Ways of Thinking

Drawing might best be thought of as manual thinking. It is as much tactile as cerebral, as dependent on the hand as on the brain. The act of sketching appears to be a means of unlocking the mind’s hidden stores of tacit knowledge, a mysterious process crucial to any act of artistic creation and difficult if not impossible to accomplish through conscious deliberation alone.

— Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage

Something special happens when I put pen to paper. I almost wrote “magical,” but that would oversell it. Still, the experience of “unlocking the mind’s hidden stores of tacit knowledge” is special. Special yet cheap and easy. Science fiction posits machines that reveal the contents of the mind or capture the elusive imagery of dreams. But no elaborate technology is required. Pen + paper + time = profit.

Because most of my work happens in the digital realm, I’ve tried sketching with computers for many years. (I’ve documented my evolving setup here, here, and here.) The latest iteration of this setup — the Concepts app on the iPad Pro with second-generation Apple Pencil — is terrific in its own right. But it’s not pen and paper. I can’t get the same flow when sketching on a screen as with a simple notebook. The screen-based setup is excellent at polishing ideas for sharing, but paper is better for the type of “manual thinking” described in the quote above.

I’ve also become adept at thinking with words — that is, through writing. It’s a different modality altogether, which I find easier to do with an outlining or mapping tool. (My favorite, which does both, is Tinderbox.) This type of thinking is best for making sense of a conceptual domain with known ideas, such as research results. As with digital sketching, it comes downstream from sketching on paper.

Bottom line: there are different ways of thinking. The mind is a crucial component in the process but not the only element in play. You can’t swap out your nervous system, but you can change other aspects of your thinking setup. Knowing which tools and environments to think with (and in) – and when to switch between them – can unlock tremendous cognitive powers.