Obscure Things Power the Imagination

I’ve been reading Walter Isaacson’s biography on Leonardo Da Vinci. A master at marrying observation with imagination, Da Vinci would mindfully notice and observe things that most people gloss over. Soaking them in, his imagination would alight with what other people deemed the minutiae of everyday life.

For example, Leonardo suggested you could look at a wall “spotted with stains or [with] a mix of stones” and observe and ponder on all the details as a “way to stimulate and arouse the mind to various inventions”:

You may discover in the patterns on the wall a resemblance to various landscapes…[or] battles and figures in action; or strange faces and costumes…if you consider them well you will find marvelous new ideas, because the mind is stimulated to new inventions by obscure things. (264)

I love this articulation of the mind being “stimulated to new inventions by obscure things”. That resonates with my own experience.

I love to read obscure things on the web that don’t have any readily apparent applications to “design” because they delve into ideas completely outside my realm of understanding but remain adjacent to the craft of building on the web. (Two recent examples: 1) reading the WICG spec and GitHub issue behind the :~: syntax and writing about it, then 2) reading the npm query RFC and writing about it.)

The web is so big, I’ll never be able to know all the ways people are working on it — from the latest spec to JavaScript engine developments to HTTP protocol evolutions and more. Each has their own keen insights and experience-based rationale for making valuable contributions to how we build on the web.

In this way, I don’t think reading obscure things — or things that don’t have any immediate application or value-add to your own discipline — is a waste of time. Those things can serve as the spark that lights the kindling of your own imagination about what’s possible on the web.