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Got A Marker? January 15, 2010

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.

I’ve got a small confession to make. I am addicted to whiteboards.  Not whiteboard markers, mind you, although the odor can be intoxicating.  I mean whiteboards.

In meetings, I can hardly stand to not draw on the board.  If something is worth talking about, it certainly warrants a diagram or two. I am a big believer in “boxes and lines” diagrams.  If any two entities have a relationship, you can create a boxes-and-lines diagram to help express it better. Charts, trees, lists, timelines, you name it: I’d prefer to draw it out.

I’ve noticed that some people share my compulsion and others seem to have no need to leap up and draw things.  My need is so great that it was a running joke among some co-workers as to how long I could hold out before jumping to the board. How could anyone live without a whiteboard handy?

Obviously, some people are wired for visual communication and others are not.  Some people can read volumes of information and internalize it without the need for pictures.  My brain is not so gifted; I need to explicitly render the relationship to fully understand it.  I also like to color-code elements if possible, to further elaborate on important aspects of the diagram.

This affection is so bad that when I do not have a whiteboard handy, I am almost at a loss for words. Almost.  In a pinch, I’ll sketch on a sheet of paper or a napkin, but it’s not quite the same as a full whiteboard. As much as I love words, they seem incomplete without a diagram.

Don’t get the idea that I’m any sort of artist.  When I say “boxes and lines,” I mean boxes and lines and not much more.  I once even took a course on how to doodle, learning how to create little people and other elements of quick sketches.  It helped a bit, but you won’t find any of my work hanging anywhere anytime soon.

This deep desire leads to one of my fondest dreams: a world where everything is made of whiteboard material.  Imagine being able to draw on the walls and doors and tables!  A quick sketch on the dashboard of your car (while safely parked, of course) would be a wonderful thing.  Jotting a note or two in an elevator or on a credenza might be just the thing to get your idea across in a pinch.

Sadly, as you move up the management ladder, the whiteboards diminish.  Cubicle farms and team meeting rooms seem to be covered with whiteboards; management offices tend to have fewer, smaller whiteboards, often hidden behind a wooden panel or a projection screen.  People at every level need to draw; why can’t we have whiteboards everywhere?

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1. JohnD - January 15, 2010

Another great example of how “A picture is worth a thousand words”. I must confess to being similarly afflicted. It must be purgatory for you to generate all-text blog posts every week! Can we expect embedded doodles and box-and-line drawings in future posts?

2. Linda Gottschalk - January 15, 2010

YES! Need this at home too. How do people brainstorm without whiteboards? I am with you on this Chuck.

3. K Merritt - January 15, 2010

Agreed and I love the concept of whiteboard paint so you can have a whiteboard anywhere-no hanging required.

4. Robby Slaughter - January 15, 2010

Visual representations of complex ideas are far superior to written forms.

However, I’m always concerned when business leaders—especially CIOs—don’t explicitly mention their use of the industry standard schematic languages like UML and BPMN. Just drawing boxes and arrows may help you to verbalize your ideas, but they are not much help beyond the moment of conversation if they are not drawn using a standard format.

5. Chuck Musciano - January 15, 2010

@JohnD – I wish I could produce great illustrations for this blog. I used to insert the occasional photo, but it just got too hard. Even as I wrote this, I recognized the irony of a post about drawing in a blog that is disturbingly textual.

@Robby – These are very much transient things. If we happen to come up with a drawing worth keeping, we’ll photograph it with our phone and email it around. Really useful items get turned into Visio or PowerPoint slides. But the idea of converting them (let alone creating them!) in a formal manner using those tools seems overwhelmingly difficult.

6. Shannon (ITSoftSkills) - January 16, 2010

LOL! I can totally relate to this post! Aside from the HUGE whiteboard in my office, there’s no fewer than 6 whiteboards in my house!

Given that approx 65 percent of the population are visual learners, I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that so many of us use visual methods, like whiteboards to communicate – either because it comes naturally to us, or because we have found it an effective way to communicate with others.

Great post!

7. Wayne Bogan - January 16, 2010

🙂 I’ve actually been told that I must “sleep with those markers” since I use the white board so much. Too funny that others are the same.

8. Nicholas Allan - January 16, 2010

Glad I’m not the only person suffering from this affliction of “whiteboarditis”. Like you, my colleagues seem to be running a book as to how long I can last in an individual meeting without vandalising the large, shiny, inviting surface on one of the walls.

Indeed my compulsion has driven me to by a reasonably large one for my own home office. Whenever colleagues visit my home they ask “do you work at home?” The answer is yes, but not on “work work” but rather “personal work”. Basics such as writing the hit-list for cleaning the house, brainstorming the items I need to pack for my next holiday, etc.

Most people seem to think of whiteboards as an instrument of torture used during seminars, alongside their partners in crime, the flipchart (which are never as satisfying – there’s something fun about being able to “edit” with by wiping a finger)

In fact this post is most prescient, as I was thinking at work yesterday, that most people now seem to automatically produce slide decks for each and every meeting, when an “interactive session” with a whiteboard would be more appropriate and definitely more stimulating.

Whiteboard lovers of the world unite, unleash thy markers and prepare to show the world that the boardmarker is mightier than the mouse!

9. Chris Smith - January 16, 2010

Completely true and a necessity for planning!

10. Al - January 16, 2010

Our industry can sure as hell use more wisdom. If whiteboards help us get there, I’m all for ’em.

11. Stanton Jones - January 16, 2010

Chuck: very happy to hear that someone else shares my compulsion! If there is a whiteboard near (and there is an enormous one in my office) I will be in front of it in less than five minutes.

I too find that the boxes and line approach can be very powerful to quickly communicate relationships and dependencies – I also believe that using a visual approach is more engaging, especially during planning and prototyping sessions.

I have a post along this same vein – using the power of three to get complicated points communicated quickly and effectively (visual included, of course!).


Keep up the terrific posts!

12. Robert Martin - January 18, 2010

White boards are the only way to fly. The world of IT especially needs boxes, arrows, stick people, and colors to show non-geeks how this stuff works and why we need it.

White boards! White boards! White boards!

13. Peter Kretzman - January 27, 2010

I am clearly in the distinct minority here. I hate white boards. Specifically, I hate them as poor substitutes for blackboards (smelly markers, the “gotcha” of using the wrong kind of marker, the squeak, etc.). Call me old-fashioned, but blackboards were far superior in my view.

Aside from that, I have to contest the statement from one commenter that “visual representations of complex ideas are far superior to written forms.” Not necessarily. I’ve certainly seen my share of incomprehensible diagrams that the “artist” had to spend an hour explaining. To purloin a famous old saying about the truth, crisp explanatory prose can get you halfway across the world while a diagram is still putting on its pants.

But that’s just me. I now have on my list to write a blog post about the old saw that a picture is worth 1,000 words. You can imagine my stance on that.

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