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Howard Rheingold on Tools for Thought

Howard Rheingold is an eminent author, maker, and educator. His work has explored and defined key aspects of digital culture, including the use of computers as tools for mind augmentation, virtual communities, and social media literacy.

In this conversation, we discuss computers as extensions for our minds, Douglas Engelbart’s unfinished revolution, basic literacies for interacting in information environments, and the resurgence of Tools for Thought.

Photo by Joi Ito (CC BY 2.0)

Show notes

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

Transcript

Jorge: Howard, welcome to the show.

Howard: Glad to be here.

Jorge: It is such an incredible honor and privilege for me to be hosting you in the show. To give you a little bit of background, I got into web design and making websites in the mid-1990s. And at that time, I was living in Panama and trying to connect with this global zeitgeist of people who were into this stuff. And your name kept coming up. And I remember the connection with HotWired and the Whole Earth Catalog.

But it was really the book Tools For Thought that made a big impression on me. It really reframed the work that I was doing in two ways. First, it taught me that there was a history to this stuff, and it also expanded the frontiers of what I understood I was doing in designing for the web. And I wanted to start by thanking you for your contributions to that zeitgeist, to the way that we understand ourselves, and also by asking you: how did you get interested in the use of technology as a way of augmenting our cognitive abilities?

Technology for augmenting cognitive abilities

Howard: Well, I’ve always been interested in it. In fact, I wrote an autobiography for a show of my artwork at the Institute For The Future, and in that, I went back to my senior thesis at Reed College in 1968, which is about the use of neural feedback in consciousness. So I was interested in the fact that they had hooked up the brainwaves of Zen meditators and saw that not only did they emit a lot of the alpha frequency, but that you could teach people — or people could teach themselves — to emit more of the alpha frequency. And I thought that electronics was a much finer tool than chemicals for altering consciousness and also a good tool for exploring consciousness.

So, I’ve always been interested in the connection between mind and electronic tool. But more specifically, in the early 1980s, I talked my way into a job writing at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, which was really where the graphical user interface was developed and where Steve Jobs got the idea for the Macintosh. And there were a lot of geniuses there, doing fantastic things that a lot of people didn’t know about.

And around 1982, I think it was, Time Magazine had on its cover the person of the year was the personal computer. And I read the article, and it was… there was a lot about the young Steve Jobs and the young Bill Gates. But where was Doug Engelbart? Where was Xerox PARC, for that matter? Where was John von Neumann? Alan Turing? Boole? Babbage?

There was a whole series of people standing on the shoulders of the work of others that led to the personal computer as we know it today. And I thought, “this is a story that ought to be told.” And so I started writing it in, I think, 1983. And it was published in 1985, and the book, for reasons I won’t get into that have nothing to do with me, sank like a stone.

So I’m very gratified to hear from people like you — which I do all the time — that the book actually influenced the way people thought about using computers. It is much more gratifying than the money which would’ve been spent by now.

Jorge: I came across the book — in what I think is the second edition — which came out around the year 2000 if I’m not mistaken.

Howard: Yes, 1999.

Jorge: I came across that edition of the book, and one of the things that stood out to me was that there was a lot of really revolutionary innovation happening in the 1960s and seventies, particularly if one thinks of where computers were before then. You know, batch processing and this idea that computers were these large mainframes that you connected to through things like time sharing. And then, shifting to the people that you profile in the book like Doug Engelbart and Alan Kay and all these people making these radical transformations. But then it feels to me like there was a long stretch where the innovations that were happening were more evolutionary, and you highlighted that Time magazine. I think that at the time that that came out, computers were becoming more mainstream. And I’m wondering, what happened? Like, what happened after that initial burst that led to that period of maybe less radical innovations and more kind of like stabilizing of the thing?

Howard: Boy, this is just a guess at that, but Alan Kay used to say, “we know where the silicon is going.” So, the people who created the graphic user interface and Engelbart’s group that created that kind of augmentation, they knew that the power of the hardware itself was going to become much more powerful. And in fact, Engelbart’s famous 1968 “Mother of All Demos,” I believe that the RAM, the active memory of the computer that he used, was equal to probably what is used to maintain one icon on a smartphone today. It was remarkable what they did with very little.

So, yes, you can show a mouse on a screen clicking on hypertext in 1968, but you’re not going to have high-resolution graphics or sound. You’re not going to have a million times more powerful that you can hold in your hand until the silicon catches up with it. So, I think that has a lot to do with it. The template for what personal computing could become was really obvious by the end of the 1970s. If you look at Engelbart, it was obvious in 1968. But it did take quite a while for the computer chips to be powerful enough and inexpensive enough to make the kinds of things that billions of people use today.

Engelbart’s unfinished revolution

Jorge: I remember you writing something about Engelbart saying that the tools should be coupled with language, methods, and training.

Howard: Yeah, he had a concept he called HLAMT: “Humans using Language, Artifacts, Methodology, and Training.” My initial interviews with Engelbart led to a long-lasting conversation with him. And from time to time, he would point out that the artifacts, as I just mentioned, are millions of times more powerful than the ones that he worked with at the Stanford Research Institute. But the language, the methodology, and the training really haven’t caught up with it.

And I think that we’re now on the verge of… and that’s all psychology and sociology and organizational theory. It’s really not about hardware or software; it’s about how humans use these artifacts. And there’s beginning to be more and more of an understanding on the scientific side and more and more interest on the side of people who are interested in developing tools for thought for understanding. How does the workflow of thinking happen when you have these tools that magnify your capabilities? There really hasn’t been a fraction of the amount of research on that as there has been on the development of the tangible tools themselves.

Jorge: When I read about this, where my mind went was that we seem to have expended — and by we, I’m thinking collectively of the industry — we’ve expended a lot of effort in making computers… The word we use in the industry is more “intuitive.” Like, weave them into the fabric of our lives. So, I’m wearing a computer on my wrist, and I have one in my pocket, and they’re all very easy to use. And there seems to have been a lot of effort expended in making the training part of it and the language… we’ve adopted the language as a result of using these things, but the training… we seem to have designed them intentionally to not need training. I’m wondering if we’ve given up any capabilities because I get the sense that Engelbart’s vision was very ambitious compared to where we are, even with some of the most advanced tools today.

Howard: People often talk about Engelbart’s unfinished revolution. You know, when I think what really blew up this disparity that exists today between know-how and the capabilities of the tools was the web. And I’ll use a simple example. People today can ask any question, any time, anywhere, and get a million answers in a second. But, there’s no longer an authority of the text. It’s up to the searcher to determine which of those replies are good information, which are bad information, disinformation, or deliberate misinformation, of which there is a great deal today.

Literacy for information environments

Howard: In fact, I wrote a book in 2012 — I’m generally about ten years ahead of my time — so, it’s… this is now the time for; it’s called Net Smart. And it was about what I felt the basic literacies that users of the web and social media ought to have; that it would increase their ability to excel, but also it would increase the quality of the commons.

And the first of those is attention. Maybe we’ll talk about that today; maybe we won’t. But attention is really the foundation of thought and communication. And when we now live in an era where you can stand on a street corner in any city of the world, waiting for the light to change, and notice that everyone else — everyone else — standing around you is looking at their phone. There’s a lot of money in capturing people’s attention, and there are a lot of apps that are designed to capture and maintain our attention, but very, very little training on how to understand how you’re deploying your attention.

And the second of the literacies was crap detection, which came from Hemingway’s saying that every good journalist needs an internal crap detector. I thought, and wrote ten years ago, that our schools need to be training — to middle school, even — training kids how to evaluate the information that they find online. And it really isn’t happening. You know, it’s not really that difficult, but it’s not being taught at all.

So. I think that there’s a disparity between the literacy required to use these tools in a way that’s going to help you and not harm you or others and the ability of those tools.

Jorge: You used the phrase — and I’m going to cite you back to you — you wrote, “The computer of the 21st century will be everywhere, for better or worse. And a more appropriate prophet than Orwell for this eventuality might well be Marshall McLuhan. If McLuhan was right about the medium being the message, what will it mean when the entire environment becomes the medium?” I think you wrote this in 1985, and I feel like right now, we are living in this stuff. So, what would be some of these basic literacies that we need to do to be better inhabitants of these environments?

Howard: Well, I wrote about attention. And now, the bad news about attention is that there’s a huge business in manipulating it. And the good news about it is that you can actually train your attention, and it’s not that difficult. In fact, almost every contemplative meditation discipline has to do with just sitting down and paying attention to your breath and noticing how your attention changes. There is a saying that comes from the neuroscientists that neurons that fire together are wired together. When you begin paying attention to your attention, you are developing a capability that enables you to have more control over what’s occupying your mind space.

The second one was crap detection. There’s some good work being done by people like Sam Wineburg at Stanford University and others on how, in fact, do young people evaluate information and what is it that you do. And one of the things that they’re saying is, “get off the website that you’re looking at and go look elsewhere. Do a search on the name of the author.” It’s really simple to just think about it for a second. Don’t accept the first page of search results — particularly today, when they’re so salted with commercials. Evaluate, very quickly, what it is you’re looking at.

So there are a number of techniques. It’s really not difficult to just take the basic step of being slightly skeptical. Think of yourself as a detective or a journalist, and you’re trying to find out whether this is really true. The jump from “oh, it’s on the web. I will accept it” to “is this really true?” is a very important jump.

The next one was participation. You know, we don’t have the web because of a government or corporations. We have the web because hundreds of thousands of people began putting up websites and linking to each other. Anything you can point at at the web today, from Facebook to Google, really came from, in those cases, very young people who weren’t participants. They weren’t working for some company; they were interested in what they could do with the web. And a lot of that has to do with the architecture of the internet and the web that would deliberately reserve the right of innovation to the edges of the network.

So Tim Berners-Lee didn’t have to rewire the internet. He just sent out the web protocols, and people used them. And Brin and Page did not have to ask permission to start a new search engine in their dorm room. They just set it up so that it played according to the protocols of the web, and people started using it. It used to be you had to be in the defense department or work for a big company to transform the world. So, participation is so important.

It’s not just inventing new ways to use the internet; it’s everything from GoFundMe to YouTube. Who would’ve thought… When we were thinking about this in the 1980s, people online, we knew that in the future, it wouldn’t just be words on the screen. But nobody really foresaw that amateurs around the world would upload more video in a minute than all of the broadcast television in history. It’s something that has been created by people. And, of course, companies and governments have become involved, but without that participation. And there are so many ways to participate. There’s like a curve of participation: you can like something, and you can bookmark something, or you can create a community at the other end of that spectrum.

Then collaboration was the next one. Again, there are so many ways to collaborate, from open source to GoFundMe to what we’re doing right now, using video conferencing. And then the last one was network awareness. We live in a networked world, and understanding how networks work enables you to have a richer relationship with what’s going on online.

So very quickly, those are the literacies in Net Smart. And, I’ll have to say that MIT Press has been very helpful in that they were the ones who brought Tools For Thought _and _The Virtual Community back in print in 1999 and 2000 and kept them in print. And they also published Net Smart. So other publishers, you know, if a book is not a huge hit, it disappears very, very quickly. But they keep their books in print.

The resurgence of Tools for Thought

Jorge: You said that you were ten years ahead of your time, and I get the sense that you have been throughout your career, but a lot of the ideas in these books are becoming increasingly relevant.

Part of the reason why I reached out is that there is a renewed interest… I’ve seen the phrase “tools for thought” coming up more and more. And people are using it to refer to hypertext personal knowledge management systems — things like Roam Research and Obsidian. I heard you talk in an interview as well about DEVONthink, which I consider one of these as well.

And it feels to me that all of these things are based on relatively old ideas, the sort of things that you wrote about in Tools For Thought back in 1985. It seems to have taken a long time for people to arrive to this mode of externalized network thinking for themselves. And I’m wondering if you have thoughts on why this might be now, why we might be seeing this resurgence now.

Howard: Well, you know, DEVONthink… I used that to write _Net Smart, _and that was ten years ago. And I also used The Brain and have used The Brain recently. And anyone who’s interested in this should go look at Jerry’s Brain. I think if you just search on Jerry’s brain, you’ll find it. And all of these older apps they’re really primarily about knowledge. Thinking has to do with using the way you have organized your knowledge to think. But before doing that, you want to connect your ideas and tag them and link them.

Those software — The Brain software and DEVONthink software — those are major projects. Now we’re seeing people with these kind of lightweight note-taking apps. It’s easier and less expensive, and faster to create an app than it is to create one of those massive smart databases. So my guess is that it has something to do with that.

You know, by the way, there is a conference coming up on Tools For Thinking, August 16th. That may be after this podcast, but they will probably have recordings of it available. So if you just search on Tools For Thinking, how new technologies are changing, how we create, share, and build knowledge, you’ll probably find it.

I think that there’s also the kind of what Brian Eno called scenius, that there are times like Xerox PARC in the 1970s or Florence during the Renaissance when there are just a number of people in contact with each other, and their ideas spark each other. And again, it’s a matter of building on what has been done before.

And frankly, a lot of this knowledge that I talked about in Tools For Thought has really been mostly hidden from people who develop software until very recently. And so now I think that more people know about it, and it’s in the back of their minds, as they’re thinking about what they are doing as a developer.

Jorge: I’m glad that you brought up the notion of scenius because I get the sense when looking at the arc of your career that you have been part of important… I mean, people listening might not know what we’re talking about when we say scenius, but let’s use the word scene, like the people who have come together around an idea or a set of ideas and develop them. I…

Howard: Or zeitgeist.

Jorge: Yeah, some kind of zeitgeist. And I get the sense that you have been… I see the arc of your career is like you’ve been part of a scenius, a zeitgeist, that has been instrumental in shaping the modern world, and you’ve chronicled it and also contributed to the way that the field thinks about itself.

Where might we be heading?

Jorge: And I’m wondering if we can leave listeners with your sense of where things might be heading. Like, what’s the state of the zeitgeist now, and do you see it going in an upward trend as far as Tools For Thought is concerned, or are there concerns that people should have?

Howard: Oh boy. You know, I find myself thinking every day now, is the development of the web in particularly not specifically personal computing devices, but that of the online world, is that a net plus? There’s so much bad stuff happening. And a friend of mine said, “well, if the internet is a tide that lifts all boats, it’s going to lift the hospital boats, and it’s going to lift the pirate boats.”

And so, if you are the only gay teenager in a small town, or you have a disease that one in a million people have, the internet is a lifeline because it connects you with others that share your interests and your characteristics. If you’re the only Nazi in a small town, the internet will connect you with the others. And in fact, you may be a 16-year-old who’s interested in video games, and you go to YouTube and start watching videos about video games, and because of their algorithm that wants you to engage more and more, you may end up being in a recruiting video for a neo-Nazi outfit. So there’s so much misinformation.

Then there’s the microtargeted disinformation that is an unexpected spinoff of the advertising technology that companies like Facebook and Google and many others amass so much information about individuals that they are able to narrowly target advertising to them. Well, that’s very good for their business plan, but it’s also a mechanism that can be used to micro-target political lies or exacerbate divisiveness.

You know, all of this is really not so much a reflection of the technology as a reflection of human beings. The technology is guilty of amplifying. And after all, that’s what we’re talking about is amplifying human capabilities. Well, it turns out that there are human capabilities and human motivations that are evil or misguided. And those are amplified way beyond what they were before.

So again, ten years ago, I thought the answer to this was to teach people a literacy of how to use these tools online. And it’s really been a failure of our education system and a societal-wide failure that that has not happened. At the same time, it’s an arms race. You know, the individuals trying to make their way in the world. They’ve got a disease; they go online; they want information. Some of that information could kill them. If you’re talking about, you know, medical. Politically, I don’t really have to get into that; we know that the world is increasingly messy because of political misinformation online.

At the same time, we would not have the global, instantaneous response to pandemics without the internet. We’ve got databases of proteins and viruses that enable scientists to mobilize very quickly. So the good stuff and the bad stuff, it’s all intertwingled there. And I guess, you know, you could talk to Shakespeare about this; he talked about how intermixed the noblest and the basest of human motives are. So I don’t know the answer to this, but I’m concerned.

Jorge: Okay, well, I’ll just speak from perspective. I agree with what you’re saying, and I’m also excited by the capabilities that these tools give me, right? And in great part, I’m excited about that because I do see this continuation of the work that you’ve so well documented in your books. And again, I’m super honored that you agreed to spend the time talking with me about it. And I’m wondering where we can point folks to if they want to learn more about you and your work.

Closing

Howard: Well, Stanford University, where I taught for ten years, has been very helpful in helping me gather my digital assets. So, many of my writings and interviews, and podcasts are available at rheingold.com, R-H-E-I-N-G-O-L-D. So that’s kind of the basis now.

Now, I wrote books for what I don’t know, forty years, and I taught college students for ten years, and now, I make things. I make art. I’m exploring the intersection of woodworking and electronics, and painting. And I love the business model of Patreon.

So, the business model of Facebook and Google and others is to attract your attention and sell things to you by connecting you with advertisers. And we’ve talked about what the adverse consequences of that might be. On Patreon, people decide, “oh, I want to support your podcasting or your tinkering or your painting or your poetry. I’ll chip in a dollar a month.” And so we’re really supporting each other. So I have a site on Patreon; it’s patreon.com/howardrheingold, one word, lowercase. And mostly, you see art in it. Although I have… I do very little writing these days, but I have done some writing there.

For example, when the COVID lockdown started and all teachers in the world were suddenly using Zoom, there was a lot of bad online pedagogy going on. And since I had been teaching online… That was what I taught at Berkeley and Stanford; I had taught hybrid classes. There are ways that you can do online learning that is exciting, engaging, and that does have positive educational outcomes. So, I wrote about that. At the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote about the way people were using the web for mutual aid. So, every once in a while, something grabs me, and I write about it on Patreon. But it’s also about my experiments in art.

Jorge: Well, fantastic. I think it behooves everyone to go on Patreon and sign up to follow you and support you and your work. You have contributed so much to our community and continue doing so. Thank you for spending this time with us; it’s been lovely.

Howard: My pleasure entirely.

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Episodes

Mike Rohde on Sketchnote Thinking

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

Show notes

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

Transcript

Jorge: Mike, welcome to the show.

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

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

About Mike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike: Yeah.

Craft in transitional spaces

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sketchnoting as a team sport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike’s bullet journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It doesn’t have to be beautiful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing what you (and others) mean

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

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

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

Not everything is a nail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Restore”

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

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

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

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

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

Closing

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

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

Mike: Yes, exactly.

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

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

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

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Episodes

Oliver Caviglioli on Graphic Organizers

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

Show notes

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

Transcript

Jorge: Oliver, welcome to the show.

Oliver: Hello! Delighted to be here.

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

About Oliver

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

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

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

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

Jorge: They being the teachers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking in metaphors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making and sharing models

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

Oliver: Exactly so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oliver: Yes.

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

Alleviating cognitive load

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drawing for learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oliver: Absolutely so.

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

Leveraging the Goldilocks effect

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

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

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

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

The four structures underlying knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing

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

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

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

Oliver: Thank you very much.

Jorge: Thank you, Oliver.

Categories
Episodes

Dan Klyn on the BASIC Framework

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.

Show notes

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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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Nathan Shedroff on Foodicons

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