Why Designers Should Declare Death to the Post-It

It's time to put that ubiquitous design photo of the Post-it to rest. Give it a break. Retire it.

Post-it notes

The predominant image of design in the 21st century is that cliché of the empty conference room or studio--just after some feverish brainstorming extravaganza--plastered with Post-it notes ... as if the act of design had suddenly morphed into some strange game of pin the Post-it on the mind map. How is it possible that the wonderfully complex process of design has devolved to the point that we now commonly represent it by the leftover artifacts of quickie ideation? Is that all there is?

I point the finger of blame squarely at Design Thinking, that aspiring little brother of design that has recently been getting all of the attention. The rise in Post-it portraiture has more or less mirrored the infiltration of Design Thinking into the boardroom. And as creativity becomes the lubricant of the innovation economy, what says it better than a crazy quilt of Post-its smeared to the wall? It's no surprise that this version of ideation is particularly salient in a business context, where outputs are more often intangible strategies, financial instruments, services, and information flows. An array of Post-its does make a more vivid photo than a bunch of suits with their ties off ruminating. The Post-it portrait accomplishes the work of saying, "creativity and leaps of imagination happened here." It puts the gloss on innovation.

Three additional factors (and probably more) account for the ubiquity of Post-it. First, designers themselves are producing increasingly immaterial--and un-pictureable--things. Whereas designers used to make buildings and interiors and posters and toasters, they now are just as likely to be designing services, systems, platforms, and protocols. These don't really photograph well, so the design process itself becomes the photographic fetish. Second, the tools of design have become profoundly democratized, so that more and more people are taking part in design practices. This means in many cases that a Post-it and a Sharpie are becoming the basic visual vocabulary for lowercase "d" designers who are not necessarily skilled in drawing, rendering, or model-making. And finally, the easy flexibility of Post-its, particularly when they are combined with mind maps, do allow for a quick and dirty way to capture the dizzying interconnectedness of the many systems that surround any design project nowadays. Together, they are low-tech, low-cost tools for modeling complexity and the ways in which people, ideas, objects, finances, and technologies flow.

So why gripe? So what if the Post-it has become a visual cliché--especially if it's on the back of design's ascension to the grown-up table? The problem is that in serving as a substitute for the whole of design, the Post-it represents only a small fraction of what makes design uniquely effective. It papers over the fact that ideation without materialization is not design. Designers discover as they turn ideas into thing (even when those things have no physical form). We gain true insight in the act of making a mark on a page or pushing pixels on the screen. We don't need to over-hype those processes, but to ignore them means that we shortchange the practice of design. Clever ideas are a dime-a-dozen--about the cost of Post-its. If design wants to maintain its place in the value-chain, it's going to have to find a way to make its contribution more compelling than a pretty picture of a Post-it pasted to the wall.

Jamer Hunt's blog SuperNormal
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Jamer Hunt collaboratively designs open and flexible programs that respond to emergent cultural conditions. He is the Director of the new graduate program in Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons the New School for Design. His practice, Big + Tall Design, combines conceptual, collaborative, and communication design, and he is co-founder of DesignPhiladelphia an initiative to foreground the city as a laboratory for innovative design projects. With MoMA and SEED Magazine he collaborated on and co-hosted MIND08: The Design and Elastic Mind Symposium as well as the project Headspace: On Scent as Design in 2010. He has consulted or worked at Smart Design, frogdesign, WRT, Seventh Generation, and Virtual Beauty. His written work engages with the poetics and politics of the built environment and has been published in various books, journals, and magazines, including I.D. magazine, which published his Manifesto for Postindustrial Design in 2005.

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19 Comments

  • chris arkenberg

    IMHO, the best reason to stop using Post-It's is because they're horribly wasteful little chunks of pulp, inks, and 3M glues that end up in our landfills and downstream into ecosystems.

  • DZdesigner

    silly polemic.
    the problem is not the 'tools' that designers are using to express concepts etc.
    the problem is the orthodox thinking, that prevails in our corporate culture and spills over to contaminate other nodes of production.

  • Bruce Melendy

    Stop using Post-its and replace them with - what? Index cards affixed with tape? Whiteboards? But Post-its stick to whiteboards so helpfully, and are less fussy to move around.

    The cynicism of this post is lamentable. It's hard to understand the point of it really - obviously this collaborative designer of open and flexible programs prefers other tools - so why should he care what the rest of us use? Is he really alarmed that pseudo-designers are using Post-its to give the mere appearance of a design process that isn't really happening? Designers who aren't really designing tend to out themselves through lack of substance in their deliverables - or through lack of any deliverables at all. Unless of course on closer inspection you find that their Post-its are covered with items for a shopping list, or vocabulary words in a foreign language.

    I can understand the unease with buzz-laden trends like 'design thinking', but those of us who a) use (in a loose fashion) some design thinking techniques (along with others) despite never having heard the phrase until reading this post, and b) use Post-its, are scratching our heads, wondering who among us is 'papering over' the need for 'materializing' design, as if we thought we could get away with delivering a stack of stickies without, say, a functional specification, wireframes, use cases, creatives, prototypes, walkthroughs, test cases, etc, etc.

    Post-its on a whiteboard or butcher paper or the bare wall are a handy way of capturing the products of brainstorming/bull sessions, requirements elicitation, and other interactions between designers, analysts, architects, developers, and (last but not least) stakeholders. All of which Hunt seems to accept.

    Maybe I'm missing something. Maybe I'm lucky to have escaped the latest trend and so don't have to face this issue - if indeed it's anything to worry about at all. But I'll keep using Post-its, thanks. If only I had stock in 3M.

  • Michael Arnold Mages

    Sexily photoshopped images of the final product are just as non-representative of "the whole of design" as these post-it photos. Most case studies I have read are just the thinnest gloss on what went in to the design solution. Once deprived of the context of the process, nearly any representation of the products or processes of design is reduced to a snapshot, and becomes a mere reference.

    Explaining design's contribution to the value chain requires a richer narrative than the context in which these post-it photos appear.

  • Sanjay Basavaraju

    I agree.

    He is not demanding all designers to stop using Post-its. He is insisting that the images of Post-its as a proof of thinking is a cliche and should be avoided.

  • Eric Diamond

    I for one am getting a little sick of this design neurosis of having to distance ourselves from our tools simply because they've become trendy. Post its are a tool. And just as you can have elegant tools and costumes around to make it look like you are something you aren't (I'm looking at all those MBAs and Dermatologists who on weekends are transformed into tough "MC Outlaws") it should not distract those of us who actually use them to make actual ideas, into actual things and services. Yes, design thinking is hot right now (which is why we are reading about this on FastCompany and not some obscure design blog) and I'm sure there are lots of wannabes out there who are jumping on the bandwagon. Post-its are visually arresting and like rolled-up sleeves, glasses on the table next to an open fountain pen, beautiful people on cell phones , architectural plans and cups of coffee on a conference room table they are visual shorthand for "hard work is being done here, we're busy innovating!" Design Thinking or Synthetics is hot right now, it is an important enough idea that we should not allow it to be this month's GTD only to become last year's "Who moved my cheese."

    Let's just leave it for what it is, a visual trope, and focus our energies on USING the tools to solve some big problems in our world.

  • Roberto Herrera Pellizzari

    Post-it's are just help to organize ideas, and just a part of a process, there is no desing without a form, and no form without a background (the one post-its help to create)

  • Jason Cooper

    Not sure where this sort of negativity gets us.

    Post-It's - Little bits of paper that stick to the wall. Useful to write notes on. For me, that's as deep as it gets.

    This article comes off as elitist.

    I suppose next you'll be warning us that those who sketch in moleskines lack creativity, or some shallow hipster-like argument.

  • Gadi Amit

    Jamer,

    Great post. I hate those Post-It's too...;-) First, I assume a lot of these are made by wannabe'-designers. Then,it looks like some Designers need to 'show-off' their thinking rather than actually be designing. You're spot-on pointing the finger at the 'Design Thinking' ideals and their affect on Designers= Creativity as mainly a thought process plus lots of verbal gestures, say a 300-page report. However, Thinking is only a small part of Design Doing. Real Design Doing = Thinking+Dreaming+Creating+Redoing+Polishing+Delivering+Passionating = Making something Good!

    cheers!

    gadi

  • Anthony Carton

    Very interesting Jamer. While I disagree with discontinuing use of post-it's (or any other tool at my disposal) out right, I do agree that there are a lot of things designers do to make it look like work is happening. I think the better idea to put to rest is the "value-add" proposition. I remember being asked, "what's the value add here?" by the managerial types. I also remember thinking, "man, if you don't already have a clue, I just don't know what to tell you"

    If you are a professional, and have any sort of integrity, you are doing what you are doing because you believe it is important to the client. There is a difference between good leadership and pushing the idea of the value add, which is yet another buzz word these days for managers who are clueless to bandy about.

    A good leader knows what resources he or she has, and how to effectively deploy them, in the absence of good leadership, designers have designed design thinking as an attempt to create good leadership through understanding of process, the post-it is simply an innocent square sticking to the wall of our discontent.

  • Shane Johnston

    Another thought, and thanks for getting me engaged in this topic.

    The post-it method also is a great validator for teams. There is something profoundly powerful about seeing your ideas incorporated into the ideas of others. It is simply a method of baking in stakeholder equity...something i think you would agree is incredibly important for design execution.

  • Shane Johnston

    In defense of the Post-It:

    Obviously the post-it shots are cliche.
    Obviously the process can be fabricated.

    This is not something that can be blanketed with a general BS call, it's certainly case by case.

    Ultimately, it may be helpful to do a little digging into the origin of the post-it phenomenon. I would guess that it is the ubiquity of the post-it that makes it a great tool for organizing complexity across organiztional functions (a commonality of language).

    Broadening the definition of design should validate the post-it of a tool, especially if evaluated within specific contextual practice. Bring this sort of stump speech to google (where human computer interaction and quant metrics are the basis for interface design decision) and you will be instantly invalidated. Process flows for software sketched out at this resolution afford rapid iteration and testing, especially within large teams.

    Sketching conceptually with post-its is not a worthless task, but only if the need exists to abstract the concepts to modular nodes of thought when working with multiple people. As someone who exists on the research side of design, I am suprised that you would pull the rug out from under one of the most popular mental model tools.

  • Winston Wier

    "If design wants to maintain its place in the value-chain, it's going to have to find a way to make its contribution more compelling than a pretty picture of a Post-it pasted to the wall."

    Really? A little disingenuous don't you think?

    Is design's contribution to the "value-chain" merely visual? Can an image of an artifact communicate the depth and breadth of the process that created it? Does it speak to the interviews, research, strategy and thinking behind the artifact? No. But, like it or not, a picture of a Post-Its does.

    I think design needs the image of the Post-It. Otherwise, based on your reasoning, it looks like all we do is draw stuff in Photoshop or Visio.

    Pictures of Post-Its are merely a symbol of thinking. As we designers are becoming consultants more and more it becomes imperative to "show" our work. we can't just draw something and say "here ya go."

    Remember back in math class... if you didn't show your work you didn't get credit for the answer? Working for clients is the same.

    I don't know about you but I'd like to be thought of as a "thinker" as much as a maker of "stuff."

  • Grady L. Smith

    At first glance, as we all quickly scan web pages, I thought you were delusional in thinking that the "stickie" should be exterminated from our planet like smallpox. Your tone seemed enraged and aggravated by designers passing off non-value added plastering exercises as true, real, value added work. As if to imply that they were performed to create some sort of aesthetic "stickie" masterpiece to soothe the executive beast, which may be true in some cases. However, I then took a deep breath to calm down, a proverbial step back, and read your entire article.
    By the way, if the inferred frustration was a ploy, it was well played. The tone used is what prompted me to sign up and post a comment, and I acknowledge that may have been your intention. If so, well done.
    I agree with your position that the "stickie" is a tool, not a final product to be marveled over. Yet such tools should summarily dismissed or diminished, for some tools are very valuable. Case in point, the value of a particular cocktail napkin to America in 1942 was significant, thanks to Hedy Lamarr. Sometimes, far out, creative ideas may have to linger on a "stickie" until we are close enough to make them a reality. Imagination and design do have a place at the grown-up table, for without them our limits become milestones. Therefore, in my opinion, the "stickie" stays, as long as it stays in it's place.

  • Christopher Simmons

    It's not that he has disciplines confused, it's that too many disciplines are vying for exclusive dominion over the term "design." Design Thinking is an excellent tool for discovery and innovation and is well supported by the down-and-dirty methods Jeremy describes. But thinking means very little without action. There is an execution component that must compliment Design Thinking. Craft is required to give form to innovation opportunity — to those buildings and posters and toasters. Fortunately, these disciplines are well established. They have names like "Architect" "Graphic Designer" and "Industrial Designer." Each has their own processes and methodologies, and each can incorporate Design Thinking into its discipline. But unless we respect the boundaries of our disciplines, we have no discipline at all.

  • Nathanael Boehm

    Sorry James, I'm not really sure what your gripe is with. Is it with Post-It Notes or photos of walls covered in Post-It Notes? It seems you think that Post-It Notes have somehow become become the entirety of the design process ... but I doubt that's your opinion. How is a Post-It Note any different to a sketch? Sometimes written natural language works better than sketches. Sometimes gestural language works better. People choose the right tools for the job, so telling people they need to use one less tool doesn't seem particularly helpful ...

  • Matt Currie

    Great piece this! Really got me thinking. Not least about the photo on our company's website of the project workspace with post-it notes on the wall!

    For me, Jamer has painted a picture of a real risk to the design philosophy/discipline/movement. I think if we leave out the 'making' part when we show and tell design, we do risk devaluing and trivializing it's value to human existence.

    The big question this post raised for me was: what might I do to ensure I paint a picture of design as both ideation and making endeavor?

    Thanks for getting me thinking Jamer.

    Matt

  • Paula Thornton

    Seriously, you've got disciplines confused. Interaction design and UX -- those are the hogs of Post-it notes. Good design thinking leverages visual thinking techniques, and building prototypes -- 'trying' stuff out.