Whiteboard tips and tricks

Over the past several years I have been using whiteboards very intensely in so many ways. This type of media has proven to be useful for a variety of tasks — as a peer for individual preparations and thinking over ideas, for conversations with other people when we had to discuss a topic, as a communication platform during presentations and workshops. I confidently state that there are several easy to use but the same time very powerful tricks that could boost efficiency of your daily use of a whiteboard. Hence I share these with you.

1 — Drawing nice dotted lines

You know these guys — dotted lines help you illustrate a weak relationship or a missing link. Drawing these can be tricky. But not on a whiteboard if you do this:

Producing nice looking dashed lines

So first draw a straight line that will be then turned into a dotted one. Wait until inks dry. Then use your finger to remove sections of a line. Voila — your dotted line is there!

2 — Avoiding messy spots while erasing unwanted elements

If you have just tried to do the above trick and you have hurried doing so without letting the ink dry — you get a messy spot. Like this one:

Beware of half-dried ink

This happens if you try to remove an ink too fast, before the solvent liquid evaporates. Whiteboard markers are claimed to be dry-wiping, but it implies that you let it dry for several seconds before attempting to wipe. The drying time will vary manufacturer to manufacturer. I have a rule of a thumb — count until three and then wipe — usually this works fine:

3 — Colour shading your drawing

Sometimes you might want to emphasise a part of your diagram to stress out a thing or to make a strong point. Colors do not work great with whiteboards — usually there are only a few color options available (the most popular color range is black, red, green and blue). Also, it is very hard to cover an area with a color evenly so that result looks nice and neat. To overcome this limitation of the technology I have developed an approach that works at least for me:

Highlight elements with a different color to create a focus

So you start with laying out your major drawing. Then you decide which part requires an emphasis. Then you select the color and try to lay a parallel line closely and precisely, next to the main line. If you practice a bit, you will do good. Be careful overlapping the main black color though — lighter color usually dirty.

This technique can be applied to a more sophisticated shape, as well. The example below shows how color shading may be used to mark up role involvement in a certain process:

Use multiple colors but do not forget to provide a color legend

The main conclusion is that there is no need to go crazy about colors — you can use limited coloring wisely and effectively.

4 — Drawing even and level grids

There are two the most difficult things about drawing when it comes to drawing on a large space like whiteboards. One is drawing a big and perfect circle. But you rarely do this so why worry. And the other thing is that drawing long horizontal or vertical lines that look level.

My personal analysis of use of grids on whiteboards is that in most cases (like Pareto’s 80%) it is serving the need of some dynamic decision making. Either planning (time schedule) or deciding on options. This process would usually involve sticky notes. As far as sticky notes, the most popular are the two formats:

Most common sizes for sticky notes

Therefore empirically I have come up with a universal format for grids where the minimum cell size would be of a standard 3x3 inches sticky note. If I need more space (e.g. I anticipate having more sticky notes in a single cell) I will just adjust the size of a grid.

With all that said, we are now ready to discuss the method. It is simple and straight-forward, first you need to map the future grid according to a cell size you need. In this case we will create a 3 by 3 grid with a cell size of a regular 3x3 inches sticky note:

Plot the future grid using a sticky note as your template

Move your sticky note around to get the mapping of the future grid:

Plot the future grid using a sticky note as your template

Once ready, connect the dots:

Finalizing the grid

With this method you get two birds for the price of a single stone — you get straight lines as the pivotal points guide you well and then you have a grid capable to hold standard sticky notes — it will be then very easy to move stickies around and do your planning or whatever you want to do using the grid.

5 — Making sure texts are readable from any point of a room

One important thing that is commonly overlooked is to make sure that every participant of a session involving the use of a whiteboard can easily read what is written on the whiteboard. If we put aside the problem of a good handwriting, this is an issue of choosing a proper size of letters.

But the challenge is — how do you control the size of letters? With word processing programs it is very easy — just set the font size. But when you draw, the only reliable measuring tool is yourself.

My method implies using fingers. Before a session starts, I write three text samples of progressing size: one finger high, two fingers high and three fingers high. Then I walk up till the farthest end of the room and assess a legibility of writing.

Consider various font sizes — use your fingers as a sizing reference

In most cases two-fingers high is just fine. For larger rooms and with short-sighted people in the room you might need larger, three-fingers high texts.

Another inherent advantage of this method is that you can easily check yourself at any time during the session. And adjust your writing accordingly.

6 — Templates for multiple uses

This is the method that we have developed together with a colleague of mine. We had to verify a list of issues with more than 10 people in individual sessions. Since the list of issues was tricky and sensitive, we wanted to make sure we enable a secure environment to get to know what people really think about the issues. The challenge was to collect the information quickly, accurately and then being able to easily analyse results. We did not want to use electronically enabled tools, like spreadsheets, as we wanted to really engage the people. It must have been something visual, something people could interact with.

So we came up with an idea to draw the issues tree on a whiteboard and then ask our interviewees to map their opinions. The template would state our assumptions around some organisational issues and would look like this:

A possible root cause backdrop for further assessment

When an interviewee started a session with us, we would have his name at the top (not to forget later who was contributing) and use colours to map whether the assumptions would be true or false, in their opinion:

Individual assessment accomplished on top of the backbone template

Then we would erase all the individual information and prepare the board for the next interviewee. And then we would re-iterate again:

Another individual assessment accomplished on top of the same template

Once completed all the interviews, we would have snapshots of all of the summaries and then we would assemble that as a slide deck to quickly browse and look for patterns.

Of course this example is a very specific one, but the main point being is that you can use whiteboard’s support for easy removal of drawings for whatever purpose in a smart and sophisticated manner, like we did back then.

7 — Going 3D

There are ways to enrich the use of whiteboard even further, by introducing additional dimension to the game. It can be the use of sticky notes:

Your actor for a user journey :)

Such method is extremely helpful when you need to have a dynamic explanation. I find it handy for trainings, educational sessions and for problem solving.

Except for sticky notes, there are other whiteboard friends, magnets to be more specific:

Using various objects to make visualization more dynamic

The advantage of using magnets is obvious — you can place them and replace them, use them to illustrate certain elements as a part of your diagram, etc.

You are only limited by your own imagination here.

These were the things I wanted to share with you, I hope you like them and that you could use them.

What tips did you find the most useful?

What are the other tips you know?

Please share in comments.