Do Analog-Style Tools Foster Creativity?
They definitely remove the friction
I have been a knowledge worker, full-time, since October 2014. I remember this time vividly. That October I got married, quit working for Apple retail, and stopped using paper for nearly anything.
After coming back from my honeymoon I started my new role as iOS quality assurance engineer. I was assigned a MacBook Pro, a few monitors, and a ton of iOS devices. From that moment on, all of my thinking for almost 10 years was done with a keyboard and mouse.
While those years were a career accelerant, they were not the most creative. I also noticed that my memory went to shit. I stopped doing free form, rough work, and only did buttoned up, shippable work. Even when I eventually made my way to a product design role, all of my iterations lived in Sketch, Adobe XD, and Figma. I never bothered using my hands to create low fidelity versions.
This all stopped when I got my iPad Pro 11-inch (2nd generation). Before this device I had the iPad Pro 9.7 inch, but due to the Apple Pencil not being storable, I did not always have it on me, so I rarely used it. Having the Apple Pencil magnetize onto my iPad meant I could use it for even the simplest of ideas. This was also the time that digital note-taking and whiteboarding started to really take off. I started to use my iPad to write notes, sketch ideas, and mood board. It awakened something in me. Something I forgot was there. A creativity that only analog tools can bring out.
Before you type in the comments, "an iPad is digital"! Yes, I know. But it can fill the need of analog tools. I personally don't love paper. I like the idea of it, but I hate the waste and I dislike that there is only one copy of things. If I want to fix something or iterate on it, I have to rewrite it from scratch. Mainly, as someone who is dyslexic, I have a lot of errors while I write. Not only spelling and grammar, but word organization. When writing by hand or typing, I will write words or entire sentences out of order, as my brain is thinking 5-10 steps ahead of my hands. This is what drew me to the keyboard and what has drawn me back to the digital pencil.
What do the kids say these days – "it hits different"? While that statement annoys me every time I hear it, in this case, its meaning is accurate.
Using analog tools triggers a different mindset. Both due to the medium change and the medium itself. Most of us are on laptops or desktops all day long. We use a keyboard and mouse. All of the tools to get work done are a click away. Switching to another device to do work shifts how we think.
It forces us to get into a disposable state of mind. We start to work faster and looser. We don't focus on spelling, straight lines, or the spacing of pixels. We allow our work to be thrown away.
While the mindset shift is key here, having different tools to abstract the experience is a big part of it too. Being able to touch a screen, use a pencil, or flip pages makes the experience tactile. The freedoms of the interface or lack thereof, allow us to think laterally, rather than linearly.
We focus on thought and less on output, creativity pours out. It becomes frictionless. As you think it, it becomes reality. Creativity at the speed of thought. I can't always say that when I am in front of my laptop. You might even gain some agency over your output.
How I use my iPad
I have explained my end-to-end workflow in the past, but let's go deep on the analog side. I use two apps for this; Goodnotes and Freeform. I use them on my iPad with an Apple Pencil. These apps also work on iPhone and Mac, but the iPad is what unlocks their true features.
For me, Goodnotes is my notebook. This is the moleskin or bullet journal that true analog note-takers use. It adheres to the concepts of notebooks and even lets you customize them. You have the ability to customize the cover and pages. I have a different cover for each of my notebooks, most of which I draw on. This brings me back to my grade school days, and how I would doodle all over my notebooks in between assignments. The paper I use is graph. I have tried all the other line types, but graph plays really nicely with the type of writing I do.
I mainly keep two types of notebooks – single purpose and freeform. All of my single purpose notebooks have a dedicated title: workouts, ASL-1, tasks. All of my freeform notebooks are some variation of a journal. I don't really write how I am feeling in them. They are more of a scratchpad. There is usually a date at the top of the page, to imply a bit of order.
From this point, things are messy. This is the way I like it. I talk out workflows with myself. I sketch out system diagrams, though I use Freeform a bit more for this. I take meeting notes when I need to be really present. There is little structural or purpose based thought and I like it this way. A simple system, that is not overthought or engineered.
This is my digital whiteboard. Freeform is a free app from Apple. It is their version of all the many whiteboarding tools on the market. It has a small feature set, but it works wonderfully on Apple devices. I use it exactly what it is marketed for.
I sketch out workflows and system diagrams. I plan automations. I make inspiration and mood boards for anything I am planning. I even use it to mark up some screenshots for clients if needed. It is also offline-first, so I can use it without internet connectivity.
I'm not the only one
While most people default to their keyboard, I have found some people who think the way I do. That they need a place to write or draw up raw ideas, uninhibited by a keyboard or mouse.
David Hoang – tool builder, investor, and currently Head of Design at Replit, uses analog note taking and sketching to augment his creative process.
Despite being a lover of digital software, I've found myself starting with analog tools throughout my career. I equate the computer as a professional tool; like a power tool for someone building furniture. Before doing high computation work, I force myself to get as much work done on paper before sitting down at the computer. Working with analog tools allows me to think through the problem with fast iterations by writing and sketching. It's also an added benefit to reduce screen time while doing deep work.
Brandon Boswell – designer turned full-stack engineer, and currently VP User Experience at Dorsata uses e-ink tablets to share his ideas and thought process with his teammates.
Digital Tools are excellent and essential, but they are a terrible place to start. When you're working on a new idea and the possibilities are still endless, the linear flow of modern digital tools is a recipe to build something like the things you've already built or someone else has already built. Starting with digital also increases the risk of missing the point of the project altogether by working in high fidelity before you've truly figured out the essence of what you're trying to make. For years, I used paper notebooks for this step in my process, but about 2 years ago, I gave E-Ink a try, and I haven't looked back. E-Ink devices, like the reMarkable 2, have the conveniences of analog, combined with digital portability and collaboration. As a User Experience designer, there are often times when I have an image in mind or even on my sketchbook, but I'm trying to discuss it with one of my coworkers via Zoom. Not only can they not see what's in my mind, they also can't see what's in my sketchbook. I'm effectively left with just my words to try to communicate the vision for this idea. With E-Ink, I can share my drawing screen in real-time with my colleague and that person can see exactly what I see. If a detail about the sketch isn't quite right (or I haven't explored that detail yet), we can explore that together. E-Ink can bridge the gaps created by a remote workforce. When I'm done with this step in the process, I can share the result with others without having to rip the page out of my notebook or find a camera or scanner.
Whether you are a digital ops consultant, Head or VP of design, or just trying to change your creative workflow, consider trying analog or analog-like tools. This will allow your mind to think laterally and iterate faster, keeping you in the creative mindset, without any slowdowns or friction.