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Analog Tools Foster Reflection, Creativity and Flow

It's been almost 3 weeks since switching from a Palm handheld to a custom Moleskine weekly planner, which I'm happy to report is going quite well. I'm enjoying having a thin, pocketable planner which can take a beating and never needs a charge.

But beyond my positive experience with paper planner, I've been considering the advantages I'm finding in making use of various analog tools.

panoramio-sketch.jpgPanoramio LogoFor a little perspective, I've been incredibly busy at MakaluMedia, making good headway with my backlog of logo, icon and web design work. I'm finally seeing daylight. I enjoy being busy, especially doing such varied and challenging design projects. I think my latest work is elevating my craft to new levels, and I love it.

However, this state of busyness has made me keenly aware of the fleeting lifestyle I'm living. Jobs come in like waves at the seashore to be quoted and kicked off. Emails build up and must be dealt with constantly. Streams of communication flow through my Mac every day, with clients and colleagues. RSS feeds seem to grow beyond my ability to keep up, so that occasionally I "mark all as read" and move on.

How can I step back, even for a brief moment, and take time to think?

I've found that the analog tools I've adopted, help me step back from the digital edge. Whether it's sketching or writing — placing pen or pencil to paper provides the necessary thought space I need to process, explore, create and think — before I'm sucked back into the computer world.

Why is this? I think there are several factors to why analog tools work so well:

1. Using analog tools forces me to slow down and ponder ideas I might normally skip past while in a computer-accelerated state of mind. I have to process the words I'm planning to write, or consider the shape I want to convey on paper — before or during the writing or sketching. In writing especially, this minimal mental delay slows my mind down and allows me time to build words a little differently than on a keyboard.

2. The feel of pencil and pen on paper provides a different tactile experience than a mouse or keyboard, which helps break computer-mode. There is something supremely pleasurable about smooth graphite or flowing ink on good paper stock. For me, this tactile feeling is a positive part of the drawing process. I find my state of mind and tactile senses are different than when I'm on the computer in Illustrator, Fireworks or Photoshop than when I'm sketching in my Miquelrius with a soft pencil.

3. My creativity is free to roam on paper, which is critical in the design stage. I feel free to explore crazy ideas, less concerned about how to pull them off technically and more interested in getting into a flow and iterating them into to a great idea. This freedom allows me to try many different ideas quickly, and lends itself toward a flow of ideas, rather than getting over-focused on details too quickly.

But to be clear — I am not anti-technology! I use computers daily to manage and perform my design work and appreciate the power and control they offer. I amazed at what can be done with a Mac, and will continue to use one for producing great solutions for clients.

Rather than being anti-technology, I'm challenging computer users to consider analog tools. I'm suggesting we should use the tools (analog or digital) that help our work become the best it can be. That might mean an analog and not digital tool.

I challenge you to explore analog tools as you might already explore digital ones. See how an analog approach might change your perspective, your thinking process, your creativity, your freedom.

Maybe that analog tool will allow you to breathe, ponder, flow and enjoy the creative process even more.

Related Links:
Under The Loupe #4: Keeping a Sketchbook by Jason Santa Maria
Under The Loupe #5: Visual Thinking by Jason Santa Maria
Visual Thinking School by Dave Gray

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Reader Comments (14)

I just wonder how young people, who never really enjoyed these analog tools, will work in 5-10 years.
June 12, 2006 | Unregistered Commentermichelr
Well said.
June 13, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJAbbott
michelr � yes, this is why I'm constantly writing about use of analog tools and sharing them with younger designers and people I meet. I want the experience of analog tools to be available to them, and from the few I have tried to impact, the younger designers I meet seem quite interested in analog approaches.

Jeremy � thanks! I see you make good use of analog tools, so I'm honored that you approve. :-)
June 13, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde
Another very interesting article/thoughts...I am finding/have found that yet again I have switched back to analog tools. Like most nowadays there is no way that I could be completely without a computer at work or home but the umpteenth Palm is virtually relegated to little more than an electronic address book and calendar/diary. The notebooks (currently moleskine) and Filofax have definitely gained the upper hand. Strange thing is that it instinctively feels right to be 'paper' centred with technology assisting.Keep the ideas flowing...........
June 14, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterCDWOS
CDWOS, thanks for your comment.

I wonder if for us, the use of paper as kids makes it feel "right" to us... which gets me to wondering if children now don;t experience paper and pen/pencil as much, would a digital tool feel more "right" to them?

I think that's what michelr was alluding to in the first comment here, and why I like to keep suggesting analog stuff to younger generations.
June 14, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde
Yes, Mike, that was my idea. Just 2 more thoughts:1) I can't say this change (going to digital) is good or bad - only time will tell (also, remember we're only talking about a small part of humanity)2) My two kids (12 and 11), although already GarageBand experts ;-), still use a lot of paper at home and as school, so it's not yet the end of the analog era
June 15, 2006 | Unregistered Commentermichelr
"I wonder if for us, the use of paper as kids makes it feel "right" to us" you have a very interesting point there Mike. It must have an influence even if subliminal.Charles
June 15, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterCDWOS
Yes, the digital world my son grows up in will certainly have an impact. I guess it's my job to encourage that but also keep one of his feet in the analog world as well (I think it will have many benefits).
June 15, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde
Hi Mike,

I just came across your page "by accident" when I was searching for information on "digital writing" and "creativity". I'm curently writing my Master Thesis and gathering all types of reports on how people deal with nonclosure in digital work, which entails this seemingly ongoing flow of demands (emails, RSS feeds as you mentioned) and less transitions between the different activities or projects which you pinpointed with your question "How can I step back, even for a brief moment, and take time to think?"I agree that with analog tools (or media) this seems more manageable and flow happens more easily , but I have also heard people tell me the opposite, that digital flow happens more easily due to the quantification of possibilities in simulated tools, filters, layers etc. As others have said in their comments, it remains to be seen how future "digital natives" deal with this, whether they see it the same way or even the other way round.Anyway, altogether I was just interested to know if I can quote you (this page)? Of course I would also be interested if you like to share any more information from your experience with closure/nonclosure and flow in digital work.


PS: did you know that roh-design has an actual meaning in German? "raw design" ;-)
June 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJana
Jana, thanks for your detailed comments!

As for nonclosure in digital work, I feel I stepped into this when moving from graphic (print) to web design back in the late 1990s, because with print projects, the piece was printed, delivered and done. With the web, sites live for years and are in constant flux, update and change -- a very different way of dealing with work, closure and completion.

Of course the web gets to be more of a living thing than print, and for instance, changes are no problem where in print, a typo can cost thousands of dollars to repair after the fact (reprinting).

Regarding analog and digital tools offering flow, I can see where both have advantages to offer. For instance, digital cameras are wonderful, because if I mess up a shot, I just do it over (unless it's a once in a lifetime chance, but that's a limitation on both). I am free to explore ideas now, because film cost is not an issue -- prints are made based on what I think is good, and not required just to see what I'd shot as with film cameras.

I might also say digital creation benefits from this flow as well.

However, for me in several places analog work is better because while the computer offers many options, they are often rigid and not so flexible... So solutions tend to take very similar paths, while paper sketches are wide open to experimentation.

I'm hoping by keeping this topic alive, some of the digital natives will explore analog approaches as alternates to their more natural digital ways. Much like analog natives use digital to explore options, I think digital natives will see the uniqueness in analog and try it for the unusual nature, the randomness and other features analog approaches can offer.

At least that's what I hope anyway. :-)

Please feel free to quote from this post and the site. I'm happy to support your research, including if you would like to discuss details further.
June 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde
Oh, about roh-design in German, yes, I learned about this a few years ago! I think it could maybe be translated as "rough design" too, correct? I guess this fits with my love for pencil sketches. :-)
June 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde
I wonder if this "back to paper movement" is just a byproduct of the PDA being about a decade old, and workers are just looking for a fresh new tool, and paper feels good because it is, in many ways, something new.
June 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous
Hi Mike,

thank you too for your detailed answer!It was interesting to read how you described the pros and cons of each analog and digital tools. The possibility and freedom to fix something or redo it seems like a big advantage with the digital media (e.g. photos), while at the same time specifically that may lead to viscous cycles of endless refinement.Also what you said in your initial post, that analog work (in that case writing) slows you down in a positive sense which allows you to reflect on things and experience creative flow is a very interesting point to me!I am more and more impressed with the wide range of experiences and different views on this topic since you also described computers as �rigid and not so flexible� and �paper sketches as wide open to experimentation�. Please correct me if I rephrase this for me: While graphic programs (as concrete example) may offer a wide range of unlimited possibilities of simulated tools and layers they are somehow limited because of their accurateness, accelerated workflow and purpose? And paper in turn might not offer these endless editing processes but allows for a slower pace, more conceptual freedom and is (therefore) �wide open to experimentation�?

I would definitely like to explore these points and will email you back about that.

Anyway, thanks again for taking the time!


June 22, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJana
PS: rough are raw, both seem to convey originality...and so do your sketches ;-)
June 22, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJana

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