Mike Rohde on Sketchnote Thinking

Mike Rohde is a designer, teacher, and illustrator — but you’re more likely familiar with his work in sketchnoting. Mike is the author of The Sketchnote Handbook, which popularized the practice, and the founder of the Sketchnote Army, a showcase of sketchnoters and their work. He’s been described as “one of the leaders of the visual thinking revolution.” In this conversation, we discuss how Mike’s approach to visual note-taking has influenced his work.

Show notes

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Jorge: Mike, welcome to the show.

Mike: Hey, it’s so good to be here Jorge. It’s really fun to talk with you today.

Jorge: Well, I’m very excited to talk with you. I am a fan of The Sketchnote Handbook and of your work in general, so it’s a real privilege for me to have you on the show. I think that many of the folks listening in will have likely heard of sketchnotes, so rather than ask you to introduce yourself, I was hoping that you tell us about your work. Because people might be familiar with you as the person who put s_ketchnotes_ on the scene, but I’m wondering about your work — like, what do you do day-to-day?

About Mike

Mike: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think what you might find interesting at the end is that sketchnoting is a pretty natural outgrowth of what I do day-to-day.

So, I’m a designer, a user experience designer, and I love working in software. I’m working for a software company, and currently, we have two tools that are incredibly powerful. They do search and remediation, or protection of data, but as powerful as they are, they’re also very confusing to use. They need lots of love for their interface and their interaction and their information architecture and even down to wording consistency and those kinds of things. And so, I’m in the process of redesigning those two applications and it’s really, really fun. I enjoy it!

My history goes back all the way to print design pre-internet, where I came through technical school learning how to be… at the time they called us “commercial artists,” but basically a graphic designer. I learned everything really old school. All of the work that we did was all on boards. I used X-Acto knives and T-squares and triangles and Rapidograph pens and things were shot with cameras and printed on plates. Like all these super old-school stuff. I was even fortunate in my high school days to have a little stint in printing, and so, I got to use all the lead-type printing stuff and Ludlows and California job cases and silkscreen. And I just had so much fun playing with all this technology.

The thing that’s interesting about my career is I’ve always had a split personality in a way. So, one part of me is really fascinated with design and aesthetics and those kinds of things, and the other part of me is really fascinated with technology and how things work and why they work and the functionality, so that form and function sort of become melded. And that expressed itself in interesting ways, even in my print design days because I came from the printing side.

Even though I was a creative person and a designer, initially, I was in printing and with students in my design class that I was doing as… I guess, cross training, where they sent printing students to design class, to at least be aware of design. My colleagues are all saying, “what are you doing in printing? You should be a designer!” So I switched my major and moved over, but I always had sort of one foot on the technical side and one on the design, or visual side. I could go on press checks and talk with Pressman and you know, my production file is really tight because I knew what was possible and what was dangerous. So, I would avoid those things that I knew could be problematic.

And then, that turned itself into technology, which is web technology. Got really fascinated by this stuff and started building websites for the fun of it, using terrible tools like PageMill, if anyone’s old enough to remember these terrible, terrible tools that introduced all kinds of useless code. Your code is like five times as large as it needed to be. Started there and then learn how to code by hand and when the industry really took off and it became impossible to like be a casual web developer. You had to devote yourself to it full-time because it was changing so fast, then I made the switch to hiring really good front-end developers who could take my vision, and then I focused on the customers. Understanding what they needed and turning that into identities.

I’m really big into identity. I had many years where I did logo design for small SAS startups, and then their websites. So, I was a little bit like their secret weapon… miniature agency who could do all the… you know, a variety of things, and could talk with them and understand them technically. That’s continued to be part of my life even today, working in software, which is… I think probably one of my first loves after printing.

Jorge: The word that comes to mind in hearing you talk about it is “craft.” It sounds like there’s a… there’s an appreciation there for the craft of making these things. But there’s a generation of folks who might be among the last who studied these things before everything became digitized and you had this hands-on appreciation for what it took to make these things that surround us, right?

Mike: Yeah.

Craft in transitional spaces

Mike: Yeah. So, I mean, that’s very true. I still remember. I would say that’s kind of an advantage. I look at it as being really fortunate that I tend to end up in these transitional spaces — transition between straight print design and then desktop publishing. I lived through that revolution. Then I lived through the web revolution and then I became fascinated by user experience design and the idea that “hey! We can design things based on what people actually will give us feedback on!” Rather than, “I like blue. I like Gotham. I like…” You know, “I like gradients. Let’s just use those!” without any regard to whether it’s usable or understandable, or it causes other problems for the people who now have to live with your creation for 10, 20, 30, 50 years, right? Because you just happened to like that.

Some degree of that is necessary as a designer; you need to bring your best practices and your taste to it. But learning about that was another transition and getting into software design again, yet another transition to see that. And I think there is a real advantage to being that. I think there is a really great book by Dave Gray called Liminial Thinking. Rosenfeld media I think produced that book. And it talks a lot about how do you deal with these transitional spaces and what’s the right way to think so that you can navigate your way through. Because there’s not going to be a map, right? It’s transitional. There is nothing there. You have to kind of figure it out and make it up as you go along and be open to flexibility and adjustment and those kinds of things.

So, having all that old school, like drawing on boards… and I think it comes through in sketchnoting, as I mentioned, because I learned old school like that was the way that I did work. When I went through design school, I was using markers to do ad layouts. I didn’t have a computer to do any of that. I didn’t have typefaces. I had to study typefaces and books and try to recreate them. The advantage is now, on demand, I can pull a piece of paper out and do some sketches and get pretty close to what I want to achieve.

And a lot of that was just simply repetitive practice and doing. And I think there’s an opportunity for even young designers coming up, maybe through sketchnoting or looking back at this old stuff to realize, “Hey! There’s some real value in those crafty or craft-focused techniques that gets you away from the computer.” we’re almost at the swinging point where now the computer is sort of dominating so much. You sort of seek these analog experiences just to get away for a while for a respite, so that you can rest from looking at a screen for a while, right? I think there’s real opportunities in that space as well. I really feel fortunate for the time that I came up and all the experiences I’ve been able to have in my career.

Jorge: One of the things that come across in_ The Sketchnote Handbook_ is that it’s almost like the origin story for how you came to this approach to taking notes. My interpretation of it was that you somehow got frustrated with the constraints of handwritten yet text-based linear note-taking, right? And if I could pick like one word to describe the emotional tone of your book is joyful — there’s this joy that comes across on every page in these very compelling drawings that speak to being made by hand. So, this notion of craft comes across. It’s very different than a book that has been laid out in a hard-line tool like Illustrator or something like that.

I’m wondering the degree to which you actually use sketchnotes in your day-to-day work. Or rather, let me ask it more broadly: how do you use notes in your day-to-day work?

Sketchnoting as a team sport

Mike: That’s a great question. I think part of something else you need to know about me is I tend to be an experimenter. I’m always trying things out and if there’s something new, I’ll explore it. I’ll pick up something new on a whim and maybe I end up not using it, but I think sometimes the hit ratio is good enough that I just keep doing it. So, I have a variety of ways that I capture. And something that I’ve said in the past is that for me, sketchnotes sort of leak out whether I like it or not.

So, as an example, I did a three-year, contracting stint with a financial services company here in Milwaukee. And I worked with developers who were working in an agile methodology. And part of what we did was trying to figure out how do we take this old software tool, take the good things from it, and then re-imagine it with all the new technology and capabilities we now have that didn’t exist when it was made. And so the solution that we found was, you know what, white boarding works really well for team wireframing.

And so, what we would do is queue up what’s the feature that we want to add, and then we would have a discussion and maybe we’d show the old app and how it did it. Talk about what was good about it, what could be improved, and then we just… as we’re having this discussion, I would be at the whiteboard with a couple of whiteboard markers and simply listening to people — the developers, or the product owners — talking about what they’re thinking.

And I would start drawing what I was hearing on the board as software, like pages and flyouts and buttons and structure. And maybe I do that in black and then as we had further discussions about what’s good and what might not work, I would start annotating in these colors. So, you could sort of separate the drawing from the notes.

And I would listen and turn and say, “Hey, did I capture what you were intending here? And the best part of my day was when a developer would say, “no, you don’t exactly have that right.” So I would offer the marker and they would come up and they would draw their idea or add their notes, right? And it became sort of a team sport.

So that’s an example of where the concept really was sketchnoting. We’re compressing and simplifying information and ideas in a compact way. Ultimately, the idea behind those whiteboards was number one, we’re having a group discussion to try and solve this problem. There’s a ton of smart people in this room that are smarter than me in a lot of things. I’m not going to be able to solve all these problems by myself; it would be foolish to think I could. And there’s an idea that once ideas start happening, other ideas start following. And so, there was this opportunity to really get the best idea.

And then finally, once it’s drawn on the board everybody feels heard, right? What they said was heard. And then ultimately we take a photo — we would take a photo of this board. It would go into a shared folder. If I got to it first, I would make my mock-up with Photoshop or Sketch or whatever tool we used at the time.

But if I didn’t, then a developer could just pick up the sketch because they were in the meeting and they would just start building based on what they saw and then call me over and say, “Hey Mike, I built this thing. What do you think? Does this work? Are there any issues?” And we would work through it. Because there were like 40 or 50 developers and me as that one designer. I was a huge bottleneck!

So, this is in some ways also a way to try and alleviate the bottleneck that we potentially could run into. And it seemed to work pretty well on all those levels. And it really… it seemed to engage the developers in a way that I haven’t seen before. Where it was less of me doing something and throwing it over the wall and saying, “now make it!” It was all of us working together. Probably the best compliment that someone could say was, “I really love that feature in the app. Who designed it?” And I would say, “We all did!”

You know, I had a part … in some ways, we couldn’t even like, you couldn’t even separate the pieces. Like, who said this or that, or like, who contributed to what? We all did it as a collaborative group of people coming up with an idea. And sometimes the best features were the ones where, “okay, this is a round seven, the dropdown to choose something.” And we would really fight through every possible angle on this feature. And sometimes those are the best features. So that would be an example of a public way that notes would be captured.

Mike’s bullet journal

Mike: Privately, I follow the Bullet Journal methodology to some degree. I don’t do everything that Ryder Carroll prescribes, but I also know Ryder and I know that he doesn’t feel like you need to take everything that he offers. You take the parts that work. And so for me, I lay out my book in this way: the left page has got a bar on the left, I call it “The Daily Plan” bar and I plan my day. And then I have the day of the week and the date, and then down the left are all the tasks that I hope to accomplish that day. I try to do about three per section.

I have one for work, one for my little side business where I do illustration and such. Teaching. And then one for personal, which would be, “got to go to the bank,” “have to go buy new toilet paper,” or whatever. Those are all on the left. And what I’ve learned over experimenting with this concept over, I don’t know, 5, 6, 7 years, is that if I didn’t allow for another place to do notes and thinking and writing I would just go backwards to other pages where there were holes in the notebook and I would draw little notes in there. So what I realized is, why don’t I just build in space to draw? I can be luxurious with my notebooks. They’re mine! Who says that I can have a blank right page? Maybe I never fill it.

What I found was that it sort of encouraged me to write notes or to do drawings, or I might be watching a TV show like Ted Lasso, and I was really inspired by something. I had a little chunk of space left, so I doodle a little drawing of the TV show so that I could remember maybe lessons learned in that TV show. All in this blank… I call it the log page. It’s just open for whatever I want. I’ve even found cases where let’s say I’ve had a busy week and these log pages are filled up for a couple of weeks and maybe I run out of space or I need some space. I usually flip backward in my book and find an empty page and just grab it and then use that as a drawing space.

So even if I passed it by two, three weeks ago or a month ago, typically I’ll flip back to it, find it, and then do a little drawing there. And then I’m pretty good about updating my index in the Bullet Journal for months and key information.

Probably the challenge with any kind of this hand-drawn stuff is digital management. How do I manage this stuff digitally? Because it does take another level of capture. You need to at least take a photo with your camera — and it’s gotten a lot better. I mean, our phones are great for this. But honestly, I have not chosen a place where the stuff would land. I haven’t developed a workflow for taking photos and organizing the notes that I take. And I feel like that’s something that I could iterate on and make better than it is now because I don’t really have a canonical “that’s the place where all my stuff is” thing for hand-drawn analog notes. It’s not like I couldn’t do it, it just hasn’t been a priority. But that’s something I’ve been thinking about.

The last place I take notes is I use a tool called Ulysses on the Mac. I like it because it’s Markdown, which forces me… it’s sort of a constraint that forces me to be simpler. I like that it’s cross-platform so it’s on my desktop Mac, it’s on my phone, and it’s on my iPad. So wherever I am, I can jump around and all the same, information is available. I’ve considered attaching images to that. I guess that’s… it is possible to do that. But typically that’s where I do my typed notes.

I will say there’s an interesting by-product of being a sketchnoter for so many years that it actually has changed the way I take my typed notes. The way I think about my typed notes is a lot more like sketchnotes and I just happened to be typing instead of drawing. So, I’m listening and I’m forming ideas about, “what is the topic that we’re talking about and how would I explain this discussion and compress it in a simple way?” Maybe it’s bullet points or a simple paragraph.

All these processes that I would use for sketchnoting are now like filters built into… even when I type the notes, they’re still being filtered by the sketchnote thinking, which is this idea of like, what’s the big idea? How do I compress it? How do I simplify it if possible and make it work in a way that when I look at it again, all those memories come back and it’s sort of like adding water to a dehydrated something, right? It suddenly comes back to life, like a mushroom. You put hot water on a mushroom and it gets big again, right? It comes back to life.

So, that’s sort of the aim and even in my typed notes… so, oddly enough, the sketchnoting stuff has sort of weaseled its way into every part of what I do, whether it’s drawing on whiteboards or my Bullet Journal or even my typed notes seem to have been impacted by this approach to note-taking.

It doesn’t have to be beautiful

Jorge: There’s so much there that I want to pull on and unpack because you’ve shared a lot and a lot of it sounds really enticing and intriguing. But this last piece about typing, that’s really fascinating. And what it made me think of was something that you do emphasize in the book, which I wanted to ask you about, which is the difference between structure and art; this notion that many people who think about drawing, I think that they focus a lot on making beautiful drawings and making drawings that are somehow… like people will be judging your artistic ability somehow.

Whereas I get the sense from the book and also from what you’re saying here, that really the underlying cognitive effort is in somehow structuring the thing that you are taking down and… doing it visually as one way of doing it, right? But you want to be able to somehow on the fly — and this is quite a skill! — you want to on the fly, be able to capture the big idea so that you can then start making sense of the thing, right? And that can work on text, it can work on the whiteboard, it can work on a notebook. So, I’m wondering about this structure versus art scale and the degree to which that may be what’s influencing the way that you’re taking text notes.

Mike: That’s a really interesting observation. You know, I think I present it in the book because I realized the audience reading it will feel like, “I’m not a great artist, so I can’t do the sketch noting. I won’t even begin.” That was the question or the challenge that I was addressing in the book. And so, my approach was, “Hey, you can draw more simply than you think with these shapes. And it’s all about the ideas and like the structure of getting the concepts down and if then on top of it, you could make it look beautiful, well, that’s…” You know, I think I described it as the whipped cream and the cherry on top, or maybe gravy and mashed potatoes or whatever it was. I was like, it’s like a nice thing to have, but it’s not a requirement. Which then everyone who’s really hung up on being a great artist now can let go of that. And, “oh, I can just do really simple imageries with these shapes and that’s enough,” right? That was a huge goal for the book.

But I think you’re right, that there is something about the importance of structure and I think it all comes back to what we started with, which is this combination that I’ve always had of technical and art sort of blended together. That’s always been a theme throughout my life, and I think it’s… I can’t think of who the person whose quote this is that “the form follows function,” right? It has to at least work first, and then you can think about making it beautiful. But there’s nothing wrong with it being both, right? They’re not mutually exclusive where it can only function or it can only be beautiful. Why couldn’t it be both things? That’s the ideal. I think that’s sort of what I aim for is: first let’s make sure we capture the core structural things so that we’re getting the message, and then on top of it if I can somehow manage to make it look interesting, that’s like an extra win.

An interesting thing you talk about is “the big idea,” sometimes in our note-taking, maybe the big idea doesn’t come until after the notes are taken. Like, there’s this assumption that you should know what the big idea is when you start. Well, maybe you don’t! Or, even a wilder idea: maybe the person speaking — if assuming it’s a speaker or someone writing a book — maybe they think the big idea is one thing, but in reality, in your context, from your perspective, it’s totally different. Like, you would take their information and sort of look at it from another angle. You could tell somebody something who’s from one country and they look at it much differently than someone from another country simply because of their background and history and language and what things mean. Like something innocuous in one culture could be offensive in another, right? You have to be careful with that sometimes.

And so, there is an opportunity to take the idea and reframe it in the way you think and that might not come until the end. After you’ve taken in all the ideas and looked at them and held them in your mind and say, “well, actually, you know what? The big idea is this thing!” And then, you could sit down and summarize it. I think of my grade school teachers all saying, “I want you to rewrite this in your own words, Mike!” Or, “you need to summarize these ideas.” And I think a summary and the ability to explain it in a compact way, shows that you’ve absorbed and understood it. And then, you’re open to, like, maybe you have it wrong. So, when you re-present it, you would say, “here’s what I hear. What do you think?” And then they’d say, “well, you’re missing this part!” Or, “there’s a little nuance here that maybe you didn’t understand.” You know, “in this case you can do this, but in that case, you can’t,” right?

So, that opens you up to modifications and improvements, but at least you’ve got the foundation. It’s so important to get the foundation right. You can’t go to the next level when the foundation isn’t set. So there’s lots of metaphors I just laid on you there, Jorge. Sorry!

Seeing what you (and others) mean

Jorge: Well, yeah. But the broader point, I think, is that the process of putting pen to paper or stylus to tablet, or what have you, is in some ways a process of discovery where you might not be entirely sure of what it is that you’re trying to capture, but the process of doing it will reveal something about it. And my sense is that it might be more true… this notion of revealing the big idea and perhaps even the structure on the fly might be different for a generative scenario, like the whiteboard you talked about earlier, where you’re with your colleagues designing something that doesn’t exist yet. You’re trying to make it come to life. That’s slightly different than trying to capture a lecture, which has been pre-structured by a speaker, right? So, in that case, what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to grok the structure that the speaker has conceived of. But I think this generative piece also has the structuring on-the-fly thing, but you’re trying to discover the structure as opposed to capturing it, right?

Mike: Yeah. Or maybe you see that part of the structure makes sense and the other part, which we assume makes sense, doesn’t make sense and needs to be reconfigured, right? There’s some logical failure in how it’s fitted. I think that’s the one thing that I really like about visualization. The thing we discovered in those whiteboard sessions: it’s a lot easier to get in sync with being on the same page than if we just simply talked about an idea, and you talked about an idea… I think the term is… It’s probably going to come to me later, but it’s this idea that we both think we agree, but we really are not exactly in alignment. And by drawing, you get a little bit closer. It’s still not perfect, but you get a little bit closer to revealing what your thinking is and someone else can then modify it and it gives another layer to that whole discussion.

Jorge: Well, I can see what you mean, right? Which is like… you’re talking about cultural differences; words might mean a different thing to different people, even within the same organization. Like we might have a different understanding of a term, but if you can put it down — especially if you’re making software — if you can sketch out a screen, all of the sudden I see what you mean in a way that is not as open to misinterpretation as the words might be.

Not everything is a nail

Mike: Yeah, it adds another dimension, I guess, maybe is a way to think of it. And probably the other thing that strikes me as we talk about all this is maybe the… I’m a big believer in finding the right tool that fits the job. It can be dangerous if you’ve… so that the danger I see around like Zettelkasten and note-taking and all this stuff is, you could just assume that that’s the hammer that’s going to solve all your problems. And then everything starts looking like a nail. And you could maybe inadvertently get trapped in a certain kind of way of thinking or structuring where you’re actually missing a lot of opportunities because you’re sort of fitting it to this approach.

Not that there’s anything wrong with those approaches; I think they’re great. And this idea that… I think there were some studies that were done not too long ago where they tested typists versus longhand note takers. And so they had like a TED Talk and they had two groups. One writes longhand, the other one had laptops. And they said, “we want you to take notes of the talk.” And so they did this talk, I think Miller and Oppenheimer — if someone wants to look it up — are the two researchers.

And so, they ran the test and what they found were the people that had keyboards ended up typing verbatim notes because they were almost fast enough to type as fast as they could hear. And so, they sort of fell into this idea that “well, I could probably type most of it.” And they started typing everything. But it was verbatim; they weren’t really thinking about what was being said or thinking about the ideas, maybe as much as the other group.

The other group almost immediately said, “there is no way long hand I can keep up with this amount of information!” So they started to do analysis and started capturing information. And it wasn’t even sketchnoting, it was just writing on lined paper. And so, they tested them, and I believe the immediate tests that they took right after the talk, they both were about in the same range. But a week later, or some period of time later, they came back and were tested and they found that the people who had to analyze and write longhand remembered far more than the typists.

And then, they realized, “well, wait a minute! We should warn the typists that ‘you’re probably going to take verbatim notes, so don’t do that!'” And they ran the test again. And it didn’t matter because as a typist, maybe you just fall into this trap of like always trying to type almost as fast as someone speaking, and then you sort of don’t go into this analysis mode. That’s what I was getting at with this sketchnote thinking, is that even though I’m typing, I’m sort of doing the longhand writing — I just happened to be using my fingers to type. And I think maybe for me I never learned how to properly type, so I have made up my own typing finger positioning. And I look at the keyboard… I do all the things you shouldn’t do. Maybe because of that, it actually led me to this different way of note-taking. I don’t know for sure, but…

Jorge: Maybe there’s a little bit of friction involved like you were saying; it’s slower so you’re less inclined to try to capture things verbatim.

We’re actually coming up on the end of our time together, unfortunately. And I wanted to ask you… on your website, you say that your word of the year is “restore.” And I wanted to ask you about that. What do you mean by “restore”?


Mike: Yeah, that’s a great question. As everyone knows, we’re two years and some months through the pandemic. For me, we did pretty well through the pandemic. We… I didn’t get COVID until I think two weeks ago. So, we did 26 months of COVID-free and then it just got us. But the thing that I found was the uncertainty in the previous job that I was in… I was with a giant company before the company I’m with. And they decided to do… rather than layoffs, they would do furloughs. And we would do five weeks of part-time, three days a week.

And so, there was some baked-in uncertainty like, “oh, what does that mean? Does that mean when I come back, I won’t have a job?” Or… I wasn’t too worried about that because I also do things on the side completely unrelated to design, which is… I like illustrating books, I love teaching sketchnoting and teams how to sketchnote. And so, I leaned heavily into those, like every opportunity to present I did. I wanted to get really good at presenting and teaching through Zoom. So I thought, “well, every time someone asks, I’m going to accept and learn.”

And so, I just started to do lots of illustration, lots of teaching, and I just cranked it up. And I was really busy for two weeks, in addition to my day job. So I… we came back from the furlough, everything was fine, but now all of a sudden I had accepted all these invitations and started doing a ton of extra work more than I normally would. And the pandemic kind of made it possible because there was nowhere to go and it kept my mind off of what was happening, and… but then I got to the end of it and I felt… at the end of 2021, I was just like, “I’m tired!” Like, “I don’t know that I want to do all that work. I’m going to actually make some goals around how many things am I going to do in 2022?”

So, I set upper limits on how many teaching engagements, and how many illustration engagements, simply so that I wouldn’t like totally burn myself out. I think I felt like I… I wasn’t burned out, but I was just tired and needed a rest. And I felt like I need to dial back. So for me, restoring was coming back to something closer to that pre-pandemic mindset where I didn’t feel compelled to accept everything and do all these projects. And so that’s kind of what it means to me.

Jorge: Well, now I am doubly grateful that you accepted the invitation to be on this show, knowing that you’re not accepting as many things. So, thank you for sharing that, Mike. Where can folks follow up with you?


Mike: I would say the best place to go would be that’s my website. You can see my books there. Got a bunch of book samples you can download for free. My blog is there, which I’ve been running since 2003. I don’t post to it as regularly as I used to, but I do occasionally put things there. You can sign up for my email newsletter there. And then probably the place I’m most active on social is Instagram since it tends to be visual, I tend to post things there. So that’s probably a good place to interact with me and see work or reach out and say, hello. I’m, you know, I’m @rohdesign and all those places, Instagram, Twitter… I’m doing a little more LinkedIn. So, you can find me in those places. And I’m happy to discuss things with you.

Jorge: And rohdesign is R O H design, right?

Mike: Yes, exactly.

Jorge: Right. Well, awesome! I’ll include all of those in the show notes. I was thrilled by the opportunity of talking with you. Thank you so much for sharing.

Mike: Well, you’re so welcome. This was really a lot of fun. It was a fun discussion, and I’m excited to hear how your audience reacts to it and what they think.

Jorge: Before we go, I have a brief commercial announcement. Information architecture is more important than ever. And yet, many people in organizations don’t know much about IA. So I’ve launched a new online workshop to teach the fundamentals of information architecture. You can check it out at That’s Thanks!


Sam Ladner on Managing Research Knowledge

Sam Ladner is a sociologist, UX researcher, and student of productivity and the nature of work. She’s been a researcher at Amazon and Microsoft, and is currently Senior Principal Researcher at Workday. Sam is the author of two books on research, Practical Ethnography and Mixed Methods. In this conversation, we discuss sociology and ethnography in the context of organizations and how to manage the knowledge generated by research.

Show notes

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


Jorge: Sam, welcome to the show.

Sam: Thank you Jorge! I’m happy to be here.

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

About Sam

Sam: Sure. I am a sociologist by training. I currently work as a senior principal researcher at Workday which is an enterprise software company. I’ve had a few roles in big tech and a few roles in design agencies. And prior to that, I was of course in grad school and a journalist, actually. I started out as a journalist… a tech journalist, years ago.

So I decided that tech journalism was very short and I didn’t get a lot of analysis that I wanted to get out of my work, so I decided to go to grad school. And I became a sociologist of work and technology. And that’s what led me into this role. I study how people work and how they use their technology while they are at work.

Jorge: That’s fascinating. I’m wondering about the connection between journalism and sociology. Like, were there things that you could bring forth from journalism to sociology?

Sam: Yes, but less than I had thought, actually. As a journalist, I kind of saw sociology and journalism as very similar. As I studied more, I realized quite quickly, actually, that there were a lot of things that I had to do as a journalist that were problematic. The way that you do interviewing, the way you’re always hunting for an angle or a quote. The way that you kind of corner your participants or your interviewees or subjects in your daily deadline grind.

You don’t do that as a sociologist. You spend a little bit more time with people and you interrogate yourself and your position in relation to them. And you spend more time analyzing and thinking and not looking for the angle. You don’t do that in sociology. You… well, you shouldn’t do that in sociology. You probably can’t get away with it for very long.

So, interviewing is a skill, so I did bring that forward. Many years of interviewing before I became a sociologist was good. But I had to kind of relearn a few of the things that I used to do.

Jorge: It sounds like both have to do with somehow unpacking what’s going on with people with the different intents somehow. That’s what I’m hearing.

Sam: Yes. You know, it’s interesting, you know, the book, The Corner, by the producers of “The Wire”? “The Wire” — the show — is based on The Corner, which is… you could call it creative non-fiction? I’m not going to call it an ethnography because it isn’t exactly. But I read The Corner many years ago and the amount of depths that they went in as journalists was huge. And the amount of structural analysis that they did was also uncharacteristically deep for journalism. And then I re-read it after I had done my own training and I realized that there was a lot in there that was different. They weren’t connecting it to existing ideas. I mean, there’s… you know, a couple of centuries worth of thought on what brings somebody to work on the corner, that these journalists either didn’t know about or didn’t care to mention. So, as sociologists, you’re also trying to figure out how does this instance — these people, their motives, and their desires and their thinking — relate to what we already know about groups of people. Journalism doesn’t do that. They don’t try to add to the knowledge base per se.

Jorge: So, spotting patterns over time?

Sam: Over time, but contributing to theory as well. You know, abstract explanations, as opposed to concrete instances. This person works on the corner for these reasons. Okay. How does that relate to other people having worked on different places that are either not the corner itself or maybe not even a corner, maybe there are other places that people go to work? How does that relate? So, those kinds of questions aren’t really something journalists answer.

Jorge: Speaking of contributing to the knowledge of the field and of books, you yourself have written two books, Mixed Methods and Practical Ethnography, right?

Sam: Correct.

Jorge: Can you speak a bit about those books, what they’re about, what their goal is?

Mixed Methods and Practical Ethnography

Sam: Sure. Yeah. My first book was really an answer to… there wasn’t a book that could help other people do what I was trying to do. I was looking for a book to help me do what I wanted to do and there wasn’t one. So, I decided as was a way of thinking or learning or figuring it out, I might as well write it. And so that’s what I did. So, it’s a guide to doing ethnography in the private sector. If you work at an institution like a University, it’s a very different context and the demands are different. The expectations are different. When you take that method and you apply it in the private sector, there’s a lot of things that are introduced that are not talked about in academia and academic ethnography.

So, for example, you don’t have clients in academic ethnography, but you certainly do in the private sector. So how do you grapple with that? How do you deal with that? That was really what that book was about, is how to adapt the method in such a way that it stays true to its original intent to elucidate cultural patterns, and to take the emic position that is the position of your participants, but still be able to do it within the context of a private sector organization.

My second book was actually coming from the same place. I was teaching a class with the Ethnographic Practice and Industry Conference, EPIC. Actually I’m going to be teaching it again, coming up the end of this month. I haven’t taught it in a while so… the class was trying to use ethnographic research design, but adapt it in order for you to be able to be a little bit more mixed methods. And again, there wasn’t a book that would allow you to do that. So, I thought, “you know, I think I should write this.” And again, it was me thinking, me working it out in my own mind, what’s important, what’s relevant. What do people need to know? What do I need to know? How do I think about this?

And I know that there’s something to it when I start asking myself questions and I just sit down and start writing and then I think, “okay. It’s worth understanding this more deeply and probably it will help other people.” So, that’s where the second book also came from was basically the same thing. In that case, it’s about mixing methods. And there’s a lot of people who work in the applied sectors, whether it be for-profit or government or not-for-profit who do mixed methods research all the time, but maybe don’t… you know, they probably encountered some challenges, doing it. Not sure why those challenges exist or where they came from or how to grapple with them? So, it’s like the missing textbook that helps them understand these are the essential qualitative differences between these two approaches. And this is how you can deal with those things: these are the kinds of problems you’re going to encounter, and here’s some techniques to deal with them.

Jorge: This is probably going to be a very newbie question, but folks in the audience might be wondering about the difference between ethnography and sociology.

Sam: Oh!

Jorge: How do those relate?

About ethnography

Sam: Well, ethnography is a method; sociology is a discipline — for starters. Anthropologists like to claim ethnography as their own, which is not altogether wrong. But there is a vibrant history of ethnography in sociology as well.

Anthropology is pretty much known for its like “exotic” locales for which it’s really grappling with in today’s world. When sociologists were doing ethnography, it was much more typical to see it in less “exotic” locations. Urban sociology, for example, understands… like The Corner is a good example of what might have been an ethnography hadn’t been done by a sociologist and added a little bit more theory to it.

The University of Chicago has a long history of doing sociological ethnography. There’s even an ethnographic work in some of our people that we think of as theoreticians, such as Pierre Bourdieu for example, looking at how taste and distinction plays itself out in practice. So, for example, he looked at how people eat. The difference between having a piece of cake cut and put on a piece of fine china with a silver fork versus sitting in its paper packaging on the counter and put onto a paper plate. These are thick descriptions that you would hear from Clifford Geertz’s classic work on this. This is a thick description, but it was a sociologist that did that kind of work. So, ethnography is a method. It doesn’t get owned by any particular discipline, but you don’t see it much out of sociology or anthropology.

Productivity and the nature of work

Jorge: In your website, you describe yourself as a student of productivity and the nature of work. And I’m very intrigued by that phrase. How do you mean? Like, in what way are you a student of productivity?

Sam: I am endlessly fascinated with how people get things done, why they want to get anything done. Why would you think productivity is important? I spent a year between my master’s and my PhD working at a think tank where I exclusively researched measuring productivity and innovation, which is this whole other realm. Like, how do economists talk about productivity? We use those words a lot. We talk about productivity a lot and it turns out economists have a very crude measure typically of what counts is productivity. It’s revenue per worker. So if you happen to be rich and well paid instantaneously, you’re more productive. That’s how magic works. I find that fascinating, that we take that kind of writ large, kind of wholesale.

I also really want to know how people like… you know, when you sit down to do something, whatever it is — maybe you’re cooking a meal, maybe you’re about to do your laundry, or maybe you’re about to write a paper or do a design or something — you set your tools all up, you know? What are your tools? What is your mise en place, as it were? Why? Where did that come from? You know, I find it enjoyable to do that work myself and I’m endlessly fascinated how other people do it and I just can’t get tired. I’m not tired of it. So, I’m I’ll be a student of it forever, probably.

Jorge: So I’m very curious to hear about your own mise en place when you’re doing…

Sam: My own?

Jorge: Yeah. When you’re doing this type of work, I mean… we’ve talked about at least two types of work. One is the research work, both in ethnography and other methods. And you’ve also talked about writing books. And my expectation is that there are different approaches to doing both of those, right? And I’m just wondering how you tackle them. Or perhaps another way to think about it is, how has studying how other people can be more productive influenced your own productivity?

The transom from data to insights

Sam: I think I’ve learned that I approach things quite differently, I think, than most people do when I do sit down to start something. I was literally just doing this today. I was kind of nudging another researcher to start thinking already about the outcome that they’re looking for. So, the way that I think of it it as a researcher, you bring in data and it goes through some sort of a barrier or a transom of some kind, and it comes out the other side, in insights. And I think about that barrier as like one of those big bubble frames that you use as a kid, you know? Where you’ve got like hundreds of little bubbles that come out of this big crane, you stick it in the water and you stick it up to the wind and the bubbles come out the other side, right? That frame? People don’t think about the frame as being so important. But I’m constantly thinking about that.

So, I’m thinking, “okay. So if I start by asking people questions in this way, with these tools, with these recording devices, with these questions … does it look like coming out the other side? Does it turn into a film? Is it evocative that way? Does it turn into structured data that I could maybe quantify or at least sort and filter? Does it turn into just a rich picture? Like, what does it turn into? And so I think a lot about that transom, that filter, that bubble maker. So, when I’m doing my mise un place for a new project, I think, “okay, where am I going with this?”

Case in point, I’m giving a presentation internally. We have an internal… kind of a conference, I guess you could call it. And I thought about doing a talk on this months ago when I started having… we redid our front yard and, we put rocks mostly in it. Got rid of the grass, you know, we have a few plants, but they’re low water, desert-oriented plants. And it’s like a rock garden now, with a few plants in it, except for we have this huge tree. And it started raining leaves down on these rocks. I was like… I had a suspicion that this was going to happen. Like I thought, “okay!”

You know, you don’t know until you do it, right? “Oh God, you know? I’ve got to get up there and sweep up all those leaves.” And I was doing it so regularly and with such wringing of hands and it made me think of so much of how work functions. Like it feels useless and it feels like tiny bits. I’m literally picking up leaves with my hands to some degree, you know? And then sweeping and moving. And I thought, “oh, you know that this is really… this is an interesting testament to work!”

And so, I started taking pictures and then I started keeping track of how many Trader Joe’s bags I filled up, worth of leaves. So I have the numbers of Trader Joe’s bags over time. Turns out I probably… that’s not going to be a great chart. But I thought maybe it might be a good chart, so I took it. And I thought, “oh, taking pictures is a good thing. I might be able to tell stories through taking pictures.” So, I took pictures and I put little captions on my pictures and then I took some video and then, you know, I thought, “oh! A video might be good. Okay. I’ll take some video!” And then I made little notes on the video.

So I was thinking, “there’s a transom here. I’m passing things through this transom. What’s coming out the other side? What bubbles? What’s the shape and form of these bubbles that I want?” I didn’t know, right? So I took a bunch of different shaped bubbles and I used those. That’s basically how I think about my work. And I don’t know if a lot of people think that way because they’re not thinking necessarily about generating knowledge, which is all I ever think about.

Jorge: What I’m hearing by this analogy of the transom is that we somehow have to start with the end in mind. Is that a good way of putting it?

Sam: Yeah. And “somehow” is a really good word choice, because you don’t necessarily know what the outcome is going to be, right? So you become… if you’re too proactive with your mise en place with designing your transom, you become very narrow in what kinds of outcomes you can power. And if you’re too open-ended, it becomes voluminous and unworkable. You have to figure out what is the right altitude, and it’s almost impossible to know when you start. Almost always impossible to know. So you don’t have to like tolerate some ambiguity for longer than you like.

Starting with a goal in mind

Jorge: If you’re working towards writing a book, you’re going to be doing certain types of research, capturing certain types of notes, grouping them in certain ways that might be different if what you’re doing is researching a new feature for a product or something like that, right? Like, the goal of writing a book calls for certain types of ideas expressed in certain ways that are different from the sort of insights that you’re going to want if you’re redesigning a product, for example.

Sam: Yeah, it’s true. However, what’s interesting… well, maybe this is kind of a product of how long I’ve been in the same space, but I find that the general categorization that you mentioned, those categories actually don’t change radically regardless of what I’m working on. It could be because I am very much focused in the area of work and technology. Like, I haven’t really written outside those lines.

I’m trying to think of a good example. If somebody asks me to do research on something completely new — I don’t know, hardware, ear pieces, okay? I’ve never done any work on earpieces. And if it’s a consumer product, I have no categorization really ready to go there. But it’s rare these days that I really have to reinvent my categorizations, generally. These codes, or tags that I use not all of them are going to be relevant to every single project, but I kind of already know generally what categories might be… you know what I should start looking for. Whether it be the testing of this feature, or discovery for this new idea, this new product or writing a new book. They’re all going to be very similar. There’s going to be overlap between them.

Jorge: You’ve spoke earlier of the… I don’t remember the exact phrasing, but you spoke of the creation of knowledge or the building of knowledge, and it sounds like you’ve developed a… I’m going to call it taxonomy of categories that could be maybe a map or some kind of organizational schema for this knowledge. I’m just going to call it “the knowledge.”

Sam: The Knowlege. Yes!

Jorge: Is that taxonomy manifested in any kind of system? Like, do you have an app where you track these things or is it just internalized?

Tagging across platforms

Sam: Oh, no, it is very real in multiple places. Once upon a time, everything was very analog. But now, even my book reading is mostly digital, partly because of this power that it offers. I read on Kindle. I read on Overdrive. I read on Libby. And when I code in tag, those tags will be similar to the codes and the tags that I have in Notion, the tags that I have in Mendeley, which is an academic citation management system. It even corresponds roughly to my own personal information architecture and my own files, so the folders may have similar names. Actually, they pretty much do have similar names.

I read on Pocket. I push those to Readwise. I push my Kindle highlights to Readwise. Those have tags that are the same, more or less. I mean I, you know, innovate obviously, and some of these tags are very, like, not relevant to “work” at all. Like I have a whole section on, you know, health and fitness. I’m always reading about new workouts and things like that. And so I can find something like, “oh, I know I read an article about high intensity resistance training.” I can find that very quickly.

Jorge: Do you have a centralized way of doing that? Or do you have to remember like, “I remember that I saw that article on Fitness in Pocket versus Notion,” or whatever. Do you have a way of finding things that isn’t…

Sam: Yeah, so articles and non-academic, web-based reading I’ll push to Pocket, which in turn pushes to Readwise. Books will be in Kindle and they’ll push to Readwise. The highlights will anyway. Mendeley is academic. So if anything’s academic, it’s going to be in Mendeley. If it’s a peer reviewed paper, for example, I know it’s going to be in Mendeley. And I can’t push it too to Readwise, unfortunately. And then Readwise gets pushed into Notion. So if I don’t remember where it was or what format it took? I might probably start in Notion in my Readwise database and Notion and I’ll find it. And let’s say, I find it’s an article. I’ll be like, “oh, that’s in Pocket.” I know where that is. I’ll go find it.

Pruning your taxonomies

Jorge: How about refactoring some of these tags? I mean, what you’re describing sounds very familiar to me in that I do something similar, and use in fact many of the same tools that you’re calling out there, including, Kindle, Overdrive, Libby and Readwise. And one of the challenges that I find is that my taxonomy of tags is continuously evolving and I feel like every once in a while I have to go back and prune it a little bit because it can get out of control.

Sam: Yes.

Jorge: Have you found good ways of doing that given that it’s distributed among all these different systems?

Sam: Yeah, that is… “prune” is a very good word for that because it is pruning, right? When you prune a tree, it’s not going to stay pruned. Like you have to go back, right? You have to prune it again. So, I try to treat it not as a big, one- off session where I sit down and I prune all my tags. I try to keep it as an iterative process on a regular basis.

I’m trying to think of a good example and I can’t off the top of my head, so I’ll just make one up. But let’s imagine that my older saved files, right? Let’s say something I read in grad school in 2004 or something like that. I found I’m like, “okay. There’s this article that I read. It’s a peer reviewed article. It’s in Mendeley.” I look at the tags that I added in there, and they seem archaic to me. I might add simply a new tag that is a little bit more of my contemporary taxonomy, just when I see it. I won’t go through… I mean, I’ve literally got 4,000-5,000 citations in Mendeley. I’m not going to go through all of those individually. But when I see it, I will update it. And because it’s not a field, I won’t be displacing the existing tag if I add a new one. I don’t feel compelled to go back and delete old ones, necessarily. I’ll just augment and add an additional tag. I’ll do it on a regular basis. Just a little bit of pruning, you know, every couple months.

Jorge: I mean, It sounds like the objective is not necessarily to have a system of perfect tags, but to have one that is practical and usable, right?

Sam: Correct. Anybody who’s tried to make the perfect system will discover quite quickly that they’ll outrun it. So I don’t really remember when I kind of gave up on that, but I did. I was like, “nope! There’s no need to worry about it. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be… as you say, practical, usable.” You know, something that is actionable and it produces good enough results. Doesn’t have to be perfect. I think it was probably about a decade ago that I gave up on perfection on that one. I’m glad I did because I just kept going with my imperfection and it turns out over time it yeilds great results.

Jorge: Yeah. One of my favorite words is Herbert Simon’s neologism, “satisficing.”

Sam: Satisficing, yes!

Jorge: It’s like, yeah, it satisfices, right? It does what it needs and I’m not going to spend more time on it than necessary to keep it doing what it needs.

Sam: In the literature, satisficers are far more happy than maximizers, which is a fascinating finding. So that’s your answer right there. Which should you be? Well, if you want to be happy, be a satisficer.

Jorge: That seems like a great place to start winding down the conversation. I’m wondering, what — if anything — folks listening in my learn or might apply, particularly from sociology, that would help them in their own productivity… but in a way that satisfices, right? Like, without going overboard.

Thick description

Sam: You know, I think thick description was a really… I mean, that’s actually from anthropology, I’ll be fair, that’s not from sociology, but close enough. Thick description and understanding what that means will help you in your own personal note-taking and information architecture. And what does that mean? It means: I’m sure everybody here has looked at old notes that they’ve taken and, you know… complete confounding wonder, “What did I mean by this? It’s a single bullet point and it doesn’t mean anything to me!” Anthropologists knew that this was one of the reasons why most research is not very good; it’s because it didn’t have enough thick description.

Thick description doesn’t mean writing deeply every single time about every single thing. It’s about choosing the things that in the future will have sufficient ambiguity to be meaningless unless you give the context around it. The classic example that Clifford Geertz gave was “the wink.” If you see somebody wink, it’s not the same as a blink. If somebody blinks, that’s an inadvertent movement of the eye. And if you don’t have thick description, a wink will, in your notes, will just appear exactly the same as a blink. A wink has cultural context, significance, message, a web of significance as Geertz says.

So, knowing when and where to dive deep into thick description is very useful, even if it’s just a few sentences. I actually have to force myself to do this. Still to this day, I’m like, “oh, you’re not going to understand what this means in two minutes. Just add another sentence. Just one sentence.” Or, “oh, and the reason I the write, this is because…” you know? If you say things like, “John objected to this thing in the meeting,” what? Why? Who’s John? I don’t… what’s he objecting about? And I don’t even know who John is. “John P.,” you know, “when he joined the meeting objected to speed at which we had already made a decision,” period. Way more useful.

Jorge: Yeah. If I might I reflect that back to you, what I’m hearing is that, whenever we’re making a note — whether it’s a note to self or a note meant to be used by other people — it doesn’t suffice to capture things let’s say verbatim. You must also add enough context for that to make sense.

Sam: Exactly. And sometimes verbatim is even worse. Because you actually can get away with less, if you do the context instead of the verbatim. Because the spirit of what happened or the thing that you want to remember isn’t a long verbatim transcript. It’s just simply a sentence or maybe a short paragraph that gives the context. So we tend to think of verbatim as more complete, and an actual fact is often less complete.

Jorge: Yeah, it might be factual, but that doesn’t mean it’s truthful, somehow.

Sam: Exactly so, yes.


Jorge: Well, this is very, very helpful. Thank you so much, Sam. Where can folks find you?

Sam: You can find me on LinkedIn. That’s probably the best place to make a connection because I will accept it, I’m sure. You can also find me on Twitter, @sladner is a good place to find me. If you want to look up some of the work that I’ve done, you can just Google me; I come up in various places, including my own website.

Jorge: Fantastic. Well, I’m going to include links to all of those in the show notes.

Sam: Sounds good.

Jorge: Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Sam,

Sam: It is my pleasure. And I am excited for your book. I really… when’s it coming out by the way.

Jorge: It’s scheduled for 2023.

Sam: Oh gosh. That’s such a long way away.

Jorge: Well, we’re just getting started now, so…

Sam: Well, that’s good. I’m excited. I will be paying attention to your pre-order; when that drops, I will buy it.

Jorge: Thank you so much. Well, thank you for being here again.

Sam: My pleasure.


Oliver Caviglioli on Graphic Organizers

Oliver Caviglioli is a former headteacher of a special needs school. Now, he’s an information designer and author of several books about education. His latest book, Organise Ideas, which he co-authored with David Goodwin, explains the practice and science behind using graphic organizers to teach and learn.

Show notes

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


Jorge: Oliver, welcome to the show.

Oliver: Hello! Delighted to be here.

Jorge: Well, it’s a real treat to have you here. For folks who might not know you, would you mind please introducing yourself?

About Oliver

Oliver: Yes! I’m someone who twenty years ago left education. I was the headteacher of a school for children with special needs — extremely affected special needs. So, I spent a lot of time looking at the real fundamentals of communication and particularly visual communication. And then I became… I didn’t quite know what to call myself.

I started translating some of the very academic books and research papers for busy teachers, so they could grasp the message quickly — and I hope attractively — clarifying some abstract concepts in very direct ways. Which included not just graphics; it included looking at language. So, I was starting to become quite a student of editorial design. You know, what people have learned works well in newspaper and magazine design.

Jorge: And do you have been consulting since then? What is the work that you do after leaving education?

Oliver: Well, then became a trainer, and I wrote a couple of books about 20 years ago. I’m embarrassed by them now, but we’re always embarrassed by our earlier work. And, over the last five, six years, I had a breakthrough in 2008. I went to Vizthink, a three-day course on visual communication staged by Dave Gray of Xplane, the American Xplane company. And I was the only educator there in amongst a couple of hundred people from around the world. Many of whom from Silicon Valley were sharing with each other how they use visual communication. Even though they’re colleagues in Silicon Valley, I thought you know, a couple of PhDs each. I found that fascinating given that the people I was communicating with in schools were people of the complete opposite intellectual end of the continuum. But underneath that, we had the same distinctions, the same principles of communication. And from that three-day course, I went back to education and I saw immediately how there was such a powerful set of assumptions in education that continue to make whatever they were communicating unbelievably complicated.

Jorge: They being the teachers?

Oliver: Yeah. The way they write. The way they communicate. There’s an assumption that as they develop intellectually and learn more about their profession, the more complicated their writing became. Whereas, you and I know if you really know something, it means you’re able to communicate it more simply because you know what the key sentences are, or the key messages are. And so, I decided I was ready to start writing a book. And luckily for me, there were… I’m going to jump back! I’m going to jump back all the way before I was a teacher.

My father was an architect and I know you’re an architect. And so you may giggle when you think of this, but my father was also a topographer, book illustrator… And so everything before his eyes was about design. And so I had daily lectures — sermons — about why that’s good design, why that’s bad design. Everything from a door handle, to the color socks I had, will it match the shoes, everything. It was an incredible education. It was so overwhelming, I decided not to follow that course. But you know, it never left me.

So, I was always addicted to fashion and television design and graphics books. So, when eventually I used that information when I professionally had to communicate in visual formats to the children, I found there was a natural marriage. And then what happened was I thought I could write a book. Or rather not my book, I would illustrate someone’s book. There were two cognitive scientists in America who wanted to write a book about the six most effective strategies. And because they’d seen what I was doing on Twitter, they invited me to do it with them.

But of course, as soon as I had the chance to illustrate it, I couldn’t help myself saying well, “Show me how you’ve organized the content? How are we going to navigate through?” If you’re going through a website, there’s certain things you need to keep in mind. But it seems as if none of those principles are at work when we write a book. So I really started investigating books. I mean… let me just give you one example. You open a book and I was always frustrated. I look at the top and I want to know what chapter it is and what number it is. But often they’ll tell you the chapter, but they won’t tell you the name of the chapter. When there’s a reference, you have to go to the back, keep your fingers in the book, and at the back, it tells you all the references by chapter numbers. So you go back to where you were reading and he doesn’t give you a chapter number. It just gives you the chapter title. Then you have to go to the front of the book to marry up the chapter title with the chapter number.

It’s just enormously frustrating and I can’t believe no one seems to have addressed this. And there are many other issues, but that was just a fundamental one. So I started inventing… when I say inventing… applying what I see on the web. Applying what I see in signage, wayfaring, and applying it to a book, which was really great fun.

Jorge: And you’ve recently written another book, which is the reason why we’re talking today. It’s called Organise Ideas. And in hearing you describe your trajectory, I can see how it converges onto the subject of this book. And rather than have me mangle it, I was hoping that you would tell the listeners what the book is about.

Thinking in metaphors

Oliver: When you look at any books on study, the word organization is a low order phenomenon. So, if a student buys a book on study skills, it’s organized. It’ll tell you what to put in your bag, how to eat properly, how many hours of sleep you need… low order management skills. Now, they’re very important, but only recently have psychologists come to the realization or rather the acknowledgment that organization is at the heart of learning.

There’s one particular model that is very elegant because there are three sections. One, you select what you’re going to concentrate on, and all learning is at the basis of attention. No attention, no learning. The model is: select, organize what you selected, and then you integrate it into your long-term memory. And all of that has to do with meaning-making.

So, there’s many technical aspects to do with organizing… signage of navigation, but behind those technical tactics, so to speak, we should remember the primary aim is human beings are meaning-makers. And the primary way in which they create meaning is whatever’s new in front of them has to connect to what they already know. So, I wrote the book in that way.

And of course I had to model what I was talking about. So, the book is full of kind of navigational aims and strategies. And it starts off with… and this may tie in with architecture because just before we started recording, you were talking about the many ways that architectural training makes you very appropriate to enter so many other professions, because architecture itself involves so many things. Systems, navigation, urbanism, affordances, anthropology.

Well, similarly, there’s lots of different professions that have looked at how we organize information. Psychologists, for example… I don’t know if any of your readers have read Lakoff and Johnson; it’s a linguist and a psychologist. In 1980s, they wrote a book called Metaphors We Live By. Now, we all know about metaphors and we tend to think of them as being something to do with poetry or literature. These two people arrived at how we structure our thoughts, which I think it would be useful to your listeners because they have to bear that in mind when they’re designing things.

When we’re young, before we have language, we try and understand how the world works. For example, with liquids. We have a big jug and we have a cup. And either our parents, or later we do, we play with water. We fill up the cup with water and something so obvious takes place that we’ve forgotten it. And we’ve never had a word for it. We noticed that the more liquid there is in the cup, the higher the level.

And as young children, toddlers, we say in England, we have this experience repeated again and again and again, not just with liquid, but with sand, when we put objects into big containers… the more objects, the higher the level is that internally, we create this physics. We create what’s called folklore physics. We arrive at a principle, and it is: more is up. More is up. And as a result of that, we recreate conceptual structures.

When we talk about someone’s superior moral standing. But that’s a metaphor! There is no superior. I feel under the weather. Because you see up orients towards godliness and the heavens, and we know that down… eventually, we feel down psychologically or physically. In fact, we physically feel so down, we end up being buried under the ground because we’re dead.

We have a complete continuum from down to up. And we apply it in the most abstract of concepts. And another one, which is really fundamental to a lot of design work, especially if you’re talking about processes, is when we’re young we realize that wherever we are, we always are where we are. We start where we are. Psychologists call this “the source.”

And we want to go somewhere. And in order to get from where we are to where we want to go, there’s a path, and we… to travel along that part takes energy or effort. Psychologists call this the “source-path-goal,” but it’s called the “path model.” And so in the path model is the source of all our structures for progress. The flow chart, the Gantt chart, the whatever complicated chart… is fundamentally no different. It’s an elaboration of I’m here, I want to get there.

And that’s what processes are. They’re just two of the fundamental metaphors that we have. And by the way, they’re called metaphor, but they’re called primitive metaphors… so primary, pre-linguistic, they shape everything that we do. And they’re spatial.

Now, let’s go to neuroscience. Neuroscientists put some electrodes on mice and they wanted to know, are mice and rats… are their brains, do they go like a sat-nav: left, right, right, left, left, right. Or do they create a mental map where they have a general view of the whole scene? And what they found is that, and we have it as well, in the entorhinal cortex in our brain, it’s as if whenever we tred on seemingly projected triangles that form a hexagon, our brains light up. That’s why animals know where they’re going and can go back to where they come from and they can navigate, and they can find their stash of food. And that’s how we orient ourselves.

But the fascinating bit is… and I’m becoming increasingly convinced and there are some Nobel prize winners who’ve been down this route, who think this entorhinal cortex is grid cells that tell us where we physically are in space is how we organize our ideas. And so, the fundamental mechanism — metaphors that we have — are spatial in context. We talk about, “this thing’s too slippery to hold onto. I want to construct an idea. Let me give you a step-by-step…” They’re all spatial metaphors.

In fact, whenever we use a preposition — in, on, near, after, under — all of them, unless we’re talking about objects in the world, whenever we use them about ideas, it’s a metaphor. It’s a pretend or make-believe world, which is seemingly almost the only way we can deal with abstract ideas. And abstract ideas, like anything which isn’t physical in front of us, we have to use these metaphors as if they’re objects.

Making and sharing models

Jorge: If I might reflect it back to you, what I’m hearing there is that we create models of what we experience and these models are informed by these very base metaphors that we formed through our experience of the world. So we layer these metaphors, conceptually onto these more abstract ideas, yeah?

Oliver: Exactly so.

Jorge: And in the book, you cite lots of research from different fields that point to this notion that we learn better if we somehow articulate these models in a way that can be discussed with others. And the book makes a case for doing that visually. Is that correct?

Oliver: Yes. What I tell teachers, because teachers are word people, and they’re often frightened to learn a new way of communicating. But what I say to them is when they speak, if they listen to their words, they are constantly using visual metaphors, spatial metaphors. In essence, they’re describing diagrams. Something’s above, something’s left, something’s the next stage.

And the thing is, if you describe a diagram, it’s very hard to get that picture in your head. It’s far easier to show them the diagram. So, I ask them… I invite them to consider nearly most of the things coming at their mouth are spatial metaphors and it is far simpler to show them the spatial metaphor as a visual model.

There’s been lots of research to show that you can give students text or you get them texts and a well-formed appropriate diagram, not decoration. And those who are given both understand more deeply and retain the knowledge for longer. Because the thing about language… words are glued together with syntax. And so kind of the tease — the taunt — I offer teachers is… so, on my course, I put them through an exercise where they fail to understand my simple description of something. It’s a hierarchical structure of an organization. And then I show them the diagram and it’s so obvious.

So, having suffered from syntax, they’re ripe for me to ask them to consider the possibility that in some instances, at least if not often, the concepts they’re trying to teach are far, far simpler than the complex grammar and syntax they’re using that we’ve reached to it to express it, to explain it. And after having had the experience themselves of suffering under my… I design the suffering specifically, they’re open to that possibility. If I said it without their prior experience, I think they would think my claims were outlandish.

Jorge: My experience as a teacher myself is that we give a great deal of priority to both written and spoken language over visualizations.

Oliver: Yes.

Jorge: And what I’m hearing here is that we might be able to teach more effectively if we use both, right? If we use both language and visualization.

Alleviating cognitive load

Oliver: Yeah! And just before I go into it, I just want to say there’s another aspect with talking. In cognitive load theory, which is I think what graphic designers have always understood instinctively. And I think they were the first to start reading about it because I read about it in graphics manuals way before teachers got hold of it, is that our attention span is very short. And so one of the things that stops us understanding someone explaining something is what’s called a transient information effect. It sounds far more complicated than it is.

When you speak the words that you speak disappear. They don’t hang around. As soon as you say that they disappear. They don’t almost have any life. You know, I say to you it disappears, it disappears. And every word you disappear has to be hung on to and connected to the new words. So you would get an increasing load. The complexity of syntax and the transience of the spoken word means we’re really going uphill.

The simple diagram — and there is a danger with diagrams; is they’re complicated, they can be too complicated, and if people aren’t used to them, they get frightened by them. So, the secret to using diagrams when you’re teaching is to develop the diagram slowly and make sure, always, you’re absolutely clear that all your listeners know that when you’re speaking, they know which part of the diagram you’re talking about.

You may think it’s obvious. You need to go near whatever you’re using, a screen or whiteboard whatever, and physically touch and point to the area you’re talking about. That way, your listeners aren’t wasting precious attention or working memory in thinking, “which part is he talking about? Where does it go? What now? Where are we?” Always trying to catch up. You point to the area of the diagram, the diagram is not complicated, it builds up gradually, they’re absolutely clear where you are, what you’re referring to, so all their attention is understanding the words and the spatial relationship of that small part of a diagram. Really clear, really simple.

Then you’d say… you may ask a few questions to make sure they’ve understood. You might ask them to talk to each other and summarize what you said and what they’ve seen. Then you leave the part of the diagram up with a few key words, they would then elaborate on those key words, making them into sentences to explain to someone else.

So we’re using human beings’ natural, not just facility, but urge to communicate meaning to somebody else. And in doing that, of course, they create meaning for themselves. So it’s reinforcing. They’ve had a break from your talking. You say, “that’s great!” You might question one or a few people, always check for understanding, but, let’s move on to the next part.

You may even say, to stimulate their meaning-making, “what do you think I’m going to move and talk about next?” You get a few ideas. “Oh, that’s interesting.” Then you move on and you do the same process and you take them step by step. You don’t do your bit and hope they come along with you.

Drawing for learning

Jorge: I’m thinking about the distinction between teaching and learning and what I’m hearing is of the great value in teaching by using these graphic organizers, as you call them in the book. And I’m wondering about the use of graphic organizers by the learners themselves. In other words, having the students draw the diagrams. Is that also a thing?

Oliver: Absolutely. So, yes, there’s something called a generational effect. If you create one yourself, you are meaning-making. And, let me tell you the secret to learning and it’s something students hate when they’re confronted with this fact. And we do them a disservice by not telling them this. The more cognitive effort you exert, the more you learn. There are no free rides in education. In fact, there’s a bit of irony and tension in that the better communicator you are, the easier it is, and the less effort they have to exert in receiving it, the less likely they are to learn it and retain it. So we learn and we retain information when it’s meaningful and the meaningful state is arrived at by working, wondering, linking, connecting, hypothesizing, testing, talking, judging. So that’s really the critical bit.

So yes, students should create them. But there’s never a real easy answer. One of the… I’m going to use two words that maybe people don’t like. One of the big insights that’s happened in British education is the idea that novices don’t think like experts, and experts don’t think like novices. So, it’s very difficult and unproductive to ask a novice, and by a novice. I mean, someone could have been a Ph.D., but if they encounter a bit of information that’s not in their field and it’s unfamiliar to them, they’re a novice. So when you encounter an unfamiliar piece of information, it’s very hard to be able to map it, to create a graphic organizer.

That process is always more productively engaged in if the teacher first of all, gives you the main concepts. I sometimes think if you go to a new town you’ve never been to before, and you have a guide, the last thing you want the guy to do is to overwhelm you with details. You just want something like, “well, listen, we’re in the town square. There’s a church. Over there is the railway station. The river’s behind you, and the football grounds are over to the left.” So, all we’ve got are four reference points, then we can go and explore. We can explore the details and we can then connect the details to these four main reference points. If. you come along to the town straight away and you’re on the outskirts, then nothing makes any sense. You don’t know what a major reference is. Because you’ve got your eyes to the ground, everything is street level, nothing stands out.

So what the expert does, they’re able to go up in a helicopter and say, “there you are! There the four main points. Look at them!” Then you can go down to ground level and you can then search out the details. But you’re always navigating by those four reference points. So that’s kind of my way of answering it. There’s never a simple answer with teaching. Yes, creating your own is just what you need. But if it’s completely unfamiliar, they need some guiding navigational points.

Jorge: Yeah, I’m hearing a couple of things there. One, this last thing that you were talking about, the reference points, I’m reminded of a quote by Richard Saul Wurman, who said that you only understand things relative to things you already understand.

Oliver: Absolutely so.

Jorge: Yeah. And the other of which, I wanted to point out is that it might sound like there’s a contradiction in saying that the greater the cognitive effort you expend, the more you learn, and then we’re talking about tools that ease learning. But what I’m hearing about the graphic organizers is that the intent is to shift the cognitive burden to the truly difficult parts of the material you’re trying to learn as opposed to the learning process itself. Is that a fair read?

Leveraging the Goldilocks effect

Oliver: Yeah. If you consider the learning process often has to surmount the load of hanging onto someone’s talk, transmitting information, and getting through the complicated syntax of writing or speaking. In that sense, yes. There isn’t a contradiction, but there’s a dynamic — there’s a tension. It’s very frustrating, but many of these issues, people turn and talk about the Goldilocks effect. You know, not too much, not too easy, not too hard. So as a general rule for learning, it’s most people need to have about an 80% success rate. Because as humans, we like doing what we are good at, so make sure people succeed. They want to know what comes next. But if it was always too easy… we know that we remember things through effort.

For example, it sounds very old-fashioned, but it’s pretty much an agreement now that one of the complicated skills thinking that we have analysis, synthesis, et cetera, et cetera: they’re all born from knowing things. You cannot use critical thinking skills when you have no knowledge of the content that you’re analyzing. And so a great deal of intelligence is actually… and we find it terrible to acknowledge, is down to a memory. We can have as much access to Google, but unless, you know something you don’t know what to look for. Which goes back to Richard Saul Wurman. So there is a balance to be had between knowing things sufficient that you can be more intellectually engaged with unfamiliar material. Make it too easy, and you don’t remember anything? We remember what we struggle over.

Jorge: Yeah, Make it challenging, but don’t make it impossible, right? Like if I were to teach my students in Spanish and none of them know Spanish, I’m making it challenging for them, but they won’t understand anything, right?

Oliver: Another way of looking at it: teaching in Spanish is an extraneous load. It is a load. And it’s extraneous in as much as, it doesn’t aid the learning of the concept. So, the little attention span that humans have got, what’s called working memory, devoted entirely to the core bits of knowledge you want them to learn and don’t give them any other tasks or burdens, like speaking in Spanish, writing in complicated fashion, having a typeface so small, they can’t read it. All those peripheral challenges that create cognitive efforts, take away from the limited bandwidth we’ve got to concentrate on what you want them to learn. It helps the teacher be really clear. What do I want them to learn first? What’s central? By the way, did you notice that spatial metaphor? What is central?

The four structures underlying knowledge

Jorge: Yeah, they come up all the time, don’t they? We’ve been talking about teaching and learning, and the book is explicitly aimed at teachers, but as I was reading it, I kept thinking these are skills that have applicability well beyond the classroom. And I’m wondering what, if any, your experience has been with applying these ideas outside of explicit learning environments?

Oliver: Well at the 2008 VizThink conference, I spoke to Dave Gray, the founder of and he’s completely devised these incredible visual instructions. And he creates a metaphor, a mini world, on top of what is to gather attention, to create analogies, feelings of understanding. But underneath it, it’s often either a radial map showing a central idea and all the orbital connections or it’s a variation of a simple flow chart. Underneath the complicated graphics … and I read a lot of infographics, I can see what they are fundamentally — and I’ve analyzed the information we have in school, and I’ve seen many other people do it in other spheres — and there’s pretty much agreement that there’s four sorts of information.

Or rather, there’s four structures underlying knowledge. Let me just go through them. The first one is “defining things.” Which is the whole and the part, or chunking. Chunk up, chunk down. The tree diagram, a mind map, anything like that where we look at the relationship between the part and the whole, which is also called nested knowledge. And it goes all the way back to Aristotle when he talked about categories and the subcategories and super and subordinate, all that stuff. The bits and the whole.

Another major structure is “comparing.” This is the learning skill that all humans have, whether they ever go to school or not. We learn by comparing. Comparing two things in front of us, or comparing one thing of what we already know. Always comparing. It’s the bedrock of learning. So we’re always comparing. Which of course was the ideal advertising structure: before and after! Before, my clothes were this dirty. After, I tried that soap, they’re just sparkling and clean. Before and after. It’s still one of the most powerful ways to explain something. A process.

Those two are to do with things, generally. And there’s another two to do with processes. One is “sequencing”: temporal connections. And then, and then, and then, and then… and it could also go towards continuum, you know? So, sequencing. And then the next one seems to be the same thing, but it’s not. It’s “causal connections.” Just because something precedes something doesn’t mean it causes it. And of course, that’s often the reason for many children to have fights on the playground because they don’t understand that just life isn’t like a billiard ball. Something’s happened way before, which could be said to be causal.

So, that’s defining, holding the part, comparing, sequencing, and cause and effect. Although I grant you if you’re not talking to an education audience, the sequencing and the cause and effect in many instances can be depicted the same way. It’s essentially the node and the arrow. And I’ve read some research to show that, this was some 20 years ago, the world is sufficiently global now that everyone’s absorbed the metaphor that the arrow means from here over to there. And it wasn’t obvious to many people. It seems as if that’s what it means, only because we make it mean that, and we were born into a culture where that was one of the things that we learned. But it’s pretty universal now, a node from here to there. Which of course goes back to my childhood psychologist called source-path-goal. A path model. Here to there. So, if you have that and you go and look at complicated… an infographic, just one of those, if you whittle it down to three, just one of those three things. Or, of course, a hybrid where some of these tools could be nested in a bigger tool.

For information designers, underneath the idea of what you want to communicate in the audience and the colors and the style, and what’s fashionable, and what’s wanted… underneath all that, there’s like a skeleton. Am I defining something? Am I comparing two things? Or am I putting things in motion? Really simple. And I find it enormously useful. Because I use it when I start analyzing new information and I’m wanting to depict it. So when I read complicated educational books and theory behind me, I’m always constructing these simple models.


Jorge: Well, I thought that the book did a great job of presenting that skeleton. And more importantly, as a designer myself, I have used diagrams that fit into one of those four categories. And I think a lot of us are familiar with the difference between something like a concept map and a fishbone diagram. But it was very useful not just to see them organized themselves so that there’s some kind of method to the madness, but also to see pointers to the underlying research that explains not just how these things work, but why they’re effective. And I thought that the book did a great job. It really brought the ideas to life for me. But, for folks who would like to follow up with you, what’s the best place to find you?

Oliver: On Twitter I’m @olicav, which the first three letters of my two names, so O-L-I-C-A-V. And my website is And there I’m in the middle a network of other people I work with and you’ll come across all that work. If you do, introduce yourselves and we can follow each other and I’ll come learn something of your worlds as well.

Jorge: Well, fantastic. It’s been a pleasure, Oliver. Again, the book is called Organise Ideas, and for the US audience have to point out that organise has the UK spelling, with an “s.” And we haven’t mentioned this, but it’s co-authored with David Goodwin. And like I said, I loved the book and recommend it.

Oliver: Thank you very much.

Jorge: Thank you, Oliver.


Dan Brown on IA Lenses

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.

Show notes

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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.


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.


Annie Murphy Paul on The Extended Mind

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.


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 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.


Nathan Shedroff on Foodicons

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.


Sunni Brown on Deep Self Design

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.


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.


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 And you’re also helping me. Remember that I need to create these little tools that… I always create tools and methodologies. So, is definitely the home page. And also, 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.


Karl Fast on Interactionism, part 2

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.


Karl Fast on Interactionism, part 1

Karl Fast is an independent scholar, information architect, and futurist. He’s the co-author of Figure It Out: Getting From Information to Understanding alongside Stephen Anderson, who was featured in episode 39 of the show. In this conversation, Karl tells us about what interaction designers can learn from cognitive science. We had a lot to discuss, so this episode is the first of two on the subject.


Mags Hanley on Career Architecture

Mags Hanley has worked in digital for over 25 years. She’s had leadership roles in information architecture, product management, and user experience design. Now, she’s helping designers find their career paths and build leadership and information architecture skills. In this conversation, we discuss Career Architecture, the focus of her current coaching work and subject of her upcoming book.