Hitting the right notes: talk to Design of Understanding conference, January 2013

Below is the text of the talk I delivered yesterday at the Design of Understanding conference in London. It’s a somewhat meandering thing on the subject of research, note-taking, creativity and technology. It did start off with a set of clips from The English Patient as illustration, which I’ve decided not to add here for obvious copyright reasons. I’ve replaced it with a set of stills. If you’re interested in seeing the actual clips, rent the movie and find the best match for the screencaps here!

I’d like to talk to you today about the way we make sense of things through research. Specifically, I’m going to be talking about the way we take notes, or at least the way I take notes, and how note-taking has been changed by technology. This seems an appropriate subject to be discussing in a library called St Bride’s, the church of scribblers, journalists and Grub Street hacks, all of them carrying the most fearsome hand-held weapon of all: the notebook.

To start: some clips from the movie The English Patient. For those of you who don’t know the film, it’s about a torrid affair between the wife of an English spy and an archaeologist who is Hungarian but is mistaken for an Englishman. Much of the film hinges on identity – on who we are, what makes us who we are, and what happens when we forget. Here’s the clip.








It should be pretty obvious why I’ve picked those scenes. It’s because of that thing Kristin Scott Thomas has got hold of there. Look at it. LOOK at it.

It’s a notebook. But it’s so much MORE than a notebook. Above all it’s an emblem of its owner. It says: ‘This man is intelligent. This man is knowledgeable. He is careful and diligent and artistic and concerned with the world.’ More than anything, this notebook seems to say “this is what my owner’s BRAIN looks like, and it is MAGNIFICENT.” The notebook is who this character is because he has created it.

I think this act of creation through note-taking is a crucial matter. And when I’m talking about notes and notebooks, what I’m really talking about is how we make sense of this amazing stuff around us.

Why does this matter to me now? Because I’ve changed careers recently. I’ve had two already. I was a journalist for a long while, then I was a digital product manager for a bunch of different companies.

But these days, I write books. More than that, and through an unexpected sequence of events, I appear to have written historical books. My first two – The English Monster and The Poisoned Island


- take real historical events, and mess with them in ways which I hope are interesting and revealing.

Of course, the trouble with historical novels is they require research, and a very great deal of it. For example, to write The Poisoned Island, I had to learn about botanical science, a subject about which I knew nothing whatsoever. That’s hard enough. But then I had to make sense of the state of botanical science in 1812. This is why they tell you to ‘write what you know.’

Here’s what I’ve learned in the process of writing these books.

First: taking notes has become easier while, at the same time, choosing what notes to take has become vastly more complicated.

Second: turning notes into knowledge – into understanding – has, I believe, become harder. In other words, when it comes to Understanding, the Design of Taking Notes needs thought and it needs work.

Taking notes used to be a simple but laborious exercise. The tools were certainly simple: a piece of paper and a pen or a pencil. Perhaps a pair of scissors and some glue. For the advanced user, an audio recorder of some kind, and a visual recording device, or ‘camera’, as we used to call them.

Today we’ve still got notebooks and paper. But instead of scissors and glue, we’ve got screengrabs and scanners. We can clip webpages and save images. We can turn ourselves into recording devices that are almost never turned off. My latest toy is a scanning wand, no bigger than a small umbrella.

At the same time, the capturing process has become omnipresent and omniscient, always-on, always-aware. We have all become Data Sentinels, detecting information and recording it. We take photos at concerts and then find them on our computers, FaceScanned and indexed. We review books on our Kindles and influence recommendation algorithms on mighty servers in far-off countries. We absorb information like we absorb oxygen. Note-taking used to be like eating; now it’s like photosynthesis. The smartphone, in particular, has turned us all into walking, breathing scanners, each with our own little tricorder, noticing and capturing and recording all the long day.

But this kind of frictionless capturing is only one part of note-taking. As I’ve discovered, taking notes is mainly about choosing sources. And that has become both a wonderful and a maddeningly complicated aspect of my life. Gone are the days when almost all notes were taken out of books and newspapers. A standard networked computer today gives access to a million Libraries of Alexandria within seconds. And more than this – every bit of knowledge is now connected to every other bit of knowledge via the gloriously simple wonder of the hyperlink.

Today, I can fall into deliciously interesting historical rabbit holes at any moment, from any piece of knowledge. Research used to be like going into a room where one person told you something and you noted it down. Now it’s like walking into a room where hundreds of people are talking; you have to choose who to listen to.

Choosing who to listen to is easier if you know what you need to find out. Some people know what they’re going to write before they start writing it. I’m not one of those people. When I start out, I have an idea, often quite a vague one. I don’t know the ending, the middle, or even the second chapter. Since I started out writing fiction, I’ve discovered that quite a few fiction writers go about things the same way. You inch your way forwards, working things out a bit at a time. There’s a nice quote by EL Doctorow: “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

At the beginning of a new writing project, I read widely and indiscriminately, and a great deal of that work is wasted – at least in terms of getting the book written. And because of this vast cybertrove of information, the wasted work is potentially, well, infinite. I read dozens of books, and look at hundreds of websites. I take notes in such microscopic detail that I might as well just transcribe the Internet. Because I don’t know what I need, do I? And I might miss something.

I write in the morning, and do research in the afternoon. As I say, the afternoon research is typically wasteful, but it’s also serendipitous. More often than not, I find a fact or an anecdote or a character during research that bleeds back into the story. For quite a few weeks, this is how I go: meandering through research, blindly working my way through story, lit up by the occasional illumination from my reading to move the story on.

And then, at some point down the line, I get the story. I know why it is I’m writing what I’m writing. I might not know the ending yet, but, to quote another man who had no idea what he was doing, I do now know what I don’t know. From here on in, the research becomes tighter and less wasteful. I go looking for answers to questions, rather than randomly coming across answers to questions I didn’t even know I was going to ask. I write my way into doing better research.

It seems to be a fact to me that making sense of all these notes is a creative process. It’s the story I am trying to tell which makes sense of the notes I am trying to take. It’s a personal, self-generated, aesthetic process. It’s only by writing the story I’m researching – by discovering what that story is as I go along – that the research itself begins to gain focus and momentum. It’s a two-way street. And it confirms me in my belief that we need stories or pictures or other creative artefacts to make sense of knowledge.

And this is where I come to my second point: about how the Design of Understanding of note-taking is faulty. Because, as I hope I’ve shown, the taking and sourcing of notes has been transformed by technology and network culture. Now, here’s the thing: has that made research any easier? Because it should have done. That enormous availability of knowledge is one of the great achievements of digital culture – if pushed, I’d say Wikipedia was the greatest achievement of digitial culture. But I feel that something is missing. I’ve got the same itchy sense I have when I look at my iTunes Library.

2,220 albums, I say to myself. How on earth do I make sense of all that?

I’m going to argue that our tools for understanding this plenitude are currently poorly designed. And I’m going to pick, unfairly, on the note-taking tool I use every single day – Evernote.


I’ve flirted with quite a few note-taking platforms, but I’ve always come back to Evernote. It has an excellent suite of capture tools, and it plays very nicely across desktop, laptop, tablet and phone.

At least, its capturing tools play nicely. But this is the Design of Understanding conference. The Design of Capturing conference is at the Excel Centre later in the year, and features more arms dealers.

So, how easy does Evernote make it to understand what you’ve captured?

Not so much, I find. Even its Search is a bit disappointing, with none of that almost-magical sense of precognition and omniscience that I get from a Google search. Evernote’s search feels flat, disconnected. And at the end of the day, what does all that beautifully frictionless capture give me? A lot of stuff, certainly. But how much understanding?

Remember when Moleskine notebooks started appearing in offices? For me, it was in the early Noughties, just about the same time serious note-taking software began to appear on computers. Were people looking for a more pleasing, aesthetic, old-fashioned way of taking notes? Did they feel that technology wasn’t supplying something they valued? What did these rather self-consciously old-fashioned notebooks offer?

Was that something creativity? Art? The very personal feeling of making something yourself, making sense of something yourself, and bringing it to life? A few years ago I was in a Channel 4 News workshop with Matt Jones, who’s a designer and creative technologist. I watched him taking notes that day. He was writing thoughts and ideas and notes down with a thick marker pen, and because he’s a designer these notes were a combination of doodles and typefaces which, to me, looked fantastic. And they were his. He’d made something come into being out of the stuff we were taking notes from. He was creating and thinking while he was taking notes.

That kind of personalised, aesthetic thinking aloud is the essence of understanding what we take from our sources, I think – be they books or meetings or websites. And I think technology is singularly bad at this.

Here’s the thing about tech: it forces me to organise my thoughts and my assets in ways which the tech provides. A record collection in random disorder, inside a piece of furniture in a cluttered bedroom, with coffee rings on some album covers and a smear of hash on the odd gatefold sleeve, has been morphed into the antiseptic iTunes Library. Photos in boxes, in albums, gathering dust at the top of shelves and discovered by chance within the pages of books, become the prescriptive Face-matched archive in iPhoto. And notes – in books, files, scattered across Moleskines and scribbled in the margins of texts – become the uniform, well-organised, regimented interface of Evernote.

Sure, they’re easier to find, these catalogued Notes. They’re certainly easier to create. But are they easier to understand?

I am of course asking for the impossible. I want the note-taking power I’ve been gifted by technology. I want my notes backed-up, indexed, searchable, downloadable, sharable.

But I also want these notes to be beautiful. I want them to express my own journey towards understanding the knowledge they contain. And perhaps most of all – I want this collection of notes to somehow express something about me as well as about the work I’m doing.

I do think this is a wider issue for technology, and it goes further than what we used to describe of as ‘personalisation.’ Technology has allowed, of course, enormous self-expression and creativity when it comes to the making of new stuff – words, pictures, songs. But when it comes to our tools for making those things and for using them, the picture is pretty homogenous. My desktop looks like your desktop. My notes look like your notes.

Evernote, for one, are clearly aware of this disjunction between the physical world and the digital. They’ve recently announced a deal with Moleskine – who else? – to provide “Evernote-enabled” notebooks. For now, this means using a smartphone to snap pictures of your physical notes, which can also be tagged – virtually and physically – using stickers. It’s a laborious process, I think, but it’s an interesting step.

A step towards what, though? Well, perhaps towards one aspect of the Internet of Things. Here’s an early definition of the problem which the concept of the Internet of Things seeks to address, from Kevin Ashton:

We’re physical, and so is our environment. Our economy, society and survival aren’t based on ideas or information—they’re based on things. You can’t eat bits, burn them to stay warm or put them in your gas tank. Ideas and information are important, but things matter much more. Yet today’s information technology is so dependent on data originated by people that our computers know more about ideas than things.

Which is precisely what I’ve been talking about. Notes aren’t just ideas. They’re things. They have a physical resonance to us. So does an Internet of Things provide a means of us understanding our notes better? Can an asset I create with my own hand, pen, eye and brain be somehow mutated into a digital artefact – indexable, searchable, archivable – which is both mine and everyone’s?


Back to where I came in: the remarkable notebook in The English Patient. Why is the notebook so central to the film? Because it’s the Patient’s life, and he forgets his life and has to find it again. He finds it in the pages of his notebook. And what is this notebook? It’s a copy of Histories by Herodotus. It’s a book of stories, into which the Patient adds drawings, letters, clippings, postcards and mementoes. He draws his life onto the pages of Herodotus. His notes become who he is.

Thank you.

Kevin Ashton, That ‘Internet of Things’, RFID Journal http://www.rfidjournal.com/article/view/4986

FOOTNOTE: In a rather glorious and entirely unplanned demonstration of what I was talking about above, two people took beautiful notes yesterday. Here they are on Flickr (thanks jaremfan and evalottchen):

Lloyd Shepherd - Design of Understanding 2013

Lloyd Sheperd & Will Stahl-Timmins @ The Design of Understanding 2013