What does this moment need?
For a long time my stated creative aspiration was to “make cool stuff using computers”1. Over time that description has progressively walked up the abstraction ladder from “game developer” to “interactive application designer” to “audiovisual artist” to “dream engineer”. It may seem like I have no idea what it is I actually like doing, but the opposite is true.
It seems that what I enjoy designing most has little to do with a specific medium or goal at hand. I find myself more concerned with the meta, the broad principles that can be applied to any problem I face. For WizardChess, I am focused on the overall emotional journey our players undertake. From the first exposure on Youtube/Steam to their hundreth run to their fond memories of the game a decade later. For Subconscious, I watch my own thought process day-to-day and experiment with technology to lower the friction of thought and make it more enjoyable to think. All tools afford us extended abilities, but great tools also feel great to use.
Everything is downstream from feeling. People stop doing things that they don’t enjoy. This even applies to your own work: if you lose the emotional connection to your project there is no point pushing ahead until you restore it, or you retire the project for good.
So, how do you design feeling-first?
It’s not a specific approach, it’s a way of seeing things. If we’re designing enjoyable cognitive processes then it’s critical to tacitly understand what makes a sequence of cognitive steps satisfying, exhilarating or calming etc. Whatever you’re making, each component comes together to either serve or distract from the feeling you’re trying to create. This is what I’m calling metacognitive design, here are the key terms:
Attention is everything. Notice how your attention wanders and jumps from moment to moment and how the environment around you augments that process. Good design works with a person’s patterns of attention. When should someone interact with your work? How should they be feeling before, during, after?
With sufficient mindfulness you can learn from your own day-to-day experience. Why do you use the products, tools and media that you do? How do they manipulate your attention and how do they leave you feeling?
Don’t look away.
2. Attention Systems
Attention is expensive. We must use tools and systems to (re)direct our attention to our long-term intentions2. The mind is extremely effective at identifying and ignoring information it perceives as useless (or worse, annoying). Design for attention must incorporate play and feedback to remain engaging, or else we will simply start to ignore the system.
For long-term alignment of intention and attention there must be moments of structure and moments of exploration, juxtaposed and arranged in a satisfying rhythm over time.
You have to enjoy the ride or else you won’t make it far.
3. Pattern Sensitivity
All creation is the practice of noticing, cataloging, synthesising and propagating the patterns that stir something inside us. With practice you will begin to understand the unspoken relationship between every sensory token3 and develop a sensitivity to feeling-tone, independent of medium.
This, in turn, increases your creative fluency and the size of your vocabulary of patterns to draw from.
There is always more to see.
4. The Extended Mind
Most of the useful thinking happens outside the conscious mind. We like to think of conscious thought as the highest form of thought but this implicitly puts it last in the chain of reasoning.
The body not only grants us access to information that is more complex than what our conscious minds can accommodate. It also marshals this information at a pace that is far quicker than our conscious minds can handle.
However, this doesn’t stop with the body. Our physical, social and psychological environment functions to sculpt our attention over time but this relationship runs in both directions. We can skilfully shape our environment to support our goals, whether that’s designing a space or practicing a pattern of thought.
Some people are able to think more intelligently because they are better able to extend their minds […] Experts are those who have learned how best to marshal and apply extra-neural resources to the task before them.
Our environment is more malleable than we expect. Often that which is holding us back is more conceptual than practical.
Before you grin and bear it, is there another way?
5. Holistic Creativity
In brief, there is no universal technique for creativity that can be put into words. One must merge their lives and themselves with their practice and then the next step usually becomes obvious and effortless.
I’m not sure I’m there yet but I’m giving it a try. I’ve long felt the pressure to stay focused on one area but… I just can’t seem to. I have a hunch that all creative practices mutually reinforce one another, the skills are transferrable4.
The way you do anything is the way you do everything.
Where does all that lead? There aren’t a lot of examples to draw from. I think Rick Rubin is one. I love learning about other peoples’ projects and offering feedback / guidance. So many people walk around with entire universes in their mind, desperately trying to give them form without losing the magic in the process. I pride myself on meeting other creatives in their imagination and letting them know that I can see it too. We can bring it into the real world together.
Nothing energizes me like feeling the passion someone has for their work, except maybe seeing their eyes light up when they realize you feel it too.
It seems like a longshot5 but I think I want to be something like the Rick Rubin of (digital/audiovisual) experience design and engineering. I doubt that’s something you can plan for but if I can stay focused on the feeling of my work, not the documentable outputs or the achievement milestones, then I think I’m on the right track.
2024 is shaping up to be a big year for me. Subconscious is getting more exciting by the day6 and WizardChess is edging closer and closer to version 1.0. I’m getting more comfortable both recording and editing YouTube videos for the game:
I’ve also started taking sound design, music production and audio engineering more seriously7 as part of the ongoing project to master every form of digital media:
So, I guess the plan for 2024 is the simplest in a while:
More of the same.
My writing on this newsletter has (observably) slowed down. Historically, I’ve used these posts to synthesize new abstractions out of the mess of ideas floating in my head. Now I’m trying something new, this post is built out of existing notes from my Subconscious (join the beta waitlist!).
What I’ve Been Thinking About
The Extended Mind (Anna Murphy Paul)
The Creative Act: A Way of Being (Rick Rubin)
Ambient Co-presence (Maggie Appleton)
OLLOS (Alex Obenauer)
Designing From Experience, Not Expertise (Coleman McCormick)
Model for Experiencing The Eternal Now (Shinzen Young)
The Topos (Blank Horizons)
I do still sometimes say this, because non-technical people actually get it
To achieve inner-alignment between our self-narrative and our subconscious desires, more on this in another post
colour, sound, words, movement, layout etc. literally anything you can perceive carries a feeling-tone
I suspect this is why I was originally drawn to indie game development, you have to span business, project management, art, animation, writing, code, music, sound etc. all in service of the holistic vision.
Obviously I say this with 20 years of programming experience, so I have some specialization
To put it mildly, there does only seem to be one Rick Rubin
If you’re wondering where all the writing has gone, I have 250 notes on Subconscious
Apparently I have 400 Ableton project files from the last 8 months(!!)