Why Your Next Design Should Start On Paper

Pretty much my favorite animal.

Imagine the world 10,000 years from now.

Now imagine having to design icons to communicate with humans who happen to be here at that time.

That’s ridiculous you might say, no one would ever have to design that far ahead!

As a matter of fact, some actually have been tasked with this incredible challenge.

Where would you even begin?

If you’re a designer, I would almost guarantee you’d start on paper.

My father is a rocket scientist. Literally. He was one of the brilliant ones who using pencil, paper, a slide rule (and his brain) sent manned rockets to the moon.

Talk about feeling like you’re designing 10,000 years ahead!

(L) My Dad proudly displaying his Apollo 11 Firing Room Access badge (R) Wernher von Braun and team…and a lot of paper!

What’s your design process like?

Do you start by going straight to the computer due to some crazy deadline, or do you grab a pencil and paper and start there?

I’ll always remember what my design teacher told me:

“Always start on paper…your computer can’t think for you.”

Do I always listen to his great advice?


I’m as guilty as the next designer for going straight to the computer. However, I’ve never been disappointed, and actually the work has always been far better every time I start on paper.

There’s a lot to be said for drawing. It’s one of the oldest forms of expression harkening back to the caveman days where they scribbled on cave walls to try and communicate with one another (and those who would come after). Possibly the first form of documentation (definitely not agile!).

As kids, we’d draw all the time and we weren’t afraid to share it. We wanted everyone to see our mental patient chicken scratch.

When I pick up my kids from their Sunday School class, I also get to pickup the crafts they made during class time (can’t get enough of the wet glue and glitter projects!). Sometimes it’s just coloring and many of them look like a Smurf’s suicide.

But by God they’re proud of it!

Be Brave Again

Something happens to our courage when we get older. We start caring too much about what others think. We get embarrassed to not only sketch our ideas, but to share them with others. We feel like it’s just not good enough.

Good enough for what? For whom??

My latest superguest Sarah Doody said something that stuck with me in her great User Defenders interview:

“As UX Designers, our drawings are not art projects, they’re communication tools.”

Have you (like me) let your sketching muscle grow stagnant and atrophied? Like Michael Finnegan…it’s time to begin again.

=(L) Original Wreck-It-Ralph character concept (R) Final character concept

This will help you at the whiteboard as well. Last time I used the whiteboard, I was drawing squares like a drunk man.

Not only will it help you at the whiteboard, but will help you in solving problems faster. And not only faster, but smarter.

Drawing truly is a muscle that must be exercised constantly to remain strong.

There are a lot of studies that show that the physical act of pen to paper has far greater effects on the brain and creativity (ahem as I type this on Medium).

  • Mickey Mouse was born on paper
  • So were the iconic Star Wars characters
  • Your favorite logo started on paper
  • Your favorite app (probably) started on paper
  • The rocket that sent the first men to the moon started on paper
  • The icons meant to save humans from toxic waste 10,000 years from now, will start on paper

Your next important project will? Start on paper.

In Closing

I really just want to encourage you to be brave and childlike again. Start on paper and share your sketches. Love your process enough to show it. Don’t be intimidated by those sweet sketch notes. Chances are they came from professional artists paid to produce those. Don’t let Dribbble get you down. All you’re seeing is the finished piece. Not how long it took the designer to get to that solution, and/or the tons of arguably awful sketches that came first.

I love what my friend (and former superguest) Drew Lepp says,

“Design is messy.”

Embrace the mess (even if you’re OCD like me) and burn away the dross to get to the gold. Those priceless gems will eventually emerge from the fray.

The pen always has been, and always will be mightier than the motherboard.

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Jason Ogle

Jason Ogle

Host of User Defenders: Podcast. Human. Designer. Story-Catcher. Deep-Diver. Husband + Father x 7. Has a personal relationship with the Creator of the Universe.