Mike Fromowitz
Jan 16, 2012

Is Pen and Paper mightier than the Computer for generating ideas?

I spend several hours on the computer most every day. And though I do most of my writing on the computer, I still conceive my ads and design concepts on paper first.I carry a notebook and pen with ...

Is Pen and Paper mightier than the Computer for generating ideas?

I spend several hours on the computer most every day. And though I do most of my writing on the computer, I still conceive my ads and design concepts on paper first.

I carry a notebook and pen with me most everywhere I go.  I think it’s just plain better than the computer at executing good ideas. Not only is it cheap and easy, but you can catch those fresh ideas that pop up in the airport, in a bookstore, in a restaurant, or wherever.

I use it for jotting down random thoughts that come to me. I want to make sure my ideas are transferred to something before I forget about them.

I think some of the best stuff is is the spontaneous stuff. I find that I can think through things much better on paper first, and there's some level of intangible contact that isn't present typing into a computer. Plus I find it easier to add marginal notes on things that I'm not sure about. Or that I may want to remind myself of later.

Researchers believe that the simple act of constructing the letters and forming words, symbols or ideas on paper increases our ability to recall information. Whether or not composition on a digital device has similar benefits is an open question.

It’s not surprising that most people seldom use pen and paper today, as we’ve entered the digital age and laptops and tablets flourish all over the world. However, the crucial fact here is that using pen and paper is definitely more efficient than using computers when it comes to sketching  writing, designing, or any activity that involves brainstorming.

When I’m designing ads, I guess I’m part of that generation gap – I was using layout pads and marker pens to make layouts before I came to using the computer.  With pen and paper, your creativity can be truly unleashed in a very fast and efficient manner. What’s really great is that pen and paper save tons of your energy and time, with the chance to decrease your head-scratching moments.

I’m still of the school that thinks you can jot down 50 ideas for ads faster on paper than you can on the computer. When you design something or write something on the computer it looks finished. Whereas on paper, it’s easier to make changes, or jump to a completely new layout or idea.

Sometimes it helps to let ideas sit on a page before making a choice. Or pinning up all your ideas on a wall for comparison sake.

When I’m generating ideas, nothing beats pen-and-paper. It’s incredibly easy to switch between text, doodles, diagrams, drawing lines and boxes, even using different coloured pens. Especially if you have an artistic bent, you may find that doing some of your planning on paper helps you to generate some new ideas.

The most important reason that you should sketch and write ideas on paper before designing them on computer is that your ideas will flow more naturally. After all, sketching and writing on the paper is certainly more user-friendly than typing on the computer as you can draw or write anything on the paper so freely and naturally.

It’s very tempting to begin a project on your computer.  The results will look so good and polished that you may settle on an idea much too early in the ideation stage. Your results will keep you from experimenting in the raw. On an electronic device, we are more likely to fiddle with a margin or a font size, which can cause you to lose your train of thought.

It’s simply too easy these days to create competent work on the computer and make a living by it. That is why we are seeing an abundance of dreadful work that lacks a good solid idea, stuff that looks like it’s off a commodity production line.

Computers are fast when it comes to making layouts and presentations that look slick to the eye. I’ve often thought that the computer has given some clients a reason to believe—no demand—that they can see a rash of your ideas on the instant (whatever happened to realistic deadlines?).  They think there is always someone out there who will be faster and cheaper. Has the art director and the copywriter become a commodity because of the computer?

When you’re in front of your computer using either Microsoft Word, or Adobe Photoshop, and you get writers-block, or that idea isn’t popping into your head, bring out some paper and pens and start sketching anything that comes into your head. The simple nature of a pen on paper helps you actually understand what you’re doing. You will be surprised by what you come up with.

Drawing is the foundation skill of the designer and the art director. And the best of them will tell you that the ideal way to do it is with a pad of paper and pen or pencil. Brainstorming with a pencil is simply impossible to improve on. Many designers get by without drawing, but it’s to their detriment, whether they know it or not. You don’t have to draw to be a good designer, but it sure does help.

Designing and making endless modifications on the web with Photoshop can be exhausting and time-consuming. On paper, it all happens faster. So do the ideas. Your productivity increases, and idea generation is enhanced. On the computer we tend to work at perfecting most of the ideas we come up with right out the gate, one idea at a time.

On a computer it’s very easy to delete mistakes. But the lack of a “delete” button on of paper can be an asset. On paper, you’re more prone to keep some crazy ideas that you may think won’t see the light of day. One idea may spark off other ideas or other directions. Even if you own a light, portable iPad, it’s still not as convenient as carrying around a notebook and pen in your pocket or bag when you go out, or when you’re waiting for a bus, sitting in a taxi or having a coffee.

Don´t get me wrong. The digital revolution has been wonderful for creativity.  As art directors, copywriters and designers we can do things now that we could not have done 20 or 30 years ago.  Computers and design software have enabled us to grow our skills and execute our ideas in ways we never dreamed possible before. Of course, moving ideas over from paper to the computer can often trigger new ideas too.

Nevertheless, I believe the best work I’ve done always starts with a clear outline, and a certain time spent in developing ideas on paper to get the central message of the client’s product or service in perspective. From there, the client most often gets the best solution possible.

I find there is something incredibly liberating about sitting down with nothing more than a pen, a blank page and your thoughts, especially when planning and conceiving ideas. It’s a smoother path from your brain to paper, and it saves you from task-switching overload.

Computers (let’s include the iPad and iPhone) have changed our lives in amazing ways, but they’re not always the perfect tool for the creative job. Unless you have amazing self-control, it’s far too easy to get distracted with Twitter, Email, Facebook, Google, notifications, and pop-ups. They  can easily lure us away from the task at hand. It can be a big waste of our time.

With pen and paper I seem to be able to get more pure thinking and planning done in 45 minutes than I would in a day or two with the computer.

For me, ideas don’t wait, they jump out at you for just about anywhere. They are quite impatient.

Still, there’s something to be said for technology and there’s something to be said for simplifying all of it.

What about you? Do you find the computer better, faster, and more effective at helping you create ideas than using paper and pen?  If not, why not?

Mike Fromowitz



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