Screens Were a Mistake: Work Analog
Issue 45: How digital computation became too productive for our own good
“Paper, transcribing — it’s special. Offers a sort of kinetic lucidity computers just haven’t been able to replicate yet.” —Mike Wamugu
Working analog on paper seems like an afterthought these days. With the acceleration of remote work and the increasing power of computation, it’s hard for some to see where working on paper and physical workflows belong. Some may argue that analog work is obsolete, but I disagree. I read a few tweets this week of people ridiculing those who work on paper, asking "who are these people?" Analog work creates focus, helps you recall information, and allows you to iterate faster without processing power take you too far.
Cal Newport, an author, and professor at Georgetown University argues in his book, Deep Work, that achieving ultra-focus on a single task is a key to boosting productivity, and he's convinced that working on paper is a great way to do that. Studies have also shown working on paper helps people recall information better. Aside from a study aide, what about the role analog work plays in design and idea creation.
The question is: Are computers too productive in the creative process?
The invention Steve Jobs once called the bicycle for the mind seems to be a crotch rocket motorcycle we no longer have a handle over. As computational power advances with artificial intelligence and machine learning, humans will be accustomed to high-powered outputs without having to think about it, and there lies the problem.
It can be tempting for a designer to open Figma and immediately push pixels. With the ability to copy/paste and remix from other files, the ability to create a high fidelity output is at a ludicrous speed. The danger is high fidelity outputs are no high-quality outcomes. This high productivity often lands designers in a spot where not enough iterations are done. An article I constantly refer to is "The 22 rules of storytelling, according to Pixar" which I first read on Gizmodo eight years ago. There were many great rules to learn from, but rule number 11 always stood out to me:
“Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.”
It’s a beautiful lesson: mark, refine, review, strike-through, repeat…all in the same work session. I’m more effective at writing and sketching first ideas on paper. If I am on a computer, I want to have a clear intention of what I want to accomplish. I don’t want to sit aimlessly with 50 browser tabs open, flailing and thrashing through ideation. Working on paper is my blueprint for superior execution.
Legendary concept artist Syd Mead (RIP), known for his work on Blade Runner and Tron, worked analog until he died. If you watch this YouTube video of him creating thumbnail sketches. It's a masterclass on how creating something low fidelity can give you many iterations before committing to one illustration.
In addition to a more effective workflow for me, there are sensory benefits to analog work. As someone who gets migraine headaches, they’re often induced by being in front of screens for too long. Though I love my blue light glasses (they work like a charm) I feel it helps reduce the problem and not get rid of it. Working on paper so less obtrusive, forcing a single-task workflow without any notifications.
The tools I use for analogy work
I could write an entire newsletter on different pens and sketchbooks, but that’s aside from the point. Instead, I’ll include the ones that continue to return in my workflow in case you’re interested in trying them out.
My go-to notebook is the Leuchtturm1917 Softcover Dot Grid. These notebooks come in various sizes, but I've built a symbiotic relationship with the A5 size for the last 9 years. The size and softcover allow me easily take it anywhere I go to capture ideas, whether it’s on the New York subway, on a plane, or at home. I’ve been experimenting more with the Midori A5 cotton paper for higher fidelity drawings and like it a lot. The paper quality is stunning and it’s the notebook I use to create the drawings in this newsletter. Note that the ink can bleed if you're using markers so put a piece of paper behind it.
The Zebra Sarasa 0.5 gel pen is my writing tool of choice. It’s the perfect viscosity and dry time to write or sketch—the best all-around pen…the Helvetica of pens, if you will. I use various Copic sketch markers for highlights and fills. Finally, I use a red and blue Marvy Le Pen (that’s “the pen” in French) to add additional layers of notes. It’s a small detail but color-coding helps me build a visual system to parse the most important information. I have to also confess that I love hella nice pens too. My favorite is the Pen Rollerball by Ajoto. It’s stainless steel and a joy to write with. This one stays at the desk as I’m perpetually afraid of losing it.
Give it a try
Technology is great when you want to do something highly productive, but the unfortunate part of that is it’s sometimes too powerful when you need to do early iterations. Even if you prefer to work on the computer, I encourage you to give working on paper a try.
Need some inspiration? Check the Fast Company article showing off 16 famous designers’ sketchbooks. Happy analog work time.
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