mathematical habits and speculative design

A while ago, a former colleague at Microsoft, Thore Graepel, shared a post on “Habits of Highly Mathematical People” by Jeremy Kun at Google. I find myself returning to it when reflecting on my practice as a creative director and designer working on highly speculative ideas. My day job is proposing new concepts that may or may not be useful in the future, providing enough of a rationale to try them out or invest in building the technology to make them possible. If you know me, you know that my whole life I’ve loved both art and science. I ended up studying pure mathematics in college because I find it so beautiful, and it feels good to put my brain in that mode. I left with a Bachelors of Science in Mathematics, and three years of PhD track graduate studies under my belt, but with no inclination to specialize or teach. It was a philosophical endeavor.

Fast forwarding to the work I do today, decades later, I have forgotten most all of the specifics of the higher mathematics I learned in grad school (algebraic topology, complex analysis, network optimization…). Sure, I apply the principles of mathematics now and then, and some undergraduate methods like calculus or matrix multiplication, but what I use every day are the foundations of how I learned to think as a mathematician. These habits of reasoning are extremely useful in any kind of speculative thinking, especially when you are in a group of people trying to explore ideas together.

Kun calls out the habits of:

  1. Discussing definitions
  2. Coming up with counterexamples
  3. Being wrong often and admitting it
  4. Evaluating many possible consequences of a claim
  5. Teasing apart the assumptions underlying an argument
  6. Scaling the ladder of abstraction

Check out the essay, and if you’re a designer, think about your design process, how you evaluate new ideas, and how you discuss proposals with colleagues.