Unconscious R&D

What if your notes could self-organize—from scratch notes, to draft, to finished creative work—through a stream-of-consciousness process—like dreaming?

Years ago, I was part of a user study that aimed to understand how creators create. We interviewed authors, artists, students, influencers, and discovered a recurrent meta-pattern in the creative processes that emerged across disciplines and tools...

Each distinct phase requires a different creative strategy:

  • Capture as much as possible without judgment.

  • Organize to give some first-pass structure using rough heuristics. Card sorting, clustering, filing, arranging, etc.

  • Synthesize new meaning.

At each successive phase, your creative work becomes more defined. Yet, the phases aren’t linear. Capture-organize-synthesize is recursive. It loops over and over until you snapshot an artifact you’re happy with.

Here’s a real-world example:

What we’re seeing above is organize-synthesize recursively looping over and over. Capture is likely happening offscreen, perhaps with a citation management tool like Mendeley or Zotero.

Capture-organize-synthesize is like those glasses from They Live — when you look through this lens, it suddenly becomes clear that many of our creative tools are backwards or broken!

  • Why do file systems force you to name a file (synthesize), and place it in a folder (organize) before you can write in it (capture)?

  • Why do Word Processors present you with a blank page (synthesize) instead of offering scratch notes (capture) that are relevant (organize) to your writing goals?

  • Why do we expect ourselves to create good ideas from nothing (synthesize)? It’s much easier to generate ideas when you have lots of material (capture) clustered by themes and relationships (organize)1.

Mixing up the order of capture-organize-synthesize causes friction. It forces us to make decisions before we’re ready. This friction manifests as blank page anxiety, creative block, lost ideas. That’s the feeling of the system fighting you. Most of us try to overcome it through sheer force of will.

Ok, but what if instead of fighting a broken system through force of will, we constructed a new system—a cybernetic system—designed to amplify capture-organize-synthesize? If we carefully closed the right feedback loops, could we construct a creative flywheel that generates finished works almost by accident, through a stream-of-consciousness process? That’s what I am attempting to build.

The dream machine. Unconscious R&D. A second subconscious.

I'm building a new tool for thought. I have a general sense of the direction I’m traveling, but I will be as surprised as you are at what I discover along the way. I'm posting these little emails as trail markers, every week or so. I share updates, ideas, design patterns, and snippets of books and papers.


Group brainstorming methods like Design Thinking are about creating this kind of generative context.