Design is a process of getting stuck

Whenever I’m in a room without a whiteboard I feel trapped. Perhaps this is just the way I have to think through a problem but I can’t breakdown ideas or solutions without a whiteboard or a glass window to draw on. In fact, I’d say that the most unproductive conversations I’ve had with folks is simply down to the fact that I didn’t sit them in front of a whiteboard, put a pen in their hand, and tell them to draw their argument back to me.

Conversations will almost always stall or go round and round in circles when it comes to discussions like “what should we build” or “what’s the problem we should be focusing on right now.” You’ll feel it in the room: the increasing anxiety of everyone as they sit there, the tension, the bewilderment brought on by a rush of thoughts and ideas and problems and nebulous engineering constraints.

It’s simply too much to fit into your head. And then, progress is painfully, gut-wrenchingly slow.

Deep down I know this form of whiteboarding worship is not just a me-thing. I reckon the vast majority of design and product problems cannot be solved in a nicely typeset document or simply, calmly talking things out. You need to draw the mess. To share and build complex ideas you need to shape them visually, at lo-fidelity, and have someone poke at every part of it.

The same appears to be true for physicists:

“Physics is a process of getting stuck,” explains the London Institute’s director, Thomas Fink. “Blackboards are the best tool for getting unstuck. You do most of your calculations on paper. Then, when you reach a dead end, you go to the blackboard and share the problem with a colleague. But here’s the funny thing. You often solve the problem yourself in the process of writing it out.”

I love this! And design is certainly a process of getting stuck, too. Just the other day I was drawing a problem on a whiteboard, scribbling insane diagrams and relationships between objects. A single word from my partner in crime made everything click in my head and I saw how all the pieces clicked together. What was two minutes ago a raging ball of complexity suddenly organized coherently in my mind.

Now I knew where to go next.

So a whiteboard is the best tool for getting unstuck—perhaps the best prototyping tool of all time—and, although it won’t solve every problem, it will certainly soothe the most painful ones.