Placing a stone on a path

Illustration by Luis Mendo

This essay was originally published on Medium.

One spring a few years ago, I was wandering along a web of small paths in Kenroku-en, one of the three great gardens of Japan, when I came upon a stone, about the size of a small potato.

The stone lay in the middle of the path, and had been wrapped with a piece of twine, tied in a simple knot on the top. I had never seen anything like it, yet its message was immediately clear to me:

Do not enter.

I was struck by the rare, trusting economy of this act. Beyond this path, the rest of Japan remained overrun with signage — a kudzu-like blanket of neon condensed bold italic, explaining, guiding, qualifying, and warning of every gap, step, path, object or landmark, and obfuscating shape and beauty.

This garden’s caretaker had clarified the rules and boundaries of this place for its visitors. He used no ink, erected no physical obstruction, used no force.

Instead, he found two natural materials, neither of which contain any meaning on their own, wrapped one in the other, and placed the result at our feet for us to notice and, hopefully, respect.

All human creativity and communication begins in this way. We start with the unarticulated mess of nature — earth, time, space, data, noise, emotion — and dent it with the force of our own experience, until it seems reasonably likely that someone, including our future selves, will notice. It usually doesn’t take much.

Once we’ve gone from seeing the path to noticing the stone, we can begin to make sense, to agree, to cooperate, to make memories, to reflect, and react with fresh new dents.

Tokyo is becoming an increasingly heads down city, the result of overcrowded public spaces, hyper-optimized service design, and the adoption of this greediest of heads-down devices, the smartphone.

Whereas ten years ago, I spent my commute deciphering subway posters and tracking trends in salarymen suits, these days, more often than I’d admit, I find myself arriving at our design studio, wondering how I’d gotten so quickly to point B, and what I’d failed to notice along the path from A.

Both the city that protects and device that distracts are astonishing human achievements, and very hard ones to argue against. But I fear, actually I’m sure, the quiet garden stone would fail to do its one job in this environment of semi-engagement. Hell, it might just kill me.

Perhaps more tragically, my failures to notice have been lost opportunities to drop new markers on the Tokyo atlas in my mind, to make new dents in the city based on my experience of it, so that others might take notice, might make sense, agree or disagree, cooperate, reflect, or react with their own fresh dents.

For the last few months, I’ve been using a tool we made, called Hi, to get back in the habit of noticing. So far I’ve used Hi around Tokyo and other cities, to capture things I’ve noticed like a bit of ancient calligraphy, a delightful combover, cat street performance art.

I don’t know what any of it means yet, if any of it is any good. I know it has felt satisfying to be in the practice of notice these things, and that a few people appreciated some of what I noticed, or how I noticed what I noticed. It is satisfying to trace the first markings of my Tokyo atlas, and how those markings layer with those of other people.

Hi is our take on what a minimal toolset for this practice might look like — public (kind of), connected, layered, tiered, spontaneous, yet deliberate and reflective. In Hi’s inaugural essay, Craig explains why we designed Hi for these qualities and why the practice itself is so important to creative well being.

July 28, 2013