On collecting, commonplace books, and peeking into others’ thought process
I have a confession to make. My Google Reader has a folder labeled “Bookmarks” where I’ve subscribed to the Pinboard and Delicious accounts people I admire—people much smarter than me. Obviously these profiles are public, but somehow I feel like I’m intruding into their private spaces, like I’ve opened a filing cabinet drawer that I’m not supposed to look into.
There is something interesting about looking at these collections, whether they be on Pinboard, on Delicious, on GimmieBar, on Pinterest, or even on Tumblr. Sometimes these collections are meant to be shared but I’ve found more often they are meant for archiving. Maybe there is a thread of an idea in an article or an image that can be used for something but they are not quite sure what yet. It’s like looking into someone else brain, getting a glimpse of their thought process.
Steven Johnson (author of one of my favorite books of last year Where Good Ideas Come From has a new blog on Medium called The Writer’s Room. In his first post, he writes about the idea of what he calls a spark file, a running repository of all his ideas and hunches that aren’t quite ready for execution (much like how people use Moleskines or Evernote):
Now, the spark file itself is not all that unusual: that’s why Moleskins or Evernote are so useful to so many people. But the key habit that I’ve tried to cultivate is this: every three or four months, I go back and re-read the entire spark file. And it’s not an inconsequential document: it’s almost fifty pages of hunches at this point, the length of several book chapters. But what happens when I re-read the document that I end up seeing new connections that hadn’t occurred to me the first (or fifth) time around: the idea I had in 2008 that made almost no sense in 2008, but that turns out to be incredibly useful in 2012, because something has changed in the external world, or because some other idea has supplied the missing piece that turns the hunch into something actionable. Sure, I end up reading over many hunches that never went anywhere, but there are almost always little sparks that I’d forgotten that suddenly seem more promising. And it’s always encouraging to see the hunches that turned into fully-realized projects or even entire books.
I have a document similar to this in Simplenote where I write down quick ideas—design treatments, topics for this blog, a random thought that I don’t know what to do with, even just a theory for something that I don’t know is true. The key, as Johnson points out, is to frequently return to the list because any visit could reignite a forgotten idea.
Jonah Lehrer has a great piece on why “creative geniuses” still have failures (Dylan’s Down in the Groove or Steve Jobs’s hockey-puck mouse). Quoting Nietzsche:
Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration … shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects…. All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.
Being a creative genius is more than just having making things. You also need to have the ability to sort those things and sift through to separate the good from the bad. So that raises the question, how do you learn to separate those things? In short: take a break, step away, don’t let yourself get too close:
[W]e have no idea which ideas are worthwhile, at least at first. So the next time you invent something new, don’t immediately file a patent, or hit the “publish” button, or race to share the draft with your editor. Instead, take a few days off: Play a stupid videogame, or go for a long walk, or sleep on it. Unless you take a brief break, you won’t be able to accurately assess what you’ve done.
I absolutely loved Liz Danzico piece on the social life of marginalia:
“Marginalia” refers to the notes and scribbles made by readers in the margins of their texts. As the reader’s ongoing dialog with a text, it takes different forms — drawings in illuminated manuscripts, decorations, doodles, and such.
In this digital age, my marginalia takes a different form, spread across Simplenote, Tumblr, Google Reader, Instapaper, and Readernaut. Paragraphs I like, quotes I want to post on my blog, ideas I have that aren’t fully fleshed out are all recorded.
Keeping “commonplace books” was the act of collecting bits of inspirational quotes and passages from disparate reading sources in one place, so cites Steven Johnson, and he refers to them as “a personalized encyclopedia of quotations.” Popular particularly in seventeenth and eighteenth century England, it was a way for readers of all kinds to track their paths.
I’ve been interested in the idea of the commonplace book lately. Readernaut largely as a commonplace book for me. I keep track of the books I read (and want to read) and record passages and quotations I like there so I can easily refer back to them. Pair that with Simplenote, Tumblr, and Instapaper and you’d get a pretty good idea of where my mind’s been at and the ideas percolating in my head lately.
These commonplace books serve as a notebook for quick thoughts, ideas, and ephemera, but perhaps more importantly, they provide a glimpse inside the brain during a specific point in time. Going back and looking at what I was thinking about and reading last summer changes my relationship with the content and let’s me see things in new (old) ways.
Year End Review
It’s hard to believe that 2010 is coming to a close. It was a big year for me academically, professionally, and personally. I thought it’d be nice to take some inventory of a few of the big ideas that I wrote about here on the blog this past year and the topics that will likely continue through 2011.
- Design is a language. Like the French have words for things we don’t in English, design is better suited to communicate some ideas that just words or just images can’t quite convey.
- Design is a liberal art. Design can be used as a problem solving tool and should be taught in schools as such. Design can take complex information and present it in a simple, concise format.
- Designers no longer have the last word. Now more than ever, designers must create frameworks where the user can interact and contribute to the conversation. Designers no longer create static work, now we need to build platforms that encourage conversation, improvisation, and surprise.
- Collaboration is central to the creative process. Working with others adds friction and restraint that working by yourself doesn’t provide. It’s hard work, but I think the pay off it worth it.
- iPads and Kindles will not kill the traditional, printed book but they will change it. It’s important to consider what we feel is worth printing. Designers need to take advantage of the benefits print offers that a digital book can never duplicate and then tailor each book to fit the chosen medium. The written word is changing and each medium can play a different role.
- Starting new projects is hard, but once you start you have momentum and can keep going. The lizard brain will try and stop you from doing your work. Sometimes the hardest part is just starting.
- Art is about shining a light into a dark world. There is so much pain and suffering and complaining and misery but there is also hope and joy and love and redemption. Art needs to show that. Art needs to show people this world is still good.
- White space is important in design and it’s even more important in life. Take a break sometimes. You deserve to rest a little. That’s as good a new year’s resolution as any, I think.
It’s been a busy year and 2011 already promises to be exciting. I can’t say it enough: thank you for continuing to follow along, read, and explore with me. See you in 2011.