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Boon Yew Chew on Roam


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

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Jorge: Boon, welcome to the show.

Boon: Hi. Thanks for having me, Jorge.

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

About Boon

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

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

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

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

Roam Research

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding associations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changes to workflow

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

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

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

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

Closing

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

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

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

Boon: Thanks, Jorge. Pleasure!

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Dan Klyn on the BASIC Framework


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

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

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

Show notes

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

Read the transcript

Jorge: Dan, welcome to the show.

Dan: Thank you.

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

About Dan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dan: right?

The Understanding Group

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

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

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

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

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

“The spatiality of meaning”

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

Dan: Correct. Library science over here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to screens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dan: That’s right.

The BASIC framework

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

Dan: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Responsibility

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

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

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

Closing

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

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

Jorge: You’re not going Meta.

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

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

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

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

Dan: Let’s talk again.

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Dan Brown on IA Lenses


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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.

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Jorge: Dan, welcome to the show.

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

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

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

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

About Dan

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

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

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

IA Lenses

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

Dan: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lenses as conceptual tools

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

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

Dan: Yep.

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

Dan: Right.

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

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

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

Dan: Yes.

Using the Lenses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dan: Yes. Well said.

IA Lenses video series

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

Dan: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jorge: Finding joy in finding out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing

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

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

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

Dan: Thanks.

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

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

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

Dan: Cool.

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Episodes

Nathan Shedroff on Foodicons


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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.

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Episodes

Sunni Brown on Deep Self Design


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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.

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

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Jorge: Sunni, welcome to the show.

Sunni: Thank you.

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

About Sunni

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

Jorge: No.

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

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

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

Sunni: Yeah, right!

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

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

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

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

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

Sunni: Nexialisms!

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

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

Zen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunni: Well said! Beautifully said, yeah!

Deep Self Design

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

Sunni: You do a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jorge: It sounds empowering.

Sunni: It’s extremely empowering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starting the journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunni’s new book

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

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

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

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

Taking your space

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

Sunni: Oh!

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

Sunni: Oh no!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting it in action

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

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

Sunni: After synthesis?

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

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

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

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

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

Closing

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

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

Jorge: Just not while you’re camping.

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

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

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

Jorge: Yeah, same here.

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