My friend Anthony Townsend turned me onto this entertaining rant against Post-Its and design thinking: Jamer Hunt argues that the Post-It filled wallboard has become a wrongheaded symbol of creativity.
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?
As someone who's written pretty extensively on the use of paper media and paper spaces in collaborative creative work, naturally I was intrigued by Hunt's argument, but he seems a lot more concerned about the Post-it as symbol of design. He doesn't seem to be arguing that it's a tool that leads you to do bad work, or is too weak to support good work. So what's wrong with the Post-it as symbol?
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.
Fair enough. The idea that ideas are what matters, and that the actual thing is kind of an afterthought is one of the scourges of our age. This kind of creative Platonism downplays (or just misunderstands) the difficulty of actually making good things, and the role that solving production problems can play in innovation. (I was turned onto this by two very different sources: Bill Leslie's work on Bell Labs and Western Electric, and Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soul Craft) To the degree that those of us in the delirious professions treat brainstorming (and its material/visual expression) as an end-point rather than a stage in a bigger process, we sell ourselves short, and do a disservice to our clients.