How I learnt to embrace handwriting, sketching and sticking stuff on walls

Me working with a wall

Leisa Reichelt has written an excellent article on using walls as a way of collaborating and communicating.

Could it be true that I, spokesperson (one of many) for Jira, would possibly want to see stuff on the wall? Surely it should all just be in Jira right?…

omg yes. I love walls with post its and index cards stuck on it and sketches on whiteboards. I like walls for planning, for thinking, for communicating and for analysing.

I first learnt the power of using walls when I worked with the University of St Andrews web team. Just as Leisa Reichelt advocates using Jira, we also used digital tools like Trello. That worked for certain things. But working with the team taught me that nothing beat the immediacy of having a physical wall reminding you what was what.

Another strong memory came a few years later, shortly after the formation of the University of St Andrews digital communications team, when we were a team of three. We had been tasked with coming up with a new visual design for the website, so were grappling with some tricky user interface decisions. Some real breakthrough moments came when the three of us brainstormed ideas with simple sketches on the whiteboard in our tiny room.

Leisa Reichelt’s post also reminded me of Austin Kleon’s point about using the right tool for the right purpose.

…handwriting is great for coming up with ideas, for note-taking and big picture thinking…

Typing, on the other hand, is great for producing writing for other people…

Going paperless backfired on me

When I started my current job with the University of Edinburgh Website Programme, for some reason there was a shortage of notebooks in the departmental stationery store. The only one I could take was a hardcover A4 notepad, which wasn’t comfortable to carry or work with.

Shortly afterwards, I was provided with a work laptop. This was smaller than the notepad, and not much heavier. I decided to try and go paperless, partly because I had begun to find my notepad frustrating to use.

Some while later, I felt like I’d lost my mojo a bit. Whether it was true or not, I began to fear that I wasn’t performing as well as I should be, and that my creativity was faltering.

It took me a while to understand why that was happening. But I began to think my experiment with going paperless was backfiring in some subtle way. That became crystal clear after I read Austin Kleon’s article.

I found a notebook that was more to my taste — soft cover, spiral-bound, A5. Now I make much more use of it. I have found that for certain types of work, hand-writing lists and ideas is much more effective than working in a digital document.

My breakthrough moments with walls

Despite that attempted paperless period, I have always made heavy use of walls at the University of Edinburgh, and this aspect has always gone well. It is unbeatable as a way of brainstorming, and as a means of communicating your knowledge to colleagues.

I can’t stress enough just how valuable it is to work with someone when standing at a wall and physically interacting with it. It is so much more powerful than a dry report or presentation.

But walls are even great tools to use when you’re by yourself.

One of my most productive days came when I booked a meeting room to myself for half a day so that I could use its walls. I wrote individual sticky notes containing insights from some user interviews I had been carrying out for the API Service.

Up until then, I’d been using a spreadsheet to map out the insights. This was OK at first. But the limited size of the desktop monitor quickly became a deterrent to recording things properly.

That all changed when I shifted to a more physical approach. Suddenly, after just half a day hand-writing the insights, I found I had way too many sticky notes for the wall space available!

Of course, that meant it was too many to work with full stop. But it was good because I ultimately had stronger material that I could boil the whole thing down to. I was astonished at just how effective it was to simply write the insights onto a wall instead of typing them into a spreadsheet.

I have even found myself drawing a cartoon as a way of summarising the insights still further. I would never have imagined that a year ago, as I am far from a confident drawer. But, inspired by the efforts of my colleage Nick Daniels, I began sketching out some ideas. With a bit of effort, it became a fully-fledged storyboard.

For me, this is the biggest advantage of using walls. There is something important about physically working with ideas — getting our pens out and moving sticky notes around. It unleashes creative thinking more than staring at pixels on a screen does.

I thought of myself as a digital native. But over time I have come to realise that digital doesn’t mean replacing all of our tools with digital equivalents. Sometimes, you can’t beat something as simple as a handwritten note stuck on a wall.


One response to “How I learnt to embrace handwriting, sketching and sticking stuff on walls”

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