Utopic Notebook

In design, it is generally understood that we must learn to let ideas go. If you are to successfully prototype either one project or many, you have to learn to divorce yourself from ‘precious’ ideas, lest you start awkwardly accommodating nuggets of ideas which, in reality, simply will not work as you might hope. What I’ve found more recently is that I have to apply this philosophy to the way I generate ideas, too. I have to learn to let go of design techniques.

I am a tidy person who aspires towards orderliness in a great many things – be it the upkeep of file naming conventions or ensuring that every one of my photographs is geo-tagged. As such, I place great stock in (and derive enjoyment from) coming up with systems to help keep organised. However, as I’m sure a few people could relate: I seem to spend my life perpetually moving from one system to the next, never quite managing to finish what I started the last time around. I don’t just keep one backup of my hard drives – I have four, and this is not because I want to be absolutely sure and safe. The truth is, each backup is only half-complete but bears a different folder naming structure, and I have yet to integrate everything into one, cohesive pattern.

This same organised chaos plays itself out in my design notes, and while I pride myself on thorough note-keeping for client work, my own projects and ideas are a relative mess. To explain, my current setup is like this:

Note Media

From top left, clockwise:

  • The first of what I hope will be a few A4, narrow-lined ‘logbooks’ for taking down lasting notes -particularly about new working methods.
  • My laptop (represented by a keyboard), Nexus 7 and Galaxy S4 Mini, all of which run Evernote – for taking portable, rich-media notes. As I type more quickly than I can write on all but my phone, this is where I often jot down snippets of game ideas, or ideas for blog posts.
  • Whiteboard, mostly used to keep track of time-critical notes on a variety of projects.
  • Post-it notes, mostly used to keep track of events, as I find it useful to frame complicated travel itineraries in one neat, transferable form.
  • Reporter-sized notepads, for day-to-day use. On the rare occasion I do manage to write these up into either Evernote or my logbook, I tear the respective pages out and bin them.
  • A5 sketchbook, nowadays mostly used to jog my visualisation of an idea. I haven’t ‘finished’ a sketch in one of these in years.

While each medium tends to have a particular key ‘use’, my current system means I will keep notes in at least 3 different places, never quite bringing them into a whole unless there’s demand for a design document. Some time ago I wondered if there would be a way to unite all this, probably in digital format. I gave that a try with Evernote, and it failed miserably.

Whether or not a single product is actually capable of achieving this lofty goal is a matter on which I have no authority to speak. In working towards this design utopia*, however, I realised a greater and more practical truth: my ideas directly benefit from being expressed in so many different ways.

The act of moving concepts from one notebook to another results in two things:

  • you break away from the environment you were creating in originally, gaining a fresh perspective and an opportunity to edit;
  • and you instinctively tweak what it is you’re actually capturing to fit the new note-taking medium, be that sketches into words or shorthand into long.

I consider this to be the first, subtle step into true and progressive design – challenging an idea, to ensure it can stand up to user experience and still communicate what it needs to. Even if it only comes down to tweaking the way your notes are expressed, that’s still a vital skill where you hope to involve other people in your vision.

It may well be that in order for me to construct a two-page design brief, I have to use enough note-making media to cover a coffee table – but at least this way I can see how far the idea’s already had to travel.

* Given that many† view utopia not as an achievable state, but rather something which was always intended to be an aspiration, and that good and orderly society may form while on the path towards achieving it.. I think this terminology is rather apt.

† This was revealed to me in a fascinating lecture by Gerald Farca (Uni. of Augsburg) at the Swedish Game Awards Conference, on the subject of dystopia in game narratives – however ironically I cannot find the notes I made at the time. Dystopia is clearly only an in-tray away…