January 07, 2012

Upad on iPad – a commonplace book for the digital age

Some of my friends in the English Department are keen on reviving the practice known as "commonplacing". It's an approach to studying, creating and living that uses a single "common place book" into which experiences of all kinds are recorded, and allowed to transversally interact. A kind of scrap book for containing the divers range of interesting and unusual experiences that might be encountered by the early-modern scholar. Importantly, its more than just a book, its an approach or attitude to being in the world, and a catalyst for generating ideas and experiments in a more free-form fashion. Wikipedia has a good short history, going back to the early-modern period, and disappearing in the early 20th century.

So why, if its so good, aren't we all busy commonplacing all the time? There are probably many reasons why the practice became less popular. But perhaps a better question would be: what would it take to get an early-21st century student commonplacing? What might the practice be competing against? Personally (speaking as a grad student), i've always been discouraged by my own inability to make engaging, aesthetically satisfying, and legible scribbles. Perhaps its the case that digital technology & visual design, makes us all feel a bit inferior. Certainly my old moleskin notebook (used sporadically) seems to lack colour and expressiveness. The other big challenge with which paper-based technologies cannot cope is the multi-mediality of experience today - we are constantly engaged in a rich world of analogue and digital channels. I sit at home reading the news on my iPad, listening to the radio, and talking with people all at the same time. I have access to and use a huge range of digital texts in many forms and from many sources. Its both more intense and more complex. And to add a further level of complexity, sometimes I do this in collaboration with other people, even other people that I've never actually met.

But I have started commonplacing again. A simple technology has made the difference by addressing these problems. And I'm really profiting from it. All of a sudden my personal workflow has changed, with the commonplace at its core, capturing and developing my stream of experience, inspirations and ideation. I'm using the Upad app on my iPad. It's a beautifully designed user interface for scribbling using a variety of pens and colours (I draw onto the iPad using a Just Mobile stylus). Most importantly, its easy to combine neatly hand written text (through a magnified text entry box) with smart typed notes (in a wide variety of fonts and colours), and images. So I can, for example, take a screenshot of a page from a book in the Kindle app, add it to a note book page, annotate it with arrows and hand written text, add a photo from the internet or from the iPad camera, and add neatly typed notes.

Here's a screenshot of some of my notes in Upad:


You can see some typical pages in the lightbox. One of them is a handwritten "writing experiment", the next is a page from a Kindle book, and finally a complicated diagram combining hand drawn and typed elements. In fact, that diagram is a representation of my research workflow (shown in full below). At the centre of the workflow is Upad. Sometimes I create notes that seem particularly important and relevant. I use the email option in Upad to send them to an online Evernote notebook (for example, I have notebook for collecting workflow diagrams, and another for reading notes). The Evernote notes are then replicated onto my laptop and desktop computers, so that I can use them in my writing. For example, this blog entry uses images drawn in Upad, sent to Evernote and then accessed on my MacBook AIR. Storing notes in Evernote has the further advantage of making them searchable - even when they are handwritten (it has a good recognition engine built into its search engine). I can also send pages from my commonplace book to Twitter (or Facebook if you use it).

Here's the workflow diagram in full:


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