Being a low tech guy in the high tech world

What do Austin Kleon, a miniature movie set and an 80s logo animation have in common?

One word: analog.

Photo by 2p2play on Adobe Stock

If you are, as I am, in the world of digital marketing, you are permanently chased by the latest trends and tools. The Adobe suite offers us the updates pretty much every single month. Our feeds are covered with ads for some new productivity tools, organisational apps, project management softwares. And, of course, new phones and laptops are released every year.

This continuous novelty allied with a 100% connected and digital workflow can be paradoxically negative to your creativity. And I’m not only referring here to the so-called creative jobs. This applies to basically every job position: lawyer, gardener, non-fiction writer, restaurateur, pet food shop owner, and the like.

The three analog cases

Austin Kleon and his analog desk

Anyone who read Austin Kleon knows the importance of an analog desk. The author of Steal Like An Artist stresses out that each creator should have two desks: one with a computer obviously and the other “electronic free”, just paper, pens, carton boards,etc (check my post here).

The concept promotes free-of-distraction work, recovering the link between the brain and the hand — lost while using the mouse and keyboard. It allows for creativity to be expressed naturally and manually since you can’t go on the internet for benchmarks, templates and so on.

Thus, to effectively include this analog desk in your workflow, you need to identify your main enemies:

  1. FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)
  2. blank page or writer’s block
  3. boredom

For this hack to work at its best, it is crucial for you to “relocate“. You can’t simply put your laptop aside or away from the desk to declare it analog. You must embrace the fact your desk becomes a different space. Feel free to pick up any spot in your house, flat, garage or shed, set up a cheap board resting on trestles. It can even be two desks in the same room.

An analog motion design machine

The other day, I saw a video on the scanimate machine. This was an analog motion design machine, occupying an entire room, which produced every animation we could see on TV until the mid 80s.

It’s mesmerizing to see the endless animations you could make simply by pushing buttons, without any computer, just playing with the image signals. But the scanimate had a significant flaw. Because each animation was the result of thousands of manual adjustments (knobs, wires plugged here and there), it was impossible to replicate exactly the same animation two times. Once the client was satisfied with the final result, obtained physically in the scanimate room, he then took the film with him — no turning back possible, as all adjustments would change for the next client.

Shooting the reality in 1:96

I’ve had no idea how many movies are still using miniature instead of (or in complement of) CGI, as Blade Runner 2049. I also saw a video of this guy, creating a very cool low budget short movie without 3D. Just miniatures, then editing in After Effects.

When the scanimate, after the shoot is made and models, buildings, props are moved, it is impossible to retake. When the White House exploded in the 1996 movie Independence Day, it was a one time thing. If you watch the scene again, it didn’t change over time, still looking extremely realistic. The miniatures scenes age better.

So, even if the final image is then edited on the computer, the entire creating process is based on physical objects. The workflow starts in a room filled with wood, foam, paint and thousands of different small stuffs.

Why combine these ideas?

Let’s re-read Kleon on the analog desk:

I have two desks in my office — one is “analog” and one is “digital.” The analog desk has nothing but markers, pens, pencils, paper, index cards, and newspaper. Nothing electronic is allowed on that desk. This is where most of my work is born, and all over the desk are physical traces, scraps, and residue from my process.The digital desk has my laptop, my monitor, my scanner, and my drawing tablet. This is where I edit and publish my work.

It made me ponder, that creating in an “analog environment” doesn’t need to include paper and pen only. Many people would benefit from Kleon’s concept enriched by some analog electronic devices, for example, a conversation made by phone by a blogger needing to make an interview. He doesn’t, though, need a smartphone, as a good old wired phone does the job.

So I tried to weave Kleon’s analog definition in a “low tech” version. By low tech, I mean offline, thus no internet connection and no easy (instant) way to get it.

The overall idea of this is to create a separate bubble where you can focus and create something from scratch.

Classic 2021 desk:

  • computer with the internet connection, softwares
  • printer and scanner
  • smartphone and apps

Austin Kleon’s analog desk:

  • pencils and paper
  • scissors and tape
  • index cards and sticky notes

Low tech desk

  • pencils and paper
  • wired phone
  • computer offline + monitor
  • basic edit text software
  • mechanical keyboard
  • books (synonyms, inspirational)

This is, as Kleon’s definition states, a desk where the work is conceived. It can be an interview for a book or blog, a speech of the lawyer in court or the CEO to his/her team, a new layout of a given restaurant.

Why a wired phone? (a landline phone)

You may say that turning off 4G and wifi in your smartphone will make it work like a classic phone, so it will do the trick. But we both know it won’t. At the same time, beyond FOMO, you want to be reachable (by your family, main clients). A wired phone seems a very good solution for urgency calls. You give this number to your spouse, parents, business partner.

You also want to be able to call people without having to use your smartphone.

You can use an old landline phone as an IP phone with adapters.

How do I get a computer that is offline?

The easiest solution is to get a Raspberry Pi (models 0, 1 or 2, other models have a built-in WiFi) and just plug an old monitor (even CRT), the mouse and keyboard. You can get an old laptop or computer with no wifi card attached (early 2000’s). You can replace the hard-drive and have an adapted OS in it.

Why a mechanical keyboard?

We will experience the sensations that Kelon describes when touching paper, hearing and feeling. If that doesn’t sound like you, you may take a step further. New keyboards (especially Macbook ones), are very flat, and feel more as if you were typing on a screen.

You can even use an old mouse and a keyboard with old keyboard connectors with an adapter.

Which books should I keep on my low tech desk?

I would recommend, at least, a synonyms dictionary. I personally have an English etymology and a French-English dictionary (essential if you are non-native and work in English).

You can also think of 2 or 3 inspirational books, depending on your sector. If you work in branding, it may be a book on logo history. If you are in the consumer hardware tech, a designer retrospective may be a good choice. If you are writing speeches for politicians, pick an antique philosopher book.

I myself like to have a book non-work related, that you can use as an analog instagram, to clear your mind. I have, for example, an art book on how gardens inspired artists. This is for me a way to have a break from the previously mentioned.

To conclude

So, how to follow Kleon’s principles? By skipping the electronic devices, yet the low-tech desk is acceptable, involving the following:

  1. another desk, different from your daily workstation
  2. internet-free
  3. stimulating your senses

I think that, apart from creative work, for instance, sales, you can still better focus when using a cord phone and a 1997 CRT monitor in front of you. I personally love vintage tech and am attracted to this kind of set-up.

To envisage the whole idea see this video reversed.

The evolution of the desk by the harvard innovation lab photography by dougthomsen.tv / engineering by anton georgiev. More infos here

Nota Bene: the environmental concern

To be honest, I didn’t write this article with the environment in mind — I was driven by creativity techniques and workflow. But checking out the term low-tech, just before publishing, I found out this article about reusing old laptops.

Up to 200 millions laptops are produced every year! This means there are hundreds of millions of laptops waiting to be reused, dismantled, or recycled, yet most of them can successfully do their basic work and thus serve as a perfect tool for the low-tech desk.

About me // French Marketer who specialises in B2B tech and IoT. With the background of lobbying and over 10 years experience as creative director, I help IoT start-ups achieving stable growth, meaningful branding and long-lasting demand generation. More on www.dxm-agency.com

French Marketer specialised in tech and IoT / Malmö and Warsaw / dxm-agency.com

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