Scribbles on the page, notes on the walls, falling into the infinite rabbit-hole of research both out there and within our own minds — because, yes, a lot of my own “research” consists mainly of thinking, of developing a deeper understanding of how I see things. It’s hard though because this doesn’t “feel” like research, more like a kind of art. Experimenting, dabbling, sending feelers out into the world.
Design, as much as it is a process of making, is primarily a sense — a way of seeing. And every day I feel like a novice, unable to clearly see that which I hope to understand. Piecing together blurry glimpses to craft a clearer picture.
Is that research?
That’s my question with this essay really, what is research? Or rather, what does it mean to me? And how would I like to project my research out into the world? How may I leave trails of my explorations for others to be able to follow in my footsteps?
What would it look like to be a Vannevar-Bush-style trail
blazer?Before digital computers, Vannevar Bush
imagined in his 1945 article As
We May think an analog machine called the memex for
exploring and connecting trails of research and prophesized a possible
future profession of a trail blazer: one who sets themselves,
essentially, to connecting knowledge and crafting trails through the
growing landscape of research and sharing those trails with
Creating long paths of connections between resources, ideas, a sort of mini-panopticon of my adventures through concept-space.
Questions may be useful vectors, providing a trail-head or direction
from which push off from the “known” and delve into more uncertain
territories. A question, or, a question-generator. By this I mean
something which to focus on and think about. In interfaces you might
look at “sliders”, or even the metaphorical idea of “walls” both
psychologicalIn terms of separation between workspaces,
intentions or tasks.
and implementation-wiseWhat is hard, or even insurmountable to do with computers?
. From these more general-yet-specific themes you set not a direction necessarily but rather define a vague area into which you’d like to explore and better understand.
In a sense, can any type of media be generalizable as a trail? Whether through text, moving images, or waveforms, we communicate through (and are constrained by) time. Videos are trails; podcasts are trails; essays are trails. Even if you combine every medium, or allow people to explore in different directions, it is still — to them — a trail. Or is this not so?
But the metaphor of a trail is not compelling because it’s mediated by time, as all things are. No, it is compelling because it delves into places previously unexplored, and brings us along for the journey. It is starkly different than most published media because the author, at each step of the way, is not aware of where this path may take them. Ideally even pulling the author down from the pedestal into a place of unknowing, being themselves in an unfamiliar landscape.
The role of the author then transforms from that of a “knower” imbuing existing and pre-planned knowledge upon the reader and into, instead, a “seer”. One who sees, who has honed the art of seeing and understands the patterns of the landscape no matter how unfamiliar. Even the term “seer” denotes not only a present awareness but even the possibility of predicting and prophesizing into the future. To see, to explore, and to map — to be a cartographer of one’s trail and the terrain around it, and how that terrain may change or transform over time.
The trails that I imagine are a more raw form of output, putting you
more directly into the mind of the author(s). They could be transformed
into an essay, or video, or some other kind of polished artifact once
you’ve explored the area and come to certain conclusions — but doing so
may be erasing the exact trail which led to those thoughtsThis essay itself may be a kind of trail. At the time
of writing this, I do not have a plan, I do not know what will come next
nor what exact conclusions I might draw.
The metaphor of trail-making as a kind of cartography — an exploration through the terrain of knowledge — maps well to my perspective of knowledge as a landscape. If you imagine facts or little bits of information as dots floating in space… [ADD MORE]
Going back to the question [ADD MORE]
My process of research so far feels like over-focusing on little dots on the landscape and only making connections in an irregular fashion, through thought or conversation. There has been no rigorous exploration to craft connections in order to see a bigger picture and fill in all the little gaps in my understanding. Thus far, this has not been necessary, but moving forward I am proposing (to myself) a radical change to the way in which I conceptualize and perform research.
I say that, but I don’t even know what I’m proposing yet…
For the past year or so I’ve been incorporating quick idea journals into my design process. Essentially this involves capturing any idea that comes to mind for a particular project — no matter how silly or “out there” — and trusting that over time these ideas will build towards a bigger picture. And it works rather well! After a few dozen ideas I’m always starting to connect the dots and see larger overall patterns across the constellation of ideas.
One problem with this technique is that it is irregularly
systematicThough using it has certainly made my ideation process
much more systematic than it was before and led to many ideas that I
would not otherwise have had — and for that, I am glad.
. Yes I can sit down and think up ideas, which often leads to interesting new connections — but often ideas might come to me randomly when I’m not in a position to sit down and document them, leading to a long backlog of ideas. Eventually I found myself having stopped entirely updating any of these journals as they had drifted so far behind my current thinking.
Another problem is that it works well for a specific project like cozyroom but not so well for broader or more general explorations like pushing forward my thinking around the future of computing.
Another technique that I’ve found immensely valuable is writing design fictions. Sometimes I call this process applied science fiction because it involves imagining futures in order to directly answer a question or facilitate thinking through an idea. Similarly to how we have theoretical and applied branches of various fields: physics, mathematics, economics, and so on.
This process helps not only to create a more tangible vision and explore unanswered questions, but also helps to ground these explorations in reality at a human-scale.
Surely this could be made into a more systematic part of my design process, especially as I become more experienced in writing these fictions — but thus far I’ve really only written them in moments of inspiration where I have a sudden urge to sit down and write.
Writing stories reminds me of another interesting technique I’ve
experimented with involving a process of exposing yourself to an endless
stream of relevant inputIdeally generated output from a language model or other
machine-learning system, unless you can find a quality source
of human-generated output related to the ideas you’re trying to think
. Then seriously reflecting and taking notes on anything that sparks your curiosity.
This was the process I took with On the Paths of Nonsense, in which I gave GPT an example of my own stories or writing and then wrote a script to automatically prompt it with a list of questions off the top of my mind at the time. This process led to sparking the idea for an experimental new kind of color picker, the invention of a board game, and so on.
The idea is not to delegate the machine to come up with fully-formed
ideas for you but rather for it to be just coherent enough to
occasionally push your mind over the precipice of a new idea. Analysis
hereOr playtesting in the case of coming up with
rules for a board game
is key to letting ideas and connections surface.
I’ve found this technique also works well with image-generation models like midjourney given the right kinds of prompts. In its early days I experimented with using it as a learning tool to explore aspects of place-making and urban design. Synthesizing scenes of non-existant cities, I observed (and took notes) on the “design” of these spaces. If I were there, what would make the space feel good, and how might it invite you to interact with it in different ways? Or more generally, what is the experience of being in this imaginary space?
Annotation reminds me of another process I’ve enjoyed. Going for
walks and taking stream-of-consciousness notes on my phoneI find taking notes on my phone helps to lower my
mental filter and not go back to edit what I have already
and then, when I arrive home, printing and annotating those notes by hand.
There’s a nice feeling of annotating by hand, this is something I feel that is lost in the digital medium — or at least hard to do. By doing this I was able to capture highlights and delve into more depth on the ideas I cared about.
One last idea I’d like to mention before moving on is the concept of everpresent notes or ideas. In contrast to “evergreen” notes which often take the form of more permanent, polished ideas or essays, an everpresent note is one that is continually surfaced again and again, and each time you might add something new to it.
Recently I built myself a personal forum and pinned it permanently to my desktop like an interactive wallpaper. I keep coming back to it throughout the day and encountering the list of thoughts and titles of threads, which, of course, sometimes leads to new ideas.
This also led me to think about what I like to call “the shelf”. A yet-untested idea for group collaboration and allowing for little side-projects to simmer slowly in the collaborative undercurrents. Essentially, having a literal shelf of projects: even if they are mostly digital, giving each project some physical form or notebook for documenting progress. Then at any point anyone can take down any project, work on it for a certain amount of time, and then put it back on the shelf.
Some other techniques I’ve dabbled with, in no particular order:
- Creativity constraints
- Flashcard-based note-takingAdding thoughts or ideas to flashcards and adding
something new to the card each time it comes up, allowing you to slowly
accrete thoughts on a particular thing
- Anti-anti-library / imaginary books Similar to the flashcards but starting with the seed of
a book title for a book that does not yet exist, and then leaving
thoughts related to its theme over time
- Co-creativity games
- Worldbuilding exercises
- Improvised songs as meditative focus-lockThe idea being that if you improvise a little song
related to what you’re thinking about and loop it, it will “lock” you
into the focus of that particular project or idea-space
- Thought colliding, juxtaposing concepts together
I wonder, what are the patterns that begin to emerge here?
- Immersing yourself in idea soup
- Lowering your filter, being playful
- Growing and cultivating over time
- Trending towards higher collaborativity
And out of curiosity, I wonder, out of all these techniques, what do I feel might be lacking or unexplored?
- Rigorous techniques which help to develop a clear picture of both specific and more general idea-spaces (although some of these techniques are certainly going in this direction)
- Regularly incorporating external sources of research — papers, talks, and so on
- A clear path towards deeply understanding and describing the problems of current systems
- Making it easier to be more experimental with the medium in which something is represented
- Psychology, mental maps, etc. are constant themes for me in thinking about both physical and digital spaces yet I lack a reliable method for discovering new connections between our mind and the environment around us
By immersing yourself in ideas, whether of others (papers, writing, talks, or even generated content) or ideas of your own — you attempt in a way to bring yourself to the edge of possibility. Being in this state is much like staring up at the clouds, the slightest shift in shape might trigger a cascade of pattern recognition and associations in our mind which might spark some concept or idea.
Looking at the four patterns above I am reminded of a project that’s been simmering in the back of my head for a little while now. Ever since, I think, a conversation with my friend Matt about the possibilities that might be afforded by a physical workshop space.
The idea was a dark room where you are surrounded from all sides by an ambient soundscape. Or, ideascape if you will — for the function of the room is simply to surface thoughts, ideas, little sound snippets of anything spoken by past inhabitants. By sitting in this room you would soak up these thoughts randomly bubbling up and surfacing themselves. The juxtapositions, the collisions, and reminders of the past; by soaking up this ideascape you might be brought to precipice of possibility, open to new connections and the spark of something new. And if (or when) an idea visits your imagination, you may let your stream of consciousness flow back into the pool of ideas circling around you.
The physicality however, is not strictly necessary. A digital space may suffice. In fact, an infinite number of such spaces may be spawned, split, queried, and recorded into within a digital substrate. You may share ideascapes with collaborators across continents, and use these spaces in creative yet-unimagined ways…
At this point, I paused for a few days in writing this to delve down a rabbit-hole of language and how it can be used in intentional ways to explore new thought spaces
While the idea for a digital echo chamber above follows in the footsteps of some of the patterns I’ve noticed emerging from my design process — there are some things which it lacks, just as my design process at present is lacking in certain ways. Yet some of these points of weakness may too be solvable, like incorporating (and remembering) research and papers into my work by pooling them into a soundscape to constantly remind and resurface. Others however are less clear: such as how I might better discover connections between the mind and the environment around us — while resurfacing can be a great method for sparking connections, I feel this point goes beyond to call for almost a new way of seeing the world around us.
As I mentioned in the beginning, “Design, as much as it is a process of making, is primarily a sense — a way of seeing”
I have been thinking about how language is the lens through which we see the world. Beyond a basic visual understanding, it is hard to see that which you don’t have the right words to explain.