Sketching with pencil and paper in the early stages of product design connects us to a familiar, tactile process that unlocks our creativity and gives us a better understanding of the problem we’re trying to solve.

Drawing is simple, simple, simple. And while computers allow us to go further, they color and constrain our thinking in ways that are detrimental to the early phases of product design.

Most of us have been using pencil and paper in some form since we were old enough to speak – the sensation of touching paper, of feeling the weight of a pencil, the smell of the eraser – let’s not discount these familiar, reassuring signals to our brain simply because we can’t quantify them. We’re deeply trained and infinitely comfortable in this mode. This kind of safety and comfort is like gasoline for the creative fire. If you don’t believe that safety and comfort make for better performance, notice the difference next time you tell a story to your closest friend, and how it feels to tell that same story in a group. Unless you are a great public speaker or well-versed, your performance suffers. Safety reinforces creativity.

What’s so bad about computers?
A computer is not good or bad, it’s just a tool for accomplishing work. When we design with a computer, we’re operating inside of a strict and unspoken set of limits, rules and pre-existing design choices…and for the most part we don’t even realize it. What if we want to make a connection not explicitly defined or allowed by the computer? What if we want a note to hover across all designs, what if we want to draw an arrow from Omnigraffle into photoshop, what if we want to erase, reconfigure, and ponder on the fly? The brilliance of using a pencil, eraser and paper is that we can move quickly from sketching, to note-taking, to anything in between with limits, yes, but very few rules.

Understand the problem
There’s a reason there’s a ‘discovery’ phase on new projects – it takes a decent effort simply to define and understand the problem set we’re working with. Using a simple tool like a pencil and paper frees us from having to access the task demon in our mind. We can float around, jumping from idea to idea. It’s easy enough to draw arrows and make connections between disparate concepts. In sketching out possible solutions, we come to understand the problem better. We’re so familiar with the toolset that we leave it behind in a way that’s not possible on a computer. All that remains in front of us is the problem, our solutions, our dead-ends and a growing understanding of what exactly we’re supposed to be tackling in the first place.

Unplug and slow down
The real enemy to full comprehension is the mental clutter created by devices that demand our attention. By giving into the buzz and chirp of our phones, we’re destroying our concentration, which is a vastly underrated commodity in today’s world. Solid understanding (and truly great products) comes from focus, uninterrupted. Sketching makes it easier to slow down and consider options.

Once you have big issues resolved, the parts that used to take 70-80% of the time (making mockups in Photoshop) simply become a final step in validating a flow you’re thought extensively through (and yes ‘thought’ in this case means drawing, sketching and thinking through words and drawings).

A computer narrows our thinking too quickly and focuses our mind on discrete tasks, rather than on the entire experience, the entire problem set. This is poison for UX designers. We need a ‘correct’ process which starts with no rules and big problems and narrows down the problem sets as well as the tools we use to solve those. Pencil and paper allows us to freely discover the ‘correct’ questions, so when we finally are able to use a computer, we’re able to employ the power, limits and rules to great effect.