On the magic of medium, or why we write on sticky notes with markers

Have you ever been in a workshop or meeting where you’re handed a pile of sticky notes and a marker?

white wall with multiple colors of sticky notes arranged in columns and sequenced in a workflow from left to right

Did you ever wonder why you couldn’t simply use a pen?  Or why can’t you write your ideas directly on the whiteboard?

It is true, that it will be easier to see things written in marker than in pen, especially if you’re looking at them from a standing-in-front-of-a-wall distance rather than a reading-a-piece-of-paper-on-your-desk distance.  It is also true that the sticky notes allow you to move the ideas around more easily and arrange them in different configurations.

What else?

Sticky notes are usually small squares or rectangles.  They automatically set some limits on how much you can write on there – especially if you’re writing in marker.  It encourages you to break your thoughts and ideas into smaller units that can then be easily arranged and sorted and combined in various ways.

Writing in a small space with marker forces you to be more succinct.  You’re more likely to put down a bullet point or a phrase or a word rather than a complete, composed sentence.  Even on a letter sized sheet of paper, when you write with marker, it is more likely that you’ll write something like headlines or bullet points than an essay.  You can write headlines or bullet points on a sheet of paper using a pen, true.  However, the narrower point and more precise line that results also tends to encourage that we work to perfect what we write with a pen.  Consider even the difference between how you write when using pen and paper vs. typing. 

Combined, sticky notes and markers encourage a rapid fire of ideas, balancing the constraint of space with the fuzziness of using a less precise medium. While digital whiteboards and sticky notes where you can change the font size can be very convenient, the benefits of a particular form can get lost.

Next time you’re having trouble getting started on a new project or getting stuck trying to solve a problem, try using a different medium to work on it.

Inspired by this issue of the Ask Polly newsletter, in which Heather Havrilesky interviews Austin Kleon, who mentions using a pocket brush pen.

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