A while back we started a little company called UI Stencils with the idea that even in an increasingly digitized world, there was still a place for paper. It’s been about six years now and I’m finding that the company’s products feel more relevant to me now than ever. And yet, our “day job” is a digital product design studio. We design experiences through digital interfaces for companies who pay us to be thoughtful and progressive with our work. So, why is it that I continue to find myself reaching for my
P209 and a sketch pad whenever I need to create something?
By questioning our personal rituals from time to time, we avoid the pitfalls of complacency that can accompany experience. The the realization I keep coming back to is that pencil and paper is better because it’s faster. This leads to another conclusion that paper and pencil are not the best way to capture ideas, they are the least worst way to capture ideas.
"By questioning our personal rituals from time to time, we avoid the pitfalls of complacency that can accompany experience."
I won’t belabor the first point much. We all grow up with writing utensils and paper (though I’m sure that will change sooner than we expect) so it’s obvious how one might build a proficiency with those tools over the course of life. We practice with writing and drawing by hand so we get good at it and it becomes muscle memory – second nature to us.
The second realization is more interesting. Capturing ideas quickly on a device (and I’ll use “device” here in a broad sense to include both mobile, semi-mobile, and desktop computers) is wrought with issues. Many of these are mostly related to the limitations of the technology industry today – be they supply chain, processing power, or simply a limit to what materials can do now, but they all seem solvable.
Slow Input. Typing is great because the computer industry has spent the better part of the last 30-40 years on making the typing experience more efficient, due in no small part to the fact that typing faster in the business place meant more profit. But beyond that input method we are still very much infants.
Overly structured. Input on devices is organized in most cases by the file system. Every page of a document is the same size (with the exception taking excessive time to configure) and no thought can exist outside of true file system. This means that if I have an idea that I want to capture, I must have some place to keep it. And, depending on how I created it (Illustrator? text edit? word?) that place I choose to keep it is where it must live for all of time.
"Typing is great because the computer industry has spent the better part of the last 30-40 years on making the typing experience more efficient"
The paradox of choice. The previous point leads me to the next issue which is simply choosing how to record an idea can be a nearly paralyzing decision. If I must know where it will be recorded in order to have any faith that it won’t get lost, and recording it in a place means it can’t be any other place, then there’s a lot of weight to this decision. What is the place to keep something I want to remember next week? Is that different from next month? What if it’s just a sentence or two now, but I want to add some scribbles to it later? There are lot of decisions to be made vendors I can get my thinking out and that feels a lot like unnecessary friction to me.
Squirrel! The final point I’ll touch on is largely solved (if not solvable) for many and yet it continues to feel like a burden that technology should alleviate without hack and tweaks and that is one which – OMG did you see that squirrel?! Focus is a constant challenge for me so I don’t feel like dropping myself into an experience which contains all of history’s information and an unlimited palette of places to go and things to so is the most effective way to flesh out my idea for how to make the dining room chairs stop squeaking. There’s a better chance I’ll end up ordering the new Dave Eggers book from Amazon than my finding an appropriate solution to my problem.
None of the issues above are a problem with paper and pencil. Of course, a host of other matters come up when dealing in matters of pulp (iteration anyone?) and I can’t say that I’m one-hundred-percent true to my paper partner. I continue to try new apps and devices in the hope that one will stick and give me what I can’t get with dead trees. But I’m finding more and more that the constraints of the old school offer far more value than cost when it comes to simply getting a though out of my head where it’s not doing anyone any good.