Zettelkasten/Obsidian for Design/Creative Projects

Hi all, I’ve been wrestling with the idea of a Zettelkasten-style PKM for a while now and have been using Obsidian since the end of last year.

I am in love with Obsidian as a software tool and I have the feeling that the Zettelkasten/PKM approach could be immensely valuable for my work.

However I am struggling with the implementation in my field of work which is design, so mainly creative project work with a strong focus on visuals – not so much research or writing, which a lot of ZK workflows seem to be focused on (and understandably so, seeing that is where they originated). Also I am struggling with the differentiation (or lack thereof) between the quick day-to-day nature of my project work and the permanent nature of the zettelkasten.

I am asking myself: Am I struggling because I don’t know how to use the tool in the right way, or am I struggling because I am using the wrong tool?

Has anyone here had any success implementing ZK style workflows with design projects and would care to share their approach and experience?

Maybe to make things more clear: A typical scenario would be: I am researching temporary architecture pictures on Pinterest and collecting ideas that I find inspiring, maybe for a project I am working on, maybe randomly. I would love for those ideas to accumulate and connect and grow within my Zettelkasten and then come up in a context where they are useful (i.e. a design project or something else entirely).

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I struggle with it as well but think that this time put in will pay off. In a way, it is already paying off in learning how I think and just conceptually mapping all things in my life for once.

The problem I have is with overdevelopment of single ideas with only general connections, not taking the time to force an immediate specific application of an intended or possible use, a process that gets easier as you run out of new things and are forced to start building parts together.

Because later, without having that application of the idea already established, you might find yourself having something similar to add and rather than creating it atomically and immediately fitting it in that application note, it will be added only atomically, and possibly only connected to that application note through a tag or a folder, if that (a potentially doomed fate). These subtle missed opportunities can accumulate over time and while it feels like your ideas are better connected, perhaps they are just more connected.

I have come here looking for answers as well, but am realizing I may not even know the answer if I saw it. I probably just need to experience some success and try to repeat it and know the pitfalls after repeatedly “failing” to build that dream system.

Glad to know there are some fellow strugglers trying to weather the storm. My brain is telling me it will be worth it.

It depends on the exact nature of your work. I’m using Obsidian for personal and work, not design related but it does blend Zettelkasten, project files/folders, and meeting notes all in one vault. It works well, as long as I keep the three concerns relatively distinct. (I link between them as needed, but do keep the conceptual boundary between each of them)

One thing you can do (similar to what I do) is keep your project-related files in a /Projects folder and then have your Zettelkasten elsewhere containing principles. Using Andy Matuschak’s advice to write titles as positively-worded declarative or imperative phrases that capture the full idea contained in the note, you could write notes that cover principles that you find useful in your work.

Hypothetical example outline note with hypothetical note titles:

To tie a design together:

  • [[Establish visual order through element alignment]]
    • If the design feels off check the alignment of elements
  • [[Repetition creates familiarity and flow throughout the design]]
  • [[Relate elements together by placing them in close proximity to each other]]

To highlight important elements:

  • [[Establish visual hierarchy to emphasize important messages]]
    • Can be done through different size, different weight, use of borders, contrast, etc.
  • [[Contrast leads the viewer’s eye, so consider it to highlight important elements]]
  • [[Relate elements together by placing them in close proximity to each other]]

Etc.

And yes the last element is a single note linked twice in the same outline note in two different contexts.

You could obviously write your own principles that you see emerge from your work, capturing the design patterns and results that you find most useful over time. And create notes on those that you find are anti-patterns that should be avoided because they lead you into trouble later in your design.

You’ll notice too that what this amounts to is akin to being told write an ongoing series of mini-articles about your design process – which is pretty much exactly what a ZK is, and is why Ahrens advises writing in your ZK as if you were writing for someone else. (not that you have to be perfectly grammatically correct or have beautiful layout, but that it is written well enough to explain the concept to a new reader, including your future self – and this makes it relatively easy to turn the content into a series of articles on a variety of topics later if you want to do that)

Just a thought, hope it helps.

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Thank you davecan for your extensive reply. I find the distinction between projects and principles quite helpful in distinguishing what goes where (and in getting a feeling for the nature of notes that would go in the “principles” section).

I will give it a shot. Although I do find that this gives me more of an idea of how I would use the ZK to “write about” design rather than do design. But then again maybe that just happens elsewhere – on a piece of paper with a pencil, in another piece of software etc.

Would love to hear more about how your project notes integrate into the workflow, what they look like, how they are structured (if you use a lot of ZK-style linking and reusing of bits of information e.g).

I-d-as, I have to admit I am not quite sure I can follow what you mean, it feels a bit abstract to me, maybe can you give a more concrete example?

Anyway, it’s good to hear others are struggling too and contending with similar problems. And that others share the same vague feeling of contending with something quite difficult that may prove extremely useful in the future if one can only make it work :slight_smile: – however I would love to see a best practice example from someone in a similar field because honestly sometimes I feel just a bit lost.

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@ingmar: Very true. I was trying to generalize because, while eventually I plan to build a complete design resource/reference library like you are doing, currently I am using Obsidian with a single project in mind. I have a script created for an animated short I am making, but the areas of inspiration for the designs and story are all over the place. I kind of let loose in compiling tons of reference and interconnected everything in ways that boggled my mind.

In a way, I think maybe what I am trying is actually a little more painful, because I find it very easy to lose track of, or worse yet, forget things in the chaos of a vault. It’s not a huge deal if I let something fall through the cracks while building a general purpose visual library. But in my project, if I labor over a note with specific ideas I definitely want to remember, it can become frightening. I keep fearing that I am losing things. It also doesn’t help when I hear people report that files are disappearing while they use plugins. So, I avoid them in the project vault and have never lost anything as a result of software malfunction.

Anyways. Good luck.

Thanks for listening.

@ingmar Thanks for the post. I am an architect too and I struggled with this at first too. I am more on the technical side of the profession and it seems you are more on the design side.

I use mine to take notes in meetings, to take notes on webinars, or articles or books that I read related to the profession.

In your case, for design you can create a note for farmhouse kitchen ideas, and provide images and concepts that characterize a farmhouse kitchen.

For example I listend to a presentation on Rooftop deck pavers and I took notes on the webinar, and created links to the individual components, to use as a repository for any future research or products for wooden deck pavers or light cubes and storage cubes that tie into these systems etc.

My advice to you is just start putting things in there and a structure and connections will develop.

I-d-as, thanks for clarifying. I think I get what you mean now.

I too know the anxiety (and experience) of losing important ideas in a pile of notes, it is partly what drove me to try the zettelkasten system in the first place.

I wish you the best with your project, if you feel like it keep us posted.

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Good thoughts, @dtp81390. I think architecture and design are very similar in this regard and while you are right that I am more on the conceptual and design side of things, it is often technical restrictions or possibilities that drive the development of the design or concept side as well, so I am always eager to keep these things in mind an learn more about them as well.

I think your example is a good addition to @davecan’s idea that the zk is basically

I am understanding what you are suggesting as basically an ongoing (and atomized) documentation of the steps in my design projects which could again be used to inform other “articles”/zettels about the process itself as @davecan has suggested. (Plus they could also be re-used in similar design projects in the future).

I will go ahead and try to develop my zettels in this direction.

Also thanks for the encouraging words about just going ahead and filling up the zk. This is something I am reading time and again from more experienced users. I guess a lot of the anxiety around zk for many people who start out stems from trying to get it right from the first note on / stressing out about making mistakes in this “perfect” system.

@ingmar If you haven’t already you may want to see Andy Matuschak’s notes. He publishes a subset of his notes publicly and in them provides a lot of information and principles on good note taking, note naming, etc. It’s highly recommended within the ZK community to review and internalize his principles whenever possible.

In particular see his notes on the process of evergreen note making: note titles should act as APIs, note names should be positively worded imperative/declarative phrases, notes should be atomic and capture the entirety of a single thought, etc)

https://notes.andymatuschak.org

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I have come across Andy’s website and have briefly looked at his notes, though not in depth. I will do this and see how his principles can help me develop my own notes

To add what others have suggested…

  1. Are you making use of embedded images in your notes? It’s easy to drag image files into a note. The files are copied to your Attachments folder and the images show up in Preview mode (soon to be WYSIWYM). This way you can create notes with your text thoughts referring to visual material. Like a topic-specific mood board / Pinterest board with your commentary interwoven.

  2. With an iPad or Wacom tablet, one could also create purely visual notes with a stylus — sketches, handwriting, images, etc. — then drag the finished note into Obsidian to make use of the linking & tagging structure.

  3. There’s nothing wrong with using Obsidian primarily for ephemeral project work. One doesn’t have to use the Zettelkasten mindset of permanent notes. (That mindset is born from academic research with the implicit intention to contribute to “forever knowledge.”) In which case, feel free to think of notes as sketchbook pages, capturing ephemeral material that may only be useful in the short term. Use tagging and linking to give it a ‘personal wiki’ structure of your devising.

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thanks @dsteinbock for your suggestions. I am using embedded images already, though as of now a lot of my project work is still scattered across my OS file system, my notes and other applications. I am still trying to streamline this to get most of the information into Obsidian. I guess one of my key inhibitions is that I am confused or anxious about the impermanent nature of project notes so I don’t want that content to interfere with my long-term knowledge notes – but I think the principles/projects differentiation can already help a great deal in this regard.

It would be great to be able to check out someones notes in terms of projects like you can with Andy Matushak’s evergreen notes just to see how others are doing it. Especially how are people using notes in combination with specialised applications like CAD or Adobe Software (in creative/visual fields). But then I guess every field of work and every project is a bit different.

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Check out this list of public Obsidian vaults on Obsidian’s Publish platform:

Relevant to some here, a visual research/library tool that I like to use alongside Obsidian

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+1

I use Eagle as well and it’s amazing…

Obsidian for thought, eagle for design assets, images, etc

Thank you everyone for the suggestions.

The list of open Obsidian vaults seems very interesting.

With regards to Eagle, I’ll check it out. I’ve heard a couple of times now that Zettelkasten is not the best fit for a “picture library”, and I can see why that is. I understand the benefit of not trying to cram everything into one tool but rather have different tools for different purposes. However I am still intrigued by the possibility of making meaningful connections from one idea / picture to another in ZK. And with Zettelkasten ideally being the place for all my knowledge, I guess I would love for design ideas to fit in there as well.

@ingmar There is a new plugin called Gallery that provides image gallery functionality similar to what you are asking for, directly in Obsidian. It works by embedding queries in an arbitrary note anywhere in your vault, pointed at a folder of images.

If that meets your needs you could (in theory) have the images & gallery in one folder and your zettelkasten in another, allowing this type of free cross-linking.

You can find it in the community plugins browser.

Note: I have not tried it, just noticed it a day or two ago.

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  • infinity for Eagle. Found it around the same time as obsidian and my world changed forever-