Obsidian: Understanding its Core Design Principles

The Obsidian Application

It all started in 2020

When the team behind Obsidian started working on this new note-taking tool, they began with three simple design principles:

  • Data will be local-first and plaintext
  • Links will be first-class citizens
  • The application will be extendable by others
  • The application will be optimized for performance
  • and will have powerful search capabilities

Data will be local-first

At the core of the local first approach is data ownership. Simply put, notes stored on your device are under your control. You create them, edit them, delete them, back them up or do whatever you want to do with them. They are yours.

  • Performance: editing and processing local files is something modern computers do efficiently and fast.
  • Flexibility: since the files are local on your disk, you can use any other text file editing programs on your computer to edit them. You are not limited to Obsidian.
  • Security and privacy: since your data is not stored in the cloud, you can keep highly confidential and sensitive information in your Obsidian notes.

Data will be plaintext

Just because you have a file stored locally doesn’t mean you can access its content, let alone from other programs.

Links will be first-class citizens

Most modern Tools for Thought support the concept of linking notes from one note to another. Those links form relationships between notes and help us connect the knowledge we gather.

Extensibility: the application will be extendable by others

We have become accustomed to customizing our tools, especially in the development space. Most tools for developing software allow for extensive customizations, such as:

  • Themes for changing the colors and layout of the program
  • Customization of the keyboard and how it interacts with the program
  • Ability to add new features via plugins

Secondary design principles

The Obsidian development team kept focused on these core principles I have just outlined from day one. But they also had a shortlist of other important things they wanted to accomplish while developing Obsidian. Let’s briefly review them:

Speed: the application will be optimized for performance

One of the things that makes Obsidian so popular is its speed. Some might think it is fast because it’s an application that runs on your device, but the truth is the Obsidian development team invests much of their development time into improving performance.

Powerful search capabilities

A note-taking program without good search is like going fishing without the fishing rod or net. Search is fundamental to the value of a note-taking tool. But the irony is that many note-taking tools do a poor job at search.

Few other things

They wanted a visual graph view that looked good and was fast. They wanted the ability to control layout and your workspace through a split-screen mechanism. They also wanted users to be able to publish their notes easily, which eventually led to the Obsidian Publish service.

Review of these principles

We have now considered the core principles and secondary principles behind the design of Obsidian’s features. As a review they are:

  • Data will be local-first and plaintext
  • Links will be first-class citizens
  • The application will be extendable by others
  • The application will be optimized for performance
  • and will have powerful search capabilities

What is the value proposition for us as users?

Obsidian is trying to be a tool you will use today to write notes, and those notes will still be useful to you years from now, even if Obsidian isn’t around.

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