1. Having the courage to admit that you’re wrong (about notebooks)

    Posted July 13, 2018 in Diary, work  |  No Comments so far

    In 2013 I wrote a blog post about how I was only going to buy cheap notebooks.

    My rationale at the time was that a high-quality notebook repelled low-quality content; in other words, that my reluctance to scribble half-formed thoughts and sketches on such a pristine medium undermines the very purpose of having a notebook in the first place. A cheap notebook, on the other hand, would offer a less judgemental home for incoherent scrawls, and so I would be encouraged to write and draw in it all the time without fear of my contributions being put to shame by the paper on which they were borne.

    I can now look back and say that I was categorically wrong about all of this and, what’s more, that my flirtation with cheap notebooks didn’t last. In around 2015 I ditched them and before long I found myself drawing and sketching far more than I’d ever done before. Moleskines (which I was in the habit of buying when I wrote the abovementioned blog post) were replaced by Leuchtturm notebooks and since then I haven’t looked back. I now always have an A4 and an A5 Leuchtturm1917, both dotted: the latter to carry around and take notes, the former for more serious in-depth sketching.

    Pokémon and diagrams

    And it’s not even more expensive either. The Leuchtturm paper is extremely thin so a single notebook lasts for a long time. The A5 one I’ve got with me now was first used in January 2017 (I know because I write the date on every page) and it’s only now in July 2018 that it’s running out of space. And I’ve used it a lot.

    So that’s it, I just wanted to make it known that I recant the blog post of 2013 and am back on the side of decent notebooks.


  2. A Bad Idea, Beautifully Expressed

    Posted February 20, 2015 in user centred design  |  No Comments so far

    I’ve been ploughing my way through this long New Yorker interview with Jony Ive over the last few days. In it, he says this:

    “There are some people who can draw something that’s fundamentally ugly, but draw it—hint at detailing—in such a way that it’s seductive.”

    It’s probably not the most quotable part in the interview, but it struck a chord with me. The phenomenon Ive refers to is something I’ve noticed over the last few years in my own job as a user experience designer, but it isn’t something I’ve heard discussed a lot.

    The thing is, some people are very good at coming up with ideas. Some people are very good at expressing the ideas they have, in the form of sketches, documents or diagrams.

    In an ideal world these two sets of people would overlap to such an extent that they formed a single set of people who had great ideas and could express them beautifully. People outside that set would have awful ideas and you’d be able to tell they were awful because they’d be drawn in a horrible, messy way.

    But in reality, there is not a perfect overlap between these sets of people. And this is where the danger creeps in, for anyone who runs design processes, or whose organisation depends on their success.

    Sometimes a good idea can be disguised in a messy drawing or a badly written document. If you don’t look carefully it’ll pass you by. Other times—and these are the dangerous times—you find yourself looking at a bad idea, beautifully expressed. What makes it dangerous is that you might go forward with that bad idea, and only learn that it’s bad long after you’ve committed to it, when it’s too late.

    I believe that designers must be able to sell their ideas. But Ive’s remark highlights the fact that there’s another side to that coin and that it’s possible for an idea to be oversold.

    I love working with people who are really great at drawing, and I wish I had that skill too, but it’s important to remember that an idea doesn’t become great simply because it’s been drawn well: and that a bad idea, beautifully expressed, can be a dangerous thing.


  3. Escaping the tyranny of expensive notebooks

    Posted July 16, 2013 in work  |  3 Comments so far

    The people at Moleskine have a lot to answer for. In the last few years I’ve become addicted to their highly desirable yet expensive notebooks, making them the cackling recipients of money I might otherwise have spent on pistachio nuts.

    Yet this misappropriation of my hard-earned funds is not the cause of the sullen, accusatory gaze that I now cast towards those Moleskine folk. No, this is something much bigger. I’m starting to suspect they’ve created nothing less than a prison for ideas. It may be an elegant and nicely designed prison – one whose bars, when clenched, give a pleasing and tactile sensation rather unlike the cold, rusty steel of a traditional penitentiary – but it still gets the job done. This gilded cage is something that ideas need to escape if they are to truly thrive.

    Now the Moleskine people – and other expensive notebook makers – would emphatically deny this. They’d probably suggest that an aspiring idea could hope for no better start to life than on the pages of their costly but obviously top-notch products; that ideas sketched on their subtly creamy sheets are destined for greatness, unlike those scrawled on the backs of napkins whose lowly origins will eventually drag them down into the gutter.

    I probably felt the same way up until recently, otherwise I wouldn’t have been buying Moleskines or other pricey pads in the first place. I guess I felt like the snazzy notebooks would force my ideas to up their game somehow. Pen would not hit that lustrous paper unless the idea to be conveyed deserved to live on that prime real estate. My customary messiness would be eliminated. So by the time I scribbled on its final page my notebook would be headed not for the recycling bin but the bookshelf, maybe even the coffee table, propelled by its merits as an artistic artefact in its own right.

    This misses the point of notebooks entirely. When you need to write something down or draw something, the thing you reach for should be your notebook. If you pause for even a fraction of a second to consider whether the information or idea or whatever it is “deserves” to be in the notebook, then the thing you’re reaching for isn’t really a notebook at all, it’s a canvas for more fully formed ideas. Because notebooks aren’t supposed to be works of art; they’re supposed to be a mess.

    That pause, that momentary flash of doubt about something deserves to be written down, can be thought of it as a filter – let’s call it the “Moleskine Filter” – because it attempts to filter out bad ideas before they sully the pristine pages of your Moleskine. And I see the Moleskine Filter as a bad thing because ideas aren’t in a position to be judged until they’ve been reified in some way. You need to put that idea down, get it out of your head somehow, before you can sit back and decide what to do with it. If your notebook doesn’t help you do that, then what else will?

    So I’ve decided to embark on an experiment: I’m stepping away from expensive notebooks and their seductive allure. As a first step I’ve just bought a notebook which cost less than a third of an equivalent Moleskine. It’s not a good-looking notebook and it doesn’t feel like it’s going to hold up to wear and tear very well. In fact I suspect it’ll look very battered and beaten up after a couple of weeks in my pocket. I can’t wait.

    My theory is that having a cheap notebook that was never going to rival the Sistine Chapel ceiling will nullify the effect of the “Moleskine filter”, helping more of my thoughts and ideas to make it on to paper where they can be fairly evaluated. If I’m right – if such a filter exists, and cheap notebooks can vanquish it – then I’ll have successfully liberated my ideas from their snazzy Moleskine-branded prison. But if I’m wrong, and it makes no difference, then at least I’ll be able to use the money I’ve saved to buy more pistachio nuts.