3 Awesome Things about the Humble Post-it Note
This post was originally written here as part of the TEC Fellows program at True Ventures. Read posts by the other awesome fellows on the TEC Blog.
At the Stanford d.school, we love post-its. We are obsessed with them to a point where every other Google Image Search result for the term “d.school” has post-its in it. In fact, the most common way to mock the d.school at Stanford is to joke about our undying love for post-its.
Personally, I love those tiny things. Not only am I known for being able to pull out a stack of post-its on a second’s notice, I also sometimes can’t help but marvel at the invention. Here are 3 things that make these little insignificant pieces of paper so awesome.
1. Post-its were invented by accident (well, two accidents)
This is a popular story, and one that is quite well documented. Essentially, Spencer Silver at 3M set out create an adhesive that was so strong that it could be used for building planes. Somehow, he ended up instead with an adhesive that was so weak that for 5 years hence, no one could figure out what to do with it. In another company, this would be considered a failure but not at 3M, sometimes considered the most innovative company in the world (fun fact: 3M makes 55,000 different products). Moreover, what Silver now had on his hands what is known as a “solution looking for a problem”, which is highly discouraged in today’s tech media.
In another happy accident, Silver met a colleague, Art Fry, who was not only a Chemical Engineer at 3M, but also sang church choir. Fry had always experienced the problem of losing his page markers from his hymn book while singing. He realized the potential of the adhesive, which had two unique features: first that it could be removed from whatever it was stuck to without leaving any residue, and second that it could be stuck and removed over and over again. Fry proposed using the adhesive to make what are now popular as Post-it notes and the rest is history.
It is interesting to note that while the product couldn’t find a single application for 5 years, it is probably used in hundreds, if not thousands, of different ways today.
2. Post-its are the secret sauce of a great brainstorm
Brainstorming, or the process of rapidly generating a large number of different ideas to solve a problem, is one of our favorite things to do at the d.school. If you’ve read IDEO’s Seven Rules of Brainstorming, you would know that the main focus of a brainstorm is the quantity of ideas, not quality. (As Linus Pauling said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas”). Post-its fit really well into this paradigm, with subtle yet powerful interactions.
Firstly, a post-it is quite small. It forces you to headline your idea and quickly move on, which is important when the focus is quantity. Secondly, it is very common in a brainstorm for an idea to other different ideas, and post-its can easily be glued to each other to represent this relationship. Building on that (see what I mean?), after the brainstorm, it is very handy to be able to move post-its around and categorize ideas into “directions” or broad themes that they represent. Lastly, when it is time to make a decision, you can visualize your process of elimination by literally taking the corresponding post-its off the board.
It is quite amazing how a post-it is designed to contain exactly one bite-sized idea, no more no less. In the world of Twitter, I’m sure we can appreciate how conciseness and massive volume can work together to generate a new paradigm of sharing ideas.
3. The power of post-its is completely misunderstood
As I pointed out in the previous section, post-its are a great example of how a medium can strongly influence an interaction. I’m sure everyone can appreciate the beauty of attaching a post-it note in the appropriate geospatial context, like reminding yourself to take your pills every morning by putting a post-it on the coffee machine or your colleague reminding you what a specific document is about by helpfully attaching an annotation on a post-it. A post-it then is probably the closest physical manifestation of a thought or an idea or any other helpful nugget of information, and the ability to visualize, connect and disperse ideas with each other as well as their real-world contexts is what makes them so powerful.
However, most people completely fail to understand this inherent power of the medium. This is clear in the fact that there is no software equivalent of a post-it. Many people will object to that claim and offer applications like Stickies as examples of digital post-it implementations. But that is exactly my point: a post-it is not simply a small yellow rectangle, it is a way of connecting ideas and contexts. One simply cannot attach a post-it note to digital content the way one can in the physical world. Also, as I pointed out before, a post-it constrains how much you can write on it, which forces each post-it to contain exactly one bite-sized idea. On the other hand, in Stickies and the Mac dashboard widget you can write over a dozen lines of text, or the equivalent of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets (see images below). Completely misses the point.
When we adapt a physical idea into the digital world, we have the ability to further it’s potential, instead of merely just replicating it. Unfortunately, in the case of the post-it, we have completely misrepresented it.
1. The awesome story of post-its shows that it is possible to succeed after having completely failed.
2. The medium can subtly yet meaningfully influence the interaction.
3. It is important to not underestimate or misunderstand the power of a seemingly small idea.
4. If someone thinks they know how to create post-its for the digital world, get at me!