a chat with David Seah

Today I have an interview with a different type of maker. I’m pleased to share a discussion with my friend David Seah, an Investigative Designer. I’ve known him for around a decade and he’s one of those internet friends I’ve yet to actually meet in real life, however my best friend has, so I know he’s real. Dave is a prolific blogger and is perhaps best known for some of his productivity tools, such as the Emergent Task Planner and the Compact Calendar. One of his goals for this year is to build his stationery business.

I thought it would be fun to introduce my Little Acorn Creations friends to Dave, so let’s get to our conversation:

little acorn:
I honestly can’t remember how or when I first stumbled across your site, it was many years ago. I must ask, please, what’s an investigative designer?
I can’t remember either! Anyway, the term “Investigative Designer” arose during one of those times in my life when I was stuck trying to describe what it was I did and what it was I liked maybe 10 years ago. I had trouble calling myself a “graphic designer”, since there are strong connotations with “ornamental / decorative” with that. I wasn’t quite an “information graphic designer” either; I’m not sure if the term was in common use. I was not quite a computer graphics designer or interactive designer either, which is what I did from 1995ish to 2000ish. So I combined the ideas of “investigation”, which was an image that appealed to me, with “design”. It called to mind “private investigators” who had offices with heavy wooden doors that had frosted glass on them with their names etched in them. It was, I thought, a unique way to describe myself and it looked nice on my business cards. Apparently I wrote about it in 2007, which is later than I thought 🙂

Today I would call it a combination of the scientific method and iterative design (what I think of as ‘the scientific creative method’) and the desire to get to the essential “why” behind any intention, goal, or desire. People often don’t know exactly what they want or even why they want it; they just know they want something. I like finding out what that is, though I find that it’s not often what people really want to pay for.

little acorn:
Wow, I had forgotten about that post! I love your whys and I know a lot of it ties into my philosophy for my technology consulting.

Your blog has been around over a decade. What is the one thing you wish readers would do when they visit your site?

I always like it when people leave comments, though I think I write in a way that maybe does not invite them. When I do, though, I tend to get very thoughtful ones, which makes me happy. I wish I could keep the conversation going, but I don’t think I am oriented toward “audience service” enough to really create a community of ongoing discussion and shared discovery. I don’t have the energy for it! One of these days maybe I’ll figure something out, but right now I’m kind of in a quiet phase.
little acorn:
I understand! When not designing new productivity templates, game design, blogging, podcasting, etc. you can be found…
These days, I tend to find myself looking for interesting foods to cook or taste, or trying out video games with a strong immersive/social element. I think one of the big themes surrounding these activities is the search for a community of shared passion, and how to become a participant. For example, I’ve been going to “piano karaoke” sessions run by a friend of mine, though I am not a good singer, but because I find the whole process unexpectedly interesting due to the other people who ARE dedicated singers. They have a tremendously positive attitude.
little acorn:
Please tell me a bit about how your design process, for example I’m curious how you thought to go 3-column in the Reporter-Style ETP Notebooks? I was surprised to find myself loving the format when I was experiencing difficulty balancing my day.


In general, new productivity forms start with an impulse like “I wonder what a form that tracked THIS would look like? I bet it would be cool!” and then I open up Illustrator and try to map the concepts in my head to visual equivalents on paper, applying what I know about visual hierarchy and gestalt. It takes anywhere between 1 and 4 hours to get an initial draft. I’d say 2 hours is about average. Generally it’s a matter of fitting boxes in the right place within the visual hierarchy I’ve based on my understanding of the problem, and then making it look “clean” to my eye.

For the Reporter-style ETP notebook mockups, the idea came from having bought a pack of regular reporter-style notebooks for use at home. I have always liked the form factor of these notebooks…long and skinny so there’s room to write a lot, and because they are narrow you can put them in a back pocket without worrying about breaking the spine. And because they are wirebound, you can flip the cover over to the back easily (unlike the Moleskine reporter). I also like how narrow the notebooks are for the amount of writing you can do, so you can put them to the side of your keyboard more easily. I use a really narrow keyboard (a Logitech K760) so there’s room for the reporter notebook between the keyboard and my mouse. It’s easy to transition from mouse to notebook with my right hand; I can even be holding a pen as I work the mouse.

Anyway, the impulse I started with was, “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was an ETP in reporter notebook style? That would be cool!” and then I tried making it. In this case, the ETP principles are already well known. In order of visual hierarchy: Tasks, Day Grid, Notes. In actual use, I think people are mostly going between day grid and task list, so one would want them to be close to each other to facilitate corroboration of task with time to do it. Notes is kind of its own area, easily accessible when needed, but easy to tune-out when you don’t.

Looking at the actual reporter notebook dimensions, I could see that the daygrid would have to be impossibly narrow to fit on the left edge. There needs to be room for people to write in the hours, and that mandates a minimum size of around 1/4-inch. That is already pretty cramped. Then there’s the paper margin, with is also a 1/4-inch. I don’t think people like writing that close to the edge of a paper pad. Then you need enough length to actually write in the activity. It seemed to me that the traditional ETP layout wouldn’t work.

One feature of the Day Grid is that the orange “break” areas divide the day roughly into morning, afternoon, and evening. While not everyone takes breaks at those times and have complained about this, I leave them in because they visually provided an easy means of locating the time of day you want. Looking for the afternoon? It’s right between the two orange break blocks. Morning? Obviously before the first orange break. It is subconscious enough that I don’t think people really pick-up on how it’s helping them scan for information they need with less eye strain. But I digress: the idea that there are distinct morning-afternoon-evening blocks gave me the idea of representing the daygrid that way more overtly. It seemed like a good idea worth trying, though in practice I don’t know if the side-by-side presentation is confusing. After a few iterations, I got it to fit in 3 columns. I don’t think it’s wide enough to feel really good to write in, but it’s a start. I may explore wider formats; another half inch could go a long way. And if I manufacturer these, I can specify any size I want, I believe!

little acorn:
Thank you so much for this detailed insight! It’s fascinating and I really hope one day soon I can drive up and visit and we can catch up either in your living-room cafe or your favourite coffee shop.

I ask everyone, and I’m pretty sure I know your answer: kitten or puppy snuggles?

Kittehs! Mostly because I don’t like being licked by dogs. Gross! Ironically my cat really likes to lick people. A LOT. At least there is less slobber involved!

If you would like to learn more about Dave, I urge you to check out his website. I’d set aside a large chunk of time as there is quite a bit of fascinating information. While formatting this post, I found hours had past as I enjoyed rereading many posts and looking at all the forms. There are a few products available for sale through amazon or Dave’s online shop. I’ve used the ETP planner pad, the paper is delightful!

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