The Staedtler Noris® pencil story
Part 1: A new way of working
This might sound crazy, but I only use the Staedtler Noris® yellow & black striped pencil, with an eraser on the end. I discovered recently that they are not available in the United States, so when I ran out I had to order a bunch of them online and ship them internationally from the UK! Though somewhat reassuringly, this and also this article tell me I’m not alone.
But don’t worry, this isn’t a pretentious article telling you what pencil you should use. Let me explain…
Back in 2008, four years into my professional web design career, I was 50/50 a web designer & developer. Actually, to my mind the two were inseparable — I just assumed every web designer worked this way. I had always designed in the browser (i.e. I built what I saw in my mind, and the design developed in code on screen as I explored ideas and iterated). It’s the only way I knew how to create websites. Photoshop and Flash were merely tools I used to create assets.
In September 2008 I started a new design/developer job at a design agency. I worked under a Digital Design Director named Paul. He was my first real design tutor, and became a great friend also.
During my first days working with him, he tasked me with creating an email newsletter. Later that day he stopped me, puzzled, and asked: ‘What are you doing?’. Confused, I answered: ‘The email you asked me to do…’. He was expecting to find me fleshing out a design in Photoshop, but instead found me writing code. He suggested that I try designing the email in Photoshop first, before building it. I remember thinking that was crazy… ‘Buuuuuuuut… I’d be doing twice the amount of work if I do that…?’
Again, don’t worry, this also isn’t an article preaching about web designers coding... Bear with me.
At first this new approach was uncomfortable, but I soon found value in mocking up one, two, three+ design ideas in Photoshop, to discuss and iterate on with my design director, prior to building anything. But again, that’s also not my point, be it related.
Start simple, with a pencil and paper
That same day, Paul gave me a pencil (yes, a Staedtler Noris® yellow & black striped pencil, with an eraser on the end), and told me:
I only use this type of pencil, and always sketch first, before touching any software, be it design or code.
I know what you’re thinking, and no, the type of pencil you use doesn’t matter. It’s psychological and personal. Picking up that pencil felt right to him, and it got him into a frame of mind to do his best work. That notion really stuck with me, and I followed his example.
He explained to me the benefits of working through an idea, spontaneously and roughly using only pencil and paper. It helps you to unpack and understand the problem you’re attempting to solve. It’s an exploration, much like when you wireframe ideas. A fine art teacher also taught me this years before — he told me never to erase anything, he simply wouldn’t allow it. There are no mistakes. Embrace your ‘mistakes’, draw over them, or next to them, start a new page. But retain your initial designs and thinking, it’s all part of the design process. Every word you write, logo idea, UI element or template you draw brings you one step closer to a design that works. You won’t get it right first time, no one does, and that’s okay.
Get it all out of your head, on to paper. As you do, ideas will form and you’ll know when you’re comfortable, inspired, excited, and ready to progress your idea digitally.
Related: You might be interested to read about sketchbook work in the context of my process in designing a product for Adobe (see sketches from that below).
Eight years later
I recently managed my first designer. On his first day I presented him with a welcome gift of a sketchbook and a (the) pencil. I also shared this little story with him. I love that this story has resonated with me so much over the years, and how much it’s helped me to become a better designer. I hope it inspires you too.
In part two of this article I go deeper into the value of sketchbook work.
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