The design universe is filled with creative tools that orbit every step of the process. The whiteboard is widely recognized as an indispensable one in ideation. The shiny white surface promises the potential for endless thought generation, yielded tangible by broad strokes of colorful, smelly ink sticks. Many of us know the satisfaction that comes from discovering a freshly cleaned whiteboard and hearing the squeak of a fresh marker as you draw it across the face. The opportunity to go without a whiteboard in an office with six easily accessible boards is a rare one. But why would you want to anyway?
Ilyssa Kyu and I have been interested in experimenting with an exercise in perspective around our research and discovery process. We have been collaborating on a project that hinges around our relationship to wilderness. We both share a deep love of the outdoors and jump at any opportunity to get out into Nature, so naturally, we came to the same conclusion – rather than planning our upcoming workshop alongside our computers, surrounded by whiteboards, we would walk and talk while hiking one of Philadelphia’s easily accessible trails in the Wissahickon.
The prospect of going without a whiteboard was extremely appealing. We instinctively knew that being in a place that framed our research and strategy would be invaluable to our thinking . Luckily for us, walking and connecting directly with Nature is a way that we both clear our minds and turn up our creative faculties. We shared a little apprehension about how this approach might net out. Would we be able to come away with anything valuable? We planned to hike early, before work, rain or shine.
On Thursday, I rose at 5:00am. There was no sign of the sun, light rain fell, only a few stray cats and delivery trucks roaming the streets of Philadelphia. In the car on the way to the trails, we talked about how to frame our discussion. Where would we start our thought process? How would we record things as we walked?
By the time we parked and found the trails, the sun was up, but the rain was still coming down. The temperature hung just below comfortably chilly. We relished in the rain and the chill because our focus was totally wrapped up in our conversation. We had no whiteboard to write down the thoughts as they emerged, but we fell easily into a conversational style that afforded us a mental map of our thought process. As we talked through questions we wanted to address and potential exercises to explore, we continuously circled back to reiterate how we had arrived at what we were currently discussing before moving forward in our discussion. Tracing and retracing our route through conversation not only reminded us of how we had uncovered our current ideas, but laid the foundation for further divergence.
There was nothing flat about the experience. Depth of field gave us immense mental focus. We couldn’t be lazy about our thinking because there was no point of reference to fall back on besides our own or each other’s memory. Our feet met the topography easily and we would occasionally pause to admire the flora, a particularly appealing rock formation, felled trees, and the swollen river below us. Even so, there were no distractions strong enough to pull us away from our discussion. Occasionally a natural feature would spark new conversation and give us a framework around which to build narrative to support our ideas.
Our experiment yielded incredible results. As I recorded the important points of our discussion in an email in the car on the way back to then city we marveled at how effective the hike had been in moving our work forward. After the hike we both agreed that getting out of the office, leaving familiar tools behind, had been an excellent choice. Finding a place that was relevant to the work was an even greater treat.
I encourage anyone in the throes of a creative decision to leave a little to chance. Go without a whiteboard.