Paper and pen: The power of visual notetaking

Technology has opened up many new possibilities for visual storytelling; from scribing and sketchnoting live events on digital tablet, to sharing animated clips far and wide on social media. But while we all know digital has huge advantages, it's also true that we lose an important part of our thought process when we abandon pen and paper. In fact, there's a wealth of evidence to suggest that thinking and working away from your screens can seriously enhance our attention span, our memories and our creative thinking abilities - crucial capacities diminished by our addiction to digital. 

Now there's an app for everything, you might think that the end is nigh for the humble pen and paper. But in fact, there's evidence to suggest that, the more digital technology invades our day-to-day lives, the more we crave traditional methods of visual thinking on paper.

In Japan, for example, robots might be rapidly taking over their workforce, but they've also noted a significant rise in purchases of notepads among millennials. While many tech companies the world over recognise the benefits of coding on whiteboards instead of jumping straight to the computer.

And, so, 'innovation' might be most commonly associated with new and shiny technologies, but you might be missing a golden creative opportunity by assuming that everything is best done digitally. It's time you weaned yourself away from your iPad, and learnt the benefits of one of the oldest innovations in the book; visual thinking with paper and pen.


It improves our attention spans

When was the last time you finished a book? Last Christmas…last holiday…last decade?

Don't be too hard on yourself. According to recent studies, even a goldfish has a better chance of watching to the end of the movie than you do, since hashtags, hyperlinks and hordes of white noise on the web reduced our attention spans to a slender nine seconds. 

Watching Youtube and Netflix simultaneously might not be too taxing a challenge for your shrinking attention span, but your lack of focus can certainly become problematic when it comes to productivity in the workplace.

Research from Princeton and UCLA suggests that simply taking notes by hand can help you listen more actively and identify the important concepts in that mundane meeting. While your mind is far more likely to drift back to that hilarious video on YouTube last night if you're typing away on a laptop.

And our scribes are living proof of this research. Visual thinking with paper and pen helps them lock in (and stay locked in) to all kinds of complicated topics when they're scribing and sketchnoting.


Digital meets physical

Speaking with the BBC, Arvind Malhotra, a professor at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School, says: ‘My own research on fast prototyping reveals that even in the digital age, innovation is sparked when you complement the digital with physical.

‘Nearly 80% of the physical workspaces I have observed, that are considerably creative in their output, use whiteboards’.

The Google Jamboard is a great example of this; a huge physical whiteboard for remote workers that aids collaborative visual thinking sessions. It takes digital work away from the cloud and into the physical terrain.

And a number of tech companies have also introduced visual thinking 'whiteboard interviews' for potential coding candidates. It's thought that coding with a pen in hand helps candidates to properly explain, dissect and understand each stage of their problem solving.


It helps you remember

It might seem like your memory is obsolete, now that you have Google Calendar to notify you of every birthday, meeting, holiday for the foreseeable future. Why exert your muscle memory when your iPhone can do it for you?

But if you're not quite ready to abandon your brain just yet, applying some visual thinking on paper and pen can help keep your memory acute and agile.

When novelist Michael Grothaus swapped his smartphone for a paper planner for two weeks, he was pleased to discover: 'The physical act of flipping back and forth between my planner pages for the week ahead seemed to have an effect on my memory, making it easier to remember the sequence and times of upcoming events.'

Although physically writing your weekly plan has more benefits than recording it digitally, even better still is visual notetaking. And that's because drawing helps you remember, forcing your brain to call on past experiences from your memory bank as part of the visualising process.

So, if like us, you still value your brain as the most hardworking machine in your life, we reckon it's worth giving Grothaus' experiment a go with a daily dose of visual thinking.


You'll produce more creative work

In his book, Too Fast to Think, Chris Lewis explains how we often get our very best creative ideas when we allow our minds to drift off into a subconscious state (this is why you might get creative epiphanies while showering or taking a walk).

But because most of us spend a hefty chunk of the day in a social media time-sink, it's near impossible for our brains to arrive at this creative oasis. His solution: 'Stop staring at your phone and stare into space. You might be hit with something far more valuable.'

Jess Kimball Leslie, Chief Futurist at OglivyRED, fears too that our obsession with likes, comments and shares online is impinging on our creativity. A return to paper and pen encourages us to feel less self-aware of our audience, and more confident to explore the depths of our creativity.

'I suspect that working in analog form will become more popular, as it’s an immediate remedy to the maladies of the digital world. There’s no followers when you’re working with a pen on plain paper', she says.

French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, once said: 'All of humanity's problems come from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone'. But as we become more senior in our roles, and our schedules become busier too, it can be difficult to find quiet time for reflection.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review suggests that taking some time to write in a journal is an effective way of slowing us down and helping us to reflect on our experiences at work. And we know from experience that adding a few drawings to the page can enhance these benefits even further; visual thinking is a brilliant tool for processing information and bringing clarity to a busy day of back-to-back meetings.

That's exactly why we say that you should always keep a pencil in your pocket. Always! When your phone is out of sight and out of mind, you never know when the urge to practice some visual thinking might arise.


And, so, while we at Scriberia embrace digital technology, we will never be persuaded to give up our pens and paper. Visual thinking with a pencil in hand is fantastically useful for boosting creativity, improving focus, and building on memory. That's why all of our creative projects, digital or not, begin their visual journey with paper and pen.

So, like us, if you want to enjoy the best of both worlds, why not try Austin Kleon's two-desk system? One digital desk and one analog desk where you can practice visual thinking.

If we've persuaded you to pick up a pad and pen, you might want to check out what these leading creatives are using (Muji or Moleskine seem to be the favourites). And if you really are one of those shower-brainstorming types, there's even a notepad for that.