Building a swarm of thoughts with the founders of Napkin


Welcome to this edition of our tools for thought series, where we interview founders on a mission to help us unlock our knowledge to become smarter, more creative, and more productive. David Felsmann and Fabian Wittel are building Napkin, a tool to collect thoughts, see connections, and be inspired.

Designed to be a minimalist yet powerful thinking companion, Napkin offers a living knowledge graph with embedded serendipity and spaced repetition. It’s truly a joy to use. And, while Napkin is private by default, you can collect the thoughts of other thinkers with a single click if they share their collections.

In this interview, we talked about how they are building a swarm of thoughts, how to design for emergence and serendipity, helping knowledge workers come up with new ideas and reflect on their thoughts, and much more. Enjoy the read!

Hi David, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. The force-directed graph of Napkin is such a unique approach to exploring your thoughts. Can you explain how you got the idea and how it works?

David: Hi Anne-Laure, thank you for having us. We felt like we had plenty of software to store information, but not much help with thinking it through. We wanted to have a system to collect inspiring thoughts and see connections arise automatically.

Fabian: When we took a step back and looked at how thinking and creativity actually work we found a fundamental mismatch in most apps. Most interfaces are based on linear lists and folders. We wanted to build an interface that complements the brain in its fuzzy and highly networked structure. An interface that provokes emergence and serendipity, that inspires us when using it. How can we build that?

Our brains evolved to see patterns in nature, when we see a huge swarm of birds moving across the evening sky we immediately and easily perceive groups and changes in direction. With a force-directed graph we can generate similar movements. You could call Napkin a swarm of thoughts. When you focus a thought in your knowledge graph connected thoughts will emerge in its perimeter. Each thought you enter in Napkin has gravitational forces, pulling thoughts with connected content towards it. No need to come up with a predefined structure or spending hours on linking everything.

“A swarm of thoughts” is such a great way to put it. What are the benefits of such a swarm of thoughts? How do you think networked thinking fosters creativity?

Fabian: According to Steve Jobs “Creativity is just connecting things.” He pointed out that “when you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.” Napkin is designed for serendipity. You stumble over connections you would not have anticipated, neither would you have found them in a list. That sparks creativity and helps knowledge workers and writers in particular to come up with unique ideas.

What about people who are just readers, or just trying to understand the world — how can Napkin be helpful to them?

David: Oh, these are the people we are building Napkin for primarily. People who have two paper notebooks, highlights in every book, several piles of loose paper sheets around their apartment and notes in several documents and apps — people like us. Whenever you put something in Napkin it will show the most relevant thoughts around it. Without an elaborate workflow or organizing taxonomies. That’s a big difference to all other systems I know. The interface is built for reflecting on your thought collection.

Many of our readers fit that description, and often struggle with information overload. There is so much information out there, how would you recommend someone goes about deciding what to add to their graph?

David: I’d say listen to your guts. Any framework would make things more complicated than it has to be. Input the thoughts and ideas you resonate with instantly. You feel it, if it belongs to your graph.

Fabian: We already think about features that make it easy and playful to add certain weights to your thoughts. Telling your Napkin which thoughts to keep on top of your mind while sending others to archive.

What about learning in public, is that something Napkin will support in the future?

David: Well, while Napkin is private by default, people can share their Napkin and let others explore their thoughts. We are currently testing this with some great authors who push out inspiring ideas via podcasts and newsletters.

Coach Willis is a great example. He writes about stoicism, leadership and motivation every day. While I valued reading his newsletters very much, I struggled to implement his advice in my daily life. Now I just add the thoughts I resonate most with to my private Napkin and come across them every time I need a refresher. Most of the time these snippets are a good reminder of the bigger message, but if I feel like reading the original text again, it is just one click away. You can find his public Napkin here.

Is there a current feature Napkin offers that you are particularly proud of?

Fabian: My personal favorite is entering a new thought to Napkin. While you are typing, connected thoughts emerge from the background and give immediate context. The nature of the dialog you can have with Napkin becomes very obvious in that moment.

That sounds like a fantastic experience. Who do you think should use Napkin?

Fabian: People who are curious about different fields, who read and listen a lot to non-fiction, who want to see connections across different fields and who like this feeling of connecting the dots.

David: And bloggers, newsletter authors, podcasters who seek a complementing medium to accumulate the key thoughts of their publications over time and want to share these connections with their audience. Last but not least, heavy note-takers who are interested in the Zettelkasten method, but struggle with implementing the workflow in their daily life are also warmly invited to give Napkin a try.

Thanks so much to both of you for your time! How can people support Napkin?

David: We have to thank you, Anne-Laure. We met so many beautiful minds in the Ness Labs community, beta testing Napkin and supporting the project from the first moment on. We feel very privileged to get that great support. We are still in an early beta phase with the product and every feedback helps moving in the right direction. On top we look for contributors in the fields natural language processing, data visualization and generative art.

People can follow us on Twitter and get beta access on our website.

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