Strength & Structure

Bones and muscles work together to enable a body to move. They are different, yet would fail apart without each other.  Muscles propel and activate motion, yet must have something to push against to do so. Bones cannot move on their own, yet provide structure so that when the muscle pushes against it, the bone enables movement. This pattern is applicable to a multitude of various relationships.


Our brains need structure to perform well. The Zettelkasten is an excellent way to provide structure for learning. We need some amount of external scaffolding to support thinking and writing. The famed teacher and physicist Richard Feynman used notebooks, not to record his thinking, but to actually think (Ahrens, 2022). To learn well, we must write well using the pen and paper or keyboard and screen to think out the connections and questions spurred by the learning provocation.

The reason that this works is that when we we reword what we take in through reading or listening, we build associations and context. We remember much more if we can distill it down into just a couple rules or categories. 

Ahrens suggests in How to Take Smart Notes to look at what a statement excludes in addition to what it includes, not just rewrite what you read. Niklas Luhmann gave the example of running across the term “human rights” in a text. Question what is meant by that phrase and also what it doesn’t say.

“What distinction is made? A distinction towards ‘non-human rights?’ ‘Human duties?’ Is it a cultural comparison or one with some historic people who didn’t have the concept of human rights, but lived okay together anyway? Often, the text does not give an answer or a clear answer to this question. But then one has to resort to one’s own imagination.”

Luhmann as cited in Ahrens, 2022


Visual design activates the structural elements of the design research that supports it. Early in my career, I did not see them as connected and instead relied on making independently good looking design. I was making art. What I began to realize is that without any kind of hierarchy, it was difficult to communicate anything to users. Deciding on that hierarchy, essentially what’s known as functional and data needs and the information architecture, had to be designed with even greater rigor as the visual design language.

Design research and visual design function together to construct a useful interface or experience for the intended audience. Good design research is built on a number of principles which are themselves knowledge projects. Therefore, learning principles like looking for and restating relationships are how the researcher in understanding the users and domain. An example of this is James Spradley’s universal semantic domains. This list identifies 9 ways to classify individual observations (see sidebar). A researcher learns more efficiently about the target domain because by exploring these relationships, it forces her mind to explain the connections between each element, the role it plays, and why it’s important.

Spradley’s Universal Semantic Domains

  1. Strict inclusion – X is a kind of Y
  2. Spatial – X is a place in Y, X is a part of Y
  3. Cause-effect – X is a result of Y, X is a cause of Y
  4. Rationale – X is a reason for doing Y
  5. Location for Action – X is a place for doing Y
  6. Function – X is used for Y
  7. Means-end – X is a way to do Y
  8. Sequence – X is a step (stage) in Y
  9. Attribution – X is an attribute (characteristic) of Y

(Spradley, 1979, p. 111)

An useful mental model 

Structural and muscular elements are those that work together to put something in motion. This pattern exists in nature in the body, in how we learn, and in design among other phenomena and systems. This mental model is useful to understand and explain how various elements link together to enhance our understanding and clarify communication.


Ahrens, S. (2022). How to take smart notes: One simple technique to boost writing, learning and thinking (2nd edition, revised and expanded edition). Sönke Ahrens.

Spradley, J. P. (1979). The ethnographic interview. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

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