Why pen+paper is better

When solving a software-design problem or a web-design problem, you get the best results from following a design process. I’m not referring to something I made up. I’m referring to something that people who are trained in “Design” will recognise as a design process. And such processes inevitably include divergence and convergence.

Divergence is the stage when the designer or design participants come up with ideas. Lots of ideas. Not just comfortable ones, but ideas that push at the edge of the envelope. Ideas without judgement.

Convergence is the stage when ideas are judged, rapidly iterated, assessed, and checked against the requirements.

In my experience, divergence is best done by sketching, with a pen on paper:


Sketching on paper with a wide-nib pen is best because this “technology” is familiar—it’s easy—and inexpensive. Everyone can Wide-nib markerhave a pen and paper, so there’s no need to wait your turn. Sketching is fast, so designers have little invested in any one sketch. Modifying or iterating any one of the ideas is easier to accept. Most importantly, for inexpert sketchers, the sketching process intrinsically discourages high-fidelity work and the wide-nib pen discourages sketching the fine detail that detracts design participants from getting the ideas out, fast.

Software that’s intended to help people “sketch” detracts from a good result. The software often lets users build prototypes with a great level of interaction detail. The problem with this: attention to detail is a distraction at the divergence stage. When filling the design space with ideas, it’s sufficient merely to evoke the idea and share it. Ambiguity actually helps the team see more than one idea in the same sketch; each interpretation of the idea can be iterated. Software that’s not intended to help people to “sketch” slows them down at the divergence stage—just when we need ideas to flow quickly. Divergence is about filling the design space with lots disposable ideas.

Read my blog post about why ideas are disposable.

3 Replies to “Why pen+paper is better”

  1. Good stuff. I was playing with some mindmapping software today, but your article reminded me that more basic tools can often be more effective.


  2. I use small index cards and pen to “draft” my ideas before going to the larger paper for my 5+ sketches. I probably generate 15-20 index cards of ideas before I create my 5 sketches as I usually capture one idea per index card. Using the cards gets the big picture ideas out of my head to clear room for more idea, plus I can spread out all the cards on a small table to see them all at one time.

    The index cards allow me to sketch anywhere, like when walking home, and capture ideas at any time.

  3. Good post!

    Another benefit of sketching that isn’t mentioned here is around the type of feedback that you get from a sketch vs. a more refined design.

    Kathy Sierra says it best:
    “The better it looks – the more narrow the feedback”

    Your readers will probably find this post from Kathy interesting:

    Something I’d like to see is a discussion around sketching and the relationship of stakeholders with designers. When you’re working on a project where the decision makers are not the designers (perhaps a client/design-agency relationship) there is the responsibility of making sure that the decision makers/stakeholders have enough information to make an informed decision in choosing winning designs in the convergence stage—and also how low level of detail opens up ambiguity in understanding.

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