One of the biggest problems with digital work for me is that the spatial dimension is not represented, or at least not sufficiently. I have the problem that I can’t think very well in the abstract. I have to see things, arrange them and, above all, write them down in order to achieve insights. And it doesn’t help at all if I have folders upon folders on my hard drive (or in the cloud for that matter), ALL OF WHICH I DON’T SEE. I can’t get a sense of dimensions, relations, relationships. The only thing I can do is click through and remember what to expect where. Now not only do I have the problem of not being able to think abstractly very well, I also don’t have a very good memory. This circumstance was also the starting point many years ago, why I began to deal with to-do apps and digital productivity in general. I simply had the feeling that things kept falling through the cracks. And that’s exactly how I feel with big digital projects, like the university research project I’m working for as a research assistant or my PhD. I just need the feeling of knowing where things are. So my absolute horror would be having to rely only on search. I need strategies to make my knowledge **visible**. This need is also evident in my Obsidian configuration: I don’t (mostly) think much of minimalism or buttons that are automatically hidden. I want buttons, info panels, and click targets.
What to do?
To solve this problem, I don’t have THE ONE solution. It always sounds nice when you pretend in blogposts and Youtube videos that you have found the perfect system that covers all conceivable cases, but it is almost never like that in reality. Reality is messy and you have to live with that. The solution is therefore to have different tools in your arsenal and then use the most appropriate one in each case. In the following, I will therefore give an overview of all the visual tools that make working in Obsidian easier for me.
The first is the Graph or Graph View. This is what Obsidian always advertises and it might be one of the first things you see when you start using Obsidian. And that doesn’t surprise me at all, because the graph just looks pretty nice, especially if you have a lot of notes in your Vault. The graph maps all the notes and connections between them. And then when you see so many nice points, all connected, it just looks very much like work and productivity. So in that sense, the graph is very valuable: you can better appreciate how much work you’ve already done in Obsidian. However, the value of the graph is quickly exhausted. At least, I have not been able to get any benefit beyond that from the graph.
The Local Graph does a little better. This is a subset of the overall graph that only shows the currently open note and notes associated with it. In addition, you can set it to show further levels of notes as well. This would mean that if I have a note about studying paperless that is linked to the note Productivity, notes that are linked to the note Productivity will also be displayed. This can be quite helpful for generating ideas. Especially with complex topics like my PhD, I sometimes open the Local Graph to see which thematically related topics I still have notes on.
The next option I like to use are Kanban boards. I don’t have to write much about this, because I already wrote an article about it. However, I use Kanban boards less to map hierarchies or relationships between notes, but rather to track processes. After all, that’s what they were designed for.
Overall, I have two use cases: First, in my role as a social scientist, I conduct interviews all the time, and a Kanban board is a great way to keep track of which people I’ve already researched, contacted, interviewed, or analyzed. On the other hand, I have a weekly plan in which I note central tasks of the current week, separated by weekdays. This is not a to-do list, but rather a high-level plan to keep track of the most important goals of the week. Although this does not have anything to do with making knowledge visually tangible in the narrow sense, it still serves the purpose of making what I do mentally comprehensible to me in a different way.
Excalibrain is the second plugin from the incredibly talented Zsolt Viczian, who also develops the Obsidian Excalidraw plugin. This makes him probably one of the most influential figures in the Obsidian community and he also always has exciting thoughts that he shares on his Youtube channel.
Excalibrain is a plugin to put notes in a self-definable hierarchical order. So parent notes can have children, children can have siblings and generally all notes can have friends. For example, one could imagine a case where I write a note dealing with the cloven-hoofed species (parent note) and then other notes dealing with sheep, camels, and hippos (children). A friend note would possibly be one about a different animal species. And these hierarchies are then mapped visually by Excalibrain, which often helps me a lot to keep track of complex relationships.
Excalibrain can do a lot more, but Zsolt can explain that better than I can.
Hubs or Maps of Content are central entry points into my Vault. Each of my large projects (or areas of responsibility) has such a hub, where I gather everything possible that has to do with the project. These are usually links to documents outside of Obsidian, central notes of the project, which then branch out further, and also always a section where I note tasks in the project. Hubs are essential anchors for me to not feel hopelessly lost and certainly the notes I open most often.
Last but not least, a feature that I’m just starting to use more intensively: The canvas feature that was introduced in Obsidian a few months ago. Canvases in Obsidian are, in my opinion, very well implemented, because you can combine all sorts of things: Notes, images, maps. You can even work directly in the notes and don’t have to open them first. This is of course super practical and in my eyes extremely well suited if you want to keep track of a large project. I currently use it as a general overview for the research project in which I am a research assistant and have arranged all research aspects. This gives me an overall picture of the research process and I can always put individual aspects into perspective. For me, canvasses are a more visual and playful form of the hub.
Tools for visual thinking
There are many ways in Obsidian to work with information visually and for me that is an essential part of the process. Sometimes I want to keep track of things, sometimes I want to clarify hierarchies, and sometimes I’m trying to stimulate thinking. Therefore, there is no one solution that covers everything. But when I put it all together I have a fantastic tool box for my thinking.