top of page

Pensive is a speculative concept for a digitally augmented paper that combines the benefits of both digital and physical media of writing.

February 2017

Project was done myself

Pensive is a concept for a digitally augmented writing medium that is able to seamlessly transfer content between digital and physical forms of media. Since the physical form is fixed but the content changes, Pensive can be multiple books, including your daily journal, your planner and even your doodling companion.

Pensive was my Thesis project for the final year of the Design Masters. It started off by my fascination with handwriting. I observed that despite the permeation of the digital modes of note taking, a lot of my fellow students still preferred taking notes by hand. This led me to research why handwriting was so attractive. As I dove deep into the subject I found out that handwriting has numerous benefits, including learning and retention of information and development of language in younger children. On a conceptual level, people learn faster when they write notes by hand instead of writing them on digital media like a laptop.

I have listed a detailed account of my thinking and methodology during the whole thesis project below, if you want to skip it then I suggest you watch the 20 min video below from my Thesis defense where I explain it more concisely

When I first came to Estonia as a Masters Student of Design I had mixed expectations, on one hand I was surprised to see the permeation of digital technology everywhere. There was mostly free internet available everywhere. Almost all of bureaucratic procedures could be done online. Yet on other hand I was surprised to see how many of my class fellows and colleagues preferred to use the old fashioned pen and paper for their note taking. One of my class fellows would actually write down the whole schedule for the semester on his journal. Even though he had all of them on his google calendar as well. When I asked him about it he just shrugged his shoulders and said that writing makes it more real.

While researching for my thesis, I came across a lot of documented benefits that handwriting has. Mueller and Oppenheimer did a detailed study in a class room environment where students used both Laptop and Handwritten notes. Students who took notes by hand were seen to outperform those took notes on computer/laptop. The reason being that when we are writing, we are actually condensing a lot of information, our brain is also directing fine motor movement of writing at the same time as listening and understanding the information.

To get a better understanding of how people used handwriting, I interview my friends who were habitual paper and pen users. 


There were a few key insights that gained from this user research ​

  1. One of the most important insights from the literature study was how closely writing and brain development are related to each other, not just related to writing only, people expressing themselves in different ways which may or may not be legible to others. Doodling in class, graffiti and tattooing are all different aspects of the same idea i.e. the movement of hand and how the brain dictates it.

  2. Another key insight from the interviews was that people felt more comfortable writing using pen and paper if the people reviewing them would be themselves. This phenomenon showed itself in various places e.g. Students taking notes in class, people writing their personal diaries or journals, people noting down their calendars for appointments. The only thing common in all these scenarios is that the writing is done for the primary viewing of the people themselves.

  3. On the other hand if the same person is asked to present their notes to the class, they would prefer presenting them in a digital format, i.e. typing or using digital interface like a PowerPoint or a keynote presentation.

  4. Another insight that came after interviews is that the users valued their privacy. One of the perils of the modern technology is that –at the cost of saving information- we are handing it over to corporations who are using all this information to create our virtual profiles and then bombard us with ads. Writing on paper provides a space free from prying eyes that just belongs to us.

  5. As I saw in one interview, the user acknowledged that using paper invites more collaboration from his clients. When something is displayed on paper as a presentation it invites views and improvement, which in turn develops into discussion and collaboration. Content on screens is cold and rigid, people are hesitant to collaborate or suggest changes when its digital.


While diving more into this topic, I started to realise that technology has been trying to shift us away from using pen and paper as the mode for recording our thoughts. Technology was more focused on bringing the physical media into the digital world. This is evident around us, there are numerous ways to bring your writing to the digital media, yet so far there has been only one mainstream product that can transfer writing to paper, and that's a printer which has stayed the same since it was invented.

By that time I had realized the issue, but I was still struggling on how to deal with it. Fortunately I came across Anothony Dunne and Fiona Raby's Speculative Everything. In Speculative Everything Dunne and Raby consider future to be malleable, for them, design is a means of speculating about how things could be—to imagine possible futures. This is not the usual sort of predicting or forecasting, spotting trends and extrapolating; these kinds of predictions have been proven wrong, again and again. Instead, Dunne and Raby pose “what if” questions that are intended to open debate and discussion about the kind of future people want (and do not want)

The second major inspiration for me was Carlotta Perez and her work on Technological Revolutions. According to her the world has experienced five major technical-economic cycles:


(1) 1771 - , The First Industrial Revolution in Britain, based on mechanization of the cotton industry.

(2) 1829 - , The Age of Steam and Railways

(3) 1875 - , The Age of Steel and Electricity

(4) 1908 - , The Age of Oil, the Automobile, and Mass Production

(5) 1971 - , The Age of Information and Telecommunications


The starting dates are all approximate and were selected based on some catalytic event or "Big Bang", such as the invention of Intel's first microprocessor in 1971.  Each age has followed a rough pattern of four phases:


(1) Irruption: Invention/development of the new technological paradigm, decay of the preceding paradigm, probably in conjunction with economic stagnation and unemployment.

(2) Frenzy: Rapid adoption of the new paradigm and intensive financial investment, often leading to irrational excesses and a financial bubble (e.g., 1998-2000).

(3) Synergy: The rationalization of the new paradigm and renewed economic expansion after a purging of the excesses of the bubble. (4) Maturity: Market saturation and the gradual exhaustion of the potential of the new technology setting the stage for the next cycle.

Here Carlotta explains the techno-economic paradigms in her own words.

But what do Techno-Economic Paradigms and Speculative design have to do with Handwriting?

In short:

Technoeconomic Paradigms give us a direction

Speculative Design gives us a method.

I finally had enough information to formulate my objectives for the purpose of my thesis:

To create proposition for a technology, which successfully incorporates all the identified functionalities to the physical paper. The embodiment of the technology will be a concept and using that concept, different scenarios will be presented from real life to stimulate discussion and debate

So what are the values that are inherent in the digital media that are valuable?

The first one was using Pictures.


As we saw in the examples from the interviews. People want to incorporate pictures into their writing. The idea that pictures can be incorporated into books isn’t new; in fact it has been practiced since the 15th century in England (Heck, 2007). These scrapbooks started as personal memorabilia, often including pieces of newspapers, visiting cards, pamphlets and playbills.


Perhaps the most famous example can be of Mark Twain who was known to carry scrapbooks around and he filled them with souvenirs, pictures and articles about his book. But the whole process of adding glue (which was not quite difficult to use back in those days) made him quite tired. So he invented a scrapbook with pre-added strips of thin glue to make the updates very easy and neat to do. He also patented this scrapbook and by 1901, at least 57 types of his albums were available. It would be his only invention that ever made money.

To find out how pictures can enrich the experience of writing or taking notes: I imagined a scenario where I was freely able to transfer pictures from the digital medium to physical, how would I use? Below are few examples where they give more depth and meaning to the text.

Letter to Mom

Letter to Mom

Travel Diary Denmark

Travel Diary Denmark

Travel Diary Sweden

Travel Diary Sweden

Work Notes

Work Notes

Job Advertisement

Job Advertisement

The Second important value that Digital Media had over written medium was the ability to have a timeline by saving and versioning of the text. Multiple versions of the same document can exist at one time. This enables collaboration between different authors, makes the document interactive, where writers can follow the train of thought of the person as they go through different edits and then their comments.

Sheng-Ying Pao from the MIT media school did exactly such thing in her doctorate thesis. Her work was centered on the premise that we should go out from the confines of the paper and utilize the surfaces in our environment as a writing and presenting medium, even though our objectives are in opposite direction, Pao recognized the value of saving and having an interactive timeline of edits and changes. Paper by itself is static but the act of drawing and writing on paper isn’t static but dynamic. Its not linear, the writer goes back and forth to understand and then edit the output of our work, sometimes it is all trashed, but each step brings the writer closer to the end result and it would bring a great value if the process of creation is shown how it is: arduous, rigorous and stimulating to the observers. 

Her thesis is primarily concerned with using sketches, but for the purpose of this thesis, its quite the same, both want to make the static content dynamic because there are numerous phases to content that is drawn or written on paper: the writers brainstorm, edit, write, erase and then rewrites. But when the drawing/writing is completed it immediately becomes static, still and inactive, if the writers could present the past and future and tell the stories that are embedded in the creation of the work then it would immensely benefit not just the observers but also the actual creators themselves.


The platform that was created in order to incorporate this time line animation was called MoveInk, the gestures were as follows, the user would twist the pen in the clockwise, which would trigger the animation to start, the animation would trace back the trajectory and the spread of ink in real time as it was done, similarly turning the pen anticlockwise would reverse the animation, shown below

The third and final value that I wanted to incorporate into the physical media was Erasibility and Tangibility. Erasibility means the ability to write and erase on paper, as it is possible to do on digital media, it is directly related to the second value.  Tangibility means the ability of writing to be transferred to different planes; both of these functionalities exist in tandem.

A very good example of Erasibility comes from something really common: A whiteboard. A whiteboard is normally used with a different colored markers; the writing on the whiteboard is easily erasable using any dry surface like a cloth or eraser.


Whiteboards are increasingly used in the offices, school and universities around the globe; they are particularly useful because as compared to black boards they have a very smooth surface, which makes writing easier.

White boards have increasingly diverse usage. They are used in meeting rooms, boardrooms, classrooms for education and even blogging.

Even though paper doesn’t have the ability to erase the information on it as easily as a whiteboard does, it is still used in temporary ways: The back of napkin calculations, the frequent noting down of different things on the first and the last pages of a diary. They show information that is of immediate value but loses it over time.


Sticky notes are one such example, they are mostly used temporarily, e.g. a person wants to tell a message, a reminder for oneself, a shopping list, a list of multiple tasks that one needs to do in the office. They are only useful for a short amount of time. And then they lose their importance.

One of the other big benefits of a sticky note is that it is able to change the plane of writing to the plane of attention, sticky notes are in a bundle first, but then they are pasted on diaries, monitors and other places where they are most relevant.


Seeing how popular the sticky notes are, it isn’t surprising that they are also quite extensively used in the digital realm.

So how could the tangibility and erasibility of media be applied in the physical world?


Below pictures show one examples of such tangibility


The Thesis can be viewed here

How can erasibility from a whiteboard be transferred to an ordinary paper and how could it look like? Below picture shows a scenario where a student is bored during a lecture and starts to play tic-tac-toe on the paper but then the lecture becomes interesting and they erase it to make space for new notes.

The final outcome of the thesis was Pensive

In Speculative Everything Chapter 7, Anthony Dunne proposes a question: How do we design for fiction? How do we create something that is both real and unreal at the same time? How do we even represent something that is unreal, parallel, unknown and doesn’t exist?

Dunne argues that it is easier to represent the fictional future in the form of clear communication, similar to films. Readers in his view should be provoked, they should actively think and engage in the process of suspending the belief. It is therefore important that the process is carefully crafted in a way that is both ambiguous and surprising to people. 


Pensive is the outcome of the thesis. If this were a UI/UX design project or a Product Design work then there would be an intermediate section in between detailing the design development. But this isn’t so. The objective as Dunne said is to do speculative design, which at its most abstract is a form of speculative philosophy of technology that questions the meaning of technology itself.

In this chapter a lot of things will be left to the reader, particularly related to the detailed functionality of the technology, the objective of this section is to present an outcome for a preferable future: a Post Digital future where paper and pen coexist with the digital in a complete harmony. A lot of the scenarios or technologies will not be explained in detail as to how they are happening but rather Why they Should happen.

Three scenarios will be presented, each scenario with a real person that uses the technological outcome in their daily life

But before that, here are the functional aspects of the product.

Transfer of Digital Content:

Pensive is able to receive, store and display digital content. There are two different types of digital media that pensive can accept, first is static media, e.g. pictures that can be transferred (using the gesture sensing pen shown in section 6.3.)

The second type of media is which is specifically related to books, e.g. PDFs and e-reader formats like Mobi and epub, when these files are transferred then a link is made on the page where they have been transferred and then opening the link (by swiping your hand upwards), transforms the whole diary into the said book. Scenario 3 explains it in detail visually.

Multiple books in one book

Quite possibly the most powerful feature of pensive is the ability to display multiple books within itself. For example Fig 7.2.2 shows the title page of Pensive, each subsequent page then becomes a title page for further books:  the title page of personal diary is on the page 2, whereas the title page for the work diary is on page 3. In order to select the book a swiping motion is made with all five fingers to go one level deeper into the work diary. This motion instantly turns the Pensive into the user’s work notebook.  

Pensive consists of multiple diaries and folders that can be created by the user.

Each page is the the front page of the diary.

To enter the diary, a swiping motion is made upwards, which then turns the whole Pensive into your work notebook

To enter the diary, a swiping motion is made upwards, which then turns the whole Pensive into your work notebook

Furthermore, three different scenarios are presented to show how different people will use Pensive. However only one scenario is presented here, the rest can be read in the thesis file.

The first person is Janno:  Janno is a product designer working in a creative agency called Iseasi in Tallinn, Estonia. His work heavily involves both digital and paper media.

He has a special notebook that he carries with him all the time that he uses both for his work and personal matters, below is shown a scenario where he could use Pensive and how it would help him in his workflow.

The first person is Janno:  Janno is a product designer working in a creative agency called Iseasi in Tallinn, Estonia. His work heavily involves both digital and paper media.

He has a special notebook that he carries with him all the time that he uses both for his work and personal matters, below is shown a scenario where he could use Pensive and how it would help him in his workflow.\While working Janno opens his notebook, he has already selected his work diary as explained in the previous section; His work diary in turn has different books depending on each page

He wants to add a specific view from CAD to his diary; he selects it by touching it with the gesture-sensing pen (Pao, 2014) and then adds it to the digitally receptive surface of pensive.

The digitally augmented surface allows him to resize and place the image before annotating it

Having the image on Pensive allows smooth collaboration between him and his colleague, instead of a screen both of them can contribute equally

The objective of the project was to present a glimpse of a preferable future, a future where the benefits of handwriting coexist with the flexibility of the digital media. Literature and User research was used to understand the length and breath of the issue. Existing paradox between digital and physical mediums was elaborated. Using the theory of Technological Revolutions and Techno economic paradigms a possible version of future was laid down where handwriting and the digital worlds have morphed together to create the best of both media.

Using Speculative Design as an inspiration and a tool, the result of the thesis was developed as a Technology Brief for a digitally augmented paper and its conceptual embodiment called Pensive. The functionality and use of the technology was shown using different scenarios played out with actual people. The scenarios provided new insights and ways in which the digitally augmented paper can be used; a new possible use for it was uncovered in the form of book reading.

bottom of page