Escape the Screen and Return to Paper


September 24, 2019 | Michael Mayton

Even though I spend most of my time working in front of a screen, I’ve always found my best thinking and idea generation happens outside of it.

Screens are filled with distraction. So many options, so many headlines. There’s such an overwhelming and constantly refreshing abundance of interesting things to read, share, or comment on that it can be difficult to focus on anything else. People touch their smartphones 2,617 times a day, according to digital research firm dscout. And that was in 2016.

Question: do you spend more or less time with your nose in your phone than you did three years ago?

Therein lies the challenge. The very thing that makes designing for digital screens such an invigorating challenge – namely, the intense competition for attention – makes them difficult to work on.

Which is why the strategy for my digital solutions often begins on a much older piece of technology: paper.

I carry a notebook with me all the time while in the office. I use Field Notes because I find they’re easy to slip into my back pocket, and so they’re at the ready if I need to jot down a few thoughts or start a sketch.

The best part about using a notebook is that the pages are blank until I start drawing. It’s a zero-distraction environment. There isn’t a stream of news and social media updates that can take my mind off track. If I am unhappy with a thought or design, I simply turn the page and start over.

Not only is my notebook a tool for gathering my thoughts in the moment, it’s a creative archive. It’s interesting to go back through my old notebooks and see how initial thinking led to a final production, or even how my ideas shifted through the course of a project. This sort of reflection can be as useful as it is interesting.

Recently, my team and I faced a UX challenge. The user interface solutions we’d attempted were missing the mark and the right course wasn’t obvious. That evening, I scanned through a couple old notebook to find a spark. And I did: an early sketch I did for a complex filtering system unlocked the idea. I shared it with my team the next day, and we were off and running.

My desk drawer contains reams of these notes. Each containing distinctive scribbles and sketches – a history of my own thinking.

When a notebook is filled, it’s a satisfying feeling. I don’t know exactly why it’s so rewarding. Maybe it’s because the digital world I work in is fleeting, and the work I do is only alive for a short period of time. My sketches don’t get pulled offline.