Category Archives: Tools and Learning

The Place of Process: Tools and Importance of Procedure

One of the most important characteristics one can possess in the current professional landscape is the ability to learn new tools quickly. This rings true across many industries, and is especially relevant in the spatial field, where the advancement of cartographic tools and web-based techniques for spatial data visualization, data collection, analysis, and public distribution change rapidly. While learning tools is of high importance, in the end a tool is only as powerful as its user. You can learn tools and use them properly, you can learn software and use it properly, and you can program, and program properly, but you can’t underestimate the importance of conceptual and fundamental understanding beyond the tools.

We’ve all seen this, and we’ve all been here…


When you provide someone a pen and ask them to draw an owl, technically speaking, the individual will have all he or she needs to complete the task. But can the individual draw the owl? Does he or she have the knowledge, both creative and procedural, required to actually draw the owl?

Talking about Process…

Tools are tangible. Tangible is easy… well, easy enough. We can see tools, touch them, turn them on, etc. Creative and procedural process, however, can be intangible. Most well designed tools embed the fundamentals and concepts in their execution, but if you do not know the concepts and fundamentals that sit behind the tools, it can be very hard to figure out what procedural knowledge accompanies that tool, or even where the procedures, concepts, and fundamentals are manifested in the tool. Process is important! When it comes to process, having the ability to employ concepts and fundamentals while at the same time questioning implementation is highly important in effectively employing a tool.

Process provides a connection between the tools and concepts,
and is perhaps more appropriate to consider than the simple concepts versus tools debate that usually surfaces in the field.

Online, “pens” abound. In theory, there has never been a shortage of “pens”. For the innovative and creative, almost anything can be considered a pen, but the general accessibility of these pens has never been greater. Accessibility allows for choices, and also allows for the masses, including those who might lack procedural knowledge and concepts. In effect, camps form: those that know the concepts, but not the tools; those that know the tools, but not the concepts; those that know both; and those that know neither. Where you fall is likely inconsistent, depending on the task at hand, but the awareness of your place on the spectrum is important in building concrete knowledge and effective proficiency. When given a pen and starting to draw, the path to proficiency is a windy one, learning from those around you, determining if there is a better pen, and drawing an amazing owl.


There is no shortage of methods and means that introduce pens, but what to do beyond simply hold the pen and scribble some circles becomes a mix of professional experience, educational background, and, perhaps most importantly, sheer will. Introductory tutorials are invaluable, and I firmly believe you can’t have too many, but at some point, the tangible tools blend into intangible skills.

We’ve all taken courses where you are given a pen, but how many courses have you taken that show you what to draw with the pen?

In my experience, the most valuable courses, highest quality workshops, and most effective teachers are able to locate that point where the tangible becomes intangible. They will attempt to drop you there and push you along, challenging you to wield your pen with confidence, to draw as many owls as you want, and ultimately question the pen. We’ve all taken courses where you are given a pen, but how many courses have you taken that show you what to draw with the pen?

The introduction of fundamentals and concepts is equally important as the introduction of tools one can use to implement them. Learning how to properly use a tool and effectively and efficiently produce a fine deliverable from that tool is a multi-step, multi-faceted process. One leads to the other. Both can be taught, it just depends what angle you want to take. Ultimately, the point is that process, be it creative, procedural, or developmental matters. Concepts and fundamentals are important, no matter the tool you have in hand, and knowledge of process allows for the challenging of tools to improve. There will never be an ‘easy’ button that does everything. In actuality, we don’t want that.

Tools, aka our “pens”, provide a portion of the capability. You, the wielder of the tool, provide the rest.