Web Marketing Today

The Importance of Pen and Paper in Design

Designers love their software. From using Gimp to Photoshop, designers spend hours crafting on the computer. Unfortunately, many designers neglect an important design tool: sketching by hand with pen and paper. Drawing by hand can bring clarity to the design process and help designers generate ideas, get organized, and visualize their concepts.

Generate Ideas

Computers speed up the design process, increasing productivity. However, sometimes we work so fast that we don’t allow our brains time to develop new ideas. Sketching on paper forces you to slow down and your brain naturally fills this added time with new ideas, concepts, and design directions.

This is also true for writing. If you are struggling to articulate an idea or come up with new copy for a marketing campaign, try writing by hand. The time it takes to write out a sentence by hand gives your brain space to work and often results in new ideas.

Another way sketching on paper helps you generate ideas is by helping your thoughts move from abstract to concrete. The mind can only hold so many concepts at once. Getting abstract design concepts down on paper allows your sketch to work as an “external brain” and lets your mind delve deeper into solving design problems at hand. Having multiple concepts sketched in front of you also lets you combine ideas while they are still in a rough format, leading to a greater variety of options than you would have been able to manage in your head.

A good example of how sketching helps you blend ideas is logo design using a morphological matrix. Designer Adam Dannaway illustrates how sketching can help you combine rough ideas in his article on systematic logo design.

Adam Dannaway uses a morphological matrix to illustrate how sketching helps combine idea.

Adam Dannaway uses a morphological matrix to illustrate how sketching helps combine ideas.

Get Organized

I mentioned above the role of pen and paper as an “external brain.” Lifehacker, the productivity blog, reports that writing things down actually improves your memory. But it also can take a load off your mind. The same goes for sketching designs. Committing ideas — whether in sketches or words — to a piece of paper frees your mind from having to keep track of them and lets you sort them out. Getting your design ideas down on paper also helps you prioritize design elements, something that is harder to do with abstract concepts floating around your head.

Brainstorming on paper is also more efficient than brainstorming on a computer. Again, slowing down with pen and paper speeds up the process of dumping ideas. With a pen and paper, you can easily write out ideas, add doodles, and connect like thoughts with mind-mapping techniques.

Example mind map on education by IDEO.

Example of a mind map from IDEO, a design firm.

Visual Communication

There is a difference between designing and producing. Design starts with ideas and concepts and develops them to communicate a message. Production takes an existing message and implements it in a “design.” Today, production usually occurs on a computer. While design certainly can start on the computer, it’s often most powerful when it starts with pen and paper.

Design teaches visual communication. Designing on paper improves visual communication by forcing you to develop complex ideas using basic shapes and symbols. The better you can communicate a message in rudimentary form, the more powerful that message will be when it is produced using the full capabilities of design software.

Southwest Airlines’ history provides a good example of visual communication. Southwest’s founder, Herb Kelleher, sketched a triangle on the back of a cocktail napkin and labeled the points of the triangle “Dallas,” “San Antonio,” and “Houston.” This simple sketch represented the initial concept behind Southwest Airlines. For more on visual communication, read Dan Roam’s book “The Back of the Napkin.”

The visual communication behind Southwest Airlines' concept.

The visual communication behind Southwest Airlines’ concept.

An additional benefit to visual communication is it lets you develop ideas with others. While it may be difficult to collaborate with others on a digital design using a single computer, anyone can participate in doodling, sketching, and writing ideas on a whiteboard or piece of paper.

Why Not Software?

You might be wonder “why couldn’t I do all of this using my design software?” The truth is you could do a lot of these things using software. You could even get a Wacom tablet to integrate motor skills with digital design. But, for me, there is something about old-fashioned pen and paper that makes it easier to develop raw ideas.

First, there is no temptation to hash out a concept to its completion before the entire design has a direction. When I skip the pen and paper step and begin designing a large project on the computer, I quickly abandon the concept as a whole and focus on getting one tiny detail right — before I even know if that detail will make it into the final design.

Second, pen and paper limit your capabilities and force you to think more creatively and conceptually about your project. Without having an arsenal of shape tools, gradients, and fonts at your immediate disposal, you have to really think about your design choices.

Finally, there’s no undo button. On the computer, nothing is permanent. You can easily delete an idea you don’t like. With pen and paper, all your ideas —good and bad — are forced to live on the page, giving “bad ideas” the opportunity to spark good ones. This is also why I choose to use a pen instead of a pencil when designing on paper.

Additional Tips for Using Pen and Paper

As you develop your design on paper, here are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Sketch, don’t polish. Keep your designs rough and unpolished on the page. This makes it easier to scrap ideas, start over, or make changes without feeling like you wasted time. Use your pen and paper to design, use your software to produce.
  • Embrace chaos. Let your ideas flow freely from your brain to the page. Don’t worry about keeping things neat and tidy. Focus instead on getting your ideas down and organized.
  • Don’t be afraid of mistakes. If you make a mistake, embrace it. Draw over it or write yourself a note, but don’t scrap the entire page. Look for ways to innovate with your mistakes. Sometimes great ideas are born from mistakes.
  • Carry your designs with you. Keep your sketches and ideas in a notebook and take it with you when you go places where you might have new ideas. You never know when an idea will hit you.
Drew Coffin
Drew Coffin
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Comments ( 5 )

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  1. peter becker November 5, 2013 Reply

    One other benefit is that if you need to go to the client, or working closely with the client, having concepts that clearly are not “polished” will keep the client focused on the big picture/concept rather than drilling down on a specific secondary detail. Working this way with wireframes can help a lot to keep things on track.

  2. Jean Kotzur November 5, 2013 Reply

    I am a prolific writer and I have used computers since they were first introduced to the workplace back in the 1980s. However, by this time I was already in my late forties. For most of my generation, pens, pencils and the typewriter were the only tools to get words and ideas to paper. Pens and pencils were simple, but effective methods of documenting information. I would never have thought that one day we would have to read an article about how to use pens and pencils. Do you really think this article is appropriate?

    • Drew Coffin November 7, 2013 Reply

      Hi Jean. I think this article is appropriate for the very reasons you brought up. Pen and paper used to be the natural first choice for designing. But since design software has become popular, many designers skip pen and paper and go straight to the software. I’m not trying to write on how to use pen and paper, but rather why designers should. I think designers lose something when they go straight to the computer — which is something I’ve seen all too many designers do.

  3. MRB January 13, 2014 Reply

    What a great article from a great MTCHS alum!

    Some very good points and things I often try to stress to young developers/designers.


  4. Brent Harris October 5, 2014 Reply

    Great article. I think there’s something we can take from both the “new ways” and the “old ways”. There is something to say however, with the connection one gets with their art when they have just pencils and paper.

    Brent Harris

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