin temperature… I have been physically changed by every different kind of place that I’ve been to. And by doing that on purpose, that’s where the BASIC Framework comes from is an awareness that I developed at some point that what these buildings do is they are machines that uniquely change our human experience by changing our blood pressure and our cognition and our pulse. And the effects that it uses are both, you know, the physics of the earth, the density of the walls… if you’re in a crypt of a cathedral and the density of the walls is two feet thick and it is granite, the air pressure changes in there make what your body can… what’s possible for you to experience has been concrete-ized literally in ways that are just extraordinary.

And so, by putting myself in so many of these different places, and yes, I’ve catered to my list of initially is canonical buildings that architects who control what is considered to be a good building in the Western tradition, right? But that’s the kind of list that I started from. And by going to as many of these places as possible, continually re-energizing and re-believing in reifying the reality… not some neat-o idea that I choose to have, but an actual experience that is undeniable that the way that these places have been set up through the arrangement of material and space and through the arrangement of the information that is either encoded in that material or inscribed on that material, the situatedness of things in space changes how we… how we experience things.

The radical architect, Christopher Alexander — people scoff! Like, spit their coffee out when he says stuff like that he knows how to make God appear in a field. But that’s… I think also a part of why I’ve been so interested in this is having been raised in a deeply religious context and hearing about power that people can have access to and experiences with and transformation, transfiguration, transubstantiation, immanence… that I’ve had those experiences. And they’re not so much with sermons of words — it’s sermons in stone that really changed my whole life. So, now I seek out experiences in places so that I can understand better how to somehow transfer or remember at a minimum, all of the different ways that I’ve been made to feel through experiences with architectures. And then, how can I tap into that at some other time for some other purpose. That’s how I’ve been trying to rationalize such the luxurious experience of going to so many kick-ass buildings.

Jorge: Well, that was beautifully put and I’ll reflect it back to you. What I heard there is that this phrase, “the spatiality of meaning,” at least part of it, has to do with the fact that buildings play a functional role in our lives, right? Like they keep us dry and warm — you know, safe from external conditions. But there’s this other role that they can play — at least some buildings can play — which has to do with somehow moving us, reminding us of perhaps higher states of being somehow.

And the question is… you and I both work on architecting experiences that people have mostly within the confines of the small glass rectangles that we carry around in our pockets. And what’s the connection between these — if any — between these transcendent experiences that you have when walking into a special place and the sort of experience that you can have through a digital artifact?

Back to screens

Dan: Well, I’m trying to think about it in terms of the last thing that I worked on or some real case in point. And I’m thinking about an app that I’ve been working on that has all kinds of different functionality. And there are ideas about what does prominence mean?

So, imagine that this app that has all sorts of different kinds of functions, that there’s a giant global organization, and there are people who are mapped to those functions and that they all feel like their thing needs to be the most important and therefore the most prominent or vice versa. So, there’s a space race, or there’s a competition for the most opportune positions on screens in this screen-iverse that they operate. And finding an order that both works from the, “I’m a brain in a jar,” and there are semantic categories and there are things… there’s knowledge in the world, not just in my head. And on the basis of knowledge in the world and on figuring things out from a sense-making standpoint, there’s no right way. But there are good ways. And so what I’m trying to learn from the built environment, every location in the built environment is special.

So, it’s not so much that I’ve been to special places and then, “oh crap. What do you do when you’re working on something quotidian? Something that’s just every day.” It’s the idea that every place is charged with wonder. Every… everything is amazing. Because look at it! There it is! People made that!

And so, trying to help this organization, this global organization with all these poor people who are, you know, if their thing is high up on the screen, then they win. Trying to posit order for how to situate all of those things in space that’s both good for the organization that they can continue to operate as an organization and as a business. It’s good for people who have to use it because it isn’t like, “oh! Where is the blank?” And also then the trifecta is: and could all of this be key to our embodiment as human beings?

And so, we came up with a way to position proprioceptively. Imagine yourself looking at your phone screen. There’s left, right, up, down. To make left and right and up and down mean something, other than “most important,” “least important,” or “most prominent” and “least prominent.” So, things of this nature you can expect to find them over to the left. Things of that other nature you can expect to find those to the right. And governance… a way of working with the organization to help diffuse the person with the highest tolerance for discomfort wins, for there to be reasons for belonging and space and place that everybody can understand, and that, when people follow it, it creates more wellbeing and prosperity.

It sounds like fantasy, but that’s really what we get to do when we’re doing it right. And it’s great! And I couldn’t do it if I didn’t have these experiences in my own body and have felt and believed in the pleasure and the learnability and the… to reliably be able to reach over here and get something because you know it’s going to be there. And on what basis, other than, “well, that’s where it always was.”

Jorge: What I’m getting from what you’re saying there is that in both cases, in both the physical environment than these information environments, there is the possibility of a higher level of order that might bring coherence to what might otherwise be forces that are pulling the experience into different directions, that make it incoherent, right?

Dan: That’s right.

The BASIC framework

Jorge: And with that in mind I wanted to ask you… during your career, you’ve shared a few frameworks that have been influential and helped us see the type of work that we do in different ways. And recently you’ve shared a draft of a framework that is new to me at least, called BASIC. And it seems to me to be an effort in this direction of providing kind of a framework for order and coherence.

Dan: Yes.

Jorge: And I was hoping that you would tell us about the BASIC framework. What is it?

Dan: I am learning along with everybody else what it is. That’s one of the risks! When you put something out there that isn’t done yet, that’s the reason to do something like that.

And so, having put it out there not entirely baked, and then asking for and eliciting feedback… one of the first most powerful pieces of feedback that I got after presenting it for the first time at a meetup online was from a colleague in the UK who posited that what BASIC is, is it’s about where you as the designer… it gives you five vantage points into the problem space.

It’s like, “where should I stand to see the thing that would be good to notice?” So, that’s one way to start explaining it is: it’s an easy-to-remember acronym that gives you five ways to have a posture vis-a-vis some kind of a complex system. And if you stand in these five places, and if you ask some of the questions that I’ve provided with each of those postures, then possibly you will see the architecture of the thing.

So, that’s really the goal. And one of the ways that I came to make it, was a friend of mine… we went on a field trip. We went to the Edith Farnsworth house in Plano, Illinois by Mies van der Rohe. And we were so lucky! It was in the winter and we were the only ones on the tour. So we had a whole hour with the docent. Couldn’t go in because it was winter, have since of rectified that. Have been back with the same friend and we got to go inside.

But first time we’re just outdoors, in the snow, circling the Edith Farnsworth house. And then afterward, I shared the photos that I took. And my friend noted that… he looked at the photos that he… we went to the same place, we took many of the same pictures. But that there was something going on in the pictures that I was taking that he wanted to know about, because it seemed like I was accessing different parts of the same experience. And whether it was just purely on the basis of the otherness of the what… something that somebody else is doing it in the same place, you wonder what that is? It’s not… I don’t believe it’s because I have superior aesthetic judgements or anything like that. I think it has to do though with having developed a set of postures for when I’m trying to relate to buildings first of all, in order to see the right stuff. By my own internal compass, the right stuff.

And then, talking this out with my friend and then him encouraging me to do something with it because it seemed like it could be learnable. Like, if I stood there and if I cocked my head that way, I would see it too. So, that’s what it is. It’s postures that you can use. Questions…

So, the first one is boundaries. And if you didn’t do any of the other elements, if you found a way to perceive the boundaries… and where was the boundary before where it is now, and who gets to move the… just some really dumb questions about boundaries and where one material stops and another begins is an especially potent thing to notice in buildings. But whether it’s buildings or an intranet, the boundaries. How did they get here? Where were they before? Is there a plan to make there be different boundaries? Do you see any evidence of, you know, the ghost traces of where things used to be, or where they’re fixing to go? And then you can go right on down the line. And the second one, let’s see, what is the second one? You’ve got the book there, you tell me!

Jorge: There is a little booklet that you can print out and I’m holding one in my hands. So, the first one is boundaries. The second one is associations.

Dan: Yes. Perfect! So, what do we associate a stepped gable with in the built environment? I’m Dutch. If you go to Holland, Michigan, nearby where I live, there are these buildings that were built within the last 20 years that have these stepped gables not because they serve any functional purpose, but because they remind everybody who lives there, that many of the people here have Dutch heritage, and that that’s how the buildings look. So there are direct associations like that. There are more diffused associations, like the kind… does it link to a PDF? You associate that differently than if it’s to HTML page, then if it’s a video. So just associations. The A, S…

Situatedness. Why is anything where it is? If you go to the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas — which I encourage you to do — there has been an expansion to that museum. It was originally by Louis Kahn opened in 1972, the year I was born. An expansion to the museum was done by Renzo Piano in the nineties. You now enter the Kimbell from the back, relative to where the architect imagined you would enter the building. So just little… why is anything where it is gives you access to so many architectural decisions that were made in the environment.

And then the last two are twinned. And probably I’m too in love with BASIC because it’s so easy to remember and I want it to be basic like food-hole, air-hole, dumb-basic.

But the last two are invariants. So, what are the forces in the environment that don’t change or that seem like they don’t change? Brian Eno has wisely said that repetition is a form of change. So you have to be careful with this one. And that’s why it is paired with cycles. And those two postures, those two places to stand relative to some complex system… if you were able to perceive what was invariant in the environment, that would explain to you why it shows up the way that it does and each of these elements in the model has a building that I’ve been to.

They’re all in the United States so far, and the example cartoon of a building for invariance is a garage I saw in Seattle. Where I live in Michigan, the roofs are a pointy, peaked roof, like kids around here would draw a picture of a house. But in Seattle, there’s a shape of a roof that is inverted to catch the rain because it is on a steep hill, in a microclimate that is a rainforest basically. So, it’s an invariant. There’s so much water there, you’re going to change the shape of the roof to rise to channel those forces better. And that was the consequence… consequence to that, a million other decisions about the building.

And then cycle, the last one, you can plug that one into what’s invariant. In Michigan, we have four seasons. In Seattle, they have maybe two. And so, by looking at what has the system done to anticipate cyclical change in the environment that it’s in… put all those five postures together, ask a question from each one, and I feel pretty good that you’re not talking about the design so much as you’re talking about the architecture of the system.

Jorge: What attracts me so much about this framework is that it takes a systemic lens at examining the… or a set of lenses, right? To your point, these are different vantage points from which you can examine the system. And although it is grounded in architecture, as in built architecture — and like you said, the booklet includes drawings of buildings as illustrations of these various lenses — they seem applicable to other types of things that might be architected, right? Like this notion that you can examine the system through the perspective of what distinctions does it manifest, versus what perhaps memories, cultural or otherwise, it triggers, right? Like those are very different perspectives that are part of architected systems, regardless of whether they are buildings or what have you.

Dan: That’s right. And the caveat here with any methods that I’ve developed, if you’re trying to apply them, it has to be in an architectural context where the nature of the change that is expected or at least possible? Is more than an increment. It can be executed incrementally but the nature of the change… if you’re looking for recommendations about how to change the architecture, it should be safe to presume that those kinds of changes are harder to do, possibly take more time, and are more costly because they are more consequential.

And so, if people are just making shit, then this framework won’t help you because there isn’t a reason for everything that was done. And that is… I’m so glad that we’ve got to here and maybe because of time, we might land here or start landing here, is: the built environment is such a terrific teacher because almost always, except now, every decision that was made is because of a reason. And the traceability of every move that is made to a reason, you need to do that in design too, if you’re doing it right. But when you’re talking about architecture what that means is that it’s being taken on and thought of systemically. And if the thing is being made in a way where it doesn’t care about being systemic, then these lenses won’t help you because it just is the way that it is because it is. This all presumes total accountability for every move that you make as a recommender of changes to an environment.

And I’ve recommended changes to a digital environment that have made it so that people’s jobs went away. I’m glad that I haven’t worked on products and services where the changes I’ve recommended have caused harm to people, that I know of, but it’s certainly possible. And as we enter into this metaverse time of everything being part of the experiences that we work on, I think having a framework like this is also helpful because it might check an impulsive feeling of, “oh, I get it.” Or, “I’ve seen it.” Or, “I know what it is.” Or, “clearly the solution is…” Maybe this framework would help you go slower and not move with so much certainty. Maybe these are five ways to undermine the decision that you were about to make. And I would be good with that, in most cases.

Jorge: How do you keep that from paralyzing you altogether? Because when you say you have full accountability over a thing, like…

Dan: It all depends on having extraordinary clients. Without clients who are willing to work in that fashion… I mean, whether you want to take maximum accountability for your recommendations or not,

Jorge: I can see what you mean, but I can also understand how that sense would or could paralyze you as a designer, right? So, how do you keep the dance going?

Responsibility

Dan: It’s a two way street and if the client isn’t playing along and giving you that accountability and that responsibility, then you’re not actually… you know, it’s not actually happening. So, I think it absolutely depends on having the right clients and TUG has been so fortunate to have not prospered enough to have clients that aren’t the right kind. It’s weird to engage with information architects to affect change to complex digital products and services. And I think we show up… weird enough, where we’ve scared away the ones who wouldn’t be a good partner with us in wanting to have that level of accountability, that level of traceability for the recommendations that we make. Because it requires that the stakeholders be super accountable to what they want, because you’re going to get it, right?

Like, that’s what I’m saying is, as your architect, if you show me your intent, if you let me make a model of your intent and then the model is more or less correct, then I can make a whole bunch of decisions about the situatedness of things in your space that will deliver against that intent. So God help you if you don’t know what you want. Because I need that in order to make decisions on your… with you, not on your behalf.

When we started TUG a long time ago, we decided the word agency must not be the word for… We don’t want to borrow anyone’s agency for money for a couple of months and then give it back to them. They need to keep their agency all along the way to keep instructing us and intending back when we make our moves to make sure that things stay good. So, yeah, it’s all about having the right clients and quite frankly, it has a lot to do with my own personal choices over the last year or so to get away from consulting as much as I personally can, and be more in the mode of scholarship and writing because I don’t know how much longer the client world is going to be able to make room for the kinds of work that I personally want to do.

Closing

Jorge: Well Dan, I would love to hear more about what that might be. And I would like to extend you an invitation to do another recording with me, if you are open to it, to explore that and the notion of architecting the thing that architects the thing, somehow, right? Because that’s what is implied in what you’re saying, I think. But for now, where can folks follow up with you?

Dan: Well, I think maybe BASIC would be a good way to start. So if you go to understandinggroup.com/basic, you can download a PDF of the most recent version of the little mini booklet. I’ve created an instructional video for how to cut and fold said booklet so that it has its maximum booklet-iness for you when you make it. And from there I… yeah, I’m omni-available, except through Facebook, WhatsApp, or Instagram.

Jorge: You’re not going Meta.

Dan: I would accept money from Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp to research the potential for harm to human beings, through what they intend to do in the so-called metaverse. But I’m not willing to use their products.

Jorge: It sounds like that might yet be another reason for us to have a second conversation here. But I’ll just allude to it because I’ll include links to the stuff that you’ve been discussing on the show. And, I’ll just reiterate that the booklet is beautiful, simple, useful. I have one printed out and keep it on my desk. So, I encourage folks to check it out. Thank you, Dan, for…

Dan: The only thing better than that for me Jorge, is if I could be little and be there on your desk instead of the booklet, but that’s… I’d love that.

Jorge: I can see you on a little screen here. On a little window in my screen, so… it’s not the same, but it’s… it’ll have to do for now. Well, thank you so much for being with us, Dan. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you.

Dan: Let’s talk again.

Categories
Episodes

Year in Review

In observance of the winter holidays, this episode doesn’t feature a guest interview. Instead, I reflect on five themes that emerged in the diverse conversations we hosted on the podcast during 2021. I wish you and yours happy holidays!

Cover photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash.

If you’re enjoying the show, please rate or review it in Apple’s Podcasts directory:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-informed-life/id1450117117?itsct=podcast_box&itscg=30200

Show notes

Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links.

Read the transcript

Jorge: Today, I don’t have a guest on the show. Instead, I’m going to try something a little different. Rather than a conversation with a single guest, I’m going to do a review of some of the things that I heard during the course of the year. So, you’ll be hearing from several of the folks who graciously agreed to be on the show.

And the reason why I’m doing this is because I listen to a lot of interview-based podcasts. And while I find myself getting totally engrossed in each individual conversation, I often lose track of what I’ve heard before in prior conversations, and I have a hard time making sense of patterns that may be emerging. So, I thought that during this quiet time of year I might take some time out to do just that, to see if there are any themes or patterns that have stood out during the interviews i’ve done in the past 12 months.

Of course, the guests on the show, didn’t speak with each other. I don’t want to imply that they’re somehow in conversation or responding to each other’s points. In fact, the only point that any of these conversations have in common was that I was a part of all of them. I’m also aware that when you take snippets of interviews out of context, It may change their meaning, especially when put next to other snippets from other conversations. And that’s definitely not my intent.

I’m not going to present these in the order in which they were recorded. In fact, I’m going to talk about these in no particular order. So, in this episode, I’m just going to edit these together and see if I can highlight some of these themes that seemed to have come up in more than one conversation. If you want to check out the full conversations, which I encourage you to do, I will include links to each episode in the show notes. Hopefully, this will prove useful to you if you choose to revisit the conversations we’ve had over the last year.

So, now onto the themes. We recorded 25 conversations during 2021. And in revisiting them now, I’ve grouped them into five high-level themes. There are other ideas that have come up and there are different arrangements you could make, but these are five themes that stood out to me.

The first theme, I’m calling, aligning our values with our actions. The second is about using intentional structures for self-development. The third is about practicing information architecture at scale. The fourth is highlighting tools and methods for visualizing systemic intent. And the fifth is about thinking beyond the brain.

I’ll unpack what these are about one by one and hopefully draw connections between them to try to bring some coherence to the conversations that we’ve been having throughout the year. Because I do think that there are things that connect them.

Aligning our values with our actions

Jorge: So now, let’s dive into the first of these themes, which has to do with aligning our values with our actions. And this is one that came in this year, particularly strongly and with intent on my part because I was appalled by the January 6th insurrection in Washington, DC. This horrible event brought to life the degree to which there are deep social rifts in the U.S. And I I’ve been thinking about what designers can do so what can I do through my work to help make these things better. So I wanted to talk with folks who have been explicitly thinking about this stuff.

And this led me to reach out to Jason Ulaszek, who has used design to help heal Rwandan society in the wake of the Rwandan genocide, which I think is obviously a much more extreme situation than the one that we’re facing here in the U.S. Now, Jason is not originally from Rwanda, he’s from the U.S., so I asked him if there’s anything that we could learn from his experience that might help us in our society to start healing the rifts that divide us. And I was very intrigued by his answer; he talked about re-engaging with cultural values. And this is what he had to say:

Jason Ulaszek: What was part of the Rwandans cultural value system well before the genocide against the Tutsi, and is now swung fully back — and they’re working hard to ensure that that’s the case — is a really strong sense of cultural values. What they’ve really tapped into — and I think this is where it gets into design a bit — is that they’ve tapped into ways to embody these cultural values inside of the experiences people have within education.

Jorge: So there’s an explicit attempt there to create structures — in that case, within the educational system — that help highlight the common social values that bind a people together. And in part the way that I understood it, at least the part of the idea there is to try to rebuild a sense of trust among parties.

And we had another episode this year where we talked explicitly about building trust. And this was in episode 56, where I had a conversation with Margot Bloomstein about her book on the subject, which came out this year, called Trustworthy. And, as Margot put it in our conversation, a big part of building trust has to do with authenticity: with having our actions be grounded in a clear set of values and having them be aligned with those values. This is how Margot put it:

Margot Bloomstein: You used the term “authenticity.” And I think that that’s a term that we throw around a lot; that’s a term marketers love to throw around. Who wouldn’t want to be authentic? And I always wonder, authentic to what? Do you know who you are? Know thy self first, and then you can determine, well, how do we align our actions with our values? Because that’s how we measure authenticity: it’s the distance between our actions and our words, all of that external stuff and our values. And I think for many organizations, they can jump into kind of the national conversation, into the international conversation, around many of those social issues and say, “Here’s what we’re doing. Here’s why we support this. Here’s what we’re doing internally. And here’s what we’re doing externally to make this better for everyone.” To put a stake in the ground. And they can do it building on that long-term, authentic investment in their values.

Jorge: I love this idea of being more intentional about aligning our values and our actions as we seek to be more authentic. And of course Margot was talking here about doing that at the level of organizations, but it’s also possible to do it at an individual level. And in my conversation with author Kat Vellos, we dug into that specifically in the context of her work. In nurturing friendships. And I asked Kat about how we might be more authentic in looking to create the structures that allow us to nurture friendships as we get older. And she highlighted the importance of being present. This is what she had to say about it.

Kat Vellos: The more you immerse yourself in what is actually happening in that time that you’re connecting with the other person, the more likely you are to feel the benefit. You know, when you’re spending time sharing stories with a friend say, focus on their story, focus on them. Get curious. Ask followup questions and have that be the focus of your attention, rather than halfway listening and halfway being in your own head. Like, “do I feel less lonely right now? Do I feel less awkward right now?” Get out of that mental evaluation mode and get real immersed and real curious and interested in the other person. And that’s actually when somebody feels heard. That’s actually when somebody feels more connected is when you’re really present and holding space with each other.

Intentional structures for self-development

Jorge: This idea of being more present was also an important part of our second theme, which has to do with creating intentional structures for self-development. I like to think of this almost as kind of an information architecture of the self. So, while it might seem on the surface like some of these conversations run a bit further a field from the subject of the show, I see them as being quite aligned in that we are creating conceptual structures that help us affect some kind of change. And in this second theme, the change has to do with internal transformation.

We delved into this in a few conversations during the year. The first I will highlight is episode 71, where I interviewed Sunni Brown about her work in Deep Self Design, which is a practice rooted in Zen Buddhism and design thinking. And during this conversation, Sunni chastised me for allowing myself to let my devices keep me from being more present during a camping trip with my family. And I loved how Sunni talked about being more present. This is what she had to say:

Sunni Brown: Camping, when it’s like safe and beautiful… the point of it is to actually get you into a different state. To get your regulatory system in a different state so that you can enjoy your life and be present with your family and look at the sky and realize that you’re part of… you are the sky, there’s no difference between you and the sky, you just project that there is. And like, you know what I mean?

So, you have to understand that that space is essential for your humanity and and make it a priority. And you can tell people, I mean, there’s ways to approach it that are gentle on other people. So you can let people know, “I’m going to go dark for 72 hours. You should know that,” Or, “I’m going to go dark, and then I’m going to have one hour where I look at stuff,” you know? You have to design it for your life and what’s actually available for you.

Sometimes people have sick parents at home or sick kids or whatever, but you have to start to understand the benefit of it. Because I think most people think it’s just like something they would lose. Like, they wouldn’t get… something taken away from them. And I’m like, “no! It’s something you’re giving yourself that is priceless.” And you get amazing ideas. Like your productivity goes up. So, I call it going slow to go fast.

Actually I read this interesting Nietzsche quote, which I don’t read Nietzsche a lot or anything, but like he said like great ideas are found when you’re walking. And Steve Jobs was… Also, I’mnot obsessed with Steve Jobs, but he did a lot of walking meetings. So, If you are a productivity junkie, going slow helps you go fast. And it actually frees up a lot of stuck tension in the body and stuck ideas that you can’t get through and it gives you solutions and ahas and insights. So there’s huge rewards in it anyway, if you need it to be aligned with productivity. But it’s like, dude, we’re gonna die one day, Jorge. Like all of us! And the last thing I want to do is be like, “I spent my whole life on my iPhone!” That is like the worst thing that could happen.

Jorge: So, we need to be more aware about what is going on with our systems, with our bodies — and we need to be present. And this was not the only conversation that I had that delved on similar subjects. In episode 75, I talked with my friend, Hans Krueger, who has also been influenced by Buddhism, on what he calls the cycle of emotions, which is a conceptual structure — a way of thinking about emotions and how emotions affect our behavior. Here’s Hans:

Hans Krueger: What surprisingly few people realize is that there is like a real system behind this thing, this whole emotional complex. How they work, how they interact with each other, what leads to what, what you can do to actually cultivate your own emotional state. A state that allows you to perceive as clearly as possible what is real, versus what you imagine is real.

Jorge: There’s an emerging theme here in the power of visualizing, might be one way to think about it, but at the very least naming these conceptual distinctions, becoming more aware of what is happening internally. And again, this might come across to some folks as not being relevant to information architecture at all. But I do think of these as conceptual structures where there are distinctions that we label and we establish relationships between those distinctions. And the structure helps us understand what we’re doing so that we can act more skillfully, more mindfully.

And at least one guest during the year talked about using such conceptual models, not just to help us personally, but to help us in our careers. In episode 68, Mags Hanley shared with us her work on career architecture, which is also the subject of her book, which was published after we talked. And Mags made the connection between the methods, processes and tools that we use as information architects and how we develop our careers.

Mags Hanley: Career architecture is about how we can use the methods that we think about and we use as information architects or as UX professionals and apply that in a very systematic way into how we think about our careers.

Practicing information architecture at scale

Jorge: I like this idea of using information, architecture and user experience methods, practices, and tools for our own personal development. But we can also use them to develop our teams and to work at a different level of impact. I think of this as information architecture at scale, which is the next theme that emerged in the conversations that we had on the podcast over the year.

Two that immediately come to mind, but I’m not going to highlight as much here, are the conversation with Jim Kalbach on jobs to be done, which, in addition to Jim’s book, helped me clarify my own understanding of what jobs to be done are. And this is an important subject, one that designers and product managers need to be aware of. So, if you have heard the phrase, but are not entirely clear on what it means, I encourage you to check out my conversation with Jim.

Another one is the conversation that I had recently with Dan Brown on information architecture lenses. And as that explained in that episode, the lenses are a set of cards, and now podcasts and YouTube videos, that aim to serve as a tool to help designers deal with architectural conundrums. So again, if you are into information architecture, and you haven’t done so already. I encourage you to check out the conversation with Dan Brown.

That said, there are a few episodes that I do want to call out here and bring to your attention. One is the conversation I had on episode 63 with Sophia Prater about her object oriented user experience framework. I see this as a way of formalizing conceptual models so they can be shared and discussed with other team members. This is how sophia described it during our conversation:

Sophia Prater: OOUX is all about saying, “okay. If we know that our users think in objects and just human beings think in objects – not not just our developers – human beings think in objects, and to be able to gain understanding, you need to understand what the objects are in that system. And to understand what the objects are we need a certain level of consistency and recognizability to our objects.”

So as the designers of these environments, if we don’t get really super clear on what our objects are, there’s no way. There’s just absolutely no way in hell that we’re going to be able to translate that to our end users. We’re just not! If we can’t get it straight on our team and we can’t get it straight among ourselves, then 1) that’s going to create a lot of communication problems internally which is a problem that I hear all the time. We’ve got everybody on the team coming together. And some people, depending on what department you’re in or what your role is, you’ve got the same object, the same thing being called two or three different things and different objects being called the same thing. And you’re trying to design complex software. So just getting on the same page internally is going to be absolutely intrinsic to making sure that it’s clear to your end users.

Jorge: Another conversation that had to do with considering design at a different level of abstraction was in episode 64, where Sarah Barrett shared with us considerations about the architectural scale of the systems we design. I was particularly drawn to the way Sarah described how we should approach the intended effects of our work:

Sarah Barrett: Occasionally, I get comments or people worrying that our information architecture isn’t innovative enough that we’re not doing anything surprising or introducing anything brand new. And I feel very strongly that your architecture is not the place to surprise people. Like, there are actual architects out there building very innovative homes that no one wants to live in. And I have no interest in doing that. I really want us to use the oldest, most standard, most expected way of doing things. I think the example of the grocery store is another great way here. There’s a lot of benefit to not innovating in the layout of a grocery store. There probably is some benefit in innovating a little bit around the edges or in some details, but you gain a lot from making it legible and making it expected for people. And so, that one is really about… okay, given these things that we expect to have: we expect to have global navigation, we expect to have metadata on content, we expect to have titles and breadcrumbs… how do we unpack what each of those things is doing for us and make sure that between the suite of those elements we are using? Because you never use just one, you use lots of them together. Between all of those elements, we are presenting a coherent, complete view of the wayfinding people need.

Jorge: It’s one thing to create a coherent and complete system that allows people to find and understand things, and it’s another to create the conditions that allow that system to evolve over time gracefully as conditions change but to retain that cohesiveness. And doing this requires that we understand that the things that we are designing are in fact systems and they are systems that will require stewardship over time. This implies that we need leadership. And that was the subject of episode 58, where I had a conversation with Jesse James Garrett about leadership and information architecture. This is part of what jesse said during that show.

Jesse James Garrett: The way that I talk to folks about design leadership, who have come from a design background -that is to say they’ve been doing design work – is that leadership is just another design problem. And you’re working with different materials and you’re working toward different outcomes and you’re having to follow different principles, but the task is the same task. It is a creative problem-solving task. It is a systems-thinking task, as a leader. So looking at the ways that you’re already doing that systems-thinking, the ways in which you already doing that architecture for yourself in the work that you’re already doing, and those will be your strengths. And those will be the pillars that you can lean on that are going to support your work as a leader going forward. They will evolve and they will not look like what they looked like when you were doing content inventories or task flows or whatever other artifacts you might’ve been working on as a designer. But the skill set that you’re building is the same skill set.

Jorge: The relationship between design and leadership, and how designers can use our tools, methods, practices, et cetera, to take on leadership roles, was also the subject of episode 55, which featured a conversation with hop-on about her own trajectory from design to product leadership.

Hà Phan: I think the difficulty was between the role I have now, or the delta between the role I have now versus being a UX designer is that, you know, it’s really a leadership role to basically provide the path to clarity. So when you have a vision, even as a seasoned UX designer, you’re going to present forth this vision. And usually there’s a thousand questions and a thousand steps before you get there, right? And usually you don’t get there entirely. You know, you don’t get to the vision entirely the way you had envisioned it. You’re going to take turns, right? And I think in this role, what I get to do is that I get to enable the team to find that path to clarity, and to provide the milestones or the mission for each of the goals along the way.

Jorge: This idea that leaders provide clarity and vision is very important. And it’s one of the reasons why designers can make good leaders, because part of what designers do is clarify and help visualize abstract ideas. I keep saying that design is about making possibilities tangible: we take these vague notions, requirements, constraints, ill defined contexts, and we make things. And these things that we make can be validated somehow. We can put them in context and have them be used by the people that we intend to serve, to see whether things are working or not. And we create feedback loops where we make them incrementally better, better suited to meeting the needs of the people they serve.

Visualizing systemic intent

Jorge: And this idea of leadership as a role that clarifies and articulates a vision, brings us to the fourth theme that I noticed in going back over this year’s episodes, which has to do with highlighting tools and methods for visualizing systemic intent. And by that, I mean different ways of mapping systems and making systems more tangible. Again, this idea of making the abstract more relatable.

And we had several conversations along those lines. The first I’m going to highlight here is episode 59, in which Matt LeMay may shared with us One Page / One Hour, an approach he’s developed to help teams articulate what they’re making by working fast and iterating. So, rather than creating some kind of polished deck, the idea here is to articulate a vision really quickly so that you can spend less time upfront creating polished artifacts and spend more time iterating with stakeholders and other team members. Here’s Matt describing how he came up with One Page / One Hour.

Matt LeMay: I wrote up this pledge to my business partners saying I’m willing to forego the sense of individual accomplishment that comes from presenting finished and polished deliverables to my colleagues. I promise that I will spend no more than one page and one hour working on any deliverable – any document – before I bring it to the team. In other words, if I show up with five beautifully formatted pages or a one-page that took me 10 hours to create, I want you to hold me accountable to that. I want you to say, “man, why did you do this? We made a deal. We made a commitment to each other! We all know that if we actually want to deliver value, if we want to do valuable work, we need to collaborate earlier on. You can’t go off onto your own and create this big thing, and then just want us to tell you how great it is!”

Jorge: One Page / One Hour is about trying to articulate very quickly what we have in mind and sharing it so that we can start iterating on it. A few of the other conversations that we had during the year around visualizing systems and visualizing intent were about artifacts that are a little more elaborate.

An example of this is Customer Value Charting, which Jeff Sussna shared with us in episode 61. Customer Value Charting, as Jeff explained, it is a tool to balance strategy and agility. And the purpose of creating that balance is to drive customer benefits, which are related to but not the same as business benefits. Jeff illustrated this by means of an example using a common service.

Jeff Sussna: The benefit of the dry cleaner is that I can get my tuxedo cleaned in time to go to the formal event. It’s not fundamentally about a cash register or a counter or even cleaning chemicals. And I mention that because a lot of the conversation I see around outcomes over outputs tends to actually talk about business outcomes. You know, revenue growth and customer retention, and time on site and business outcomes are great. I don’t have any problem with them, but people tend to skip this step. We have a hypothesis that this feature will cause this change in customer behavior, which will lead to this business outcome or business impact. But it leaves open the question of, well, why is the customer changing their behavior? What is the benefit to them?

Jorge: These are complex questions to take on for designers or for anyone, frankly. And it’s helpful to hear about how folks are going about it. Customer Value Charting is one way of doing it. Another way of visualizing systems and visualizing things like customer needs in a systemic way was shared with us by Ben Mosiure in our conversation, which focused on Wardley maps.

Ben Mosior: Wardley mapping is a visual way of representing systems: its users, its needs, its capabilities, its relationships between all those three things. And then it’s also positioning those things in a way that helps their qualities become more apparent. So there’s this thing that Simon Research called “Evolution.” It’s basically how do things evolve and get better or die under the pressures of supply demand competition, and what you get is like things start out new, uncertain, high risk, high failure, but with a high potential for future value. But then as they evolve, they get better. You know, someone’s always like looking at these weird ideas and trying to make them better because capitalism basically suggest there’s money to be made. So someone out there is going to try to make it better. And over time, if the idea is worth investing in, it will continue to get better, more known, more boring, more predictable, and the value of it will be more concrete. And eventually, if it evolves to a certain extent, it becomes an invisible part of our everyday lives.

And so, Simon says, look, you want to represent the systems that we’re a part of both in terms of their parts and relationships, but also in terms of how evolved each of those parts are. Because what that does is it sets you up to understand the implications of those qualities. New stuff is going to be high failure, old stuff that everybody understands, that’s just part of everyday reality like power in the wall. It is going to be less surprising, it’s going to be less failure. And so that means that depending on the context, depending on the part of the system we’re looking at, we need to have a different way of approaching it. And I think that’s the entire point. By making visual artifacts — by talking about our systems visually — we can come together, look at a specific part of it, appreciate its qualities, and then together determine what our collective intent is about that part of the system.

Jorge: That’s a great description of this idea that we can take these complex abstract ideas and make them tangible, make them manifest in the world, and as a result, make it possible for us to have conversations about them, to somehow change the state of things, to make things better.

Thinking beyond the brain

Jorge: And that brings us to the fifth and final theme that emerged over the year and that I want to emphasize here, which has to do with using tools and our environment to extend our cognitive system. So, in some way, when we are putting up stickies or diagrams or anything up on the wall, we are making it possible for us to share a cognitive space of sorts. And this is true, whether we’re doing it with a note-taking app or stickies on a whiteboard. In taking stuff out of our heads and putting them out into the world, we can somehow extend our minds. And that’s why I’m calling this fifth theme “thinking beyond the brain.”

Conversations about this theme came in two different flavors. On the one hand, we had folks who shared with us their thinking processes and tools. And on the other hand, we had a few conversations that were about thinking in this way itself and I’ll say a little bit more about both of those. So, first with the thinking processes and tools.

In episode 75, Patrick Tanguay shared with us, how he uses a combination of tools to write one of my favorite newsletters, Sentiers. And it’s a setup that mirrors somewhat closely my own setup. Another great conversation about a particular tool was in episode 54, where Kourosh Dini told us about how he’s using DEVONthink for building a personal knowledge management system. I was very excited to talk with Kourosh because he wrote a book that helped me use DEVONthink better. If you’re unfamiliar with this tool and you are someone who needs to manage a lot of information, let’s say if you’re teaching or writing, it behooves you to give episode 54 a listen.

As I mentioned, I also hosted a few discussions which were not about tools in particular, but a little more meta about how the mind itself works beyond the brain. I’ll be frank with you, these were some of my favorite conversations during the year.

One was with Annie Murphy Paul about her book, The Extended Mind. Annie’s book is the clearest explanation I’ve read on the science behind the field of embodied cognition. It was one of my favorite reads of the year because it does a really good job at dispelling erroneous notions about how the brain works. And I think that this is a very important subject for designers to understand. Here’s Annie.

Annie Murphy Paul: I always like to say we’re more like animals than we are like machines. You know, the brain is a biological organ. I mean, I know this is obvious, but we really can get very entranced in a way by this metaphor of “brain as computer.” The brain is a biological organ that evolved to carry out tasks that are often very different from the tasks that we expect it to execute today. And so, our misunderstanding of what the brain is leads us, as you were saying, Jorge, to create these structures in society. In education and in the workplace, in our everyday lives, that really don’t suit the reality of what the brain is.

I mean, I’m thinking about how, for example, we expect ourselves to be productive. Whether that’s in the workplace, or what we expect our students to do in school. You know, we often expect ourselves to sit still, don’t move around, don’t change the space where you’re in. Don’t talk to other people. Just sit there and kind of work until it’s done. And that’s how we expect ourselves to get serious thinking done. And that makes sense, if the brain is a computer, you know? You feed it information and it processes the information, then it spits out the answer in this very linear fashion.

But that’s not at all how the brain works. Because the brain is so exquisitely sensitive to context, and that context can be the way our bodies are feeling and how they’re moving, that context can be literally where we are situated and what we see and what we experience around us, and that context can be the social context: whether we’re with other people, whether we’re talking to them, how those conversations are unfolding — all those things have an incredibly powerful impact on how we think.

And so, when we expect the brain to function like a computer, whether that’s in the office or in the classroom, we’re really underselling its actual powers — its actual genius — and we’re cutting ourselves off from the wellsprings of our own intelligence, which is the fact that we are embodied creatures embedded in an environment and set in this network of relationships. So, it really… we’re really kind of leaving a lot of potential intelligence on the table when we limit our idea of what the brain is in that way.

Jorge: While this may seem like we are venturing a little far from the ostensible subject of the show, which is about how people organize information to get things done, there’s two reasons why I think it’s important for us to delve into this subject. One reason is that, if we are to properly organize information so that we can find things, understand things and so on, we have to understand how our minds work, because ultimately what we’re doing is we are designing for minds. And the second reason is that in so doing — in organizing information, in creating these information environments — we are creating contexts of the sort that Annie was talking about there. Even if they are not physical contexts, they are contexts that influence how we understand things.

The second conversation I had this year on this subject and which I want to highlight here is the conversation I had with my friend, Karl Fast over episodes 69 and 70. And as you might know, if you’ve been listening to the show for a while, that’s the first time I’ve ever done a double header. In other words, that I’ve split a conversation between two episodes. And it’s just because we had so much to talk about. And I don’t think I can do that conversation justice by extracting just any one clip. But again, I do believe that this is an important subject for you to know about, so I encourage you to check out the whole thing.

Closing

Jorge: So there you have it, that’s a very high level overview of some of the conversations that have stood out to me in the podcast over the last year. Now, obviously there were many more — I told you that we recorded 25 episodes — I don’t want to in any way suggest that the other ones weren’t as interesting. I just wanted to highlight the ones that I thought manifested some of these themes.

And to recap them, the five themes are: aligning our values with our actions, using intentional structures for self-development, practicing information architecture at scale, tools and methods for visualizing systemic intent and then finally, thinking beyond the brain. These are subjects that I care about. And it’s no accident that we end up having conversations about these things on the show.

One of the interesting things about revisiting them now at the end of the year, is that I can start seeing threads that run through several of the themes. For example, the idea that we need to visualize abstract and complex systems, and that doing so allows us to have better conversations about them. That seems to be a thread that’s running through various of these themes. It’s true, whether we are talking about our own internal values or our career development, or whether we’re talking about a service that we are looking to develop for our clients. And like I’ve said before, I think that designers — and particularly structurally- and systemically-minded designers, such as information architects — are particularly well-suited to visualize systems in this way.

The other thread that I see running through all of this is the importance of considering the context that we are working with and working on, and not just the content of what we’re designing. The things that we make are going to be experienced in some kind of environment, whether it’s a physical environment or some kind of information environment. And the environment makes a big difference. We understand things in context. And part of what we do as information architects is establish those contexts.

That’s one of the reasons why I’ve been emphasizing these conversations about embodied cognition and the extended mind. Because science is making it increasingly clear that thinking happens, not just in our nervous systems, but in our bodies. And more to the point here, it happens out in the world. It happens in our environments and it happens in the tools that we interact with.

And again, it’s a system that is comprised by ourselves as actors, agents, but also the environments in which we’re operating. And we can configure those environments in various ways to help us think better. And I think that this is an important frontier, so to speak, an important area of development for people who design structures of information, who create contexts through language and signs.

I’ve loved the conversations that we’ve had on the show this year. And that is mostly due to the fact that the guests have been great. I am very grateful to everyone who has agreed to be on the show to have me interview them, to share their ideas, their work, their research, their experience with us.

I also want to thank Sarah Clarkson, who I have not acknowledged in the show before. And I’m long overdue in doing that, but Sarah helps me edit the podcast. And her help has been invaluable in getting these shows out to you on time. And of course, I’m very grateful for you; for the fact that you are listening to this, that you have decided to make the show a part of your podcast listening.

I would love to know whether there’s anything that we can do to make things better. So, please drop by the informed.life, and leave us a note. But for now, I’ll just tell you that I am planning to keep the show going. I have guests already lined up for next year. I’m excited about these conversations: having them and also being able to share them with you. So again, thank you. I wish you and yours happy holidays and I look forward to sharing more with you next year.

Categories
Episodes

Dan Brown on IA Lenses


Download this episode

Dan Brown is the co-founder of UX design studio EightShapes. He’s also the author of Communicating Design, Designing Together, and Practical Design Discovery. In this conversation, we focus on Dan’s Information Architecture Lenses, a set of cards that help designers interrogate IA decisions.

If you’re enjoying the show, please rate or review it in Apple’s Podcasts directory:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-informed-life/id1450117117?itsct=podcast_box&itscg=30200

Show notes

Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links.

Read the transcript

Jorge: Dan, welcome to the show.

Dan: Jorge, it’s fantastic to be here. Thanks so much for having me.

Jorge: It’s such a pleasure to have you here. I believe that you are one of the very first people I ever met in person in the information architecture community. And I am not going to reveal the year because that’s going to peg us as old, but, I’ve known you for a long time, Dan.

Dan: It has been a long time and I love it! It never occurred to me that I would end up in a field where there would be a community and that community would be strong enough where I would have relationships with folks for decades. Do you know what I mean? Like to me, that is one of these unsung parts of the world that we find ourselves in. I don’t know if that’s still true. Like, I don’t know if you become a UX designer today if you’d still feel that same sense of community, but for me it was… it’s been one of these aspects of being in this world that I have come to appreciate more and more with each passing year.

Jorge: Hear, hear! It’s been a true privilege to be part of this community. And to… like you’re saying to have these very long-standing relationships with people who have a real commitment and passion to the discipline. And I certainly place you in that category. Now, it’s clear from what we’re saying here that we know each other, but some folks tuning in might not know who you are. How do you go about introducing yourself?

About Dan

Dan: Yeah, that’s… it depends on who I’m talking to, but in the field, I will say that I run a small web design and user experience design company. It’s kind of a boutique shop, based in the DC area. Most of my professional career has been in the Washington DC area and I specialize in information architecture but also the discovery process, as part of the design, and I like thinking about… let’s call it, sort of the dirty underbelly of the design process. So how do we work together effectively and how do we improve our collaboration and how do we embrace the mindsets that are essential for creativity and collaboration.

Jorge: You have written three books on the dirty underbelly, in part. And, you also share a first and last name with another writer, which might be problematic for folks searching for your books, which is an IA problem.

Dan: Yeah. It’s… you know what? As long as they eventually find me, I’m okay with that. Actually, my hope is that people go searching for that other Dan Brown, and they discover me. So, you know, it works both ways, honestly.

IA Lenses

Jorge: That’s great. Well, I’m going to include links to your books in the show notes, but the books aren’t what bring us together today. Rather, I wanted to talk with you about your Information Architecture Lenses, which started…. why, I think I first encountered them as a Medium post?

Dan: Yes.

Jorge: But then they manifested as a set of cards, and I’m holding the deck in my hands right now. And they’ve gone on to take on other forms, and I was hoping that you would tell us about the cards and the forms they’ve taken and where they come from and everything about it.

Dan: Yeah, yeah. I think I unveiled them at the IA conference in 2018, I want to say, and I honestly don’t remember what city it was in. But I gave a talk on the lenses, and really what it was a talk about was typical information architecture problems and the lack of tooling that we information architects have, in doing our work.

We’ve got tools that help us test IA, like tree testing. We’ve got tools that help us do some investigation, like card sorting. And everyone will talk about how they use spreadsheets to think about categorization. But I think the complexity and the abstractness of the spaces in which we work, make it difficult for us to really meaningfully have tools to help us do the work.

And one of the things that I realized while I do IA work, is that I ask myself a lot of questions. And so I will ask sort of, “what if” questions. Like, what if we create a new piece of content, where does it fit? Or I’ll ask myself how might questions like, “How might someone who’s new to this product navigate through it, or be introduced to it?” I’ll ask questions about how do we balance the needs of users with the needs of the business.

So, I realized that I have all of these questions, and so I just started writing them down. And as I’ve said before, I just couldn’t stop. Like I just… I thought I’d maybe have a dozen, and I kept writing. And I realized that even though some of these questions are overlapping, they each provide a unique perspective or a meaningful, distinct perspective. And it comes from my instinct to try and understand how I do what I do, and how other people do what they do.

My hypothesis is that we all… information architects, you know, people think in a systems sort of way. Even designers look at something and ask ourselves questions about it. But we don’t always know… can’t always say it out loud or don’t know exactly what question we’re asking. But that’s sort of the mechanism. And so, I started writing down and then elaborating on them and then giving them names, and that turned into this set of lenses with the cards, which turned into a talk, which turned into an interview, series, which I completed over the summer.

Jorge: And the interview series manifests in two ways, right? There’s a set of videos on YouTube and now there’s a podcast, yes?

Dan: Yeah. Basically, I recorded it… and this is purely an old dog refusing to learn new tricks. Like I figured out a couple of years ago, how to post videos to YouTube. I could record an interview session via Zoom and I can post it to YouTube. I learned that through some other hobbies that I have outside the business.

And I was like, okay, “well I can just do this.” And then I realized that I could just grab the audio from those videos, and I found an easy way to post it as a podcast, and so this is… it’s literally like to me, the content is what’s important. To me, kind of hearing from 50 different people about information architecture, is what’s important. So finding easy ways to get it out there, was my priority.

Jorge: Well, that’s great. And I want to circle back to this idea of the lenses as tools. And you mentioned that in information architecture we have certain tools that we… or what we think of as tools, right? You talked about spreadsheets and tree jack tests and card sorts. In just those three there’s kind of practical tools. Like, a spreadsheet is an app, right? Like a tangible thing that you can… well, tangible as far as a digital artifact goes, but something that you can open and examine, much in the way that you can pick up a hammer to do stuff. And, a card sort is more of a practice, but that is also kind of tool-like. But the lenses I see not in that realm, but more as kind of conceptual tools, right? Is that the intent there?

Lenses as conceptual tools

Dan: Yeah, I guess each of those is used at a different part of the process. So to your point, some of them are more like methods that we apply in certain moments. And I felt like there were no tools; there was no conceptual tooling to help us think through the complexities of the structures that we’re designing. We could visualize them, yes. We could try and lay them out as best we could in a diagramming program. But really the word I’ve been using is interrogating them. Like really, really doing the work of a creative person, which is to sort of look at something that we built and ask ourselves, “Is this good?” You know, for art, we have the language of aesthetics. For IA, what do we have? And this was, I guess, my swipe at that, right? It’s sort of my attempt to give us that.

Jorge: And folks who might not have seen the lenses might be wondering how these things manifest. And I’ll give an example. I pulled out one of the cards from the deck here just randomly, and it is titled, “Comprehensiveness.”

Dan: Yep.

Jorge: And it says, “the navigation should encompass the entire domain, especially if users come with pre-existing expectations about the domain. If it doesn’t, it should be clear what is excluded.” And then it lists a series of questions that you can ask yourself to assess the comprehensiveness of the structure that you’re working with, right?

Dan: Right.

Jorge: And there’s 51 of them currently, yes?

Dan: Yeah, 51 cards. 51 lenses. Yep.

Jorge: You use the phrase, “interrogating them,” which I loved. It makes me think of something like the… Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards. He did them with someone else; Peter Schmidt, I think, is the name of the artist that he worked with. It sounds almost oracular, like the I Ching or something like that.

Dan: Yes.

Using the Lenses

Jorge: So, what I’m getting by that is that the intent of the deck is when faced with some kind of… let’s call it “architectural conundrum,” you consult the cards. Is that the idea?

Dan: Yeah, I think there are at least two ways I conceive of using these things. One is sort of the way I had to do a lot of my work early in my career, which is, I was not encountering a lot of folks who were good at systems thinking. And so I developed these questions so I could have a dialogue with someone, i.e., myself, about the work. I would design a structure and I would then serve the role of a critique person rather than a design person and try and critique it. So, the intent is to give you that voice — to give you the voice of another designer who might look at this thing and ask these kinds of questions, because you’re too close to it to ask them yourself.

Another mode of using these is to facilitate a conversation, which is not something that I had intended or really thought about when I designed them, but as I get feedback from folks, they are indicating that they bring these cards to meetings so that they can put them out on the table, and have people zero in on maybe what their chief concerns are. Or challenge people to ask questions about the structure. So, it ends up being a tool for facilitating conversations that are otherwise maybe difficult to facilitate or unstructured or hard for folks because they don’t have the range of experience that they need to facilitate these conversations.

Jorge: Well that’s really fascinating. I’m really intrigued by this notion that the lenses are a catalyst for conversation either between groups of people, or in groups of people, or with yourself. I find that really fascinating. And the way that I imagine that would play out… I mean, I’ve used them myself, but not in a group setting. And in a group setting, I would imagine that you would want to be able to gravitate to the lens that is most appropriate to the issue under discussion, yeah?

Dan: Yeah. I mean I think so. The other thing that I’ve heard is that people will use it to highlight issues with the team that they feel like the team is not adequately paying attention to. So, I did try and include… you know, there’s a lens of ethics in there, and there’s a lens of who benefits. And these are difficult conversations for folks to have when they look at their structures of their designing and are really trying to ask themselves, am I really designing this for the users, the actual consumers of this content? Or am I designing this with some other bias in mind?

I’m working with an organization right now. I have the opportunity to provide some IA coaching which has really just been very gratifying for me, but it’s really interesting to see them struggle with getting out of their own heads, getting out of their own space, and design a structure that will be meaningful to the actual end-users — to use an antiquated term — of this system. And even just in our first few conversations, just by virtue of explaining the system to me, just that process of explaining it, they have been able to see their navigation in a new way and understand how they need to bring new perspectives to the table.

Jorge: So, it’s kind of a framework for the articulation of things that might otherwise go unspoken.

Dan: Yes. Well said.

IA Lenses video series

Jorge: That’s awesome. Well, speaking of making things spoken, let’s talk about the first video series and now podcast. You’ve interviewed different practitioners and released a video, one on each lens.

Dan: Yes.

Jorge: And, the range of practitioners is both wide and deep. And I’m hoping that you’ll tell us a bit more about the video series, how that came about. And more importantly, I’m curious to know how your understanding of the lenses themselves has perhaps shifted or evolved, after hearing them reflected from other people.

Dan: Oh, yeah. I wish I had a better origin story for the video series. I was wrapping up a project in the late spring and I saw in front of me that I would have a gap in time. I just, I didn’t have a project to fill it, and I was thinking, “that’s fine. I’ve just rolled off this really big project.”

I have a business partner at EightShapes, Nathan, and he and I frequently give each other permission to take some time to think about our practice or think about our portion of the business or what have you. He was very encouraging of me to not necessarily worry about filling my plate with billable work, but just think more deeply about…

At that moment, I was really interested in thinking more about IA and the IA practice, and the phrase “a lens a day,” popped into my head. And I pitched it to my colleagues at EightShapes and they asked me a lot of really, really, really good questions. And I’m a middle-aged man and did not heed any of their wisdom. And instead said, “you know, I’m just going to do this. I’m going to see what happens.” So I was about to go off on my summer vacation, and what I did was I kind of put together a pitch, an email that I sent to folks, and a Google Form… I think it was a Google Form or a Calendly or something, to sign up, and I had recorded a pilot episode.

So, the first episode I recorded with my old friend James Melzer, also at EightShapes. And the point was just to see like, could I get a 20-minute conversation out of a lens? And it was not really a good test because James and I can talk for 20 minutes about anything. But it was still enough for me to feel like this could be a thing. And then the Calendly signups started rolling in and I was like, “Oh, I think I need to do this now!”

And I would record sometimes ten episodes a week because they were quick little half-hour conversations. And I would change my shirt each time, to maintain the illusion that I was recording a lens a day. And then a couple of weeks after that, I just started posting them. And it was incredibly gratifying.

It was just fantastic to talk to so many different people. I mean, I got to talk to folks like you, Jorge. You know, old friends, people that we’ve known for a while that we don’t always get to dig in and talk shop. Like, really talk about the work that we do.

One of the last interviews I did was with Karen McGrane and that was just so great. You know, we’ve… again like two ships passing in the night, we’ve seen each other at conferences year after year. See each other on various Slack groups, but here to just sit down and talk about the work was awesome. But then I also contacted folks who I barely knew, and just had been following on Twitter, and seen Tweet about information architecture stuff. Folks who were relatively new to the field, and relative meaning three to four to five years into their career, as opposed to twenty-five years in.

And for me, it became an opportunity to do the thing that I get to do at the IA Conference, which is meet new people in a very controlled, safe environment. And have a very specific agenda for that conversation. And that was great. It was really… it was really great. You asked me if I now see these lenses in a new way, and I think it’s really hard for me to think about that at the individual lens level.

I do feel like a lot of my feelings about the world of information architecture were validated. And maybe that is not a good objective for a podcast, but maybe it’s what I need at this moment. But one of the things that people talked a lot about was curiosity and how that plays such an important role in their work and their process, in their identity as an information architect. And that was really gratifying to hear how important just questioning the world was to folks. But also finding joy in… which is what I take curiosity to be, is sort of finding joy in uncovering and learning.

Jorge: Finding joy in finding out.

Dan: Yes. Exactly. Exactly. So I’m not sure I can point to any specific lens on say, “Oh, I got a ton of new insights about this lens in particular.” What was cool was no one looked at a lens and was like, “I have nothing to say about this.” Or if they did, like a couple of people did say that, and then when we got into it and I had a million things to say about it. So, there was also some validation that these lenses as a framework were useful and provocative in the way that I had hoped they would be.

Jorge: Part of what I see as the value of the series is that it gives these lenses wider exposure. And I’m wondering what kind of reaction you’ve had from folks, perhaps folks who might not be as aware about information architecture. Have you heard about anyone who’s discovered this through the series?

Dan: No. That would be ideal, right? If I were to outline what my objectives were, And, I mean the dirty little secret is, the idea for “A Lens A Day” popped into my head, and then I backed into these objectives. And if you listen to the conversations, you’ll hear that the lens plays really just a… kind of a narrative role in sort of propelling the conversation. I don’t force anyone to talk about things that they don’t want to talk about — I hope! And I don’t sort of force us to come back to the lens if, you know, the conversation goes in a different way. It’s really just an excuse. It was literally just an excuse to talk to fifty-one different people and maybe dig a little deeper on information architecture.

So, that was my goal was to talk to as many folks as I could, and maybe create some momentum around deep thinking around information architecture. I don’t know if I was successful in that goal. There’s interest. People are subscribing. People are listening. I get some nice comments and feedback on it.

At the end of the day, it was maybe as much for the interview subjects as it was for the listeners, right? It was as much for them to give them a place to talk about the work that they do. I’m happy to use whatever cache and platform I have to provide that. That is important to me, to lift up other voices.

One of the things that occurred to me way after the fact was that this is a snapshot. It’s almost a time capsule of where the state of information architecture is in 2021. And I understood the… or I imbued — I don’t know if I understood, but I certainly imbued the work and the series with a sense of importance, because I recognized that even if it doesn’t create any momentum, what it is doing is capturing where we are right now with the practice of information architecture. And to me, in some ways that was almost more important or at least equally important to thinking of this as a vehicle for promoting IA or promoting myself or promoting the lenses.

Jorge: Would you be willing to share with us your impressions of what that snapshot looks like?

Dan: Yeah, and I do want to do a deep dive and look through things. I did try and capture some themes as I was recording the interviews. So, as I said, curiosity is one of the big ones. I think there are two things that stand out to me and that is — and again, the sample that I was working with was you could say biased because it was just people who said yes to some random guy emailing them — but two things stand out to me, one very positive and one very concerning.

The positive one is that people see this work is highly collaborative. I think I was forged in the fires of being a sole practitioner of IA. And one of the things that was very clear when I first moved to Washington and started practicing IA here is how desperate we all were for collaborators. And what I’m hearing today is that is largely changed. I would ask people like… I did ask people about their collaboration practices, right? So I was sort of biasing the conversation in that direction and then about halfway through, I was like, “okay, well, let me change up my first question.” and let me… instead of asking about how do you draw people into the process? Let me ask, “What does it look like when you’re just sitting in thinking deeply about IA?” And this is not a knock on my guests, but none of them could answer that question because they would all say, “Well, I’ll usually go and talk to someone.”

And I’m thinking to myself, that is literally not what I’m asking, but it is very telling, right? That when they’re doing IA work, their instinct is to draw other people into that process. Even though I can say for certain that a lot of… you know, that there’s still a good portion of my IA process that involves just sitting and staring at a spreadsheet and building connections in my head. So, that was one thing that I really appreciated: that there’s an acknowledgment that this is complicated work and that it needs to be collaborative.

I think the other thing that occurred to me is that the fears that I have about the lack of emphasis or the lack of resources that are being given to IA are still very much true. I interviewed very few people who called themselves an information architect; they were either UX practitioners who did IA, or they were content strategists. Which was by design, right? I wanted a wide swath, but it became very clear to me that IA is still something that a few people do and draw other people into that process, but there’s not as much dedication to it in the organizations that probably really need it.

when I’ve come to realize… actually, maybe this is one of the things that I realized through this interview series, is that information architecture is yes, in part, interrogating your structures, answering these kinds of questions. But sometimes the answers are framed in terms of trade-offs, and that by doing one thing in the navigation, we’re not doing another thing, right? Or creating content types in one… you know, following one scheme, are deliberately choosing not to do it in another way.

And so my next project, the next tool that I’m thinking about for information architects, is understanding what those trade-offs are. And I mean, like everything in my life, I’m conceiving of it as a deck of cards where, you can sort of make provocative choices of, you know, if you’re thinking about how to structure the items in your menu, one choice that you can make is that all the items have the same weight and another choice that you can make is that some items are weighted more heavily in that menu right? That’s a trade-off that you would make.

And so, I’m really, really curious about identifying the range of tradeoffs that we make when we’re designing a structure. So, that’s one direction that I think this has provoked me to go in, and another direction that it’s provoked me to go and hopefully I can do this — find the stamina to do this — is to keep up the series and keep interviewing people. It will not necessarily focus on specific lenses, because I think I’ve done that. But I do like the idea of having people help us understand the lens through which they see the practice of information architecture. So I will… my intent is to pick up on that theme and keep going with it, but using the lens metaphor to turn our attention to the practice of IA itself.

Closing

Jorge: I’m sure that folks are going to want to find out more and keep up with all the work that you’re doing. Where can folks follow up with you?

Dan: For better, for worse, I’m still enmeshed in Twitter. And so I think my handle on Twitter is @brownorama and I tweet a lot of work-related stuff, but also hobby-related stuff. The IA Lenses have their own Twitter account. It’s @IAlenses. And that may be better if you just want pure IA content in your timeline. Yeah. And EightShapes has a YouTube channel. I don’t know how to tell you where to find it, but EightShapes… you can see the interviews on EightShapes’ YouTube channel, or you can look @IAlenses’ Twitter to see links to the podcasts as well.

Jorge: And I will include links to all of those, including the YouTube channel, in the notes.

Dan: Thanks.

Jorge: Well, fantastic. Dan, it’s been such a pleasure having you here. Thank you for sharing with us.

Dan: Jorge, I love chatting with you. I just wish we could find more excuses to do this throughout the year.

Jorge: Well, let’s do that. Let’s make sure to do it again.

Dan: Cool.

Categories
Episodes

Hans Krueger on the Cycle of Emotions


Download this episode

Hans Krueger is co-founder of the international design consultancy MetaDesign. He also co-founded another design consultancy, FutureDraft, where we worked together for several years. In this conversation, we discuss Hans’s trajectory and how ancient teachings have helped him better understand his emotions.

Show notes

Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links.

Read the transcript

Jorge: Hans, welcome to the show.

Hans: Thank you, Jorge!

Jorge: I’ll just say it, it’s always a joy to see you.

Hans: Pleasure is entirely mutual.

Jorge: Well, folks, you might detect in the warm welcome that Hans and I have known each other for a while, and we’ve worked together. And I’m honored to say that I think of you as a good friend. But folks listening might not know who you are. So, for their benefit, would you please introduce yourself?

About Hans

Hans: Okay. I’ll try to keep it brief. The problem at my age is the story is awfully long. So, obviously I’m from Germany, as you can hear with my accent. So, I think it’s probably best to start… to take us to Berlin when the wall was falling, in the fall of 1989 and to a meeting where I met this guy, this funny typographer called Eric Spiekermann, and my friend Uli Mayer took me to meet him. And basically, out of that meeting came the creation of a company called MetaDesign.

And for those who know the design scene in Europe, that’s a fairly significant company and continues to be. I was the… basically I was running the company for the first 12 years of its existence. From, you know, building it from scratch to a few hundred people and multiple offices. And it was one hell of a ride! It coincided the emergence of a technical phenomenon called the internet. That happened simultaneously. We were in the middle of that, even though MetaDesign had its core competency… it came from typography and micro design, and therefore the term MetaDesign — design for design. But it quickly became like a multifaceted design firm, with a huge emphasis on the internet.

So, it was fascinating and a long story, so I will not go too far into that, but basically just to add one more thing: we did things such as, just to give you an example, for VW built their first car configurator. It was one of the first online car configurators. In those days those were huge endeavors. All the code had to be created. And not only that, we managed to link that car configurator to the production database of VW so that the car configurator would automatically only show the options that were actually possible within a car, and the combinations that were possible. Because that’s the huge complexity with these things. And these things change all the time. So, that was huge.

Jorge: And this was in the 1990s?

Hans: Yeah, absolutely — 1990s. So, it was awesome. And, those were like huge projects, you know? Like a year and a half and massive manpower and equivalent budgets. Very interesting.

So, after 12 years, I was literally finished, because I had learned how to build a company in a way. Got fairly good at that. But I had not learned how to regenerate myself. When I left, I had… I don’t know how many but like way more than a hundred unused vacation days. And I was absolutely depleted, you know?

And so, I had not learned how to regenerate myself. I had always discounted that as a topic. That was a costly lesson and it led to a multi-year process of rebuilding that foundation, with the most important element of meeting the teacher that actually introduced me to the knowledge that I needed to do the rebuilding process. It was a dark time at times, I have to say. And his name is Arnaud Maitland, and he’s now retired pretty much. But he is a Nyingma Buddhist.

So, the interesting thing for me was less… you know, I was never a religious guy, so I did not… there was no interest on that level. But the knowledge of the human condition that these guys have, in these lineages, in these knowledge lineages, is just extraordinary. It’s immeasurably deep. You know, in our life and the way we live, we can barely scratch the surface of that, even if we commit to a significant amount of study.

So, that was important. After that, you and I started basically working together for a number of years in FutureDraft. It was a lot of fun, and from my perspective, really interesting in terms of the design process that we developed there, which was very much a collaborative design process. And from my perspective, and you might differ on that, but the extraordinary thing was that we started to design complex systems sort of from the inside out.

So, that was a great chapter and then… it ran its course. The sort of work we were doing was increasingly hard to find, so we decided to go do something else and I had another big revelation. The second really big revelation in my life was when a mutual friend of ours introduced the notion and the clear distinction of extraction versus regeneration. And I started to think about that. That really hit home. So, it suddenly dawned on me the nature of our economic activity and what is going on there, and then sort of close the loop to to finding the mission for the second half of my life. And that’s basically… it took me a little bit away from the design industry, but I’m now completely focused on bringing the logic of regeneration into companies and building an organization around that. So that’s what I’m doing right now.

And on a personal note, I’ve been married for a long time. I have one son. My son is already almost 30. And, I’ve also always been a musician, you know that about me. So I play drums in too many bands to mention. And, still love to do that. And, I also know fairly… I could still hit a fairly decent golf ball! That’s another thing I know how to do fairly… fairly well. But, yeah! That’s about it.

Jorge: Oftentimes when I invite folks to be guests on the show, there’s a topic that we agree on beforehand. And in your case, we’re kind of going into this with many possible topics to explore, which is a challenge, right? And the thing that draws my attention, just in hearing you introduce yourself, is that there’s this trajectory in your career where you helped build this organization, and helped grow it to a fairly large size, especially for the design world.

Hans: Yeah.

Coming out of the dark

Jorge: And, as you said, you… I don’t know if this is exactly what you said, but I got the sense that you kind of burned yourself out in the process of doing that? And the time when I met you, and when we worked together, it felt to me like you had overcome that and you had overcome it… I got the sense that you had overcome it in part through these teachings that you were talking about. And just in my knowing you and knowing your trajectory since then, it feels like those have been central to both the work that we were doing at FutureDraft and also the work that you’re doing now in regeneration. And I was hoping that we could explore that a little bit here because it might be of value to folks listening in to hear more about how you came out of this kind of dark period of your life and how these ideas have influenced the trajectory since then.

Hans: Oh, that’s a loaded question, my goodness! How do you come out of a deep dark period? So… but, I can give you sort of a glimpse and it’s very much an individual thing, you know? In the end, everybody has to find the path individually and it starts by becoming aware of what calls you. In my case, I had always felt, like, an affinity to the Tibetan Buddhists for some reason.

I mean, that’s also… and it started way earlier before it became fashionable, and the mountains and all of that. But what I experienced… so, the way I met my teacher, I was at a retreat in Brazil, invited by a very good friend of mine, Walter Link — who played a big role in my life and continues to — and he invited me. And part of that program in that retreat was a Buddhist teacher, teaching two days on the subject of time. And I thought, when I looked at the program, what is he going to talk about for two days on time? Time is a fairly straightforward topic.

I went into this and after an hour, it dawned on me that I could study the subject of time for the rest of my life and would not even be able to scratch the surface. So, that was like a relief because at that moment, the realization was — and it’s not… it wasn’t as explicit as it is now when I look back on it — but this has happened in some shape or form was, the revelation was that there is knowledge that is so far greater than anything I have the idea off — that it exists. That I can actually take refuge in it. That I can rely on some basic things that others have really thought through carefully.

And I have not found that before in my life. Certainly not in the church I grew up with in Germany. None of it. And I would describe it as knowledge of the human condition. And you could also say knowledge of our own operating system. And when you shine a light on what actually drives your patterns — your thought patterns — and they become visible, that’s when the relief sets in. So what basically has power over you without you realizing it becomes visible. And that’s in the end, the process.

So, I know we’ve talked about the whole subject of emotions. Huge topic. What surprisingly few people realize is that there is like a real system behind this thing, this whole emotional complex. How they work, how they interact with each other, what leads to what, what you can do to actually cultivate your own emotional state. A state that allows you to perceive as clearly as possible what is real, versus what you imagine is real.

Jorge: What do you mean by emotions? Like, what emotions are we talking about?

Emotions

Hans: Well, you can start anywhere but of course, classic emotion is fear, or anger, right? So these are very strong expressions. And if you talk about the system… if I shed like a little light on it, maybe? So each one of these, for example, fear or anger, they’re connected to a whole complex of emotions.

So, there’s like a sequence. Fear is actually… and this might not be so intuitive, but I can tell you it’s, for example, connected to apathy and aversion, right? And anger on the other hand, which surprisingly many people sort of think has a lot to do with fear, anger actually is connected to emotions such as attachment and desire, stuff like that. The interesting thing is that… so one of the core realizations is that each one of these emotions, for example, anger. Good example, anger. If your mind gets used to being angry, you will be angry all the time. So anger is actually something that… it’s a pattern in the mind.

And for example, if you are used to experiencing relief when you blow off steam, that’s a pattern that when that happens, it’s way more likely that it will happen again in the very near future. What that means is you can actually dry these things up. And why do you want to do that? You want to do that because when you’re angry, for example, and you get to a real rage state… this is like when it becomes most obvious, you’re completely disconnected from reality. You don’t know anymore what’s really happening in the world. And it goes as far as hurting yourself, you know? You might run with your head into the wall.

Jorge: I’m hearing you describe this Hans, and thinking that that sounds like the business model for a lot of the social networks, right?

Hans: Right! right. Well, I mean, they absolutely… they trigger these emotions and they play with it and it’s actually like a drug. And what it does is it could completely disconnect you from reality. And the whole goal, as far as the Buddhists are and what they teach in terms of the human condition teachings, they say that your aspiration in life… a good, healthy aspiration in life is to be as clear in your perception of reality as possible, as often as possible. So, meaning that these emotions that basically take away that clarity or that connection to reality, are really detrimental and they lead to all sorts of actions that we might regret afterward, you know? And they also lead to actions where we destroy our own habitat. Greed, by the way, is one of these emotions, you know? So, if you’re in the grasp of greed, you do damage and you don’t realize because you’re completely disconnected from reality.

Jorge: Well, and I’m thinking another example might be when one gets angry at someone and you just let your mouth fly and say all sorts of hurtful things, right? Which you then regret.

Hans: Of course. And you can go into physical altercations, you know? So absolutely.

The structure of emotions

Jorge: So, these ideas sound fairly intuitive. What is different or at least was different for me when I first heard it, was the way that they’re structured. They’re grouped in particular ways, right? And they relate to each other in particular ways, which I first heard of from you, and I was hoping that you would tell us a bit more about that because I think it’s very intriguing.

Hans: Happy to do that. So, I just basically try to describe how these emotions are grouped in clusters, right? That actually there’s like a common core to them. There’s like a common core. So the thing is, of course, there are also positive emotions. Emotions that actually help you to see the world as clearly as possible. Where you really like… you’re breathing pure oxygen. Okay, that’s not so healthy either. But you’re like completely clear and connected to everything and you’ll hear all the voices and you know exactly what’s going on and what’s needed at a particular moment, right?

I’ll give you an example of how this works together. So, when you love something, you care about it deeply, when you love something. This could be another human being, or it could be a beautiful flower, or the planet itself. Or it could be anything. There’s like, there’s…

Jorge: The Beatles?

Hans: The… who’s that? He’s pulling my leg, you know? So, anyway, that’s another huge topic, don’t get me started on that!

But basically what happens is that when that love is pure, for example, you love another human being, it does not infringe on that other human beings “being,” if that makes sense. So, it’s actually… love is an emotion of freedom. And when that turns, and there’s a shadow side to it, and that shadow side is attachment. Because now suddenly something that you love, you want it to be in a certain way.

You take away its freedom to develop as it needs to develop because you want it to be in a certain way. So, now you’re attached, right? And now there is a progression from attachment to anger, to rage… it’s just one progression, you know? It’s just a question of time. So how this systemically works is… this means there’s a shadow side actually to those emotions that are actually beneficial for you.

And the little trick is you cannot, when you have become angry, you cannot go back. First of all, if you consider what happens to most people is they become angry that they’re angry, right? So now you have anger times two. Anger, layered on top of anger. And then actually, that continues to the third and fourth and fifth dimension. And so the anger gets thicker and thicker.

Jorge: It’s a positive feedback cycle, right?

Hans: Yes. I don’t know if it’s positive.

Jorge: Positive in the sense that it grows, right?

Hans: I know. So, the trick here is you can only get rid of it with an antidote. And the antidote is actually… in the case of attachment and anger, which is very much about yourself, you want something to be in a certain way, right? That’s like the common root of this, and you get angry because it’s not like that, is compassion -is the cultivation of compassion. So, compassion means you take somebody else’s wellbeing, or the wellbeing of the planet, or whatever, you take it on the same level of importance as your own.

So, when you do that, anger can’t exist anymore because it’s not about you anymore. So I hope the logic gets clear, is sort of visible in that description of one of the quadrants. And the thing is there’s like a whole circle of these. It goes around in a 360-degree circle. One thing leads to another, it’s the antidote of another, and you cultivate that and that can go wrong again, and so this goes all the way around, which is too much in our format here, but that’s the little secret.

And what was the breakthrough for me was that I actually have the freedom to cultivate what I want to cultivate. To realize that I’m not the victim of whatever I’m in the grip of. That I can cultivate it myself.

Jorge: That sounds incredibly liberating. I just want to point out because you hinted at the fact that there’s a cyclical structure to this, and we don’t have enough time to get into it here, but Jessica Fan has written up the model based on a presentation that you did, and I’m going to include a link to that article in the show notes for folks to check out. It is worth checking out.

Hans: She’s lovely. Yes, she did a great job on it.

Jorge: This idea that through greater awareness of your emotional state, you can liberate yourself from being kind of driven by these things is incredibly powerful. And yet from experience, I know that it’s hard, right? Like when you’re in a rage, you’re not thinking straight.

Hans: No, that’s right.

Escaping emotional cycles

Jorge: So, how do you overcome that? Like, how do you gain the ability to escape from these feedback cycles?

Hans: Yeah. So a very good question, Jorge. So what I would say is… so the path — my path, and I always have to preface everything, that this is my path. So this is not… you cannot generalize it. But for me, the path was to… for a long period of time, and I do this still every day, I contemplate the system. Whenever I’m somewhere — and it runs like a background program — the first step is to really memorize the system, which takes surprisingly long, actually. That you have it completely in your mind; that it’s ingrained in your mind. That it becomes part of your normal, interior structure.

So, memorizing the system is the first step. The second thing is to actually start contemplating yourself, how these things interact. Because it’s literally like you discover… I can tell you I’ve done this now for more than 15 years, I think? Every day, I discover new dimensions in this. How like little mechanisms, how they work. And then, the process is, in the end, is classic. So, usually what happens is you have like an episode during the day and you lie in your bed at night and you contemplate, “Geez! You know? There it was again.:” So, you become aware. So, the practice is, as it gets ingrained into your body, into your system, these intervals become shorter and shorter.

So, you’re… initially, you probably think about it at night in bed. Then you get closer and closer to the point where it actually occurs. And if you’re a master, — I’m nowhere near — you actually catch it at the onset, when it’s like the first tiny irritant in your body, you already got it. And you apply what I call the antidote. You immediately catch it. If there’s like the tiniest amount of attachment, you already got it. That way, it never progresses.

So, that’s the path. It definitely starts by really memorizing the whole thing. You have to know it. That this leads to that, that leads to that, that leads to that. These are the different groups …. and you have to have it in your system. That took astonishingly long. I had like one that I was constantly missing. I could not remember it, you know? That, of course, points to other psychological phenomena; that you have a blind spot.

Design and the cycle of emotions

Jorge: Like you were saying, this stuff is so deep and vast. Like, there’s a lot to explore here. Many of the folks listening to this show are probably interested in design. They have either a design background or are practicing designers. And I’m wondering if you can talk about the relationship between the framework — this cycle of emotions — and the design process… if there’s any relationship there?

Hans: Oh, there’s a huge relationship!

So, let’s start by saying what happens to you on an individual level, happens to organizations on an organizational level. So, you can have angry organizations. You have arrogant organizations; organizations who think they know at all. You have all that, and if you know how this works, you can actually design according to what’s needed. You can design for the antidote. And you can also completely miss it because you are not aware of it. So, if you apply the wrong antidote, there’s not going to be any impact. So, that’s like one huge thing. You can actually observe it.

Do you know who really knows this stuff well? People who write movie scripts. Since I’ve been aware of this, I watch movies and I go like, “Ah, there it is.” This is like a blueprint, how they operate with the system, you know? And I’m sure it’s not, in many cases… I would be surprised if they actually explore it through Buddhist teachings, but these are all universal truths. This is not something that the Buddhist own or something. They just describe something that exists.

So, it’s inevitable that others come to the same conclusion because it’s the truth. That’s just how it works. And I see it in movie scripts all the time. But it definitely applies to organizations. It applies to teams, to design teams, you know? When you work in a team and you have a person who is in a particular state, if you have this knowledge, you can address it. The challenge is to actually apply this in an organizational context. And we even had that at FutureDraft because there’s so much resistance.

There’s a lot of resistance to actually… which is really interesting, to making this stuff visible. Many people don’t want this to become visible. They sense that there’s sort of a complication for their life. They love their emotions, you know? Why would I start manipulating my emotions? Right? My anger is healthy. I hear those, but… yes, there is sometimes a place for anger, but from my perspective, the trap is to become caught up in it. Sometimes you just have to blow up. But how do you calibrate your own system afterward so that it does not linger in your system and block your ability to see clearly?

Jorge: What I’m thinking in hearing you describe this is that in gaining greater awareness of the degree to which emotions are influencing your behavior, and gaining the ability to regulate that process, imparts upon you a certain degree of responsibility, right? Like, you can no longer point to your emotional state as the cause for these things. So, you were talking earlier about this victim mindset. It’s like, well, you know, “I was angry, so that’s the excuse!”

Hans: Yep, exactly. Exactly. Very true. Yeah. The notion, in a way, is to take responsibility on that level. Take responsibility for the state you are in. That’s actually, I think, one of the core requirements of a leader. You have to take responsibility for the state you’re in. And we had some very clear examples of people who are completely oblivious to that in recent years. So, yeah, absolutely. Taking responsibility for the state you are in, also as an organization, by the way. This is really a big deal.

Reading the emotional space

Jorge: Right. And I don’t know to what degree this is something that we are trained for. I think that as individuals, we have a sense for what it means to be angry, what it means to feel, I don’t know, greed or what have you, but I would expect that it’s harder to read the room when it comes to a group of people, whether it’s your team or the organization, or what have you. Any pointers in that regard?

Hans: Well, I mean, first of all, when you yourself are in a balanced state, you will be able to read the room. That what gets in the way is your own imbalance, right? If you had a fight at home in the morning and you walk into a meeting, that fight lingers in your system, if you don’t know how to completely offset that emotion and you have a practice around it. You will bring this into the meeting. You will not see what’s going on in the meeting and you will miss vital information. And information of course is communicated… only 5% or so is communicated verbally. The rest happens on completely different levels. You’re missing all that because your system is blocked. It’s clogged, literally, inside.

Yeah, it’s astonishing. I mean, I don’t know if it comes across, but you really have it in your… when you become aware of that, of what it feels like to have a system that is clogged like that, and you know the difference between the two states, it’s astonishing, you know? The level of information that you suddenly get because you’re not clogged.

Closing

Jorge: Well, this all sounds really fascinating, and again, a lot of it is not new to me because we’ve talked about this in the past, but I’m very happy to be able to share it with folks here. I’m wondering where they might find out more about this particular framework. I mean, I’ve already mentioned, Jessica’s post.

Hans: Yeah.

Jorge: But if there are any other resources? And then, where can folks follow up with you yourself, should they want to reach out?

Hans: So, the second question is easy to answer. You find me on LinkedIn. I don’t have… I’m not a big social networker, so, but on LinkedIn, you can find me. And if you put in Hans Krueger MetaDesign for example, that will lead you straight to me, I would imagine, because my name is fairly common, in Germany at least. So that’s one thing. Also, if you’re interested, take a look at a website called Now.Partners. That’s actually the endeavor that I’m involved in currently, which is a decentralized global consultancy. We have not really talked about that — it’s a fascinating topic — that, in service to regeneration of large multinational companies and family-owned businesses. So, Now.Partners, there’s like 120 partners in there now. And you will find my portrait in there. I’m the CFO of that organization, so…

Jorge: And you’ll find me as well.

Hans: Hey, you’re also a partner? Fantastic. No, no, of course! Fantastic. Which is awesome. Yeah. So, you can also get in touch with me through that. So Yeah!

The first part of your question, where to look for resources, that’s not so easy to answer. So basically this thing, what I’ve just told you, you will find snippets of that in any Buddhist book. I’m not aware of a book that actually spells this out to the degree that it… how it would be applicable to our normal professional life. I’m not aware of that, really. There are various frameworks actually out there about, emotional frameworks, I should say, meaning frameworks that describe this whole system.

I have to say, the knowledge that I’ve shared here a little bit comes out of a book that was written in the 15th century by a famous Buddhist teacher. 15th or 14th century. Incredible, when you read that. His name is Longchenpa. And the book has a beautiful title and I, say this slowly, Kindly Bent To Ease Us. What a title! Anyway, Kindly Bent To Ease Us. This is not the easiest thing to read, but it’s all described in there. Fascinating! So, in the end, explore it where you can explore it if you’re interested, and you will find the right place.

Jorge: I am very grateful for you to come on the show and tell us about it, Hans.

Hans: It was my pleasure, and, yeah! I hope it was interesting.

Jorge: Thank you for being here.

Hans: Thank you, Jorge. Thank you for having me.

Categories
Episodes

Annie Murphy Paul on The Extended Mind


Download this episode

Annie Murphy Paul is an acclaimed science writer. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Scientific American, Slate, Time magazine, The Best American Science Writing, and other publications.

Our conversation focuses on the subject of her latest book, The Extended Mind, which is about how human cognition relies on our bodies, other people, and the material world. I loved this book and was thrilled to ask Annie about how this line of thinking plays out in the context of our heavily digitized lives.

Show notes

Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links.

Read the transcript

Jorge: Annie, welcome to the show.

Annie: Thank you, Jorge. It’s really great to be here.

Jorge: Well, it’s a real pleasure and an honor to have you. I recently read your newest book and I… like I wrote on my blog, I loved it. So, it’s great to have you here to talk about it. Some folks might not be familiar with you and your work. How do you go about introducing yourself and what you do?

About Annie

Annie: You know, I usually say that I’m a science writer, but even as I say that, I feel like a little bit of an imposter. Because to me, a science writer is someone who writes about the mission to Mars, or the COVID 19 virus, or something. And I really only write about one particular kind of science, and that is the science of human behavior. If it has something to do with people, and how they act, and how they think, then I’m a hundred percent interested. But I don’t write about other kinds of entities or report on other kinds of science. I’m exclusively really devoted to thinking and writing about human behavior. And in particular, human cognition. Learning and cognition are really my… that’s my wheelhouse.

Jorge: These are hugely important subjects. The Extended Mind is your third book, yes?

Annie: It is.

Jorge: And, the other two deal with cognition…. and I have to be frank, I have not read the other two. But just from looking at them, it seems like they deal with cognition at early stages of human development. Is that right?

Annie: Well, my first book was about personality testing. It’s called The Cult Of Personality, and it was a scientific critique and cultural history of personality testing. And that was very interesting to me. I found that topic interesting because I’m interested in why we are the way we are, how we think about the way we are and how that interacts with what society tells us we are and who we should be.

And personality testing seemed to me like a really interesting example of society creating these categories, which people often embrace, you know? And after writing this book that was critical of personality tests, I heard from many people who love the Myers-Briggs personality tests, for example, and who felt that it made everything… made the whole world makes sense to them, made themselves legible to themselves and others in ways that hadn’t been possible for them before.

But I do see myself not just as reporting science and the findings of science, but often acting as a kind of social critic. And I really wanted people to stop and think about whether the categories of personality psychology were really an adequate way to describe the fullness and the richness of their humanity, you know?

And then my second book was different from that. It was called Origins, and it was about the science of prenatal influences. And there, I was interested in making an intervention in the long-running nurture-nature debate. It seemed to me like there was, this nine-month period that didn’t get enough attention as a wellspring of who we are and how we turn out in life because there’s so much focus on the moment of conception when this genetic blueprint gets laid down and the moment of birth when nurture by the parents begins, conventionally speaking. But there were nine months in between those two events that actually turn out to be really consequential in shaping our future health and perhaps things like our future personality and how we handle stress and things like that.

So, to me, those two books as different as they seem on the surface were really investigations into the same question, which is: what makes us the way we are. And I would even say that this latest book, The Extended Mind, is just a continuation of that question or that search for an answer to that question. In this case, I was interested in how we understand the question of intelligence and how we understand the activity of thinking and, you know, conventionally… again, this is where the social criticism comes in. Conventionally, we think of thinking as happening inside the brain. And I was very intrigued by the concept originally introduced by two philosophers that actually thinking happens out in the world. It happens throughout our bodies, you know? Below the neck. It happens in our physical surroundings, it happens in our interactions with other people. And that to think of thinking as happening only inside our heads is really limiting and constraining and also just simply an inaccurate picture of how thinking happens.

Jorge: I would expect that there are people listening in who hear that we have this perception that thinking happens inside the brain and they go, “Well, yes! That’s where it happens!” Right?

Annie: Right.

Jorge: Many of us were brought up with that impression. And as you’re suggesting here, the work of particularly Andy Clark and David Chalmers, the philosophers you were referring to, points to there being more to that, right? The way that I understood it is it happens in concert between the nervous system, the body, our senses, and the environment around us. And other actors in the environment, yes?

Where we think

Annie: Yes. And I want to be clear to those who would be skeptical of this concept that the brain is still central to thinking. It’s not that the brain is not the locus of thinking; it’s just that it’s not… the process of thinking, the argument goes, is not limited to the brain. And in fact, the brain is really orchestrating resources from outside itself, from the body, from the physical surroundings, from other people.

And that that is a broader and more expansive view of the thinking process than imagining that it all happens in the brain. So the brain is still central, but I think we can change our notion of what role the brain plays: less a kind of workhorse that’s doing all of the work itself and more of like an orchestra conductor that’s bringing in resources from outside itself and coordinating them and assembling them into this dynamic process of thinking.

Jorge: Yeah. I love that. The notion that it’s not that the brain is driving the show, perhaps, but like it’s orchestrating things. I like that way of thinking about it. The old distinction, the old way of looking at the way the mind works, if we might call it brain-centric, has led to designs for the world that we live in, right? And you get into several of those in the book. I’m wondering if you could talk a bit more about how that kind of brain-centric way of thinking about the mind has led to the various structural aspects of the world that we work and learn and play and interact in.

Metaphors: the brain as computer

Annie: Yes. Yeah, I do see evidence of that brain-centric view all over the place. Once you start noticing it, it’s hard not to see. But you know, I just a moment ago we were talking about various metaphors for the brain and we understand the brain and it’s working through metaphor. And one of the most common metaphors, and I’m sure your listeners have encountered it, is the brain as a computer. And that notion got its start in the cognitive revolution of the 20th century, and it’s been very fruitful as a kind of paradigm for exploring the brain and inventing all the applications and technology that are so useful to us these days.

But it is very limiting in its capacity to explain to ourselves what the brain is, what it does. I always like to say we’re more like animals than we are like machines. You know, the brain is a biological organ. I mean, I know this is obvious, but we really can get very entranced in a way by this metaphor of “brain as computer.” The brain is a biological organ that evolved to carry out tasks that are often very different from the tasks that we expect it to execute today. And so, our misunderstanding of what the brain is leads us, as you were saying, Jorge, to create these structures in society — in education and in the workplace, in our everyday lives — that really don’t suit the reality of what the brain is.

I mean, I’m thinking about how, for example, we expect ourselves to be productive. Whether that’s in the workplace, or what we expect our students to do in school. You know, we often expect ourselves to sit still, don’t move around, don’t change the space where you’re in. Don’t talk to other people. Just sit there and kind of work until it’s done. And that’s how we expect ourselves to get serious thinking done. And that makes sense if the brain is a computer, you know? You feed it information and it processes the information, then it spits out the answer in this very linear fashion.

But that’s not at all how the brain works. Because the brain is so exquisitely sensitive to context, and that context can be the way our bodies are feeling and how they’re moving, that context can be literally where we are situated and what we see and what we experience around us, and that context can be the social context: whether we’re with other people, whether we’re talking to them, how those conversations are unfolding — all those things have an incredibly powerful impact on how we think.

And so, when we expect the brain to function like a computer, whether that’s in the office or in the classroom, we’re really underselling its actual powers — its actual genius — and we’re cutting ourselves off from the wellsprings of our own intelligence, which is the fact that we are embodied creatures embedded in an environment and set in this network of relationships. So, it really… we’re really kind of leaving a lot of potential intelligence on the table when we limit our idea of what the brain is in that way.

Metaphors: the brain as muscle

Jorge: There’s another metaphor that you also discuss in the book, this idea of the brain as a muscle.

Annie: Yes.

Jorge: Which is a… because the idea of the brain as a computer that processes has some kind of input and then generates an output, I think that we can all relate to. But what is this notion of the brain as muscle and why is it wrong?

Annie: Yeah. This is an interesting one because although it’s so common to think of the brain as a computer, it’s not like people have… well, this is… that was wrong. I was going to say, it’s not like people are passionately defending the metaphor of brain as computer. But in fact, there are a lot of people in artificial intelligence and other areas that are quite attached to that idea.

But it is also the case that there are many people who seem very attached to the idea of the brain as muscle. And this, too has a pretty long history, longer than the brain as computer, obviously. You can find tracks from the 19th century by medical authorities telling people that your brain is like a muscle and just like a physical muscle when you exercise it more, it gets stronger. So, there’s a very long history of that idea. But more recently, it was really brought into the public consciousness by the work of the psychologist, Carol Dweck, who introduced this idea of the growth mindset. And the growth mindset is very popular and very beloved for many good reasons.

I mean, Carol Dweck is a very accomplished scientist and I very much admire her and her work. And what appeals to people about the growth mindset and its metaphor of the brain as muscle is that it’s a very hopeful message to give to a student or to an adult. You know, that intelligence is not a fixed quantity. It’s actually something that you can grow, you can cultivate through effort and through practice. And of course, there’s a lot to that. And there’s a lot that’s positive about the growth mindset.

I do have some issues with that metaphor because again, it’s a very brain-centric kind of metaphor. It focuses all of its firepower on the brain on the idea that exercising the brain is how we make it stronger. And I think in a way it limits people who are very attached to the growth mindset because if simply exercising the brain harder and harder isn’t getting you what you want, there aren’t many other options.

And what I so enjoy about the theory of The Extended Mind is that it offers so many choices and options and avenues, you know? It may be that if sitting and thinking harder and harder is not working for you, it may be that you need to stand up and move around and maybe act out the problem that you’re wrestling with. Or you may need to go outside and spend some time in nature, restoring your attention. Or you may need to engage in a social activity with another person, like telling them a story about what you’re struggling with or engaging in a debate with them. And so, there are so many ways that we can draw on our environment and on our own bodies and on our own relationships to think better. And so that to me is what the theory of The Extended Mind adds to the conversation.

Jorge: Yeah. What I’m hearing there is that the notion that intelligence can be grown is not wrong per se, it’s that we’ve been limiting intelligence to just the one organ up here, right?

Annie: Yes. And I do notice there’s a wonderful new paper by Carol Dweck and some other researchers that’s really explicitly recognizing this and saying that growth mindset needs to be practiced within an environment, a context, that supports actual growth and development. So, I think the idea that context is so important to our thinking is really, you know, it’s having its moment, I hope. And I actually think the pandemic has played a role in that, you know? Because so many of us have spent the past 18 months as almost like brains in front of screens, and we’ve been cut off from many of the mental extensions that normally pre-pandemic would, in normal life, would have helped us with our thinking, like being able to move around and even commuting or traveling in ways that are stimulating and being in new places and interacting with people in person. In a lot of cases, we’ve been missing those things and we’ve felt the impact on our thinking, you know? We’re not thinking as well as we would like to, and it’s not for lack of working our brains hard, because we have been doing that. But that’s not enough. We really need the support of those external resources that have been harder to access during the pandemic.

Interacting in information environments

Jorge: I wanted to ask you about that. The tagline of this show is that it’s about how people organize information to get things done, and the notion there is that we are living… even before the pandemic, we were living in a society where so many of our interactions are moving from — let’s call them real-world contexts — to contexts that we instantiate in these small glass rectangles we carry around in our pockets, right? And the glass rectangle, when compared to real life, is a relatively limited channel.

Annie: Yeah.

Jorge: And I’m wondering how awareness of our embodied intelligence can help us think better, act more soundly. I’m wondering if there are any lessons from that that could help us become more effective users of these digital systems that are currently going through these very narrow channels.

Annie: Yeah, well, I think we do need to think carefully about how we use these devices because they really… they can’t be beat, in terms of convenience and ease. And I think we’ve all experienced that during the pandemic, that actually all those meetings that we were going into the office for, or traveling across the country to meet people, they can happen online and they probably will continue to happen online more than they did before.

I do want to urge people to be aware of what the trade-off is. You know, it is easy, it is convenient. It’s… from my reading of the research, I have a real bias in favor of in-person interactions because the signal, as you… I think you used the word “signals”… you know, the signals that we’re exchanging with other people as we talk, as we spend time in each other’s presence, they’re so much richer than when we are communicating with each other across the screen digitally. This is part of our brain-centric culture that we are so focused on simply the words that people say, like the actual information being conveyed in this very explicit sense, that that’s what we focus on. And we feel like, “okay, well, that got the job done.” You know, that interactive virtual meeting, that got the job done because we exchanged the appropriate words. But there’s so much more going on when two people relate to each other in person.

And I wouldn’t want us to think that the sort of pale simulacrum of human interaction that can happen online– I wouldn’t want us to think that that can ever substitute for being together in person. And not just two people, but in particular, the power of a group of people getting together– that is very hard to simulate online.

So, I think you had asked, Jorge, about not just about the compromises we make in terms of our social interactions when we’re online, but also this embodied aspect. You know, it’s very easy when we’re using our devices to think of ourselves as just a brain in a vat, a brain looking at a screen. When, as I’ve been saying, so much of our intelligence emerges from the fact that we are embodied, you know? And that’s easy to forget when we’re so in this head space of using our computers and our devices.

And so one other thing I would say is just to… first of all, to take time to make sure that you’re not on your devices all the time and that you do remember that you have a body and use it and tune into it and all those things. But also if it’s possible, look for technology and look for applications that involve your body. And that there are applications and technologies like that, that don’t require you to just be sort of like a face or a head in the screen, but that do involve the body to a greater degree. And we can make choices about, you know, which technologies we use in that sense.

Jorge: Is one aspect of that getting greater awareness of how our bodies function? And I’m thinking of things like the Apple Watch, which I’m wearing, and this notion that all of a sudden my movements get quantified as this exercise ring that I either close or not, depending on how much I move my body during the day. Does that serve to bring us closer to our awareness? Or does it somehow build a distance by abstracting it out into a number that we’re aiming for?

Annie: Yeah, that’s a super interesting question. I am not sure, actually. I mean, I think I’d be in favor of any technology that makes us more conscious of our bodies and more conscious of our movements, but then again, as you say, is there a cost in terms of moving away from the actual embodied experience of being a body and turning that into a number or, and then turning the number into a goal, you know? That you’re either meeting or not meeting. I think there’s definitely potential there for a kind of detachment from the body instead of tuning into the body. That’s a really interesting question. I think we’re living in a moment where so many of these things are unknown and unsettled and it’s really… it’s going to be a process of learning how these technologies affect us and how they affect us long-term you know? Which no one can answer except for in the long-term.

Jorge: Right. The question came to mind as I was reading the book. And, just for folks who may not have read it, the book is divided into three parts. The first part has to do with thinking with the body. So that includes things like gestures. I came away with a new understanding of what… like I’m moving my hands right now, right? And I came away with an understanding of why I do that. The second part deals with thinking with environments, and the third with thinking with other people. And in the first part of the book that deals with thinking with the body, you covered this concept of interoception which in my notes, I put down as kind of like learning to listen to your gut.

Annie: But not just your gut!

Jorge: Well, no — colloquially, right?

Annie: Yes, colloquially.

Jorge: It’s like, check in with your body. Are you feeling anxious? You know, are you feeling… and as someone who designs digital environments for a living, it made me wonder. It’s like, is my work making people somehow fall out of tune with being able to listen to their bodies? And how might we move to create digital experiences that make better use of the full experience of being human, which is not constrained to these small rectangles that we tap, tap, tap? Right?

Designing (dis)embodied experiences

Annie: Yes. Well, it’s a very powerful cultural current — and a very old one — to separate mind and body and to elevate mind above body and to believe that mind is kind of pure and cerebral and the body is irrational and unruly and ungovernable and has nothing to contribute to intelligent thought. Whereas I think the more we learn, the more scientists research the connections between mind and body, the more we see that that is not at all the case. And I think, in our culture that is so achievement-oriented, that’s so much about getting things done, it’s so easy. And I fall into this trap myself, in the middle of a busy hectic day, to be focused so much on the external world and all this information flowing in for us to process, and to forget about the fact that we have this internal world as well from which there’s a constant flow of internal sensations and cues and signals that’s always there, but we’re not tuning into it. We don’t take the time. We don’t take the quiet space that we need to tune into that internal world. And what that means is that we’re missing out on all the information and the wisdom and the accumulated experience that can really only be communicated to us through those internal signals because so much of what we know is not really accessible consciously.

And the way that we become aware of this vast repository of patterns and regularities and experience that we do possess, the way we become aware of it, is through the body kind of tapping us on the shoulder or tugging on our sleeve with these internal cues and saying, “Hey! Pay attention to this!” Or, “this is what happened last time, and this is how it turned out.” You know, all this kind of information that we have access to, but we’re so used to pushing that away, and to believing that the body is actually a kind of a barrier to intelligent thought rather than a conduit to intelligent thought, you know? We think we have to sort of power through and like push away those annoying or inconvenient bodily sensations when really tuning into them would enrich our thinking so much.

Jorge: Yeah, sometimes it’s time to go for a walk or to take a nap. Right?

Annie: Oh, it’s always time to take a nap! I’m a big fan of naps.

Annie’s thinking environment

Jorge: I want to ask you about your own processes and how working on this subject has changed the way that you approach your own work. In the book you describe the writing process of Robert Caro, who has written some amazing biographies. I remember reading the one about Robert Moses and having my mind blown at just how rich and the big that book is, right?

Annie: Yes.

Jorge: And, the way that you describe it in the book, these books that Caro writes are just have so much stuff in them that it’s not something that you can hold in your “meat computer.”

Annie: Right.

Jorge: So he has this corkboard in his office, this four-by-ten corkboard, where he kind of outlines the book. And I got the sense that his office is part of his writing apparatus– but not just because it gives him a place that shields him from the elements, right? And I’m wondering about your own thinking and writing environment and if it has changed at all as a result of doing this work.

Annie: Yeah, I write in the book that I don’t think that I could have written this book, which was a very ambitious project that involves so, so many journal articles and books and interviews and things. So much information to synthesize and put together. I don’t think that I could have pulled it off if I had not applied the various strategies that I write about in the book. So, it was a really kind of meta experience.

But you mentioned Robert Caro and his process of laying out the ideas and themes in his book on this really big wall-sized cork board. And I love that example because of how he uses it. You know, he’s able to walk along this cork board move in and move out, and physically navigate through this three-dimensional landscape of ideas that he’s pulling together for each of his books. And to me, that’s such a beautiful example of how when we remember what the brain evolved to do. And when we think about how we adapt this stone-age organ to the kind of tasks that we require of it today, we can see that it’s really powerful to harness our natural and evolved strengths, which include physical navigation and spatial memory. When we can harness those in the service of these very complex cognitive activities that we undertake today, it just gives our ability to think this enormous boost.

You know, as we were saying earlier, the brain evolved to do different things from what we expect it to do today. And two things that it evolved to do really effortlessly and easily and powerfully is manipulate physical objects and navigate, as I was saying, through a three-dimensional landscape. These are things that we’re just naturally good at as human beings. And so, the more we can turn abstract ideas and information into physical objects that we can manipulate. And I’m thinking here about like Post-It notes that you can move around and redistribute at will. And the more we can turn ideas — abstract ideas and information — into a physical landscape that’s big enough for us to bodily interact with, then the more we’re harnessing those embodied resources that are a part of our sort of heritage as human beings. We don’t get any of the benefits of those embodied resources when we try to do it all in our heads, you know?

So, I do have a giant Caro-inspired cork board in my office. I do make profligate use of Post-It notes because there was just too much here to wrap my head around. And I really needed to externalize my thought. Scientists call it offloading cognition — cognitive offloading. I needed to offload those ideas, put them out into physical space, move them around, and move myself around in relation to them, in order to pull off this very challenging mental task of writing this book.

Jorge: And what I’m hearing there is that there is something about the physical nature of that experience and the fact that your body is in that room, that matters here. Because there is software — thinking of like Miro or Mural — that simulates a whiteboard with sticky notes. What I’m getting out of it is that it’s simulating the kind of aesthetics of the thing, but it’s still constraining it within the glass rectangle, right?

Annie: Yeah, that’s interesting. I do think that software and other technological applications can learn from what we know about how humans think in embodied and environmentally embedded ways. Certainly, there are lessons there for people who are designing software, but I think you’re right that such a program might sort of emulate the look of using Post It notes on a big corkboard, but it does lose some of the functionality just simply because it’s not going to be as big as the format that I’m talking about. And it’s not gonna involve that material and tactical kind of experience of literally moving things around, which I think offers its own enhancement to the thinking process.

Jorge: Yeah, and surely that’s what the folks who are researching things like augmented reality are really after, overlaying the information onto our physical environments.

Closing

Jorge: Well, this has been super insightful and, as I said, I love the book and I recommend it to everyone, but especially to people who are designing software and interactive experiences. It covers a subject matter that I think everyone in this field should be aware of. So where can folks follow up with you?

Annie: So, I have a website. It’s www.anniemurphypaul.com. I’m also really active on Twitter and I encourage people to find me there. My handle is @anniemurphypaul. Yeah, and I’d love to hear in particular from your listeners and from people who do this kind of work because I do think there are so many connections between designing — literally, designing the experience that someone has online — and The Extended Mind. I mean, I just think there’s such an enormously potentially productive overlap between those two things, and I’d love to hear about their own thoughts.

Jorge: Well, you’ve heard it, folks! Please reach out to Annie and let her know because this is important stuff. Thank you so much, Annie, for being on the show.

Annie: Oh, thank you, Jorge. This has been fantastic. I’ve really enjoyed talking with you.

Categories
Episodes

Patrick Tanguay on Newsletter Curation


Download this episode

Patrick Tanguay is a self-described “generalist, synthesist, and curator of eclectic ideas.” His weekly newsletter, Sentiers, surfaces deep posts about highly relevant topics and provides insightful commentary and ideas. In this conversation, we discuss the tools and methods that enable his curation and sharing process.

Show notes

Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links.

Read the transcript

Jorge: Patrick. Welcome to the show.

Patrick: Thanks! Glad to be here.

Jorge: I’m very excited to have you on the show. I’ve been subscribed to your newsletter for a while and always find insightful links and information there. So I’m very excited to talk with you. For folks who might not know you, would you mind please, introducing yourself?

About Patrick

Patrick: Sure. Thats always a… it probably shouldn’t be, but it’s always a bit of a hard question to answer. I’ve started using “generalist” which I kind of resisted doing for awhile, but that’s … like my Twitter bio is “Generalist, Synthesist and Curator,” and that’s probably the best description. I’ve worked in a number of fields, and I realized a little while ago that the red thread connecting everything, was that I always ended up figuring stuff out and explaining it to others. Even when I was a front-end web developer, it was often the fact that I could explain to the client, and if I was working with others, explain across their disciplines. Like, of course the actual craft, if you will, of the front end was of course part of the contract, but kind of the selling point or that people would refer me to was the fact that I could explain it and kind of make sense of what we were going to build. And then that transferred into a print magazine, “The Alpine Review,” and I liked doing that so much that even though we closed it down or put it in a deep freeze, I try to recreate that experience with my newsletter.

Jorge: I love the three terms: generalist, synthesist and curator. It reminds me of a phrase that I believe was coined by Stewart Brand to describe Brian Eno. He said that Eno is a “drifting clarifier.”

Patrick: Whoa! That’s nice.

Jorge: And your trajectory here reminds me of that. Yeah, Sentiers is the newsletter I was referring to when we kicked off the conversation. Tell us a bit more about that. What’s the newsletter about?

Sentiers

Patrick: There’s kind of the… the official description and the real description. The real description would probably be, “anything that Patrick finds interesting.” The kind of official description is, “exploring technology and society, signals of change, and prospective futures.”

Which… like, “technology and society.” Technology permeates so much of the world in a growing number of areas that you end up being able to talk about anything if you look at technology very broadly. And “signals of change.” There’s so many things changing that that also brings you to many topics. And I try to — more and more — to make sense of it with an eye to where we’re going or where each topic might be going. Each field. But Sentiers is French for “paths,” and the path is taking more importance in the curation in the last year or so.

Jorge: I don’t know if this distinction is emphasized in the French: I see “path” as a distinction to something like a road, right? Like where a path is more emergent.

Patrick: Absolutely.

Jorge: Is that a part of this? Like when I say that you’re detecting signals for change, that to me implies that you’re not dictating the path, you’re somehow seeing it emerge. Is that fair?

Patrick: Yes, absolutely. And I use, for example, as many of the people I read and learn from, I use future in plural — “Futures” — because they’re always guesses at where things might be going or sometimes guesses that you’re wishing for that direction, sometimes because you’re dreading a certain direction. But there’s definitely always different potentials.

And one thing that I should have paid more attention before, but I’m paying more attention to now, is also the diversity of voices. So, some futures that we look at are already someone’s present. Like climate change. In the Western side, we’re starting to feel it, but some other people have been feeling it for years.

Some technologies… so there’s also that, someone’s utopia is always someone else’s dystopia. So, to always try to listen to a greater diversity of voices — and necessarily, as you do so, you realize that there’s multiple potential directions and futures and paths.

Picking the signals

Jorge: How do you pick up the signals that you write about? Like, what are you paying attention to that leads you to elucidate the path?

Patrick: It’s layers. Layers upon layers of people I’ve discovered through the years, or publications. It’s usually more individuals than specific publications. I’ve used Twitter. I think I’m user 6,000- something of Twitter. So I’ve been there for a while and using RSS for even longer. So, it’s, adding and replacing people as I go and feel, “okay, this person is… I realize now, was too naive about technology or too positive” or, on the contrary, “this person has evolved in their thinking and introduced me to this other person.”

And so I try to build this network, I guess, of people I’m listening to. And also using The Alpine Review before and Sentiers now to a lesser degree perhaps, but to introduce myself to those people and then to also pick up on their networks and be part of the discussions and get a better feeling for what’s going on. And then, being… I was going to say “too curious” — but being very curious about a number of topics, and adding them to the number of things I follow.

Jorge: That brings me to another question I had for you, which is this idea of spotting signals for change and another idea that I think is implicit in that, which is kind of spotting patterns, right? Like in order to detect change, we have to somehow be aware of the trajectory of something or the pattern of something, or having a sense for the context.

You’ve hinted at the fact that you’ve been doing this for a while; like you said, you were an early Twitter user and you’ve been following things like RSS. And I would imagine that you have a way not just of detecting signals, but also of building a corpus of ideas somehow, that allows you to keep track of those patterns. That allow you to spot the signal from the noise. And first, I was wondering if that was the case and if so, if you could share with us what that looks like.

Patrick: It’s the case and it’s been more purposeful in the last few years. It used to be, I guess, just piles of magazines when I was selling computers before starting the web. And then when I started doing web development, a series of bookmarks and bookmarks, and then quickly blogging, which then… it’s only recently that I’ve been specifically taking notes to refer to later.

Originally, the notes were more blogging publicly, and then as you write something, it sticks in your mind. And so for a while, the library was mostly in my mind and in the blog. And then as… I guess it’s starting with The Alpine Review, as we needed to collaborate and to keep track of whom we wanted to include, it needed to be more documented.

And then, yeah! Then Sentiers becomes a great… often even for some clients, I’ll just first go through the archives of the newsletter and re-find everything I’ve found before and compile it in a different way or see new patterns. And now more recently with the new website, the goal is to integrate the website with my note taking and my reading in Instapaper often and kind of having the information flow more directly so that I can take more notes more easily. And I was going to say, “trust my brain a little less,” but I guess it’s more expand my — augment — my brain more purposefully.

Personal knowledge management

Jorge: I actually wanted to find out more about that because as someone who publishes a newsletter myself, I have found myself doing what you’re talking about here, which is thinking, “oh, I remember writing about that in my newsletter. And where was that?” And I send out my newsletter through MailChimp, which creates a web version for each issue of the newsletter and that is published elsewhere, right? Like it’s in a different place than my regular website, so I can’t search for it using the same search engine and it’s almost like suddenly I have this separate set of information that I need to refer to. And I have the sense that you’ve recently made changes specifically to the relationship between content on your newsletter and content on your website. Can you tell us more about that project specifically?

Patrick: Sure. Well, one of my interests that isn’t often in the newsletter, but that is an ongoing interest is with PKM or “personal knowledge management.” And finding ways to find again. Because I think people trust search engines a lot, but it’s hard to search Google for, “this guy I remember seeing on Twitter was talking about this thing.” So, I try to make the haystack smaller, and the longest going tool I have is using Pinboard, the bookmarking service that Maciej Ceglowski started after Delicious started….

I’m going back — just a lot of people won’t recognize those tools. But one of the interesting things of Pinboard is that if you’re a paying member, it archives the pages. So, first of all, you don’t lose something you’ve bookmarked that suddenly disappears. And also you can do a full text search of only what you’ve bookmarked. So, to me, that’s a much smaller haystack to search and I’ll often find things through there quicker than trying to find it again with a search engine.

But that wasn’t linked to my note taking. So, when I write the newsletter, I write it to the text file in Markdown, and then I convert it to HTML and put it in MailChimp. So, when I say that I searched the archives of the newsletter, it was always the text files that I have on my computer. So, often to look for something, I would look at the bookmarks and I would look at the newsletter.

So, now I’ve tried to connect all of those things. The website used to be in WordPress, and now I’ve built it with Eleventy, which is a file based system. So it’s not a database anymore, it’s just, again, a bunch of text files. So without going into the details, or too much of the technical details, the interesting part is that the website now is a bunch of text files on my computer. And then when I want to publish a new version, it basically crunches that into an actual website and I just put it online.

And it’s… first of all, it’s much, much quicker for readers. It’s also much lighter. Because I’m trying be mindful of bandwidth and server usage because so many of those are using “dirty” electricity. So it’s good if you can save on that side. But the first reason was that it’s text files on my computer. now when I’m searching, everything is together.

You tell me if I’m going too much in the weeds, but the other change is that now I’m using Readwise — readwise.io. And that allows you to connect the things you’ve highlighted in various places. And recently it started offering a sync with the text editor I’m using, which is Obsidian. So now… for years and years, I’ve been reading either in Pocket or Instapaper, two apps I think a lot of your listeners probably use. Now everything I highlight in there goes through with Readwise and straight into my notes, which don’t necessarily make it on a website, but now it’s… so there’s more of a direct flow of everything I’ve read and the chunks I found interesting all end up in text files locally and can be oriented towards the website.

Details about Patrick’s setup

Jorge: I’m hearing you say this and thinking, not only do I want to get into the weeds with you on this stuff, but, uh, I I’m afraid we’re not going to have enough time to get as far into the weeds as I would like, because you’ve touched on several things that I’ve been exploring myself. I have been contemplating making this very same move that you’re describing — going from WordPress to what is often called a static site generator. And for many of the same reasons you’re pointing out here, I would love to have my site as text files — as Markdown specifically, which I use as well. And I recently posted about this on Twitter and a lot of folks came back to me recommending Eleventy, so it’s one that is very much on my radar.

I’m wondering about what you might lose by doing such a transition. And I can tell you two things that I’m aware of, that I would lose for my own instance. One is that WordPress provides a pretty good site search, which I don’t believe static sites have. And the other is, WordPress provides the ability for me to preschedule posts. So, I can write something and say… say on a Monday morning and leave it so that it’s published on a Tuesday afternoon, right? Are you dealing with those in any way? Is that an issue?

Patrick: Yeah. Those are pretty much the two issues. You’ve hit the two issues directly. The search, of course people can be unhappy and not tell me, but I haven’t had any people telling me that they miss the search engine. Although I did include one, but it’s… it basically searches DuckDuckGo, by specifying my website. And so it gives a result only on the website. It’s been working pretty good. There are a couple of solutions to do web searches on a static website. But it mostly ends up being work done on the client’s side. So, in the reader’s browser and so I haven’t implemented that yet.

The scheduling is more of an issue than I thought because like my newsletter goes out at 6:00 AM every Sunday. And I try to have it online exactly at the same time as the email goes out for people who want to read it online and share it. So that’s… it connects to the biggest issue, which is… it’s a lot more technical to run a site like that than it is to run WordPress. WordPress, you can just go on wordpress.com and create a blog and even have it on your own domain and you have nothing to do basically, other than use the interface, which is very broadly known already. A huge number of people have used it for themselves or at work or somewhere else.

And so this is… it’s harder. But I figured out the way. It’s like, I’m actually… I’m getting back from vacation and there’s one going out on Sunday, and it’s going to be the first one using the new automation to put it online at 6:00 AM. It’s basically, it’s… it’s going back to the command line. It’s having rsync and a cronjob running on the server.

That could probably be done some other ways, but I found that that’s actually… because the way I’ve built the new version is that my newsletter is usually four or five featured articles that I have a summary and comment on. So each of those has been split, so each newsletter has become at least five chunks — five notes. And I might issue 184, so it can take a while to transfer the whole thing. So automating it that way is a timesaver.

Jorge: That’s very encouraging. And I’m kind of desperately trying to make more time to experiment more with these things because I do find very appealing the idea that at the other end of this, you end up with this more consolidated, personal knowledge management base that you use… you used that phrase, PKM, right? And, I find the idea of having it as a set of text files on my file system very compelling. You touched on Obsidian, which is another tool that I’ve been recently migrating to. I am using Readwise and I was not aware that they had enabled Obsidian sync, so I’m very excited. Now I’m like thinking… it’s like the moment that we hang up here, I’m going to go experiment with that.

Patrick: I think it’s been active for like five days. So it’s a really, really new feature.

Obsidian

Jorge: That’s amazing. I was using it with Roam, to sync my highlights from Kindle and Instapaper and all these other things, sync them over to Roam. But, it’s very exciting to hear that they’ve enabled Obsidian sync. How are you using Obsidian? I’m curious. How does it play into this workflow?

Patrick: I’m hoping to transition completely to it. Right now, I ‘ve used Bear for a few years, which is also in Markdown, but it’s very visually polished, so it’s fun to use and it syncs between phone and iPad and laptop. And it’s Markdown that can be exported in Markdown, but when it’s stored, it’s not Markdown. It’s in a proprietary database. So that was one of the things that kind of bugged me. Although I would have kept using Bear if not for Obsidian and the fact that it’s pure text and you can actually open any folder with Markdown files. Open it in Obsidian and it becomes a bunch of notes and you can do back linking between the notes so that… because we often use links, but only in one direction.

So, when you get to the destination, the destination doesn’t display in any way where you came from, unless you’re staying on the same website, then there’s an indication. But if you’re going from site to site, you don’t know. And you don’t know who else might have linked to that same page. And so with backlinks or bidirectional links would be another term, then you know at least within the corpus of your notes, which links to which -which has been in Wikis for forever, and which we even had on blogs 15 years ago with trackbacks which is coming back now with digital gardens which is kind of a personal Wiki. And Obsidian supports that. And I found a way to have them work in Obsidian and when their live on my website in the same way.

And so, I’m still using Bear because it’s kind of my reflex to go to those files and client notes and articles in the works are all in there, but I’m trying to switch more and more of them to Obsidian which is so far a great surprise because it’s very modular. There’s a hundreds of plugins, and so far I haven’t seen it slow down. I’ve been wary of activating too many but so far it’s super fast. So, I’m very encouraged, up to this point, and the advantage is of course, is that I have nothing to do if at some point they start… or they stop developing it. The app is local, the files are local… everything keeps working.

Jorge: This idea of digital gardening is something that I am very interested in and we had earlier this year another guest on their show, Kourosh Dini, talking about the use of a tool called DEVONthink, which is designed for this type of personal knowledge management. And I mention it because DEVONthink too allows you to monitor folders on your computer and it indexes them and builds… it uses an artificial intelligence engine, and I don’t know the details of how this works, but it uses AI to spot relationships between pieces of content in your computer. And I have been using Obsidian. My Obsidian folder with Markdown files, I’m indexing it with DevonThink. So building this bridge between the stuff that I have in Markdown there with things like PDFs and bookmarks and all this other stuff, and it just feels like… for me, it feels like my little personal knowledge management system, which has been scattered for a long time, is finally starting to come together with these more open tools. It’s really exciting.

Patrick: Yeah. It’s… I was going to say the less exciting thing is the fact that we have to go back to old formats to get back that open function. Like Markdown files have been around forever and they’re text files, which has literally been forever for computers and PDF is also a very old standard. But it’s great to have that. I wasn’t aware of that function by DEVONthink so I’m going to have to try it.

I’ve actually… I’ve been doing some cleaning of stuff on my computer and I’ve been putting PDFs in Keep It and I’ve actually grabbed again, some old email archives that I’d archived to make the mail app snappier again. And I’ve put them in EagleFiler, which are both kind of… they both do the same thing you were explaining about DEVONthink, which is they do some search optimization and tagging and stuff, but the files remained in the finder and just on the Mac file system. So, but maybe I’m… after doing the cleanup, I’m just going to have to switch over to DEVONthink or add DEVONthink, because basically since it’s indexing existing folders, that’s the duty of it, you could have 10 applications doing different work on the same files.

Jorge: Yeah, that’s what I’m finding as well. I’ve stopped obsessing with the idea of trying to bring everything together into a single homogeneous system and more trying to find tools that are open about the data that they use so that you can get different perspectives on your information. And I can relate to this challenge you were talking about — the challenge of migrating stuff that you’ve had in more proprietary formats for awhile. We’re coming close to the end of our time together — unfortunately, because there are so many more weedy areas of this that I would like to explore or with you. But I’m wondering what the future holds for what you’re doing with Sentiers and how you see your system evolving.

Evolving the system

Patrick: Well, one of the main reason I was able to spend time doing that was that I used a grant by Grant for the Web, which is a project by the Interledger Foundation. We do web monetization. And a lot of the words they use sound like blockchain, but it’s not actually. It can be related to the blockchain, but it’s not. And they’re basically developing a standard that they want to be accepted by the W3C, to be able to stream money to the website where you’re spending time. And so the way I presented the project is that I’m already somewhat monetizing. I don’t like that word that much, but that’s… with memberships, paid memberships, but the archives and that’s the case for most anyone doing those kinds of like… another word I dislike but the “creator economy.” Often, their archives just fall by the wayside.

So, that was a way of keeping the archives evolving and accessible and useful for readers and having the web monetization work underneath and possibly be a new revenue stream. And the other reason is that by making it text files, they can be on GitHub. And that’s kind of… a lot of people have spoken about it with digital gardens, but not many have actually opened it. And I haven’t found a way yet to do it — a way I’d be satisfied with. But potentially having people participate in the notes and appearing on the website would be something interesting that could be done with GitHub. And so the goal is to… it’s kind of a forcing function for myself to note things beyond just highlighting in articles which then become notes that don’t necessarily make it in the magazine because they’re not necessarily interesting to read in themselves, but they can be super useful as you’re browsing through different notes and adding context to something and adding to the topic. So, growing the notes, making it potentially a revenue source.

The nice thing about this system is that if people are spending a lot of time, it means it’s useful for them. So then it’s a great way to transform it into a source of revenue because you’re not forcing anything. They’re just using it then. And then potentially bring in people on… I don’t know if it would be specific contributors? If it would be a way of, for example, you and I joining some of our notes, or something else that’s not… that’s kind of on the roadmap, but not planned yet as to how it would happen. But that’s another of the ways I hope to use it.

Closing

Jorge: That all sounds so fascinating. I would love to check in with you sometime in the future when this stuff has developed more just to see how that is going. But for now, where can folks find out more about you and follow your work?

Patrick: The simplest is the newsletter, which is santiers.media. So sentiers.media. Or @inevernu on Twitter. And on the Sentiers website you can subscribe, and you can also look at what we’ve been talking about. So, how the notes connect together and so far, it’s a lot, the existing archive. It hasn’t been digital garden-ized as much as I would’ve liked, but I’m adding to it constantly. So yeah, those are the two… and I write the articles about monthly. So there’s the newsletter, but there’s also some articles to read.

Jorge: Fantastic. I will post links to all of those things in the show notes. I want to thank you for being here and thank you for your work because like I said, I learn a lot from the work that you’re doing. So thank you for sharing it with us, Patrick.

Patrick: Thanks! Thanks for saying that and thanks alot for inviting me! It’s been fun. It’s always fun to discuss what you’ve been working on. It’s sometimes bring us a different perspective as you’re answering. So, it’s always useful.

Jorge: I hope that we can do it again sometime.

Patrick: Sure.

Categories
Episodes

Nathan Shedroff on Foodicons


Download this episode

Nathan Shedroff is an entrepreneur, author, speaker, and a colleague at the California College of the Arts, where we both teach in the graduate interaction design program. Nathan has worked for a long time on driving innovation and sustainability through design. This conversation focuses on his latest project: Foodicons, which is creating a shared, open-source, and royalty-free iconographic language of food.

Categories
Episodes

Sunni Brown on Deep Self Design


Download this episode

Sunni Brown is a social entrepreneur who uses visual literacy, design thinking, and visual facilitation to solve complex problems. She’s the author of The Doodle Revolution and co-author of Gamestorming.

In this conversation, we discuss Sunni’s current area of focus, which uses Zen Buddhism and design thinking to help individuals craft a more fulfilling and engaged life.

Show notes

Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links.

Read the transcript

Jorge: Sunni, welcome to the show.

Sunni: Thank you.

Jorge: It’s a pleasure having you here. For folks who might not know you, would you mind, please, introducing yourself?

About Sunni

Sunni: Oh, when you let me know that we were going to have to do that, I had this like moment of, oh God! How do you introduce oneself when you’re a, like a… well, the new term is multipotentialite. Have you heard this obnoxious term?

Jorge: No.

Sunni: Well, it’s like if you’re a polymath, or if you just have multifaceted aspects of yourself. It’s not easy to summarize who I am, what I do. So, I always dread the question. But there is a term floating around called multipotentialite, and it just means the person that has many skills and many things that they pursue and many things that they’re interested in. There’s a lot of neuro-diversity going on, so we’re not easily put in a space. So, it’s hard for me to summarize myself.

But I would say what’s useful for people to know for the purposes of this conversation is probably that… I’ll just tell you my role. I am an author and a public speaker and a visual thinker, and a facilitator. Really, a sort of deep-dive facilitator. And a Zen student. And also what I call a Deep Self Designer. And a book coach. So as you can see, my friend, Dave Mastronardi, finally gave me language for this the other day. He goes, “you’re just a creative with a capital C!” And I was like, “Cool, Dave, thank you! Because that kind of helps, you know?” It’s like, I just am interested in a lot.

Jorge: I don’t like the word generalist because it implies like Jack of all trades, master of none.

Sunni: Yeah, right!

Jorge: I love this idea of multipotentialite. I recently heard the word “nexialist,” which…

Sunni: What is that? Like a person at the nexus of lots of things?

Jorge: Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue either. It comes from a sci-fi book, and I’ll put a link in the show notes so that we don’t have to go into it in too much depth here. But I think it’s a similar idea, that you are driven by several different interests.

Sunni: I love science fiction for that. They always give us language that we need, you know?

Jorge: I feel like I want to explore several of the many… what’s the plural of nexus? Is it nexuses? Or nexii?

Sunni: Nexialisms!

Jorge: Several of the different identities that you served us there. Or potentialities, maybe. You spoke of… well, let’s, tackle two of them that I’m especially curious about. You mentioned that you’re a Zen student and a Deep Self Designer. I don’t know if you want to take those independently or if they somehow connect?

Sunni: They do connect, actually. And it’s cool that you alighted in on those two, because they’re the… I think honestly, the most important ones that I do. And they have the most… they have the most liberating capacity of all the things that I do. And they do have intersections, absolutely.

Zen

Sunni: So, Zen is not something you can summarize really at all. It’s such a deep and ancient lineage and an enormous body of practice. But what I find useful and what actually… it was sort of the groundwork for my pursuit of designing another method. And what it did for me was help me understand that the mind is a machine, and it has like projections onto reality all the time. And it has narratives and stories that it constantly creates and recreates and lives into. And they can be very confining, these perceptions of reality. And so when you run into some ideas about reality that are actually created by you, based on your history and your experience, if they cause friction for you, then there’s a sort of place where you can redesign that intersection with reality to create a better reality for yourself.

And I know that’s like a lot to just unload in conversation, but Zen made just sitting, which is… I’m in what’s called the Soto Zen lineage. So literally, you sit in meditation for hours. I mean, I probably sat for 10,000 hours easily, and – not easily, but difficult-ly. But we call it just getting on the cushion, right? So like you just take it there, and then you kind of watch what your mind is up to. And through that process, I learned how I trick myself, how I can have distortions in my belief systems. I think Steve Jobs used to call it a “reality distortion field.” I think he was also a Zen practitioner.

But that laid the groundwork for me to understand, “oh, I have a lot of agency and choice once I understand how my system works.” And you know, like you’re a systems thinker and a design thinker, so of course I was interested in that. And then I just went from that place and started to practice with different methods to support other people.

Jorge: I’m reminded of our mutual friend Dave Gray’s book, Liminal Thinking.

Sunni: Oh, Yeah! It’s so funny you said that. Because I have it, of course — I always will buy whatever Dave makes, but I haven’t read it because I always have way too many books. But I understand kind of the vibe, and a lot of people, when I talk about this, they bring up his book, and I’m like, I should read that.

Jorge: When I first read that, I remember asking Dave about it because I got the sense that there was a lot of Buddhism in…

Sunni: Yeah, I don’t know that Dave knows that he has a Buddhist aspect. I don’t think he’s a Buddhist practitioner. But I have found there are multiple people that actually arrive at some of these deep wisdoms because it’s not… it’s in reality. So, the Buddha was just describing reality. So, anyone can find their own path to that awareness. And so, yeah! It’s funny to me when I work with people, and I go, “oh my God, that’s like a very ancient principle that you stumbled upon,” you know? So I think Dave must’ve done that too. Because he doesn’t like go to the zendo, I’m pretty sure.

Jorge: The path, it seems to me… and here I’m reflecting back to you what perhaps I layered through my own experience onto what you were saying, which is that we experience reality at various different levels. And if you step back far enough, you’re able to contemplate the fact that much of what we experience is in some ways emerging from within us? Or at least the way that we’re experiencing it is emerging from within us.

Sunni: Well said! Beautifully said, yeah!

Deep Self Design

Jorge: I want to bring it back to this idea of Deep Self Design. What I’m projecting onto this or where I think that the two circles in the Venn diagram might overlap, is that, if you understand this – this fact that, much of what we are experiencing is emerging from within us – and you are someone who sees the world through the eyes of design, then perhaps you can do something about it,

Sunni: You do a lot.

Jorge: So what would you be able to do about it?

Sunni: It’s so funny, we’re talking about this because last night I was having this conversation with my husband about workability. So everything… well, I won’t make totalizing statements. I’ll try to avoid them, but almost everything in your internal system is workable. Meaning that it all has plasticity and an adaptation capacity, or a significant amount of it.

This is going to sound very hyperbolic, but the reason I have such confidence in the workability of the system is because I redesigned my own internal experience over the course of… it’s been 15 years now. But the mind that I started with when I started investigating this practice and the mind I have now are entirely different planetary systems.

And I have a complex trauma history, which is relevant because when you have a complex trauma history, you have a whole host of distorted ideas about reality, all of which are workable. And so, for me, it’s like an actually hopeful message. It’s like, “oh my God. Your backstory can be kind of f*cked up, you know?” And you can completely… as long as, to your point, it was a really important thing that you said Jorge, which was, “if you step back.”

So, you have to get some separation and observe, with compassion, your belief systems, and from that seat, it’s like a gentle observation, then you have space with which to work. Often the traumatized brain is terrified of making that separation. It can be, for a variety of reasons. So, that’s why it is a practice, and it’s a patience game, often.

But you can literally redesign your experience of yourself and of the world and of other people and of what’s possible. And the energy that you liberate in that process is insane. It’s absolutely insane how much energy you get when you untether yourself from a lot of distorted ideas about yourself in the world. And that’s why I thought like, well, it’s a design thinking challenge, you know? It’s basically like internal system mapping and then giving people methodologies to support the spaces that they want to loosen up or soften.

I’m very fortunate to have encountered great teachers, really extraordinary teachers, and I’m fortunate to have had the time and the passion to do a deep dive. But it’s like that hero’s journey where you go in, and you come out, and you’re like, “well, I have something I could share.” So, I’m still sorting out how to teach it, how to format it, how to design a methodology because it is not a small thing to try to do, but it’s worth it. It’s completely worth it to try.

Jorge: It sounds empowering.

Sunni: It’s extremely empowering.

Jorge: It sounds like a practice that restores perhaps a sense of agency where you’re not buffeted by the contingencies of whatever happens in everyday life as much.

Sunni: And it’s so important! That message is so important because there are places you go that are scary. And there are fires you have to walk through. And you have to know that on the other side, not only will you be more free, but you’ll be stronger. But you can’t know that going in. Once you get your sea legs and you start to understand, “oh my God, this is like Jedi training!” then you can feel more confident about the outcome. But the early stages for most people is it can be absolutely terrifying. 100%. Absolutely true. I mean, that’s why most people can’t even sit in meditation, frankly because a lot of people do not want to sit with the content of their own mind.

It’s not something that we’re encouraged to do, and it’s not something that we’re taught to do, and we don’t know why we would do it. So we spend a lot of time avoiding that very thing. Understandably. I mean, I understand that instinct completely. It’s… it’s terrifying. But it’s so freaking worth it. It’s so worth it! There’s no question about it. No question! And it improves your life, you know? It improves your relationships with yourself and other people. And really, your relationships are the most valuable thing you have. And your health, and maybe time, you know? So it’s a significant process, but it’s not necessarily for everyone.

And probably you experienced this with your students. There’s what I call a state of readiness, which means that they’re willing to do the work. They’re willing to be honest with themselves and others, and they’re willing to address and hold space for really difficult content.

And if I work with a person and it’s very clear that they’re not actually at that place, then they need to come back. They need to go and come back, you know? Because it’s a thing. And then in Zen, the analogy is when you go to the zendo, and you knock on the door three times, and a monk opens the door, and they say, “go away!” You know? And they shut the door, and then you sleep out in the cold or whatever, and then you come again. You knock, and then the monk opens and says, “go away.”

So it’s a way of saying, if you’re not ready, don’t bother! Don’t come, you know? And that process is a person’s individual journey, and you can’t rush that for people.

Starting the journey

Jorge: You mentioned in your own journey having suffered complex trauma and without getting into it, just thinking that many of us – many folks listening – have… especially over the last year and a half… gone through some pretty traumatic experiences. And with the caveat that you just laid out that not everybody might be ready to undertake such a practice, but assuming that someone would be interested in at least trying to envision the path, where would they start?

Sunni: So the chapter I was telling you I sent to Kate, there are writing exercises, and there are visual thinking exercises. And often, I will just say, you know, you’re in a creation when your energy has become contracted, combative, tight — when you feel conflict, internally. Your body gives you all these signals that all is not well, and it can be a very subtle signal. Say you’re in a restaurant, and a person walks in, and your stomach clenches. That’s an indication.

So, you start with noticing. Just pay attention to what is happening inside of your system because you have to understand that you are the reactor. And the stimulus is out there, but you are the reactor. And so, noticing it’s a huge part of the practice — just to start there.

It’s like when I used to teach visual thinking — and I do occasionally sometimes, still — but the visual thinking alphabet that Dave created, Dave Gray. It’s the basics. Just start with observing where these forms are and draw them on paper. Really, you’ve got to start at that place and notice if you judge it. Because a lot of people will be like, “oh, I should be more brave. Why did I get nervous when the boss came in?” Or whatever. We’ll instantly have a reaction to our reaction. So just noticing that.

So that’s the start, right? And then once you have a relationship with your experience… so you’re like, “man, every time my mom comes over, I want to argue! Like right away! I just want to argue with her,” you know? So you’re like, okay! And so, you notice that. So, you begin to take responsibility for what you’re bringing, and that’s why it’s empowering. It’s so fascinating how accountability is like not sexy, but I’m like, that’s the greatest thing you can do because you’re in charge of your life. You’re driving your bus, you know?

So, then there are exercises that I give people that are really simple. Like just notice that a part of you came online and wanted to argue with your mom. And then it’s really like a design inquiry. It’s like an investigation of, imagine that that’s a persona. So, say that’s a design persona. And I’ve taught it in this way in some keynotes and stuff. So, I depersonalize it, and I say, “just treat that like a persona or an avatar. And just like you would if you were anthropologically studying a user experience. But do it for your own self.” Start to understand that persona and just give it some quality… I mean, it will name itself. That’s what’s so fascinating is that these personas, these internal personas — they give you information. They actually let you know because they’re part of your brain.

So, it’s just about accessing that information that’s in the brain. And I’m saying it trivially like it’s just that. But it’s all there, and so you just get curious. You just get curious and start finding out. And so, over time, I like to teach people to create like a constellation. Like a map of their internal system with all of these different personas so that they can relate to them differently. And when they do that, that’s when it starts getting good.

Jorge: All of a sudden, you start understanding the territory — I would imagine — when map-making. I wanted to clarify, you mentioned Kate, and you were talking about our mutual friend, Kate Rutter, who we were talking about before starting the recording. And you alluded to a chapter. Was that a chapter of a book that you’re working on, or…

Sunni’s new book

Sunni: Yeah, this book… So, as I mentioned earlier, I’m a book coach, and I’m obsessed with books. I could be wrong, but if I had nothing but time and money, I think books are all I would do. Just unpacking and looking at publishing, coaching writers, writing… That’s all I would do. So, you know, I’m published twice, and we pitched this book, actually. It is the Deep Self Design book, and the title was called, The Only Way Out Is In. Like one of the original titles, The Only Way Out Is In. And then the… I can’t remember the subtitle. I have like 4,000 subtitles. But, so we pitched it. So, it was actually in proposal form.

When you want to pitch to a traditional publisher, you’ve got to get your book in a proposal that essentially describes the product for them. It’s unfortunate, but for them, it’s a product. And for you too, really. So, that… it was like 90 pages of just glory, you know, and it took me years. And so, anyway, the way it ended up, and I can tell that story — but at one point in the process, I said, “Kate, can I send you, like, chapter one? And you just see if it lands for you. Like, give me a reader reaction” And apparently, it turned some keys pretty quickly for her. Because she wrote me and was like… she’d had drawn a picture of one of her personas. And I didn’t even ask her to do that. And it was called “The Aviator.” And so, she learned about this part of her that like flies around and sort of conducts the situation and looks from a high level and is very functional, you know, high functioning part, persona. She just got it, you know? But she’s really smart.

So I was like, well… because you got to write to like an eighth-grader, right? That’s the level of communication that you want in books, which is why Brene Brown’s tone is so beloved. So, she just listed that chapter again, and I’m willing to share with anyone. I mean, people need to know how to do it.

And so, the book was pitched to publishers, and there were 17 of them. And then like 12 of them wrote back, which is pretty good. And they all said the methodology was too complex for a typical reader. And I lost my mind because I had already simplified it so very much. That day, I was like standing in my neighbor’s yard, and I was just like, “nooooooo!” Because it’s hard to attract to the marketplace and to still deliver something really of high value. My God! It’s exhausting. So, I have put it down for now. And I started working on another book about confidence because I was like, I can’t. I can revisit this thing. I’m going to f*cking freak out. Yeah. But it’ll emerge at some point.

Taking your space

Jorge: Well, I’m hoping that we’ll be able to read the Deep Self Design book at some point. I’m wondering about something that you said, and again, trying to be kind of practical for the folks listening in and wondering about where we start. I would imagine that doing this sort of internal map that you’re describing here is not something that we can do effectively amidst the hustle and bustle, right? And you spoke earlier about making space. And I just got back from a weekend of camping with my family, and we went pretty far out into the woods. And I was… yeah, it was nice, but I was still surrounded by devices, and I…

Sunni: Oh!

Jorge: I got into a little bit of a Twitter kerfuffle.

Sunni: Oh no!

Jorge: Right? And I’m bringing up the story to say: it’s so hard for us these days to find this space to be with ourselves and to be introspective? And even if we are aware…

Sunni: You have to take it. You have to take that space.

Jorge: Well, how do we do it? Do you have any advice for folks wanting to take the space?

Sunni: Well, yeah. When you do a Zen sesshin, you can’t have books or paper or phones. And so, you’ve got to do like seven days of like 10 hours of meditation. So, that is sacred time — no question about it. But for a normal person, that’s not going to be on their calendar. First, you have to understand that you probably have an addiction, right? If you can’t remove yourself from an object for any chunk of time, that is actually an addictive relationship. So, that’s serious shit, if you ask me. And I don’t think it’s a popular opinion. And I think that it’s also true. So for me, just labeling it as an addictive relationship is step one. And then, you don’t even want to go into, like, it could be an abusive relationship. We don’t even have to talk about that, but that’s in there too.

So, you have to understand that. And you have to just understand what is in it for you to separate yourself from it and give yourself a path. So, can I separate from my phone for four hours? If you don’t want to go cold turkey, just try for four hours and notice what happens in your system when you do that.

And that’s actually part of the practice for Deep Self Design anyway. So, you can be like, wow, I started having FOMO. Or, I start thinking that someone’s going to be mad at me because I didn’t respond to them. So, you get all kinds of information from just that short separation. And there’s a lot of data around… Like it literally keys up your nervous system, being in a relationship with a digital object all the time. It keys up your nervous system.

And so, actually to regulate your nervous system again, which is what camping is kind of for. Camping, when it’s safe and beautiful… the point of it is to actually get you into a different state. To get your regulatory system in a different state so that you can enjoy your life and be present with your family and look at the sky and realize that you’re part of… you are the sky, there’s no difference between you and the sky, you just project that there is. And like, you know what I mean?

So, you have to understand that that space is essential for your humanity and make it a priority. And you can tell people, I mean, there are ways to approach it that are gentle on other people. So you can let people know, “I’m going to go dark for 72 hours. You should know that.” Or, “I’m going to go dark, and then I’m going to have one hour where I look at stuff,” you know? You have to design it for your life and what’s actually available for you.

Sometimes people have sick parents at home or sick kids or whatever, but you have to start to understand the benefit of it. Because I think most people think it’s just like something they would lose. Like, they wouldn’t get… something taken away from them. And I’m like, “no! It’s something you’re giving yourself that is priceless.” And you get amazing ideas. Like your productivity goes up. So, I call it going slow to go fast.

Actually, I read this interesting Nietzsche quote, which I don’t read Nietzsche a lot or anything, but as he said like great ideas are found when you’re walking. And Steve Jobs was… Also, I’m not obsessed with Steve Jobs, but he did a lot of walking meetings. So, If you are a productivity junkie, going slow helps you go fast. And it actually frees up a lot of stuck tension in the body and stuck ideas that you can’t get through, and it gives you solutions and ah-has and insights. So there are huge rewards in it anyway if you need it to be aligned with productivity. But it’s like, dude, we’re gonna die one day, Jorge. Like all of us! And the last thing I want to do is be like, “I spent my whole life on my iPhone!” That is like the worst thing that could happen.

No! And it’s like, if you mess it up, try it again. Just like don’t give up, you know? Go camping again and have a new policy with your family. Get consensus around it, make an agreement, and just find other ways to occupy your time. But it’s a practice, you know? Are you digging this? You’re smiling.

Putting it in action

Jorge: I am. I’m smiling because I’m looking at the clock and thinking, oh man, we’re running out of time, but I don’t want to leave folks with, “we’re going to die someday.” So, I want to bring it back to… Well, you’ve mentioned two things. One is this idea of making space, which, as you were saying, in our modern world often entails not just space but also shielding ourselves from these potentially addictive devices. And then the technologies that they enable.

And then there’s this aspect of self-awareness through — you talked about map-making and using the lens of design to think of ourselves as personas. It sounds like those two are essential to getting kind of a read — it’s almost like the first part of the double diamond diagram. But there comes this moment where we have to do the synthesis work in design, and we have to think through how we’re going to move forward, what we’re going to do about it. So, is there a step three here as well?

Sunni: After synthesis?

Jorge: No, after we’ve done the map and we have understood ourselves.

Sunni: Yes. There’s definitely a step three, which is what I would call the “befriending” step. So, you have your constellation of parts of you, like how many personas are in there, and there’s an average, but it’s kind of infinite when you go in too far. But the next step is basically finding your most active personas. Because, when you wake up, you… I have an active persona, which is like, “oh, I’m going to be really productive. I’m going to be very in touch with a lot of people. make sure that everyone is well-fed.” You know, so I have like a kitchen/caretaker part. Like I have all these personas.

So you can find the most dominant ones – the most operative ones. And then, and you start to learn about them. And then, but the ultimate goal is to make friends with them all. Even the parts of yourself that you do not like because what happens when you allow and support and befriend all of the aspects of yourself is that all of this internal tension that people experience… like people wake up with anxiety, you know, people wake up with self-criticism, et cetera. All of that energy stabilizes and is calm so that your experience relating to yourself is not fraught with tension anymore.

So, you actually have to befriend them, like you would an external child or a person that you care about who lives outside. You do that work internally. And when you do, you spend a lot less time kicking your own ass. I mean, people kick their own asses constantly, you know? And it’s like, I’m starting to understand why is that? And what’s happening there, and how do you appreciate that you’re doing that, but also let it know that you don’t have to do that in order to be smart or in order to be productive, et cetera.

So that is like the biggest step is to befriend all of your constellations on your map. And then from there, it’s like flying, you know? It’s like, there’s nobody in the way. There’s nobody in the way. I mean, there’s life; there are institutions of life that are designed to oppress people. Those things are still there, but the way that we relate to them is very different, and that’s why it feels so liberating.

Closing

Jorge: Well, that seems like a really good place to wrap it up. I’m sure that folks listening in are going to want to learn more. Where can they go?

Sunni: Oh, they can go to deepselfdesign.com. And you’re also helping me. Remember that I need to create these little tools that… I always create tools and methodologies. So, deepselfdesign.com is definitely the home page. And also, sunnibrown.com has a lot of content on it. They can follow me all over social media too.

Jorge: Just not while you’re camping.

Sunni: Yeah, no way. You’ll never see me on that. Yeah, no, that’s me and mother earth when that’s going on, for sure.

Jorge: Well, fantastic. Thank you so much for being on the show.

Sunni: Yeah, Thanks for having me. It’s nice to see you.

Jorge: Yeah, same here.

Categories
Episodes

Karl Fast on Interactionism, part 2


Download this episode

Karl Fast is an independent scholar, information architect, and futurist. He’s the co-author of Figure It Out: Getting From Information to Understanding.

This is the second half of a two-part conversation about interaction and embodiment. If you haven’t done so already, please listen to part 1 before listening to this episode.