Thinking in colour

I use Roam Research for the majority of my work. I don’t necessarily dream in bullet points, indents and node relationships but I do feel their influence when I think. Similarly, the org I work for is increasingly turning to JIRA to manage product and development work. I default to Kanbans, sub-tasks, issues, epics, labels, priorities, parent-childs. The tools we use influence the thoughts we have. A human with a hammer sees nails; technology changes our minds

I keep an A6 notebook in a pouch alongside my Kindle. For more expansive thinking, I also have an A4 notebook on my desk. Both are Leuchtturm1917s. But for a long while they’ve sat inert, been unnoticed and under-utilised companions. Recently—in response to my noticing of the grooves in my thought caused by certain digital tools—I’ve begun to re-introduce these humble notebooks.

Reverting to pen and paper has been fun. It’s been interesting to escape the constraints of my preferred digital tools and mess around. Here’s two examples.

One: twice a week—for work—I do user observation sessions. I used to review product interactions in one browser tab, and capture product ideas in JIRA in another. However, using JIRA and seeing the already existing items biased what I captured towards what I’d already caught. Now, I use a notebook and transcribe to JIRA after the observation session. The ideas are better and less biased.

Two: I’ve started digging into Scrum again, both in preparation for a run at the certifications and to try and get a stronger Fingerspitzengefühl for the first principles underlying the methodology. While I still use Roam Research to capture things and articulate thoughts, I now more deliberately turn to my notebook during these studies.

The difference is tangible. There are amazing, dedicated digital tools for idea-object manipulation in qualitative (words), quantitative (numbers) and visual modes. But there is a context switching cost when flitting between them whilst trying to follow the same threads of thought. In a notebook (and I guess, on whiteboards and other scaled up/down versions of a notebook) one doesn’t so much flit as slide between the different modes. Sure, the resolution in each respective mode won’t be as high as what’s achievable with the dedicated digital counterparts, but the fluidity of transition—and the novelty it opens up—is worth the tradeoff. The fluidity between modes changes the flavour of the thoughts produced.

Despite this gain, though, I realised that my notebook thinking was still impoverished. In my notebook, I was sketching out a visualisation of product value delivery across a multi-step user journey. Ideas began as amorphous clouds, drifted towards tracks mapped to user journey phases, and preceded through product backlog, sprint backlog, in-progress, done and discontinued phases.

Looking back at it, I realised it was a somewhat complicated image, yet not impenetrable. My draughtmanship skills aside, I realised that lack of colour impeded comprehension.

In general terms, to “think in black and white” is to think without nuance or subtlety, to trample over complexity in favour of clear demarcations and weaponisable boundaries. Yet, I’d been thinking—quite literally—in black and white using my own tools for thought.

I’m not currently considering modding Roam to get fancy colours and tool for thought analogues of linting and syntax highlighting—and I’m not currently considering using an iPad or ReMarkable tablet in lieu of a notebook. But I did head over to Muji and get myself a selection of coloured ballpoints: black, blue, green, red, orange and pink.

Thus far, the result has been a detectable, incremental gain in the (self-evaluated) quality of my thinking, as well as an increased tendency to venture outside my established digital toolset and use notebooks. Colours are more fun; fun drives participation/performance/adherence (unsurprisingly).

Adding colour is the addition of a dimension, and thus brings an increase in the ability to model complexity and generate new angles of approach, awkward questions. Most critically perhaps, because colour has been added in it can now be removed.

Permanent escalation from n dimensions to n+1 dimensions of thinking isn’t the big thing; the ability to use the appropriate dimensionality for the thinking task at hand is. Thinking in colour is one way to facilitate that.