Friday, February 29, 2008

Sticky thoughts are squishy.

My thesis: Ideas stick in your craw when they "fit" a certain way in the kinks of your mind - and what this means is that "sticky" ideas tend to be malleable and flexible and customizable (but not so vague they swoosh around like vapor instead of taking hold). Think of those gummy sticky balls that you get for a quarter from vending machines - the kind you're supposed to throw against a wall. Something like that.

Greg says taking ownership of something makes it sticky - it's got to be "mine" before I'll remember it or care. That means I've got to be able to smoosh the idea into something that's attractive to me - and that this smooshing needs to be insanely easy for something to be "sticky."

Erik makes lists and collections - his way of mashing an ontology to fit his mind. Alyshia brings up the idea that people around us (and what's sticking to them) are a compelling factor in what makes ideas stick to us - something that cross-platform (cross-brain) compatible has to be kludged to fit the varied people it transforms.

I'm severely overusing the word "stick" here.

People learn, in part, by making connections - and the more connections they can make between their old worldview and your new idea, the better chance you'll have of making your idea stay in their mind and carry on to action after you leave. Classic example: look at widespread world religions and you'll see how Christianity, Buddhism, etc. adapted by smooshing into local cultures? (Heck, the very timing of Christmas itself is an adaptation.) Other examples are food (McRiceburgers, Thai pizza), language (creoles and foreign loanwords) and PBL/Do-Learn (start with something concrete, then move into the abstract).

So what?

Sticky ideas are hackable. They have to be. The more ways you give people to work with, use, and sometimes transform your idea, the more they'll pick it up. An idea will never be sticky in exactly the way/shape/form you first have it in your brain - if you want it to get out and get spread by others, you must, to some extent, just let it go.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008



Steve Gold gave us a wonderful talk about stickiness for Vital Ideation. He focused on a fundamentally different idea of what “sticky” meant than the book “Made to Stick” did, but Steve’s thoughts encompassed a whole new set of ideas than I had previously considered.

One of the key points that Steve made was asking whether ideas are sticky, or if it is their implementation that makes them so. Arguably, there are ways to package up things that will make them more attractive, no matter what they are.

Furthermore, Steven questions whether things stick to people, or people stick to things. In fact, the stickiness is bi-directional.

What makes them stick?

Steve argued that the thing that makes people and ideas stick together is a two-way flow of value. The thing you are stuck to is giving you value somehow (an iPod, for instance), and you are giving it value (a reason for being, money, time, etc). It is because of this two-way flow that there is this Velcro effect.

But what causes this two way flow? One of the most interesting concepts Steve mentioned is the idea of “mine”.


There are lots of objects we interact with every day. Cars, food, facebook profiles, rooms, water bottles, pens, shoes, shirts – the list is endless. However, some of these objects we think of specifically as “mine.”

Some things are obvious. These are my shoes and those are yours. This house is my house and that house is your house. Give me my pen back when you are done with it.

Still, some things possess greater degree of “mine”-ness as others. You probably wouldn’t feel weird if you lost your pen and had to borrow someone else’s, or ate at a restaurant instead of your house. You would probably start to feel weirder if you fell in a pool and had to borrow clothes from a friend. A sense of “not mine” would start to creep up on you. If you lost your iPod or your cell phone, someone else’s is almost an entirely useless replacement – you simply can’t do with someone else’s what you can with yours.


I feel as though the stronger this concept of “irreplaceable,” the stronger the feeling of ownership. When I use other people’s laptop, I am much less efficient than when I am using my own, because it is somehow foreign and uncomfortable despite being exactly the same. The programs aren’t in the same place and the keys feel a bit different. My laptop has the top row rearranged to spell “MARRA” and has stickers on it that I recognize it by. It goes with me almost everywhere, and finding a thirty minute block where I don’t need it so I can give it to IT to replace my speakers is difficult.

You can get a new stapler very easily. You won’t miss your old stapler. A stapler is a commodity good.

You can’t get a new iPod in the same way. It is not a drop-in replacement. The difference will be tangible.

People are more comfortable with and take care of things that are theirs. I would feel no remorse snapping my pencil, I can just get another. I will edit my Wiki page to say what it should, but I am afraid to edit other people’s pristinely marked up pages. When I have ownership I am not an outsider. Ownership is comfort. People care about and take care of things that they feel ownership of. No one wants to see their toy break, their idea get shot down, or their essay get an F.

But this feeling of ownership is not a permanent one. Toys that I cherished in my childhood I now donate to charity. My MySpace page went from being checked multiple times daily to being deleted. The laptop I carry around with me daily now will be replaced by another in a few years. It is something that comes and wanes, and perhaps something that can be harnessed.

Creating Ownership

So as budding entrepreneurs, designers, and engineers, the question is: how do I make you feel this powerful ownership over the things I make?

Customization creates ownership. My Build-a-Bear has a green shirt and cool hat. My iPod has gem rhinestones around the screen. My Webkins has a different name than yours. Your thing is no longer a commodity; it is its own unique entity. There is a book I intend to read called “FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop--From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication.” It is about how some time in the not-too-distant-future everyone will be able to customize products in the same way that we can print custom party invitations today. As technology enables more and more individualization of products, people will become more aware of the differences between mine and yours.

Ability to affect change creates ownership. If I let you comment on my blog, then maybe you feel like you are part of a discussion. But if I let you all the way on the inside and let you post to my blog, then you are now an insider with control over its direction. These sorts of small viral communities have popped up all over the internet, and there is no barrier of entry to joining. You simple can participate and become part of the crew of “regulars” and feel part of the place belongs to you.

These are just a few of the many ways to create ownership in the way that makes ideas and products “sticky.” More and more, we will see these trends of personalization and viral communities, among others, influence people’s perceptions.

Take Home Messages

You would care a lot more if someone erased your iPod than stole your stapler.

You would rather sleep in your own bed than a hotel bed.

Mine and yours aren’t interchangeable, and that is critical.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Three Reflections on Stickiness

For the stickiness deliverable, I’ve written three short reflections tangential to the aforementioned concept. The first, “Covered in Stickiness: A True Story of Tree Sap, Honey, and iPods,” has nothing to do with the sub-title. The second, “Me in Media,” wonders about the role of multimedia in perception of self. The third, “I Am What I Collect,” meanders through thoughts on sets as a description of a person. “But self! How can these be related to stickiness?” you might ask yourself in surprise. To me, stickiness is very strongly correlated to self-perception. The reason I keep something with me has a lot to do with the way I look at myself.

These contain obnoxious amounts of self-reference and opinion. They’re thoughts, not research papers, and are to start discussions, not end them, so it would be great to see a comment or two at the end! :)

Covered in Stickiness

A True Story of Tree Sap, Honey and iPods

Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick and undoubtedly society’s choice experts on the idea of stickiness, say that a sticky idea is something that stays with you really well. You remember it, and it influences the way you act, what you buy, etc. However, stickiness can also be viewed from a product sense, to which entrepreneur Steve Gold’s stickiness lecture for Vital Ideation was more akin. I’m going to investigate the case of the latter (or, more specifically, things that would relate to the latter more).

Sticky products are things that you want to buy, and why you buy them is anyone’s guess. My personal guess is that sticky products define who you want to be. My guess is also very much like a philosopher’s personal theory that is quite accurate in some cases, but overall can describe nowhere near the entire story. So in that sense, I’m annoyed with it. I will continue anyways.

I immediately sat down to define myself by my possessions—to see what I’ve bought that defines me. Trying to describe myself with my possessions was a slightly unnerving exercise, as it probably should be. But I started writing labels and making bubbles and arrows and dotted lines and boxes, and when I thought I had generated enough fluff, I took a close look and noticed some trends. Here’s what I found…

Me in Media

Defining the Digital Identity

Perhaps it’s a function of the fact I am a student of engineering growing up in the digital age, but I found that electronics and electronic media (which is the sole use of the term I will be using in this paper) strongly define who I am.

The largest theme on the paper that I was ideating on was a large cloud shooting off of “laptop” called “MEDIA” (yes, in engineering all-caps). Now this is a bit tangential to a product already, but I found that these things matter most to me. So I went with it. In MEDIA, I have my pictures, my music (and podcasts), my videos, my writing, and a few things I lumped in as “digital creativity”—my code, multimedia projects, music compositions, etc.

Again, these are not things I bought to define me. Instead, they are largely things I’ve created. The computer is a great way to store created things. Not all types of created things, of course. Paintings and classical music are orders of magnitude more satisfying live. But I don’t paint, do I? And yeah, I compose, but software transcribes the music. It gets played elsewhere.

But if I were to lose all that, it would mean a good deal more to me than losing my credit card, guitar, and (limited college) furniture. But the point remains. Most creation of any sort has some decent way of being stored in a digital format, and this collection of digital media defines me because what I create defines who I am.

I Am What I Collect

The Role of Collections in Self-Definition

On my page of self-defining fluff, I noticed another trend. This particular trend begins with an “l” and ends with “ists”. Congrats! It’s “lists”! My page was practically covered in lists! And the cool part about these lists is not the practical nature they served.

What I mean by that is that these lists of things were not grocery lists, task lists, homework lists, etc. They didn’t correspond to things that needed to get done. Instead, they were lists of things slowly accumulated, all belonging to a specific genre, and all describing me. These were lists that integrated over time to add up to this every-changing function of self.

What does that mean? It means that instead of checking all the items off, I added new ones with the expressed purpose of further defining myself with that collection. For instance, consider books. I have a bookshelf in my room, and I am dang proud of it. Whenever I go into a new room or house and see a bookshelf, I often ask permission to look at it. Why? Because I learn about you through your books (to those of you reading aloud at home, that last sentence can sound pretty creepy with the right inflection). My set of books define me—entrepreneurship, Catholic, history, outdoors, math and science, programming and reference books—with of course more than a few random ones here and there.

Another list I had was my media, but I already covered that in decent detail. The thing I did not mention is the fact that I wrote down “collection” a bunch—the right term to think of may be “synergy” (apologies, buzzword, I know… I don’t like them any more than you do). Synergy is the word correlated with the phrase “the whole is more than the sum of its parts,” and in this specific case, refers definitely to the fact that my music collection, for instance, is more than just a bunch of songs/albums. As a set, it defines me. If anyone had the same music collection as I did, well for one I would be surprised (considering the size of it), but second, I would probably freak out and start asking them a ton of questions. After all, anyone who has all my music has all my personality, right? Right??

Ask yourself if that’s a reasonable thought, because I’m not that it is. But I would naturally want to see if coincidences extend, and some part of me would love to see that they did. But I will take the safe road and assume they don’t, as the number and size of each of my collections is enough to statistically distinguish me from any other person on the map. Perhaps that’s why I say they define me…

Thursday, February 21, 2008

eNotes in the 21st Century

The method for which people have taken notes have not substantially changed in the past few centuries. The concept of paper and pen and any combination of the two have been the foundations of ideas, thoughts, worries, and creation for everyone in the past, and most people in the present. I realize the advantages and freedoms that something so simple can provide, but what sparks my interests is how technology has been able to solve many of the shortfalls of this ancient system and provide a new and useable solution to this everlasting activity.

Why eNotes are BAD:

Let me premise by saying that electronic solutions to note-taking are NOT perfect and NOT practical for all applications. I feel obliged to tear apart electronic media before I raise it on a glorified pedestal. Electronic solutions are currently more expensive than paper. The PDA that I will be using as my special case cost me about $500. It would take a lot of notebooks and pencils before you reach $500 worth of supplies.

Electronic solutions suck for drawing neat, fluid, and creative sketches. In the applications that I will talk about, you can’t sketch a landscape as well as you can on paper. You can’t draw the subtleties of a human face, and shade areas beneath the nose with portable electronics. (Assuming you don’t have a camera, which is integrated in many devices now anyways).

You also can’t add physical artifacts to your notes; there is no such thing as scotch-taping a leaf or bug or knick-knack into your electronic notebook. It takes an average of 2.8 seconds longer on e-paper to get to the point where you start writing down ideas than a regular notebook. (This is an average of 3 trials that I tried myself). Another practical distinction is that any non-textual characters (such as higher-level math or arrows between boxes), are more difficult to draw, require you to switch modes, and will be slightly less neat than on paper.

Finally, electronic media is slightly more complicated than paper. It takes exactly 4 button pushes on my PDA to start writing while paper takes a couple of page flips before you found the place you last left off.

Why eNotes are Good and Why I Use Them Frequently:

For the discussion that I am about to raise, I am using my Fujitsu-Siemens Loox N-560 PDA as an example of an electronic solution to Paper. I must point out that the electronic device you are using does make a significant impact on the performance. I personally spared no expense to make sure I got one of the better PDAs on the market, so this is definitely a good-case scenario.

The best scenarios to use PDAs and electronic note-taking media is whenever you need to record a though, idea, or expression that you or anyone else says that is in plain English. Luckily for me, this is a relatively large percentage of anything that goes through my ears, eyes or brain. Note that this excludes higher-level math and abstract picture things. Since the interface to my PDA is regular manuscript handwriting, I can record information just as fast as I can on paper. Furthermore, if I bust out my external keyboard, my recording speed increases by a factor of 4.

The media in which I record is a simple text application that can be enhanced as much as the application can. This means that it is trivial for me to add an infinite number of colors to my page, and change the font styles, sizes, lists, etc. On paper, I would need a lot of pens to make a lot of colors.

One of the most appealing feature to me is the fidelity of the information that is preserved with my eNotes. Every night, when my PDA synchs with my computer, it creates a backup on my computer. Then every night, my computer backs up its entire hard drive to a managed online storage solution. I would consider the integrity of this data to be far greater than a sheet of paper in a tiny notebook. There are many pieces of information that I want to jot down and remember forever. With my electronic format, I can far more easily guarantee the safety and security of my data. I realize, however, that there are hackers, and computers crash, and files corrupt. Because of these concerns, the protection of data goes far beyond my PDA and I personally go through great lengths to ensure backups.

Size is another issue that really sets PDAs apart from many other types of note taking on any media. Unlike a laptop, I can have all of the benefits of electronic media without a large barrier between me and a potential subject that I am taking notes on. Furthermore, a PDA can fit in my pocket and has 4” of useable screen resolution. One specific design consideration for my Loox N-560, was that the screen has a full 640 x 480 resolution. At that resolution, the pixel density of the screen approaches my visual perception. With this amount of detail, I abate the common issues of very little usable screen real estate. With this model, I have as much physical space as a pocket-sized notebook.

The fact that the PDA and all the information it contains fits in my pocket, is one of its most powerful features. Think about how many notebooks it would take to match the 4GB of memory that my PDA holds. Assume you have a pocket-sized notebook that’s 3” x 5” and you’re using a 0.5mm lead pencil to fill up the 15 square inches of usable space. Assuming you can fit about 100 words (600 characters) on one side of a page, you would need about 3,579,139 pages to match the 4GB that my PDA can hold. That many pages has the same surface area as 17 acres of land.

Finally, my PDA is far more than just a place to take notes. It is a notebook, and audio recorder, a video player, an mp3 player, a GPS navigation system, a calendar, a task manager, a photo album, a storage device, a calculator, a library of books, and can take the form of any application you can load onto it. That much versatility in a single device can’t be matched by any paper notebook that I know of.

When a PDA solution is executed properly, I believe that it can be an extraordinarily valuable asset that can far exceed the functionality of traditional paper under most circumstances. It is an investment that I do not regret and still use habitually today.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sticky Notebooks: Part 2

I think I left off last time describing my two design notebooks:

So I had a couple thoughts about the notebooks, though I haven't made any decisions about them yet: I need to resolve this “two notebook conflict” somehow. The problem is that different categories of things have already been separated into different notebooks. The notebook doesn’t feel like mine right now either. It feels like a tool-something useful, but not something that’s part of me. Things are dated, but they’re sloppy, and not something I feel I’d go back to. But am I even supposed to go back to this? Is this notebook something to be used to help me in the present, to be discarded immediately? The sole purpose for me would be to get things out of my head and onto a piece of paper-something I might have otherwise scribbled on the back of my homework for someone to see, that probably won’t be important ever again.

A lot of other people taking this class have notebooks they’re more attached to. One person is using an electronic device, while others are using old notebooks from past classes. Some people bought notebooks just for this class. Our notebooks are already ours, just because they look different, they’re different sizes and shapes.

Notebooks are sticky ideas

Something isn't sticky of it's own accord-it's sticky because /we/ make it stick. People around us make it stick. The classic example is the ipod. Everyone has one (except me..) at least, that's how it feels. Why? Because it's a sticky object-and it's not just an object, it's an idea. Our notebooks have everything that makes something sticky. We put time and thought into our notebooks. We put part of ourselves into them-our notebooks are something more customizable than almost anything we have.

So...what now?

I'm still not sure what to do with my two notebooks, but I don't think most people could possibly just use their notebooks for idea generation and design. Maybe if I stop worrying about what my notebook is supposed to be, it'll become what it should be.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Stickiness Charting

What really is stickiness?

The primary focus of Steve Gold's presentation for us, and our original discussion was more along the lines of sticky products and ways of making products stick through proximity (propinquity!) and customization. However, my initial thoughts on stickiness were much more along the lines of the book, which deals with how people remember different things, and how to make people remember. The criteria for success were exactly that:

Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credibility, Emotions, and Story.

So my thought was: what type of medium gets these things across the mostly clearly?

What's easy to remember?

I've been actively thinking about what I'm remembering, from a variety of forms of learning, including:

1) UOCD Readings (with diagrams)- Text and Figures
2) A play I saw this weekend- (August Osage County)- Dialogue
3) The food I ate this weekend- Text from the Menu, Taste/Smell
4) A musical I am stage managing (Into the Woods)- Lyrics and Music

Interestingly, I'm usually pretty good at remembering words. I think it's a lot easier than trying to replicate an image or a figure, and I'm completely tone deaf. Thus I figured I'd remember the things with verbal components more.

However, I've actually found that that really isn't the case. I'm going to work with the things that I remembered best from these things, and attempt to combine them into a "rememberability matrix."

I remember the food I ate extremely well, probably the best of any of these things. From this I've decided to create a matrix of memorability. Look for an update on how that came out soon!
For the record...
from UOCD I remember graphs showing how valuable things were, why personas are valuable, and Venn Diagrams.
I remember every detail of my meals.
I remember some of the play, particularly some interesting lines, and the general plot.
and I remember lots of Into the Woods, but possibly because I've seen it so much. It's more difficult to remember parts of the songs that are the same melody with different lyrics.

after awhile here's something i came up with:

i combined the concept of UOCD using a three-way grid to determine something and made a sticky grid based on: how you perceive it, what it is, adjectives that describe the information.

Carrying a Notebook is a Fad.

Well, isn't it? Maybe not a fad, but it is at least an idea that has caught on for one reason or another. For what it's worth, 'tis a "sticky" idea at the least. What is the value of a design notebook? Part of me feels that individuals walking around with a notebook feel better about the fact that they carry one than about how much usefulness they get out of carrying it. I mean, it can be a hassle. Get changed, get stuff for class, oh yeah! grab my design notebook :). What makes someone do that in the first place? Well, carrying a design notebook is a sticky idea. Hopefully by the end of this post I will have made a bit of sense out of why this is the case.

So, I decided last week that I would hold out on writing about design notebooks until I thought of something interesting to write about. The topic of the second Vital Ideation lecture was "Stickiness," and part of me feels that the act of carrying a design notebook is something that falls in line with many of the principles we discussed when talking about a product's stickiness.

The first things that come to mind...
First off. I think that the act of carrying a notebook around is the sticky part of this whole idea. The "design" modifier is really only a specific case of this phenomenon. The carrying of some sort of notebook, whether for ideas, doodling, sketching, tasks, or some combination thereof is what can be considered "sticky." The first things that come to mind when I think of a design notebook are the following:

  1. Moleskine --
    "the legendary notebook used for the past two centuries by great artists and thinkers, including Van Gogh, Picasso, Hemingway and Chatwin. With an elastic closure and an expandable inner pocket made of cardboard and cloth, which contains the history, they are ideal for students"
    It is actually kind of ridiculous how many different types of notebooks they have on their website. There is something special about this personal notebook idea. Something that makes people pay lots more than they should for bound paper for your pocket. Notice the sketch-book of Vincent Van Gogh himself to the right. How it shimmers with knowledge, uniqueness, genius and who knows what else. Is this what makes personal notebooks so sticky? Here is one of Olin's very own on personalizing their Moleskine.
    "I just retired a Moleskine and got a new one that I have to set up - I figured I'd take you guys along for the ride. "
    So begins the blog post, which describes the act of setting up the notebook as a "ride" itself. From tables of contents to specialized lists and such, the customization that goes into this moleskine rivals that of a personal computer. Crazy huh? It's only a notebook you might say, but it seems to be more than just this.
  2. Lifehacker. Oh lifehacker and other such "tech trick tips for getting things done" websites. If I actually listed all the posts on maintaining, purchasing, improving, creating, modifying, and streamlining personal notebooks, I would be spending hours compiling all the posts and linking to them all in this lowly blog post of mine. If you pass the lifehacker test* of being described in more than 3 or so blog articles, I think you qualify to internet and/or nerd sensation (see also: fad & obsession.) Well, maybe not. (*note this term has never been used before and will never be used again in any formal writing)
  3. PDAs, the Internet, and all other Electronics. Funny that this is one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of (personal) notebooks, but it is true. One of the intrinsic values of the personal notepad, whether for design or otherwise, is that it isn't a technical gadget, but it can be as personal and individualized as a computer, cell phone, misc. Apple product.
So, I started carrying a notebook myself. sort of.
I started carrying my own notebook mostly because I thought it was nice to be able to keep track of tasks, add tasks and then rip them out when I was done. It was also a convenient source of doodle space and paper during French class. But the real reason was that I had finally convinced myself that carrying a personal notebook wasn't completely a "hey they do it, I should do it too!" thing. Additionally, I found that carrying a notebook could be particularly useful personally as a way of keeping track of tasks from random things I am involved in which I sometimes forget to do/not put into outlook or any other-sort-of-reminder format.

The idea of carrying around a notebook to write down random thoughts on was one that I'veheard suggested for about a year now. ...Moleskine this, ideas notebook that... Maybe being at Olin has something to do with this....ok fine. It has a lot to do with this. I know my friends from back home would scoff at the idea of carrying a notepad around. "What the hell for?" they would surely tell me. Often times in this past year I have thought--"Wow that would be a really cool thing to keep track of, maybe in an ideas notebook!" Finally I have one, but I don't use it for ideas.

Most people don't use notebooks for idea generation.
That's odd. I don't actually use my notebook for idea generation. And I don't think many people do either. I supposed I am very biased in this, but I generally don't sit around by myself and come up with ideas. If I'm sitting around thinking about something that is interesting enough to warrant being copied down in a notebook of ideas, then I'll find people who I know would be interested and talk to them, who will not only potentially polish the idea if it isn't a horrible one, but the discussion that the idea will kick off will likely be of the variety that keeps me up for hours longer than I should instead of doing "coursework." Silly academics.

I suppose the only time that I have used my notebook to jot down random stuff has been during lectures from cool speakers, or while I was supposed to be doing other things, like during French class, when I sort of do other work I find more engaging in my notebook while i sort of interact with the rest of the class. I guess my notebook has been useful to me. And I guess in the end that's the point right?

A low-tech! personal ___(insert word of your choice)___ notebook is a sticky idea. For me, it allows me to _______ and also _______ wherever I am, sort of like a PDA or something. The best part is that when ____ happens, I can _____ using my notebook. How sweet is that?

My notebook represents who I am as a designer, engineer, over-committed student. Tis my PN. "Personal Notebook" :D :D :D


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sticky Notebooks: Part 1

We've had two talks thus far-Matt Jadud on Notebooks, and Steve Gold on Sticky Ideas. It's actually kind of a good thing that I'm late on my first post, because the topic of sticky ideas ties in well with the ideation notebooks we're all carrying around for this course.

Most of what Matt talked about was his /own/ notebook-or notebooks, and what he's used them for, how he's felt about them. He highlighted how a lot of the information in them was just scribbles-the notebook wasn't some pristine space that he had to keep neat and clean. This made me think about my own notebook-

Right now it's lined..that's the first thing that comes to mind. And having lines makes me want to stay inside them. It structures my notes and ideas, and tends to limit them. Occasionally I'll realize the lines are there, and purposefully write against them.

That wasn't what I intended to talk about though: The story of my notebook starts last semester-before I knew about this class. I decided that I needed some kind of notebook to carry around with me, just for those little things that come up that I don't want to forget (like when a song I don't have in my itunes comes on the radio, or someone mentions a website or book that I might find interesting). I also decided that I'd write my thoughts in it. I didn't know yet what I'd do with them after writing them down, but I just had this feeling that putting them on paper would make them go somewhere. So I bought a nice little book at CVS for a dollar. It's spiral bound (the sprials are annoying already), and has a green plastic cover.

I lied, actually. I bought two. One's more pocket sized than the other, so it's easier to carry around. The conflict here? I have two notebooks. What am I going to do with them? I started writing tasks in the smaller one-I rip them out when I'm done (I usually can't seem to finish the tasks I wrote down though, so more often than not they stay in the book for a while). Even when I don't finish them all though, I find it helps to have everything written somewhere-like the planners we used to get for free in high school. I stopped carrying a planner once I came to Olin, but my planner was something I couldn't live without a few years ago.

In the larger one, I started taking notes. About anything. I've got notes about both Vital Ideation talks, notes and comments to the person sitting next to me on a robotics lecture I attended, and notes I took about Cafeteria workers for a design course. I’ve never had a notebook that served quite this purpose before-usually things get written on the last page of an existing notebook (who ever uses every page in their notebooks, right..? )

This is starting to get a bit long, so this post'll be continued in a few days :).

Thursday, February 14, 2008

No-longer-tortured confessions of a notebook bum

I've waited far too long to post and all the good topics (colored pens, note organization...) are taken, and I wasn't there for Matt Jadud's talk, having been... well, working in Manhattan at the time. (For those of you who don't know me, I'm not actually an Olin student - just used to be. Class of '07. My name is Mel.)

And what this means is that I get to improvise around what information I can glean from the wiki on the weekly theme. Basically, I make stuff up in the absence of actual content. Or to make that sound somewhat better, it's my hope that these weekly reflections will (1) make me look up from my coding and knock me into the world of ideas on a regular basis, and (2) provide a breather of perspective from outside the bubble, where I'm colliding with things that aren't midterms and credit-hours (more like taxis and bug reports). (I mean "colliding" in the poetic and not the physical sense. At least for the taxis.)

It seems like this week's theme is "vital ideation," aka "the whole class," and... design notebooks! I've been a chronic doodler ever since the days of boredom back in elementary, and used to draw Sierpinski gaskets, Hilbert curves, and more in the margins of my math notes, but that wasn't "design." Later, Fritz the Homework Penguin showed up on all my problem sets. And then quick song parodies, and sketches of the people sitting ahead of me, or drawings of the tip of my left thumb. Not really design.

Or is it? I used to feel all guilty about not keeping my notebooks "intellectual" or "inventor-ish." Ben Linder filled his pages with gorgeous 3D cutaway sketches of apparati; other classmates bristled with neat formulae, pencilled-in circuit diagrams (with lots of eraser marks to show where resistor values had been tweaked), or even colored sketches of costumes for a play. I... drew my thumbnail. And cartoon versions of math symbols that talked in Shakespearean verse.

But that's the way my brain works, and the stuff it occasionally needs to spew out (along with experiments on how lightly I can draw a pencil line, or the train stop to get off at). Design doesn't just mean "class notes," nor does it mean "design of things," as if every page of the notebook had to be funneled towards some known end goal. It's a place to braindump and structure and re-dump things back into my brain. It's like plugging in extra mental RAM.

So what does that design? The way I think. What I think of, what I write down, what I give myself permission to say, and to whom. I need to move things from my mind into the real world, and writing them down is the first step in mentally shifting me towards making that happen; somehow, a project proposal is different when you're holding it than when you're tossing the exact same words* around in your head. Then you can scan it, share it, shred it - but you're dealing with your thoughts-made-word, and that makes it easier to make the jump to word-made-flesh (why yes, I was raised Catholic). And it makes it much more definite and visceral when you rip out an idea and attack it with scissors than when you go, in your brain, "meh, I won't think about that any more."

*note my bias towards the verbal! Our language is a powerful shaper of how we think. I'm still only fluent in American English, but would love dearly to be able to keep my notebooks in Chinese, Italian (with backwards handwriting), and... many others. I've tried keeping notebooks where I avoid the verbal by only drawing, or vice versa with only words, or words and abstract shapes (no real-world objects allowed), but I find anything less than my full range of output options leaves me feeling stymied rather than challenged. (Exception: I hate clipping external objects into my notebooks. They're strictly two-dimensional marks by me on paper. I'm not sure why this is - perhaps the bulk.)

Sure, Fritz the Homework Penguin won't be waddling across my kitchen floor anytime soon. But the math symbol cartoons turned into Rhomeo and Julihat and a roughly dozen-person production at one spring Expo. And the fractal doodling turned into my first foray into teaching at a math summer camp at my high school. So you never know. And yeah, sometimes my notebook turns up things like alternative train door closing mechanisms in between the drawing of the plastic bag my groceries came in and a couple of half-finished sci-fi novel plots. And sometimes there's actual work in there; some computations for part tolerances, some pseudocode and a chart of data flow.

But I pity the clerk who'll have to go through my scribbles for "prior art," if I ever make something important enough for someone else to get into a legal tiff over some day. "What relation does this French-speaking rabbit have to your processor design?" they'll ask**. "Well, both were on my mind at the time." "Is this a... necessary part, the rabbit, for your invention to work?" "Necessary for me to think of it in the first place," I'll answer (if I'm being completely honest). My brain is a space where many strange things collide, and from this mess occasionally emerges an intentional design.

Design notebook? Yes, if I use the term loosely. Designed notebook? I choose my paper and my writing implement and my own restrictions on usage based on the direction I'd like my brain to go in (or not). But it's my notebook, in any case, and useful to my life, and it's good enough to make me happy.

**Yes, I know that patent proceedings don't actually go this way, and I'll redraw any very important diagrams before submission, and label them nicely with ID numbers and stuff. It's called "artistic license."

Mel Chua is a lazy bum who staunchly refuses her parents' orders to get a job. During her "year off" (right now) she overcooks spaghetti and attempts to save the world. Her current notebook is a somewhat world-ravaged green Google minitome from Leslie Hawthorne that she keeps forgetting is in her pocket. This weekend she will get a larger one.

My Journal, My Life

So, here I am writing my post at the last minute. Literally, the last minute. In fact, the next talk starts in 55min.

After Matt's talk, I started thinking about how journals (or design notebooks) fit into my life and how I had never really noticed that before. I still have my journals from 1st grade, when I was learning how to write and we had to write one sentence and draw a picture every day. It was pretty intense - after we wrote our sentence we had to go show it to our teacher who would correct our spelling and grammar.

In middle school, I carried a big purse and always had a notebook inside. I would write lists of things to do, angsty poetry, and notes about things I needed to remember. I made a lot of big plans in those notebooks. I had a 30min bus ride to and from school so I had plenty of time to record my thoughts and feelings inside its spiral bound pages.

As I got into high school (and started driving myself to school), notebooks became less of a driving force in my life. I would take notebooks on trips to write down my memories or make lists. I'm famous for making lists. At least 50% of my notebooks are just lists. Lists about what I wanted to own in my house someday. Lists of places I wanted to visit. Lists of websites I was going to create. Lists of books I wanted to read. So much of my notebook space is/was about things I want to do and may or may not ever do. I suppose that's still a flaw of mine - I always enjoy planning much more than the follow through. Gradually, I transitioned from notebooks to blogs. Sometimes I would still write in my notebook, but only so that I would remember what to write in my blog later. My friends and I got really into it - we all read each other's blogs religiously. Of course, the downside was when you had to change your URL because someone you didn't like had started reading your blog. Somehow, that didn't seem like a reason to stop.

Having mostly transitioned to electronic forms of recording my plans/lists, I still keep a couple notebooks on hand, but they have very distinct purposes. I mostly use the purple one for trips - so far I've written about 2 pages in it. The brown one is actually a photo album I use for ticket stubs - a memory of the music/theater/art productions I have attended. I love flipping through it for random memories like the Philly Folk Festival, the Sex Worker's Art Show, and my name-tag from Olin's Candidate's Weekend. I like that it's visual. My last notebook, and most private, is the pink one. I actually made that notebook myself in a high school art class called "Textiles". In that notebook, I hide all of my secret feelings and romantic woes. That's the notebook where I dump out everything so I can get over my ex-girlfriend. The notebook where I convince myself that everything's going to be okay - I'm better off single. I guess in many ways, it's the most important one.

It's interesting to think about how the role of notebooks in my life has transitioned. I'm interested in seeing how my design notebook from this independent study evolves.

I may add more to this later, but this is a good start.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Designing a Low-Definition Digital Ideation Platform

For my Everyday Ideation deliverable, I wrote up some thoughts that I posted earlier into a somewhat coherent essay. It's not quite the standard deliverable I had foreseen myself making, but it's too interesting to pass up.

It can be found here.

Here's the 5-second version:
-the way that computers naturally display and store information is fundamentally different from the way notes and sketches naturally display and store information
-the way in which we use our computers prohibits us from thinking in "design mode" as we would while using a notebook
-here are a few starter ideas for designing a program that would encourage on-the-fly "design thinking"

Comments welcome!

Soley Design? I Think Not!

Intro to the Notebook!
Matt Jadud helped us kick off the Vital Ideation course last week with an introduction to design notebooks. What a great way to start the class! We got to examine many aspects of design simply by inspecting the work that Matt has done over previous years. And not only were we introduced to the many design aspects he implements, but were told to adopt a style that works for you and to stick to it. "Remember your design notebook is written for you in the future, not for anyone else." Design notebooks do not have to be always neat and perfect but can be sloppy (okay maybe only a little) and contain confusions or maybe even entirely unrelated things, but as long as it aids in your design process than the notebook is fulfilling its purpose. With my notebook I plan to have designs, but also lots of doodles, ideas, random writing, notes from discussions, flowcharts, and anything else that will get my ideas out of me and onto its pages. Here's some pictures of what it is like...

Here's a doodle.And the layout of one of our meetings. Sometimes having location and quotes help me remember the meeting better.
And sometimes my notebook gets really messy. But that's okay because it's only for me (just in the future).

Design Dilemma!
Immediately after Matt's talk I started writing down notes, scribbling, drawing...just getting my ideas onto paper. But slowly, keeping a design notebook started to slip off of my priority list. Why did this happen? Matt had explained in his talk that there was more to design than notebooks, more than just ideas on paper--it was about scheduling, staying organized, and having low stress so that the ideas flow more easily, and it was on these points that I was failing. Lately I have way too over committed with classes, clubs, and activities and this has lead to an tremendous increase in my stress level. So whenever I sat down to try to think about design, my mind was in 1000 other places--when is my next appointment? have i finished all of my homework? what happens if the world blows up?. It is really hard to think of anything to design when your mind is not remotely focused. Matt really emphasized this in his talk, but I didn't believe him until I experienced it first hand! To help cope with this design difficulty, I have been trying to schedule in time just for design and though it has been hard, I really like having a time devoted solely to design and I want to do it more often! When something is important to you, you find time to do it no matter how busy you are because you can make it a priority. This is what I am doing with this course and with designing in general.

The World in Color

In his presentation last week, Matt made a point about the use of color in notes. In Software Design last semester, he also made a point to use different chalk colors to more effectively illustrate points. I recall being frustrated at how poorly these multi-color diagrams translated into my notebook in boring old black. Somehow, the idea of using more than one color to copy down a picture containing more than one color never struck me.

Since last week, I have been using two or three different colors of pens when taking notes. I find it tremendously useful to be able to draw a graph's axes in one color, the plot of a function or two, and comment on various aspects within the graph without having to worry about losing clarity to "too much black ink." Small tangential notes, or comments on math steps are perfect to do in another color. They don't interfere with the flow of the notes, but add additional information.

This combines with another observation about note-taking that I made recently. For a long while, I unconsciously took notes as densely as possible. I tried to write on every line and only really skipped lines between sections. This meant that all of the information I might need was all in one place, but it made it veryr difficult to access again later. Frequently I will remember where on a page I wrote something, but not on which page, and will have to hunt around my dense notes to find the bit of information I am looking for.

What I am doing now is leaving much more white space and intentionally making my notes more logically organized on the page. I'd rather that I spread things out in a way that makes sense to me and is easy to go back to later and reference. This seems somewhat obvious, but it still feels weird to have some pages in my notebook that contain only a few individual pieces of information. However, they contain the information in a way that is very easy for me go back to and quickly understand, rather than being mushed up with everything else.

Rather than use flat words to illustrate how I've changed my note-taking style to use color and organization, it seems like pictures might be a better option. (copy color diagram, use color. easier to understand, spread notes out. show concept, use photos. Maybe I'm improving?)

An Illustration

Here I was able to plot several difference graphs without getting them mixed up, as well as include comments without "ink overload"

Again, I was able to write something and mark it up with comments without interfering with the readability or flow of the "non-comment" notes.

I drew the base circuit in one color, comments in another color, and a formula for impedence in another.

For me, this is a pretty low note content for a page. I normally draw much smaller graphs and don't spread things out this much, but by arranging my notes and using color I am able to more easily understand them, which is good, because they are my notes.

A Wrap
I am a big fan of this new style of note-taking I am using. I suspect I will get better at it, since I've only even started to think hard about how I organize notes a week ago. Note-taking had become so second nature that I just did it on autopilot. This new "structure and semantics" thing is such a great idea.

Why didn't they teach me this in 6th grade study skills?

P.S. - I'm probably going to keep posting all of my deliverable photos into my Vital Ideation Flickr Pool, because it's rather easy to do.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Design Notebooks - Merging Design and Organization

After hearing Matt's talk, I have started to give a lot more thought into how it is that I organize my life and free my head so that I have room to design.

It was interesting for me to look deeply at how I used my notebooks and how I organized my tasks.

I'll start with how I organize things.

I try to make list and cross things off my lists. These lists include post-its stuck to my desk or a page torn out of a notebook. I also use the tasks on Outlook which helps me to schedule my time and make sure I allot time for everything to get done. Having a paper list on my desk saves me from taking the time to turn on my computer, check my calendar, check facebook, check my e-mail and otherwise waste lots of time.

The organization of my school notebooks is a new thing for me. In ICB I had the mid-semester notebook change problem which is never good. I went to only putting notes in my notebooks and not homework. The problem with that is that sometimes your homework is better notes than your notes are. I struggled off and on with how to structure things and i came up with this solution:

I staple lab handouts and homework assignments on the back side of the pages. When I get a homework assignment or a lab back, I stick that in too. That way, all of my notes are on the front sides, and the completed, neat versions of my homework are on the back sides of the page. Occasionally I will do scratchwork on the problem set or lab handout. It the scratchwork doesn't quite fit on the page, I just cut out a tab and fold it in. This keeps everything neat and together. One problem I foresee with this system is the fattiness factor. These notebooks are going to be HUGE once the semester is over. I hope it will be worth the obnoxiously huge notebook to have everything together and organized.

The design notebook I carry is a residual from Design Nature and POE. There are lots of calculations and sketches in it. I think the key facet of my design notebook is that there are pages of order and pages of disorder and that doesn't really matter. If it is something important, or something I have to scan and submit for an assignment, I make it neat. If not, who cares. Like Matt said, I am writing this to my future self not to anyone else.

I think my favorite part of this notebook is the Baxtor Beaver costume sketches!

Well, I think that is all I have to say on the topic of notebooks both organization and design. I think the key lesson is to find a system that works for you and to stick with it. Carrying around a notebook and not writing anything in it is a waste. I try not to worry about keeping things neat when I know I will never really look at them again but I try to maintain general order when my future self will want some reference material. It may not be the best system but it works for me.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Matt Jadud's talk today went pretty well. He was recommended to us by our course adviser, and so setting up the intro talk was actually somewhat last minute. Fortunately, Matt's pretty chill, and even though we started late, our video camera broke and the audio is terrible, things were fine.

Matt gave a hilarious introduction to design by narrating a brief history that covered everything from the garden of Eden to the invention of the space shuttle by da Vinci. He spoke extensively about his notebooks from grad school and how he used them, which was the best part of the presentation, in my opinion.

I have some new thoughts about the importance of notebooks over computers.


  • Notebooks have a certain roughness that computers lack. This is actually fairly closely related to quickness, but I'll try to distinguish between them. When I draw or write on a notebook, my lines aren't perfectly straight, and my letters aren't perfectly formed. To be honest, when writing quickly, I use a disgusting half-cursive-half-print style that's almost impossible for anyone but me to read. But this roughness is not only unique, it is /essential/ to the character of the notebook. When I write "gvt" on a page, it almost unambiguously means "government" to me-- the information is conveyed quickly and efficiently. But when I type "gvt", the computer underlines it jagged and bright-red (and has even on the blogger text editor, though I think that might actually be a Firefox feature) and if I run a spell check it won't care for the abbreviation unless I add it to the dictionary and so on! The computer places almost no value on roughness-- its strengths are orderly.
  • Notebooks have a quickness about them that is hard to imitate in computers. Content can start being created anywhere on the page, and in seconds a page can be filled with an information structure. In the part on roughness, I mentioned that my lines aren't straight, and my letters aren't perfectly formed. In fact, if the lines I drew were straight on my page, they would take infinitely longer to form, and if my handwriting was a font, I would still be tracing out my first letters. Likewise, if my computer worried about storing every odd line, letter, doodle and so forth I've written as a set of extremely detailed vector graphics, it would be a tremendous waste! They are two completely different models for the display of information, and I bet a lot of great ideas are still waiting to be discovered regarding transfer between them.
  • The third quality I mentioned was drawings. It's darn near impossible to draw with the mouse, and it's darn near impossible /not/ to with a pen. Sound good? Good.

Alright, I should probably get back to some other work. Also, if you're still reading this and in VI, don't feel compelled to write another post about Matt's lecture (it's not a course requirement), though by all means go ahead if you want to add something. Alright, I'm out.

Design Notebooks

Today, Matt Jadud spoke about Design Notebooks. He shared with us some highlights from his design notebooks from the last several years and explained the different ways he uses them. We learned about different ways to organize our thoughts, but the primary point was that everyone thinks and learns in different ways and the key is to customize your notebook for yourself. Order vs. chaos, sketches vs. outlines, use of color and style are all techniques that work better for some people than others.

As everyone taking Vital Ideation is carrying a design notebook for the course, Matt's talk will prove to be very helpful! The video camera we were going to use to record the talk broke, but an audio recording of this talk will be posted.