Insight through making

(See central discussion in How can we develop transformative tools for thought; subsection “How to invent Hindu-Arabic numerals?”)

  • Powerful systems express profound insight into the underlying subject matter
  • In certain circumstances, with certain skill sets, using certain processes, the creation of these systems actually yields marginal subject matter insight, which in turn allows for improved systems, and so on. This is the “insight through making” loop.
    • But this requires deep subject matter expertise.

Certain theoretical insights aren’t apparent when staring at the theories in isolation. But when those theories are instantiated in systems, observations of the system’s behavior can reveal the theory from new angles, expanding the space of possible insight. In the best cases, theoretical insights expand the systems you can construct, and insights from those systems expand your theory, in a virtuous cycle.

But to pursue both “halves” of this cycle requires expertise in both system-creation and in the subject matter; i.e. Inventing the Hindu-Arabic numerals requires both design genius and mathematical genius.

Most practitioners focus either on developing theoretical insight or on making systems, paying only lip service to the other half of this cycle. Academics often build toy systems which don’t create meaningful contexts for their ideas (Academic software interfaces generally aren’t suitable for serious use). Designers and engineers often focus on building systems without deep understanding of the theory which underlies that system, or they focus on scale before power (contra Focus on power over scale for transformative system design).

Both types of practitioners often develop systems for the sake of developing a system—not to address some personally meaningful problem they’re very motivated to solve: Tool-makers usually lack connection to a serious context of use. The insights drawn from such systems are generally quite weak: Effective system design requires insights drawn from serious contexts of use.

This insight is particularly important in the development of Tools for thought.

More on how to achieve insight through making:


Matuschak, A., & Nielsen, M. (2019 0). How can we develop transformative tools for thought?