:: blog ::

Under the influence

It all started with an innocent request from Amanda:

“What are the top 10 books, papers, websites, or objects had the most influence on your work, inspired you, or made you a better person?”

Hell, why stop at 10? Here’s the list of lists…no real order, but all very, very influential.

10 books that influenced greatly (+1 for luck)

  1. Metapatterns by Tyler Volk
  2. Thinking with a Pencil by Henning Nelms
  3. Envisioning Information by Edward R. Tufte
  4. The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems by Fritjof Capra
  5. The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
  6. Theory of Semiotics by Umberto Eco
  7. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough
  8. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  9. The Diamond Age by Neil Stevenson (bonus fiction pick!)
  10. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson
  11. The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual by Christopher Locke, Rick Levine, Doc Searls, David Weinberger


Ray & Charles Eames : For their creative partnership, the many ways they communicated ideas and philosophies (media, making things, talking, writing) and their random, belligerent and spry genius.

Bill Strickland : His work in urban communities is transformative. He cajoles, engages, inspires and evokes. And then he builds stuff.

Hildegard von Bingham : What’s not to love about a mystic medieval abbess? Her paintings of divine visions are surreal and swimmy with symbolism. She thought, painted, wrote, kept the power-hungry dukes at bay and composed music.

Douglas Hofstadter : Best known for the classic Godel, Escher, Bach. But before I found that, I read his book of essays (Metamagical Themas – Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern). His mind is supple, his curiosity insatiable. And he’s funny, in a way that in Boston would be called wicket smaahht. Anyone debating the gender-neutrality of “he” will squirm reading his not-very-funny satire essay.

Places & Communities

The Exploratorium : The inner workings of the world flayed open and on display. They host inventive researchers and by making the outputs of research displays and experiences, the magic of science becomes a full day of fun.

The Crucible : There is no other place to really get down and dirty and make stuff. Using fire, metal and muscle, the Crucible is more than a nonprofit arts facility…it’s a community of thinkers, creators, makers in a sandbox of big, powerful and flaming tools. The ethos that emerges? Collaboration, co-creation and shared safety. Powerful stuff.

Cacophony Society : In the beginning there was cacophony. And then there was Burning Man. But the cacophonists blazed the trail. At my first event (meeting?) I remember thinking “this is what being an adult is all about.” It was the accessible version of Survival Research Labs.

20 things : Judith gets a gold star. This was my first experience in at-a-distance art swaps. Oh, sure, in college we traded stuff and did collaborative projects, but to have this opportunity (to know these people!) out of college is a real gift. And look now at the creative communities that are hooking into this ethic: flickr, instructables, readymade, Makers…it’s all part of the same mighty river.


The American Girl brand (specifically the historical characters) : This one comes with a caveat. The whole purpose is for marketing, but the first exposure I had to the American Girl doll phenomenon blew me away. Those people hook into so many values (history, diversity, education, activities, dress-my-doll-like-me, playing) it’s nuts. A comprehensive vision. A goldmine.

IKEA : Distinctive design, inventive products, brilliant packaging and very low prices. And it’s hackable.


Manipulating Fabrics (the scary book) : The woman who created this book is crazy. Brilliant crazy. Scary crazy. The material is all white cotton. She illustrates, demonstrates and documents every fabric technique I have ever done, seen, heard of or just heard rumors about. This is an incredible example of “take it as far as you can, as long as you can…and you will create magic and inspire the world.” If you have ever held a needle, sewn a button or hemmed a shirt, you will never be the same after seeing this book.

Cardweaving : I’m in my current line of work because of cardweaving. It’s an ancient technique that uses cards as the loom. The cards are punched. How you string the warp threads and how you turn the cards to raise the threads in sequence creates the patterns. Cardweaving was the conceptual basis for the jacquard tapestry machine (1801) which used punched cards to create patterns. And punched cards as information chips lasted a long, long time. Making a cardwoven item feels like very, very slow programming.

Mindmapping : Visual problem-solving, organizing, sorting, extending and documenting. Radiant thinking just got a whole lot easier. After 11 years (the Mind Map book came out in 1996) I still do this at least once a week.


Hypercard : The first application that I learned after WordPerfect (yes, on those big disks.) Working with hypercard on my little Mac SE30 changed the way I thought about information, data, knowledge. Suddenly, the personal computer was much more than a more efficient typewriter.

Leatherman : I used to carry one everywhere, until they started getting taken by airport security. Better than a Swiss Army Knife, and they fold. Great design, great weight, great use.

Sharpies : ’nuff said. Once a few years ago (for about 6 months) a heavy black sharpie was the only pen I used in my sketchbook. And they smell good. They smell like ideas.


Slime Mold : Not an animal, not a plant. When there is food all around, it/they spores out to separate organisms. When food is scarce, they/it glob back together into one organism (not a colony…one single thing) and crawl to better pickin’s. They self-organize, collect to survive and disperse when they can. The perfect cycle of life, and the best example (and metaphor) for creative emergence I’ve ever found.

Prime Numbers : well, duh. Prime numbers are just incredibly beautiful. And sly.


Richard Diebenkorn : In college I worked at an art museum and fell in love with a Diebenkorn painting (Berkeley series, yum! yum!). The more and closer I looked, the more it revealed…his abstract work deepens and blossoms the longer you look. And it’s all just made from paint.

Joseph Cornell : The great collector. He assembled information, memory and history. It’s a code, a riddle, a puzzle. Always intriguing and often twisted with irony.

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