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The time has come.

Learn these two simple techniques that will dramatically improve your whiteboard skills

Become a pro when working with whiteboards without reading a single book or attending a specialized training

Yuri Malishenko
Jul 17, 2018 · 15 min read

Why would you care

Every office set up has them — whiteboards. Everyone seemingly knows how to use them. However, it is only down to individuals who are really good at using those to create pleasing and remarkable notes and diagrams that are valuable and that others are willing to take a picture of. What is their secret?

  • Fast and simple drawings from your visual vocabulary for visual anchors.

Technique #1 — Fast and legible handwriting

What about the calligraphic font we were taught back in school?

When I ask people whether they are happy with their handwriting, 2/3 of them would answer, “No.” 1/3 of them would state that they cannot comprehend their own written texts after a workshop or a meeting. Why is that so widely spread?

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A joined-up font is a niche solution that cannot be applied to dynamic visualizations in the modern professional environment — it takes too much time and is generally counter-productive.

Let’s start with the problem

To better illustrate the power of the first technique we need to start with the real life challenge. Remember Helen from our story above? She is not adept at using visual thinking skills and generally is reluctant to perform on a whiteboard.

  • Collect all the receipts.
  • Finish the trip.
  • Fill out the expenses form.
  • Submit the form.
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It is not uncommon to see the whiteboard used similarly. Such a mediocre result could be easily fixed by learning about and applying the two simple techniques introduced in this article.
  1. She did not plan the available space, so when she ran out of it, she had to bend the diagram in a way it could still fit the whiteboard.
  2. It is difficult to see the whole whiteboard when you stand close to it, so naturally, her text lines tend to go up all the time. For some people, lines tend to go down, but that is the same issue.
  3. Helen does not feel comfortable when she has to write a lot of words with the meeting participants sitting and waiting for her to finish the writing. This forces her to hurry up, so she shortens the words, but most often she hurries through the rest of a word’s letters making it impossible to recognize those later on.
  4. As the black marker was out of ink in the meeting room, Helen had to take the only one that was filled — the red one. That is a pervasive issue with the meeting rooms — black markers are dry, and you do not want to “waste” time looking for the replacement marker and you end up using the wrong color.

Applying the technique to solve the problem

First thing first, always write in black. If you are using whiteboards a lot, make sure you still have a spare black color marker in a room, and better yet, organize a ‘workshop box’ to carry with you in meetings that involve working with a whiteboard. That box would, of course, contain loaded whiteboard markers. Let’s see how Helen’s diagram changes when written in black color:

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The same diagram but in black color. Notice how your perception changes when you observe the same visual but in a much less irritating tone.
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Block letters can look something like this. This type of font is often used for dialogues in comics and is optimized for quick writing and easy recognition. In fact, people are generally trained to recognize this type of font and are comfortable reading texts written in it.
Download these self-explanatory handwriting practice sheets to improve your writing habits.
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The same diagram written in block letters. Notice how much clearer it became, it is easier to read. Still, something is missing.
  • Try to assess the number of blocks that constitute your final diagram. In our case, Helen is the subject matter expert and she knows that there are approximately 5–6 major steps in the process. And so all she has to do is to allocate approximately 1/5 or 1/6 of the whiteboard width for each hi-level block. Furthermore, the diagram is the process which flows left to right, so logically, Helen should have started on the leftmost side of the board. And be always a bit pessimistic, that will buy you some extra space in the end.
    But what do you do if you run out of the space? Do you erase and start all over again? What is the best practice? Well, there is no recipe for such an unfortunate situation, and you need to assess it case by case. But generally speaking, starting from the scratch is not the best idea — it is incredibly demotivating for the person who facilitates the workshop, and it is seen as a massive waste of time by all the rest who participate. You should avoid starting from the scratch and try to be creative — can you stick a paper next to the whiteboard to extend the space? Can you put a mobile whiteboard next to the static one to continue the diagram there? Assess the available materials and try to buy yourself more of the white space.
  • Fill the space block by block. You are in control now!
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Workflow steps are now nicely aligned and evenly distributed within the available space of the whiteboard. It does take practice, however, to get there!
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To the left: the overall diagram is hanging on a line that is 1/3 distance from the top of the board. This is not a random placement, but rather a deliberate choice of composition familiar to seasoned photographers under the name of the rule of thirds. The rule suggests that it is more natural for an observer to see compositions that are not built around even division of the space but rather the ones, that are constructed around thirds that divide this space. Also, notice that the arrows are now nicely aligned to the same 1/3 line. To the right: the hi-level blocks are aligned to the top, this way the overall structure of the diagram looks better and is easier for the observer to follow.
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It is generally a good idea to write text in various sizes depending on the importance of the information. Usually, it is enough to vary within three font sizes. In this particular case, I would recommend choosing two sizes — the larger for the titles of major steps and the smaller for the clarifications for each step. If that is still not enough to reduce visual clutter, you could apply some extra element to distinctly separate hierarchy of information in your diagram — line separator in this case. As far as the font size, I would usually use my fingers as a reference and would never write anything smaller than 1 finger high.

Summary of the technique #1

  • Always use black color to work with a whiteboard. Make sure you have an extra marker if you run out of ink in the middle of the process.
  • Do not write in a ‘joined-up’ font (sometimes also called cursive), the one you most probably were taught to write in your primary school. This is a terrible font for working with whiteboards.
  • Learn to write in a plain and neat block letters font. Use the sample from the article to copy the letterforms or google a better alternative. Be patient though, it might take you a few weeks (3–5 weeks on average) before you get used to the new font.
    There are plenty of online courses that could teach you simple handwritten fonts. My favorite is by Heather Martinez, check her web site to learn more.
  • Start with capital letters, you can learn lowercase letters later.
  • Slow down, do not worry about the meeting participating waiting for you. They will appreciate the quality of the visual over the “lost” time.
  • Plan the available space by counting the number of blocks in your visual. Control your use of space.
  • Align blocks and written lines nicely — this makes your visual look more professional.
  • Choose font size in accordance with the information hierarchy — more important things should be written in a larger font. Usually, three sizes are enough.
  • Do not write smaller than 1 human hand finger — smaller texts are hard (impossible) to read, and those texts will be lost on the digital snapshots of the whiteboard.

Technique #2 — Fast and simple drawings from your visual vocabulary for visual anchors

The second technique is about learning how to draw. But do not worry too much — you will have to learn to draw just a tiny little bit. It is not in any way about becoming an artist. It is only about learning how to draw around 50 visual elements that are slightly more complex than written letters (some of them are actually less complicated compared to letters). Just as you had to learn how to draw letters when you went to school being a kid.

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Three simple rules to ensure the simplicity of your drawn elements.
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My visual vocabulary is more than enough for the majority of whiteboard diagrams I have to create while solving my day-to-day professional tasks. It has common abstract elements, people, and emotions.
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Helen added visual anchors — to highlight the major steps of the process and to mark-up the considerations for each of the step. Also, notice the legend that explains how an observer should interpret the icons for the considerations — a warning sign for important constraints and a sad smiley for major pains.
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The journey ends here. We started with the initial drawing made by Helen with her raw skills and applied the two techniques to demonstrate how the picture changes step by step. The ideas behind the two techniques are so simple that everyone can quickly learn and adapt them to their day-to-day performance. Now, will you?

Summary of the technique #2

  • Establish your visual vocabulary. If you entirely lack the basic drawing skills, start by copying the vocabulary suggested in this article. This set of icons will suffice your needs in the foreseeable future. Some icons are very elementary, some icons are quite tricky. Such as a gear (cog), cloud, flame. Subscribe to my Instagram where I demonstrate the drawing techniques as a series of short videos. There are excellent commercial collections of icons developed by the German company called Bicablo. You may find their products here. And you can always find tons of examples on the internet (just google the word you are searching for and add ‘icon’ after that).
  • Incorporate icons into your diagrams and visual maps to facilitate reading and navigation across the complex information.
  • Don’t be shy to show people and emotions in your diagrams. When you put a person into a diagram, the discussion becomes less abstract as participants will imagine themselves in the context of the discussed situation. And mapping emotions helps pinpoint most significant challenges very fast.
  • Be wise when you apply a color to your diagrams. Ask yourself a question — should the diagram be helped with a color or is it clear and comprehensive already? Is it too cluttered so much that an additional element is needed to introduce an extra dimension to it? The best way to learn using colors appropriately is to practice and make mistakes.
  • When it is essential to differentiate between elements belonging to categories, introduce clear legends to colors/icons. Like we did in the last diagram with Helen. This helps ensure consensus about comments that were born in a dialog.

Afterword

I hope that you enjoyed the reading and even more important — feel encouraged and confident to apply the described technieques to your whiteboarding. Do not hesitate to reach out to share your success/struggle — I would like to learn how these recommendations made an impact on your professional life.

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Request a training for your team at https://www.vizthink.dk/

About the author

Yuri Malishenko is an active practitioner, an author and a trainer on the topic of visual thinking and visual facilitation. He works as an agile coach and a product owner for the Danish company and uses visual skills every day to co-create better software products and to become a better person. Check out his recent practical guideline on mastering basic skills of visualization. If you like this type of content, follow Yuri on twitter @YuraMalishenko and facebook. Request a training for your team at https://www.vizthink.dk/

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Visual Thinking and Graphic Facilitation

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