Let me begin by clarifying —this article is not about haphazardly scribbling on any available vertical surface. There’s no chance I am going to enter your home and start drawing on the walls in permanent marker or with your children’s crayons. This is about my love of whiteboarding, where I believe that love originated and how I find it useful.
I first started drawing in earnest in 5th grade at the San Francisco Waldorf School. While I only attended for a couple of years, drawing and art were part of our daily curriculum and became habitual for me. We created our own text books and added illustrations using water colors, pencils and calligraphy pens. At home I would complete my evening assignments listening to audio books and pouring over the details of my class work, infusing it with color.
When I entered high school I discovered Mind Mapping and was inspired by the opportunity to draw my notes. By adopting the technique, I hoped I would easily recall information and make more beautiful outlines. Excited by the idea, I purchased an inordinate amount of colored pens and pencils. While drawing in class was fun at first, I couldn’t keep up with the amount of information I was trying to record. Ultimately I settled on more traditional note taking methods. My drawing implements were put to use years later when I entered the work force.
The first time I attempted to take meeting notes in color was in a little Apple Store in downtown Bethesda, MD. I brought my pencils and a small notebook to our all hands meeting. There were more than a few odd looks from my teammates, but my managers were supportive and no one made a fuss. I found that drawing during the meeting kept me focused on the presentation and helped to distill the key take always. I still remember what we talked about in those meetings to this day.
Fast forward a few years — when I took my first Product Manager position, I was handed a computer and encouraged to write ideas into requirements, specs, and stories. I initially spent hours typing up documents with perfect descriptions of features. While those written artifacts were useful as reference material, without supporting visuals they were not terribly helpful for the developers working from them. Since those first few weeks on the job I’ve found that everyone I work with — designers, developers, business leads, executives — require visuals along with written documentation to fully understand and engage with an idea.
For my projects at home I still enjoy working from my desk using paper and pencils, but I’ve been won over by the whiteboard wall at work. There is something joyful about being upright and drawing, similar to the moral boost we see from standing desks. Mistakes are easily corrected, there is space to work out several ideas at once, and when you are done it is easy to take a picture and save your work.
I most often use whiteboards for brainstorming and wire framing, but that is certainly not their limit — I’ve haggled over project scope, gathered requirements, and won the occasional game of tic-tac-toe. Whiteboard walls have even served me well in product presentations to stakeholders. This can be a particularly useful strategy for communicating and collaborating when ideas are in their nascent stage. The medium lends itself to change, nothing is permanent. Formal presentations or formatted documents make concepts appear immutable and no one likes to modify work that appears finished.
I‘m not sure about you, but I can’t sit for long periods of time. Being sedentary at a desk causes brain drain and, since recent research suggest that sitting all day will probably kill you, standing up and working seems like a decent idea. Memory and creativity are triggered by activity, or “thinkering”, where moving to make things triggers your spatial memory. Google Ventures, known for their creative powers, have a shopping list and video that shows off their San Francisco war room which is built to encourage physical activity, movable space, and wall drawing.
The best part of whiteboard walls scattered around an office, something that paper and pencils cannot offer, is that they provide a place for people to work together. A conversation started over IM or at a meeting room table can quickly move to the wall. I like watching as people put down their glowing screens for a few minutes and make something with their hands. Some of the best ideas for features have come as a result of these wall sessions, and some of the most fun.
I’ve been thinking about painting my walls at home to turn them into whiteboards. With permission from my landlords and a little elbow grease, the only missing ingredients would be some dry-erase markers and friends to draw with.