Masters of Creative Notation: Luhmann and Da Vinci


Taking notes is an ancient activity that has been practiced for thousands of years in different cultures, languages and writing systems. It's different from just writing things down. For our purposes, noting is:

  • Personal, informal, fast and messy: notes are not optimized for public consumption, but for personal use, like a leather notebook that you keep in your backpack.
  • Open ended and never finished: “Taking notes” is a continuous and generative process, where you can come up with ideas without having an explicit goal in mind.
  • Low friction: notes impose low standards of quality and polish, meaning they are easy to add, subtract, and edit, and can be messy, incomplete, or completely random.
  • Multimedia: just as a paper notebook can contain drawings and sketches, quotes and ideas, and even a pasted photo or post-it note, so naturally notes combine different types of media in one place.

What further differentiates from the general notes is that such notes are not intended for a one-time project. They are intended for a lifetime of uninterrupted, open learning and creative output.

This series looks at remarkable examples of these types of creative notes throughout history, to extract useful techniques and timeless principles for our own personal knowledge management in the 21st century.

This article was first published on Medium and written by Tiago Fortea

Our first two are the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann and the Renaissance scientist and artist Leonardo da Vinci.

Niklas Luhmann

Niklas Luhman signed by Sonntag


One of the most comprehensive and influential historical sources for note-taking was the “Zettelkasten” developed by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998). His approach was described in this blog post (taken offline but still available via Web Archive).

Luhmann rejected the alphabetical arrangement of his notes, along with predetermined categories such as the Dewey Decimal System. His notes served not just for a single project or book, but for a lifetime of reading and research. He found a research database consisting of index cards (settee) that was “thematically limitless” and could be expanded infinitely in any direction.

Each index card was given a sequential number, starting at 1. When a new source was added to that topic, or if he found something to supplement it, he added new index cards with letters suffixed (1a, 1b, 1c, etc.). ). These branches were marked in red, as close as possible to the point where the branch started. Each of these branches could also have its own branch. The map for fellow German sociologist Jürgen Habermas, for example, was labeled 21/3d26g53.

Example Cupboards - Niklas Luhmann

A settee box consists of notes with numbers, tags (blue) and cross references to other notes (red). A tag index (bottom right) allows up-to-date cross-references. Image source: David B. Clear

Luhmann's branching technique

Not only did this create a system that could be expanded infinitely in any direction, it also gave each index card a permanent ID number (folzettel). This number could be referenced from any other card, as it would never change. The branches created "strands" of thoughts that one could engage at any point, follow it downstream to be worked out, or upstream to the source.

It also led to a meaningful topography within the system: subjects that had been extensively researched had long reference numbers, making their length informative in itself. There is no hierarchy in the Zettelkasten, no privileged place, meaning it can grow internally without a preconceived schedule. By annotating as a decentralized network rather than a hierarchical tree, Luhmann anticipated hypertext and URLs.

Luhmann described his system as his secondary memory (Zweitgeächtnis), alter ego, or reading memory (Lesson learned). He spoke of it as an equal thinking partner in his work. He reported that it had the ability to constantly surprise him with ideas he had forgotten. Therefore, he claimed that communication actually took place between himself and his Zettelkasten.


I draw four lessons from Luhmann's work:

1. Long time horizons change the game

Luhmann was a visionary in seeing that a note card system can be much more than a one-time project support. It could last for decades and became as integral to our thinking and working as the memories in our heads. Paradoxically, creating such a lifelong system becomes even more important as the media we consume is changing ever faster.

2. Categorization itself can be creative

Luhmann refused to settle for existing categorization systems. His biggest idea was perhaps not something on an index card, but how those index cards were linked together—in a decentralized network using permanent ID numbers. It's a good reminder that we don't have to take anything for granted when it comes to organizing information.

3. Good notes don't depend on technology

Obsession for note-taking instruments has been a constant temptation throughout the ages. This was as true in the age of bickering over the correct size of index cards as the modern debates over Vim vs. emacs. Luhmann did not get caught up in these controversies. He created a system that was "good enough" and then focused his energies on collecting ideas and producing content (70 books and 400 scientific papers, for example).

4. Our second brain can think and communicate, not just remember

Luhmann entered almost metaphysical territory with his commentary on what his Zettelkasten could do in later life. He claimed it was an equal thinking partner, not just a tool. He argued that it could think and communicate, which is a powerful call to raise our expectations of what digital tools can do for us.


Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci

This New Yorker articlel tells us about Da Vinci's notebooks, as told in Walter Isaacson's new biography Leonardo da Vinci.

More than 7,000 pages of Leonardo's notes have survived to this day. Some were from private notebooks he carried with him for quick sketches and observations. Others were for long-term studies in geology, botany, human anatomy, music, military engineering, astronomy, and many other fields.


Two war machines invented by Da Vinci: a chariot with swords and an early version of a tank. Photo by Sindala

Leonardo's notes were not primarily for self-examination, like a magazine or diary. They were focused on the world, a continuous log of his explorations and experiments. There is no clear line between the fanciful and the practical: on one page he studied the flight mechanics of birds, on another he designed a flying machine, and on the next he described his efforts to build it. It is not known if he actually attempted to fly, but his later designs for a parachute system give us an indication of how it might have gone.

Da Vinci's notebooks were an expression of his combinatorial style of creativity, crossing the boundaries between fields. It is impossible to tell in his notes where science ended and art began, or where his observations ended and his imagination began. Behind the Mona Lisa's famously enigmatic smile, we find pages and pages of studies of lip muscles, which Leonardo drew both with and without skin. On another page, examining the flight patterns of birds, he absent-mindedly recalls a childhood memory, a dream in which a bird flew down from the sky and punched it in the mouth.

His notebooks follow the “personal, informal, quick, and messy” criteria very well: they were minimally organized, with quick, messy lettering that was clearly intended for personal use only. He used a personalized shorthand and in many places his pen seems to have barely touched the page as he raced to keep up with his thoughts.

There is ample evidence throughout his life of how valuable Leonardo found his own notes. They provide a backstory to many of his greatest works, even those he never started. For example, the only evidence we have of his unfulfilled commission to paint a wall of the Great Hall of Florence is his preliminary drawings, which suggest it would have been a masterpiece. His notes served as a work-in-process record of his many projects, which were later turned into precious historical documents. For example, the massive bronze statue of a horse commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, which he never finished. It was later sent to be melted down and turned into cannons, and we only know that from its preliminary sketches.

To speculate a bit, it seems likely that Leonardo's notebooks both facilitated his very diverse projects and lifestyles, as well as enabled him to learn and derive value from whatever he worked on, even if it was unfinished or soon. faded. He bounced from state to state, working on everything that enabled him to survive and make enough money to live on. In his 30 preparatory drawings for a giant crossbow, for example, we see a ghost not only interested in killing with efficiency, but obsessed with mechanical principles that would later show up in dozens of other designs.

In his fifties, fearing the end of his life, Leonardo turned away from painting to complete his studies and organize his notes. In our last report on him, during a visit by the Cardinal of Aragon in France, he showed those notebooks and called them an "infinity of volumes." I wonder if in hundreds of years Da Vinci will be remembered as much for his creative process—which is timeless and universal—as for his paintings, which will inevitably fade.


I draw three lessons from Da Vinci's notebooks:

1. There are hidden gems in our notes

Although he was celebrated as a genius during his lifetime, it took ages for us to fully appreciate Leonardo's brilliance. His technical designs were ahead of their time, and he may have worked with modern materials and some minor adjustments. He seems to have used and described the scientific method long before it was invented, writing in one of his notebooks:

“I'll do some experiments before I go any further, because my intention is to first consult the experience and then show through reasoning why such an experiment should work that way. And this is the rule by which those analyzing natural effects must proceed; and though nature begins with the cause and ends with the experience, we must follow the reverse course, namely (as I have said) to begin with the experience and thereby examine the cause.”

This reminds us that we ourselves don't know which ideas in our notes will ultimately be the most important, the most impactful, or the most innovative. To discover that, we need to capture everything, test early and often, and create tangible artifacts to share with the world.

2. Notes are a means to an end

It is very tempting to take notes in ritual totems. To obsess over the grain of the paper, the thickness of the pencil, or the default spacing and font. All this distances itself from the act of creation. Leonardo's notes were so chaotic and cluttered that they border on being unintelligible, even to him. He understood that the finished product—The Last Supper, or the Mona Lisa—would really leave an impression. All the notes that arose along the way pale in comparison.

3. Notes deserve respect

Despite the above, the notes are also worthy of our respect. It's only when we see our ideas as valuable enough to record and revise that we begin to have more good ideas in the first place. Leonardo in his later years spoke of his notebooks with something close to reverence. Our identity depends on our memory — expanding our ability to remember things may also increase our sense of who we are.


The principles are higher than the techniques. Principles produce techniques in the blink of an eye. — Ido Portal

What we look for in these historical examples are principles and techniques. Principles are timeless and universal, but often difficult to see clearly. Techniques are temporary and context dependent, but concrete and give us clues about the principles on which they work.

Ask you as a reader: which principles or techniques resonate most with these two examples?

This article was first published on Medium and written by Tiago Fortea


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