Victor Margolin, a bald older gentleman, sits in a scholarly pose reading a book on a black leather couch in front of a wall of bookshelving packed with several thousand books

Victor Margolin’s zettelkasten process for note taking and writing

It’s not as refined or as compartmentalized as Niklas Luhmann’s process, but art historian Victor Margolin broadly outlines his note taking and writing process in reasonable detail in this excellent three minute video. (This may be one of the shortest and best produced encapsulations of these reading/note taking/writing methods I’ve ever seen.)

Though he indicates it was a “process [he] developed”, it is broadly similar to that of the influential “historical method” laid out by Ernst Bernheim and later Seignobos/Langlois in the late 1800s.

Victor Margolin’s note taking and writing process

  • Collecting materials and bibliographies in files based on categories (for chapters)
  • Reads material, excerpts/note making on 5 x 7″ note cards
    • Generally with a title (based on visual in video)
    • excerpts have page number references (much like literature notes, the refinement linking and outlining happens separately later in his mapping and writing processes)
    • filed in a box with tabbed index cards by chapter number with name
    • video indicates that he does write on both sides of cards breaking the usual rule to write only on one side
  • Uses large pad of newsprint (roughly 18″ x 24″ based on visualization) to map out each chapter in visual form using his cards in a non-linear way. Out of the diagrams and clusters he creates a linear narrative form.
  •  Tapes diagrams to wall
  •  Writes in text editor on computer as he references the index cards and the visual map.

I’ve developed a way of working to make this huge project of a world history of design manageable.
—Victor Margolin

Notice here that Victor Margolin doesn’t indicate that it was a process that he was taught, but rather “I’ve developed”. Of course he was likely taught or influenced on the method, particularly as a historian, and that what he really means to communicate is that this is how he’s evolved that process.

I begin with a large amount of information.
—Victor Margolin


As I begin to write a story begins to emerge because, in fact, I’ve already rehearsed this story in several different ways by getting the information for the cards, mapping it out and of course the writing is then the third way of telling the story the one that will ultimately result in the finished chapters.
—Victor Margolin

Published by

Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, IndieWeb, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

22 thoughts on “Victor Margolin’s zettelkasten process for note taking and writing”

  1. Bruno says:

    I like how he is using visual mapping to synthesize what he read. Make it possible to get the big picture and make sense of low signals.

    A missing element in ZK, which was entirely textual and indices.

  2. I don’t doubt that professors might independently develop similar note taking techniques.

    Maybe he heard of zettelkasten and maybe not. But they are forced to do a lot of writing and need to collect and organise lots of information and stuff like that can develop naturally in some people who are put in that situation.

  3. He has created the encyclopedic book “World History of Design” which has 591+947=1538 pages with the help of index cards. quote “maintained quotes on large index cards as his road map before transferring his ideas onto large sheets of paper.” [1]

    [1] Blogpost 2015, A World Designed: Inside Victor Margolin’s Epic, Global History of Big and Small “D”

  4. Interesting that he started out with sources categorized by country, but as he proceeded the categories disappeared and he constructed his non-linear groupings and visualizations. Also noteworthy, that by the time he was actually writing, he had read, or at least reviewed, his source material at least three times. By the time he was typing at the computer, there was never really the proverbial “blank page”. The manuscript was already there, it just needed to be applied to a new form.

    Side note: I like his shirts. Reminds me of the professor I had in college for my graphic design class. He had good taste in clothes, too.

  5. JMKSonny says:

    Thanks for sharing. Reminded me a bit of a video of Luhmann where you can see him with his Zettelkasten.
    In case you haven’t seen it yet:
    Starts at 37:27 until 39:50.
    In case you don’t understand German there are English subtitles I think.

  6. This is great – thanks for posting. I especially liked his method of spreading everything out flat and rearranging the parts. Theres a book chapter I’ve been struggling with for ages, and seeing this video has somehow made it much clearer how to proceed. Just imagining spreading my ideas out on a table has already freed up my thinking. Funny how these simple techniques can be so powerful.

  7. Chris Aldrich says:

    It’s been reported by his son that Luhmann did learn about a method (which either he heavily modified or someone else showed him their modification thereof) from Johannes Erich Heyde. There’s sure to be more details on this in Scott Scheper’s upcoming book Antinet Zettelkasten.

    see: Heyde, Johannes Erich. Technik des wissenschaftlichen Arbeitens: zeitgemässe Mittel und Verfahrungsweisen. Junker und Dünnhaupt, 1931.


    Syndicated copies:

  8. andresousan says:

    Thank you for this post! I’ve enjoyed it on so many levels.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *