Commonplacing for beginners

let optimism rein



I have just finished reading Steven Johnson's "Where Good Ideas Come From", an excellent exposition of a theory of innovation that focuses on the processes, platforms and techniques that support the emergence of creativity and ideas. His ideas are well researched, and in keeping with the subtitle (A natural history of innovation) Charles Darwin makes a sustained appearance in the text. There are far too many exciting ideas embodied in this book to give a comprehensive overview here, so I will focus on one aspect in particular: the concept of the Commonplace Book, its use as a tool of innovation and creativity, and the form it takes in the digital era.


The Commonplace Book was a ubiquitous tool of any Enlightenment scholar and gentleman, and its use extended from Renaissance Italy (the Zibaldone, or 'hodgepodge' book) up to premodern and modern England and America, although the forms varied in subtle and particular ways. The essence of the form was to carry a book that allowed one to capture words and sketches in many diverse and varied forms, types and purposes, creating a singular journal. Nowadays we would call it a personal journal or sketchbook, but the emphasis in Commonplacing (as it was known and taught in Oxford and even Harvard - Thoreau was taught to do this) was to combine quotations and extracts from found material with personal reflections and insights. The older form, the Renaissance 'Zibaldone' was even more diverse, and could include a record of tax rates, payments, debts, doodles, recipes, quotations from the greater and lesser poets, sketches, drawings and just about anything else you could imagine.

Johnson points to the benefits of Commonplacing as a tool of innovation and creativity, and attributes this to its ability to net and trap 'hunches' and subsequently allow the unexpected collision of different ideas. This process takes advantage of what he and others have called the 'adjacent possible'. Indeed, he elevates the humble 'hunch' to the level of proto-concept, an essential larval form of innovative ideas, albeit one that is more likely statistically to be abandoned and wither than bear fruit. As the story goes, we have a lot of hunches, and we need to have a lot, and not lose track of them: some lead us somewhere, but all of them have value. Even the ones we abandon are essential to 'trap', as they may form the seed of further ideas. Personally I prefer the term 'seed' to 'hunch'; to me, 'seed' captures the emergent potential of the stray idea, while acknowledging that it may fall on either barren or fertile ground - amount to something, or nothing at all.

I am no stranger to journal-keeping, nor to the fruitless/fruitful recording of stray hunches, but thanks to Mr. Johnson, I have a clearer view of a personal practice that had been intuitive up until now. He has filled out the creative, utilitarian and historical context to what was in itself a hunch - a desire to keep and maintain a record of thoughts and found materials.

More than this, Johnson was able to put the practice of commonplacing in an up-to-date framework through a discussion about the software tool DEVONthink. Like Evernote, DEVONthink is a personal database tool ideal for capturing words, notes, images, documents, voice recordings, web links and pages, in fact anything that you might wish to place in an imaginative or useful framework for future reference. In essence, they are both commonplacing tools, updated for a web-centric digital age.

The power of DEVONthink, and the advantage that it has over the conceptually similar but simpler Evernote, is embodied in its search algorithm, one that intelligently considers the context and proximity of words and meaning as well as the explicit search terms. It is also capable of intelligently classifying new material in relation to material you have already trapped in the database, a revealing and creative process in itself. With DEVONthink, storing items and ordering the database over time is fruitful, but the act of searching also becomes an active creative process, one that forces possible adjacencies between words and concepts in a way that is just a little unpredictable. And in that unpredictability is a strangely resonant mimicry of the seemingly-random connections between ideas and concepts that can emerge from, or inform, our subconscious and conscious minds. In this way the software acts as an extension and augmentation of our thinking process, if not our mind itself.

I have in the past used Evernote as my de-facto digital commonplacing tool, but I was far too intrigued by the possibilities of DEVONthink's search and classification algorithm to resist it. As a result I spent much of the long weekend transitioning my database of material from Evernote into DEVONthink. This labour-intensive process had the added bonus of allowing me to revisit much of the material I had saved into Evernote, and this in turn presented a range of new connections and concepts, new potentials, new seeds.

I look forward to new taxonomical habits yielding creative new insights, augmented by my newly adopted commonplacing tool.


A thought experiment: discovery/design/drawing

Something that doesn't exist

We all want to get ‘better’ at design. Here’s a thought experiment that might help. Suspend your disbelief for a while, and read the following as if you agree with it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t: this is an exercise in pretending.

It has been said (by me, just now) that design and discovery were at the opposite ends of the scale, but somewhere along the line the ends of that scale were bent around into a horseshoe shape so that they are now actually quite close together, even while retaining all the qualities of an opposing pair.

Whew! I am glad I got that out. The simile might be clumsy, but it carries a grain of truth: when you are in the zone, design can sometimes feel more like discovery, or uncovering, than making. It can feel like heading down a path and discovering interesting things along the way. I suggest that the opposite is also true, and that to uncover or unearth - to discover - has many of the qualities of making, of design.

Think about it for a moment. The person who discovered the gas oxygen in the mid 1770’s (the Swedish pharmacist Carl Wilhelm Scheele seems to have won that historical race by a whisker) certainly uncovered or revealed it. However, in a very real sense he also ‘invented’ it -  designed it - insofar as the concept or idea of oxygen had no existence before his definition. (Actually, to be precise, Scheele actually invented ‘fire air’, as he named it, correctly acknowledging oxygen’s role in combustion.  The word oxygen is a later and less accurate nomenclature, taken from the French oxygéne, which means ‘acidifying constituent’ according to the OED.)

The components of oxygen might exist atomically independent of language, I’m prepared to concede that they do, but in practice that fascinating gas is embedded in a dense mesh of invented and ascribed meaning, and such things are entirely cultural and historical artefacts. In other words, they are ‘made up stuff’ - the product of intention and design. (Quantum physics goes further and throws into question whether phenomena even exist independent of observation, but that’s way over my head and a story to explore another time.)

So, if you subscribe to this view (and remember you are pretending that you do) then designers are merely in the business of discovering things that are already there; and conversely, it follows that he or she who discovers things is actually making them up or inventing them, in some sense at least. If this is the case (keep pretending) then design as an activity must proceed under the assumptions and conditions of discovery, as well as making. And, as we know, the first condition of discovery is the principle that there is in fact something there to be discovered: that in theory at least you need only look in order to find, however hard the looking might be in practise.

Keep pretending a little while longer, and take our thought experiment with you to the drawing board. Can you design as if it is merely discovery, and nothing more? Can you design as if the product or solution already exists, and that all you are doing is digging it out of the earth? I think that if you try this with a little imagination, if you continue to suspend your disbelief and ‘just pretend’, a whole range of alternative techniques will suggest themselves to you.

For example, I know that I draw things I am inventing differently to things that already exist, particularly things I can see when I am drawing. I don’t know why I should do that, but I do it nonetheless - could that change if I pretend the imagined object already exists? Perhaps. I had better try it and see.

There ends the experiment. Let me know how you go.

The ripe fruit of design failure



When we design objects such as furniture, joinery and buildings - in fact, almost anything with utility - we attempt to anticipate the circumstances of its use and shape the object or form accordingly. We all know this, and assume that it should be so. It is certainly a practical approach; and yet, no matter how hard we try to anticipate the future lives of our design products, the attempt frequently fails, in part if not in whole.


Our world is littered with the fecund evidence of such failures, scattered about our lives like so much fallen and rotting fruit. The question I am interested in is this: what becomes of these failures? The language of design is imbued with morality. We hear of 'good' design and 'bad' design, rather than 'useful' or 'useless'. The greater good is always assumed to be design that is fit for its purpose - design like a glove that fits a hand. Anything bad, on the other hand, is summarily dismissed from consideration.

Nevertheless, if you look carefully at these mistakes - these orphans of intention - they possess shape, form, colour and materiality. They typically also have pattern and proportion, scale and very possibly a mysterious utility outside of their original intended purpose. In fact, these errors possess all the qualities of their more successful cousins, the 'correctly' designed element; they have merely been cut loose from their moorings, drifting from their intended purpose into a no-man's land of extraneous or needless things.

The example shown above is a perfectly round hole cut through a serving bench at a local café. The hole was evidently intended to convey the cash register's cables into the joinery, but times have changed, and the register has been moved 400 millimetres to the left, making the hole superfluous. I find this hole fascinating. It is so carefully made, and so materially satisfying - there is something delicious about a nice, even hole cut through laminated materials. The edge of the hole as it passes through the stainless steel skin has been filed smooth, and the ply substrate is visible beneath, with its tooled striations.

Nevertheless, this particular hole is currently useless. One can take all manner of lessons from the position of this hole, and pontificate about the unwise nature of some decision-making processes in detailed design, but really, who cares? Perhaps, as the hippies did to the barrels of the guns, we should put a flower in the hole. Then again, perhaps not.

Ultimately, the world has another hole in it: all is well.


 

A 'pure' design problem?



I am about to embark on a design project that I am tempted to call a 'pure' architectural problem. What is important about this observation, apart from the details of the job, is my impulse to refer to it as a 'pure' problem. This implies that some architectural problems are 'impure' or contaminated in some way, a condition that this project somehow avoids through a convergence of circumstance, siting and brief. The distinction is false: a phantom idea that seems solid at first glance, but becomes progressively more vapourous the more it is examined.

My impulse to call the project a 'pure' architectural problem comes from it being relatively unencumbered in certain ways, but it is a lazy taxonomy. The brief is to design a library and community services building for a township outside a regional city here in southern Australia. The township is sorely lacking in public institutions, buildings and spaces, and as such the new building will provide an important social function. Stay-at-home parents will be important beneficiaries of the project, as it will give them space to come together in public, in a non-commercial setting. As such the project promises a lot for a growing community, and the social performance of the buildings must be outstanding or an opportunity will be missed. This social factor, and the project's limited budget, are the chief encumbrances.

The project is relatively less encumbered by its setting, and this is where it departs from my usual work. The building will be built on a greenfield site - one that is literally a green field at this time. Construction vehicle access will be direct and easy; the site slopes consistently but not steeply to the west, and access to services such as sewer and electricity is straightforward. The subsoil is a bit shifty, which causes some complications in the design, but on the whole it will be a straightforward build. Conceptually, the building will be an object in a field, a condition that many architects would view as ideal, a chance to 'strut their stuff'. After all, the quintessential architectural project is the heroic object positioned 'in the round' like a sculpture, with its sublime body visible, and hence consumable, from all angles. Isn't it?

I think my impulse to call this a 'pure' architectural problem comes from an awareness of this apparently 'ideal' condition, that of the unencumbered architectural object 'landing' on the big, empty site. It is curious that I might be tempted to call this 'pure', as I tend to think of the ideal as something quite different. With my team, the ideal project is one that is heavily encumbered - by a complex and dense urban setting, a built-up site, or even an existing building that needs to be accommodated in the new works. The energy of our architecture at WBa comes from the charge of highly constrained problems, which is why we love working with heritage buildings so much. We are not motivated by the desire to create heroic architectural objects - we are more interested in subtlety, nuance and insinuation. In our best projects, texture, surface and materials play more of a role than objects and sculptural gymnastics.

This library project is a very different beast, and yet it is perhaps still encumbered, albeit in different ways. Because the setting is so resolutely suburban, the user's understanding of the building will be more informed by visual iconography rather than a small-scale pedestrian experience. The iconography will inevitably be informed by somewhat inauspicious but familiar building types: the fast food restaurant, seen from behind the wheel of a moving vehicle, is the most obvious example. This hardly sets my world on fire, but some elements of that archetype are interesting. These include the 'friendly' roof form that marks the building in an otherwise homogeneous and horizontal landscape, and the need to carefully choreograph the transition from vehicle arrival to pedestrian entry.

On balance, I would now like to rephrase my description of this project. It is not a 'pure' architectural problem, but neither is it an 'impure' architectural problem: it is just another design problem, one that demands a typically specific response, albeit in different terms than those I usually work in. Others would relish the opportunity for some architectural heroics set against a big sky and dominant horizon. The challenge is to bring the sensibilities of my more typical work to the greenfield site. Let's see how that unfolds.

For more sketches, check out the project in my portfolio
 

What am I? A professional brain-teaser



Late last year I did some work with a creative studio, thinking through roles, techniques for writing and presentation, and generally brainstorming their creative trajectory as a working organisation. This work was done under the banner of my private consultancy, Archimentor (www.archimentor.com.au). I puzzled over this work to some extent, as I seem to have launched Archimentor without knowing precisely what it is or does. All I did know for sure was that the work was fascinating, the results satisfying and the process of 'following my nose' quite rewarding. This was due in no small part to the head of the studio in question, who was tremendously supportive, inquisitive and a creative powerhouse of formidable abilities.

Recently things have come into focus somewhat, and I think I am now in a position to pin down exactly what we were up to, all of us together. I think we were engaging in a process of design thinking, the application of the techniques of design to a business context, coupled with building the design skills and capacity of the team as applied to what was perhaps less familiar territory: their work processes and roles, rather than their commissions. Writing and taking the design initiative were two topics that received some attention in our sessions.

Design thinking is undoubtedly a buzz phrase at this time. Nevertheless I can see its potential, and I can also see the seeds of something enduring amongst the hype. The techniques of design represent a potentially powerful method of problem definition, resolution or solution. Design thinking can establish pathways for alternative and unexpected types of investigation, and yield results that are equally unexpected and well-suited to their application.

I can see how businesses of all types could benefit from the techniques of design thinking, but I don't want to get carried away with definitions at this formative stage. Strangely, I have enjoyed the organic and slightly shambolic evolution of my consulting sideline to date; it forms a smaller subset of my own creative practice in architecture and design, and I am yet to bring the many strands together. In the meantime I would like to see my strange sideline continue to evolve, and I am not in a hurry to pin it down. At least, not yet.

Check out www.archimentor.com.au for some more clues. Comments and insights are welcome.

In praise of frameworks





 

There is something about pens and paper that inspires me to think, and to write. Receiving a new pen, or a new stock of paper or notebook, fires my mind. A myriad possibilities seem open to me, and I positively hum with anticipation when a new package arrives. Tomorrow I receive such a package, and it will contain french paper by Rhodia, a stock of Uniball pens (cheap but excellent), an O-Check slim leather notebook and a collection of other goodies. Tomorrow's package does not contain a Platignum pen, but last week's package did. It was inexpensive but remains quite satisfying to use.

I have a strange, creative compulsion to stockpile such goods. I have more than I need at any one time, and the miserly puritan on my right shoulder tells me that I should be more economical. Somehow, I can't stop, though - and having a selection available for spontaneous use seems to be encouraging and comforting in some way. Comfort is important, and I think this is because writing hurts. Not to say that it is corrosive, or destructive, or diminishing in any way. It's more the case that something gets exposed in the process, like a bandage coming off a wound. The air is good for it, but the exposed flesh is vulnerable.

For those in Australia, I can recommend Notemaker and Manifesto Brands to feed the habit. Luckily for them, I won't be easing my compulsion to hoard anytime soon.

Another day, another diphthong

The blogger's tools: caffeine, free wifi and an ipad

The first Archimentor workshop was run successfully this week! Very exciting. It was an Articulation Workshop (writing and speaking) with the team at Gloss Creative, and it was a very interesting evening. We ran through three exercises, one writing and two speaking. I was impressed not just by the supreme competence and excellent attitude of the team, but also by the way that the bits I thought would be harder for them were easier, and vice versa.

The workshop process is so rewarding, as it is a ‘live beast’ - once it is up and running it really takes off in surprising directions. The process requires a thousand minute adjustments made on the fly - tone and delivery are very important, and I was yet again struck by the fact that the way a challenge is framed has a significant impact on the way it is received and carried out.

The essence of what I discussed with the team was that the different methods of articulation - of making clear, of laying out the parts - are all related. One of the evening's three simple rules was that participants were to use all their skills, and this was an allusion to the idea of 'parallel processing'. Parallel processing is the concept that the same ideas can be processed or expressed in different ways, but rather than one way being 'right' and another 'wrong', they can all exist in parallel. Valuable knowledge and insights are created by repeating the same idea in a different way, and registering the subtle differences.

To give you an example, an excellent technique for clear writing is to start by speaking what you intend to write. By explaining an idea in conversation you are provided with a ready-made logical structure, simply due to the fact that we have an intuitive understanding of how to talk to each other - where to start, what to say next, and so on. It might not be the perfect explanation, but it generates a structure that can be critiqued in a different medium. The structure can be used to lay out a piece of writing, or a diagram, an illustration, or as the backbone of a report. The technique also works in all directions. For example, for clear speaking you might start by drawing, or making a diagram, or writing, and so on. It is simple but effective.

We also discussed the process of distillation. Distillation is a reduction of the whole to its constituent parts, and it is a natural consequence of expressing an idea in different mediums or forms. Each idea may have a spoken part, a written part, an illustrated part, a photographic part, an emotional part, an economic part, perhaps even a musical part - and doubtless many others. Each part has a different value, so by jumping between the techniques of articulation, by running them in parallel, you begin to frame up a complex and subtle picture of overall idea. Just in case you are skeptical about the idea of a musical part, a friend recently used the concept in his teaching in urban design. Each student's project had to be given a theme song by the student, which was played before each presentation. It was fun, a bit silly, and genuinely instructive.

I wonder what theme song the team would nominate for the workshop? I should put it to the vote: I am sure I would be surprised.

Scriptorium: the ultimate writing room

This is a sketch of my personal scriptorium, which I realised I had access to all along: my living room. I have five places to sit, three of these for writing. My father has built me a 'parson's table' that sits over my armchair, which is the final jewel in the crown. The table arrives from interstate with mum and dad tomorrow, and when I have it in place I will have my own personal version of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Now if only I can go where no one has gone before, writing-wise. Once a nerd, always a nerd.

Many thanks to the divine Ms. Henderson for leading directly to this most apt solution to the writing cabinet problem, and for introducing me to the concept of the parson's table.

What happens in the space between thoughts

Have you ever been startled by an audible but faint noise, or the unexpected movement of an inanimate object? What is going on in your consciousness when this occurs?

The studio is quiet this week, people are hushed and the phones generally aren't ringing. I was drawing, using the computer to copy ethereal digital circles of pale green, when the roll of yellow tracing paper sitting on my desk slowly unfurled in my peripheral vision. It made a tiny noise, a kind of scratchy wheezing as the edge of the trace was drawn across a piece of creased bond paper on my desk.

It happened in one of those fleeting micro-moments of sudden stillness, and due to the meditative nature of the drawing exercise I was immersed in this strangely drawn-out, tiny, sudden movement startled me. This was a personal moment, a tiny sliver of time of about three seconds, and yet I felt my perception suddenly shift as if the floor had dropped out beneath my feet.

Call me odd for saying so, but I like that sensation. It is the diametric opposite of being in control, and I only ever experience it when I am relaxed. I don't think the insignificance of the experience (for it is certainly insignificant) disqualifies it from consideration. It is a cliché to say that life is made up of such moments, but it remains true nonetheless: just hanging around and being is quite a rich experience, if we can tune our senses to its subtleties.

Of course, most of the time I, and I imagine you, are far too busy to smell such invisible roses. While we are on that topic, and speaking of clichés, have you ever stopped to smell the roses? It has become something of a superstition that I must do this whenever a rose presents itself. It’s true: I really do. This obsessive little habit has rules, though – cut roses do not invoke the reaction, and going to a rose-garden would also not satisfy the conditions of the act, as it would be far too obvious. However, if I am on site, or wandering out in the world, and I unexpectedly come across a rosebush, I almost always stop to smell it.

I attribute this to the notion that much of my inner life is lived in language, and a phrase ‘stop and smell the roses’ is something of a provocation or challenge, as well as being a well-worn cliché. I experience a tiny moment of reflective pleasure when I am able to make physical and real a concept with a meaning so debased and diluted that it scarcely conjures the image of a real rose when said aloud. It is as if the act strips the phrase of its cliché, if only for a moment – and the words are recharged with descriptive power. Don’t you think that is fascinating? In a similar vein, there have been days when I have left a lunch appointment and said ‘back to the drawing board’, and meant it quite literally.

Like most of the things that fascinate me, I have no idea what this means. Yet still, I like it.

I've been thinking...

Cropped portrait of Marcus

Welcome. This is it, post one of A Flawed Mind, the blog I am dedicating to the deceptively simple phrase 'I've been thinking...'

I am a thinker by habit, but it has not necessarily always been a comfort. In fact I was recently told by a friend that I tend to 'think a bit too much'. This is undoubtedly true, and in the past I suffered from a far more obsessive strain of thought than I currently enjoy. There were dark times, and I occasionally wished that my head would explode and be done with, at least in a figurative sense.

Despite the shadows, happily somewhat distant now, I continued to prize thinking highly. Thinking, and its more casual cousin 'reflection', are central to my job, or jobs, which have become a personal vocation. I am in the creativity business, working right now as an architect and an itinerant freelance journalist. Both crafts require a surprising amount of reflection, or at least they do the way I practise them. Up until recently I was also a design teacher at an architecture school. That too required a great deal of thought before, during and after contact with students.

Now entering the third year of a self-imposed sabbatical from teaching, I find that I have a great deal of extra time in the week, and I am keen to use this time to lead a richer life. To help make this happen I have been slowly re-engineering my life (and my lifestyle) to include more time and space for reflection. Reducing my daily total commute to (literally) about three minutes is a great improvement on the previous record of three hours a day, and this too has liberated my body and mind for many more hours each week.

Thinking and reflection (I might use these terms interchangeably in this blog, but not all the time) are only possible, of course, if they are nurtured and fed regularly. This requires a commitment to reading, looking, listening, photographing, writing and drawing on a regular basis. I am trying to dedicate more of each day to these activities. Fortunately may day job includes most items on the list.

Private reading and listening are particularly important, and I can generally do both every day. I am indebted to two quintessentially American and quintessentially 'new economy' business ideas for the enrichment of both activities. For reading, in addition to the many physical books I purchase I have just got my hands on an Amazon Kindle. This is an interesting device, and I have already subscribed to the MIT Technology Review, Salon and the Times Literary Supplement, just to kick things off. In fact the Christmas shopping season just ended saw digital books for the first time outsell physical books on Amazon: could the oft-predicted e-book revolution finally be upon us?

For listening purposes I rely on one of the most successful internet startups of all time, Audible.com. This fantastic subscription service for audiobooks and other listening goodies has managed to secure $US20 of my personal funds each month for about three years now, and I have enjoyed interacting with an online business that actually does create new value where none previously existed. The whole adds up to more than the sum of the parts.

On a domestic front Radio National remains the stimulation source of choice. Chafing at its perceived intellectual authority I recently tried to pen a polemic entitled 'Why we must turn off Radio National and start thinking for ourselves'. Good soundbite, but in the process of researching it I increased my listening time, and came to the conclusion that Radio National actually is generally good for my brain.

In case this is all sounding a little too highbrow (and on second reading of the above, it is) let me hasten to introduce you to the soft, stripy underbelly of these more intellectual habits. The 'underbelly' is where I attend to the workings of the subconscious or unconscious minds, and for reflection to occur these 'other' minds need their own kind of feeding and love. The techniques I prefer all have these things in common: they are apparently trivial, superficially time-wasting, gently distracting and largely harmless. Three such techniques are 1 - mindless television crime drama in general; 2 - watching endless repeats of The Simpsons; and 3 - driving in the country while recording rambling, unfocused monologues grounded in stating the obvious. These all serve a purpose, and that purpose is to occupy the conscious mind so the unconscious, or subconscious, can go to work. This is the reason that you always remember a forgotten name when you have stopped trying to think about it directly. But you knew that already, I suspect.

And what sterling work the subconscious can do if it is only left alone for a spell, every now and then. This leads us of course to the thorny issue of creative problem solving - but that, as they say, is a whole different kettle of poisson. And it is a kettle that we will stir together many times as this blog evolves. Thinking keeps my dog and cat in expensive imported dry vittles, and me in sparkly drinks and party pies, but it's not all work. Ultimately it is quite fun to spend your time thinking about stuff and working things out. I recommend it as an ideal vocation.

So that's it: post one. Join me again for the next instalment, all in good time.