Left chevron
Left chevron

Take Control of Your Digital Library (And Avoid the Collector's Fallacy)

Natasha Hicken

Why do we collect more than we need?

Your digital library is a reflection of your knowledge and your tastes. It's where a lot of your creative ideas begin and it's a tool for creative exploration. So why do so many creatives spend their time wrestling with bloated, scattered libraries?

Our tendency to collect things without much thought even has its own word in Japanese, 'Tsundoku'—a combination of tsunde-oku (to let things pile up) and dokusho (to read books). It describes the condition of acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them.

Research on attention and memory shows that to understand something and be able to use it, you need to grapple with it. If you want your references to have an impact on you, and therefore your ideas, you need to do more than simply save them. Investing a bit of time and attention can help you make that tool more powerful, effective, and delightful to use.

Research is addictive because it rewards us with the false impression of making progress. I call this the Collector’s Fallacy. - Christian Tietze

What does that mean for creatives?

The internet promises infinite access to new ideas, but can often look more like an infinite pile of feeds to check, books to read, things to see. For creatives, this can turn your own digital library from a source of inspiration into a source of stress and distraction. Beyond the mental toll, it doesn't do justice to your creativity.

This digital archive acts as a second brain and can be a place to turn to when creative block hits. When used effectively it can be your secret weapon. However, simply accumulating all these references misses a huge amount of compound value. Your digital library should be much more than the sum of its parts. Adding new items to a collection should create exponential value. Yet, more often than not, you're simply accumulating them in isolated silos.

Bad tech habits set you up for a chaotic, bloated digital library

Unfortunately, the pursuit of inspiration is a way to feel productive without actually producing anything. - Tanner Christensen

Many of us are familiar with browsing, scrolling, and swiping through endless streams of content. When you're in the creative industry the line between browsing for fun and browsing for work can be blurred beyond the point of recognition. What starts off as a search for a specific image can land you in a rabbit hole of influencer content. What begins as a flick through Instagram can finish with the visual reference you subconsciously needed.

The current process is great for capture, but could actually be a blindspot in the creative process. Images get saved as pins, as collections, and as screenshots buried deep in your camera roll never to resurface again. You have a huge repository but when creative block strikes, your best references are nowhere to be seen.

Your phone is a small sound in a noisy room, don't rely on it for finding creative inspo

Having an instant source of creativity and inspiration in the palm of your hand sounds great, right? Mobile phones are amazing tools for finding creative inspo, but not for paying sustained attention to any of it. If our attention is divided, we can't truly grasp the ideas and aesthetics we're saving.

  1. When it comes to attention, size really does matter. If your attention is a boat, your eyes are the rudder. Research on attention shows how much easier it is to focus on something we're actually looking at. So the (relatively) small size of a mobile phone provides a poor visual target for your attention.
  2. Too much interference. Browsing on the go means we're never giving our undivided attention to what's on the screen. Glancing up to check what stop you're at or if your food's arrived leaves your attention even more divided.

Endless feeds sap your mental energy and encourage you to save mediocre content

Even on the biggest screens, feeds can wrestle your time and attention away from you before you know it.

  1. Too much choice. Does it sometimes seem like the more you look, the less you know what you're looking for? Choice overload causes more options to make you more dissatisfied with what you pick. If you find yourself obsessively scrolling for the one, it might be choice overload at play.
  2. Need for speed. Frantic scrolling means you don't spend enough time focusing on one thing for long enough to understand it. You're not paying the kind of sustained attention needed for proper understanding.

How to overcome the collector's fallacy and cultivate a powerful digital library

Strike a balance between saving and sorting

With faster phones and better cameras, saving is easier than ever. But, all that capture offers little value if it just gets siloed off without much thought. If you want to increase connections between ideas and be better at remembering what's in your digital library then you need to strike a balance between saving stuff and understanding stuff.

Double Diamond technique

Almost all disciplines encourage separate phases of generation and distillation and there's a reason it's such a popular approach. This technique is sometimes called the Double Diamond, images of which can be found in every form imaginable.

Interdisciplinary artist-designer May-Li Khoe describes this process as "alternating messy thought with neat thought".

Switching between periods of capture and periods of integration allows you to reap the benefits of excitement and innovation, but also of pragmatism and problem-solving. With each cycle, you understand more and can make better-informed decisions ready for the next round. You avoid situations where you get thrown off-track or lose sight of the end goal.

The process of integration also helps you remember what you save, and makes you more likely to draw innovative connections or see unique insights. Integrating what you see with what you know can take many forms: verbal, written, sketched. If you're not sure where to start, try asking yourself these critical questions next time you see something inspiring.

Create a swipe file for just-in-case inspo

You can stumble on something inspirational anywhere. You save it because you find it interesting, although you have no immediate use for it. How you save those just-in-case things has a huge impact on the usefulness of your digital library. Swipe files are commonplace in the design and marketing worlds. Follow these tips for building a swipe file that will save you from creative block again and again:

1. Save to a single place

Keeping things in isolated silos doesn't do your digital library (or you) justice. Having everything live in one place not only saves you time but also makes it easier to see connections between disparate ideas. If all creativity is a remix then make sure you've got all your samples in order. Some apps, like Visualist or Playbook, make it easy to collect files from several platforms all in one place.

2. Make it searchable

With everything together, you'll need to be able to navigate it. If you want to spend less time figuring out whether to save an image under 'Interiors' or 'Minimalist', we recommend swapping the typical folder structure for searchable tags or labels. Apps like iPhotos and Visualist automatically tag all your pictures to save you the hassle.

3. See it often

This is where the swipe file gets its name. Regularly 'swipe' through this file at random to bring forgotten things to the surface and spark new ideas. To keep it from getting bloated, channel your inner Marie Kondo and delete things that don't bring you joy anymore.

Set yourself limits when doing visual research

When doing visual research, you intend to save things because they directly relate to what you're working on in that moment, but it can be tempting to save anything that could be remotely useful. Add to this that most tech platforms are designed to maximise time spent scrolling, and you can see why it's so easy to get sidetracked. Try these strategies to take back control:

1. Set a clear goal before you start

Decide what the scope of your search is, even if that scope is purposefully wide. Knowing what you're looking for (and what you're not looking for) before you start stops you from being dragged down rabbit holes or being overly influenced by recommender algorithms.

2. Check your library before you look elsewhere

What's the point in having a powerful digital library if you don't consult it regularly? Before you open up Pinterest or Instagram have a look through the inspo you've already carefully selected. Chances are you already have some material that could be relevant or spark off a useful train of thought, and you won't have to wade through the web to find it.

3. Set a limit, and stick to it

Choice overload happens gradually and the longer you spend looking, the less satisfied you'll be. It's hard to recognise when to tailor your search, and the sunk cost aversion can keep you on the wrong track for longer than you'd think. Before you start, decide on an amount of time to search for or a number of images to save.

4. Review your material

Once you've collected some creative inspiration, go through and review your material. This is your chance to notice any patterns or themes that could help you narrow your search or give you a lead for a new idea. Add notes, sketches, or whatever you need to grapple with the ideas. Delete anything that doesn't quite fit with your goal. If you don't want to lose it, move it to your swipe file, but avoid having things that are almost right as it can water down your research.

5. Improve your search

If you need to, repeat the process again. Keep the iterations short for the greatest effect. It's better to do short review sessions every 10 minutes rather than one long one at the end. That way you can quickly see if you've been pushed off-track or if you need to change your search criteria.

Prune what you've already saved

If your inspiration is scattered across the web, then welcome to the club. Not only does having things scattered like this reduce the chance of you remembering them at all, but it also makes it near impossible to find a picture when you need it. Save yourself the hours scrolling through your camera roll trying to find that perfect picture for a presentation and follow these tips:

1. Separate work-related pics

The last thing you need when searching through your archive for something is to have to scroll through 100's of holiday pictures.

2. Delete duplicates and blurry pics

While you're going through your saves with a fine-tooth comb, delete duplicates, blurry pictures, and anything else clogging up your digital libraries. If you saved something ages ago and it no longer brings you joy, now is a good chance to archive it. A bit of pickiness here will save you later on—your data storage will thank you.

3. Forward everything to one place

Once you've separated out the best of your creative inspiration, send it all to one place. This will stop things from falling through the digital cracks and help you see themes by being able to compare things you saved recently with past saves. Save everything to your swipe file and separate project-specific inspo out as needed. You could simply save to a separate folder on your device, or use an application like G-Drive, Dropbox or Visualist if you prefer to keep things on the cloud.

4. Set regular time aside to sift through your recent saves

Not only will this stop the sheer number of images to look at from becoming unbearable (remember what we said about choice overload), giving yourself the space to go over your recent gatherings means you'll be sorting them while the original context is hopefully still fresh in your mind. You'll be much more likely to remember things simply by seeing them again a short period later. Depending on how much you save this could be daily, weekly, or monthly. It's a great task to schedule for that post-lunch slump or last thing on a Friday. Find a time that suits you, but make sure to block out some time on your calendar so you don't forget.

TL;DR: How to overcome the collector's fallacy and cultivate a powerful digital library

1. Keep a swipe file for images you like but don't have an immediate use for.

  • Merge all your random saves here.
  • Review them regularly.
  • Make it searchable.

2. Set yourself limits when searching for something particular.

  • Be clear on your goal/idea before you start.
  • Set a limit to protect yourself from the damage of the attention economy.
  • Add notes, sketches, and links as you go.
  • Search a bit, review, think about your goal, improve your search, repeat until satisfied.

3. Prune what you already have.Keep work pics separate.

  • Delete any duds, blurry pics, or duplicates.
  • Forward everything useful to either your swipe file or the relevant project space.
  • Set aside time regularly to sift through your recently found inspiration.