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Principles for deep work tools

Muse is a digital workspace for thinking. This is somewhat unprecedented: typically thinking work is supported by analog tools like a sketchbook, a whiteboard, or post-it notes on a wall. Computers are more often involved in the later stages of the creative process: production work like writing a book, making a slide deck, or designing an interface.

Muse is your creative sanctuary for the thinking work you do before that production work begins. Use it to push yourself mentally and emotionally as far as you can go to find a pure, original, fresh result that is yours and yours alone.

To that end, here are some principles we used in designing Muse as a tool purpose-built for thinking.

1. Thinking is messy.

Embrace the non-linear chaos of creativity. Don’t force labels, organization, or structure too early. Keep representations low-fidelity to avoid sliding into production work before the idea is fully-formed.

2. Ideas come from other ideas.

Breakthroughs come from discovering new connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information. Thus the first step for each new project should be to assemble as many inputs in one space as possible. A thinking tool should make it easy bring together inputs of all kinds and remix them freely.

3. Ideas love a sanctuary.

Creativity is an act of vulnerability. Deep thinking needs a dedicated space that gives you confidence to express half-formed ideas, without fear of mistakes or judgement.

4. Use spatial reasoning.

Space, direction, and motion are foundations of human cognition. A thinking tool should help us map out the topography of our ideas in a way that feels natural to our minds and bodies.

5. Thinking and productivity need different tools.

The creative process starts much earlier than most productivity software wants us to think. Tools for thought should be purpose-built for their role as pioneers in the creative process, with the ability to seamlessly hand off content to production tools when the time comes.

6. Everything is fast and immediate.

Never break the connection between the user’s actions and the reactions they observe from the tool. It’s so discouraging and uncomfortable to do creative work when you’re waiting, looking at spinners, unsure if your last action registered. Documents should open instantly, there should never be waiting for an action, and run at the full framerate of the device.

7. Don’t break the state of flow.

Deep work is extended concentration on a meaningful problem or intriguing question. But with open office plans, device notifications and engagement loops, or days cut up with meetings, we live in a world that seems rife with distraction. A thinking tool should stand for the opposite of this: never interrupt the user, for any reason, ever.

8. Tap the information firehose, but keep it at a distance.

Your company’s Slack, your Twitter timeline, your community Discord — these are great sources of ideas, inspiration, and research questions. But they are also an endless well of distraction, forever exerting a gravitational pull on your deep thinking. A thinking tool should help you take advantage of the information firehose, without drowning out your own voice and original ideas.

9. Take inspiration from physical workspaces.

Creative people tend to nest: a writer in their home office, a woodworker in their shop, an artist in their studio — full of work surfaces like desks and drafting tables, drawers and pegboards full of tools, pinboards, scraps of paper, and more. They are messy, informal, mixed together, freeform, and personal. Compare this to the neatly-sorted lists and grids of files, notes, and photos on our computer. A thinking tool should try to capture some of the informal, mixed-up, and personal nature of our physical workspaces.

10. People think best away from their desks.

Reading in a relaxed posture in your armchair, sketching in a notebook in your favorite cafe, taking a long walk in the park — these are where some of our best ideas and freshest thinking emerge. A thinking tool should seek to make itself available in these contexts without forcing the user into finding themselves at the equivalent of an uncomfortable workstation on a park bench.