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-- Edward Tufte

Thinking and Paper

An intriguing essay "The Social Life of Paper" in this week's New Yorker (March 25, 2002, electronic issue not posted yet) by Malcolm Gladwell describes how "knowledge workers"--in particular air-traffic controllers and I.M.F economists use paper, lots of it, for organizing and acting on complex information.

In the last 10 years, every country in the western world has increased its per capita use of paper. For some cognitive tasks, paper outperforms computers, a case made in the book by Abigail Sellen and Richad Harper, The Myth of the Paperless Office.

I was also pleased to learn that "the messy desk is not necessarily a sign of disorganization. It may be a sign of complexity: those who deal with many unsolved ideas simultaneously cannot sort and file the papers on their desk, because they haven't yet sorted and filed the ideas in their head."

-- Edward Tufte

Response to Thinking and Paper

The URL for The New Yorker article is http://www.newyorker.com/printable/?critics/020325crbo_books

-- Edward Tufte

Response to Thinking and Paper

I like to think that I have - over the years - devised a personal operational work system that combines the benefits of both chaos and organisation. It is completely paper-based, although I have had a computer on my desk since 1982.

It is actually a fully-specified system but I won't go into all the details, just the core bit. Everything coming in is printed or noted on paper. That paper is then slipped into one of say a dozen clear plastic folders which are kept in a tray (sometimes two or three) called Work in Progress. One of those files may otherwise be in a tray called Current Task. Paper from the folder in Current Task (but only that folder) can be scattered all over the desk in whatever order or chaos best serves to carry out the task in hand. If the task is interrupted for more than a phonecall then all the paper goes back in the folder, the folder goes back in Work in Progress - and another folder becomes Current Task. As the folders fill up they are culled: in effect I use a kanban system to restrict their size. Since paper is filed in the plastic covers loose in the order in which is was last looked at, it is an easy matter to take out the bottom half of each file, flip through it for anything archival (not much, usually - that's what we have computers for) and drop it in a Xerox box under the desk. Anything not looked at for a month in the box gets dumped.

The beauty of the system is that everything scattered on the desk is current (so no hunting around for things that might be missing) and the fact that once a week I can skim-read every piece of paper in the files (1000 to 2000 pieces say) in about thirty minutes and pick up dependencies, connections, forgettings, omissions whilst the file is held in my short-term memory for that half-hour.

Impossible to do on computer.

-- Martin Ternouth (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

Archeology is a highly underrated model for search and discovery. When your work is in piles everywhere, strata and proximity make immediately clear loose relationships and eras. Why can't computer desktops work this way? A folder shows no external indication whether it's bulging or empty, worn and frayed or newly-minted.

These are things we're already wired to notice and account for - why not capitalize on them?


-- leMel (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

This article brings to mind the practice in project management of assembling a work breakdown structure via sticky labels on rows of flip chart paper on the wall. There's still no effective way to do this on computer, especially as it requires a group working together.

We assemble the high level deliverables, and break down the work by listing each task on a sticky label. Then we can move things around until we've structured the project the right way.

To this day, this is still the recommended practice for project managers, whether for small projects or large global, projects in the hundreds of millions.

-- Jerry Manas (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

What is interesting is the fact that the organising principle on most people's real world desktops is that of spatial location. Invariably the desk will be split into various "areas". The most significant area is usually the work in progress.

Archives etc. are usually located furthest away from the user, due to the reduced nature of accessing such information.

The material accessed most and not in electronic form (e.g. reference books etc) are located within the envelope of reach for the user.

Virtual desktops are not yet at this level of sophistication due to:

a) The 2 dimension constraint of the VDU. A 3D desktop would require serious remapping of the mental model most people currently have for organising info on their PC. Naturally, the additional dimension of interaction would require a new interface device and a killer application that would make interacting in such an environment exciting and training.

b) The majority of users still have problems understanding the Microsoft mental model of organinising information using a heirarchical tree structure.

I work in the construction industry here in the UK and am a project programmer amongst other things. The majority of project programmes often "roll up" information into summary bars but naturally detail is lost.

We use the "print it large and spread it out" method to develop an understanding of the project.

The biggest problem we have is the transformation of data to information from such charts as often we do not receive electronic forms of the programme. THAT is a nightmare!

I can be approached for further correspondence regarding interaction issues.

-- Neal Kalita (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

Apple Computer has already filed a patent (#06243724) for this.

-- William Wong (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

Recent "Science News" had a brief on memory experiments, validating the belief that people who are organizing their thoughts spatially do significantly better in recall. The 'house of memory', in which someone walks through a house picking up items, is an ancient way of applying this. All of which points toward using space as the best way of organization.

-- Steve Heise (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

The Gladwell article led me to read The Myth of the Paperless Office by Abigail Sellen and Richad Harper. It should be useful to many participants in this forum. The authors have done research on the tasks for which paper is best suited and those for which various computerized functions are best suited. These diverse qualities -- called affordances by the authors -- are outlined in some detail, and go far beyond resolution. The ability to see and use several pieces of paper at once to facilitate comparisons proves to be one of its most valuable advantages. The authors present a good discussion of how to bring some of paper's qualties to the computer.

-- Peter Morelli (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

Readers of this thread may want to confer the short essay at <http://www-csli.stanford.edu/~john/plea.html>.

-- AKMA (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

Mr. Hoy asked whether there is an option for organization which works better than a binder. If portability is a requirement, I think the answer may be "no."

I keep returning to the question of organizing by time versus by project. Since some items are intrinsically time-based and otherwise uncategorizable, I end up with at least one section that is basically a calendar and other sections for major projects which don't "fit" onto a calendar. It works out well so long as all sections get regular review.

(Outlook claims to do most of this, but in practice, the paper is much easier to use).


-- Tait Stevens (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

This is a follow-up to a post I made on this thread eighteen months ago. With the illustrative diagrams it's rather long - but I hope it gives a useful addition to the problem of dealing with paper.

Twenty years ago I was in a job that combined three competing timescales: Corporate Planning, which was looking ten years ahead; several large systems projects that required operational planning and monitoring over eighteen months; and a payroll department paying 15,000 staff — any one of whom could turn up very angry without notice and insist upon seeing me. My desk system had to have all operational information immediately to hand, but in such a form that it could be cleared instantly: either to receive a hostile visitor complaining of a mispayment, or to substitute the paperwork for another complex problem totally unrelated to the last. To serve these functions I devised a paper-management system that has remained substantially unchanged for the last fifteen years. I now work as a consultant and independent project manager and the system enables me to replicate the same working environment wherever I go, and whoever the client may be. Until the last five years or so I had vaguely assumed that my desktop computer would eventually take over all the functions but I have now come to realise that it probably won't. It still takes far, far longer to access and review on computer, say, 2,000 separate pages of documentation in a dozen software packages, than it does to flick through those pages on a desk. You can flick through paper in thirty minutes. With a machine you are looking at several hours — and you can't flick back instantly to something you looked at five minutes ago.

Paper is kept in the system in two forms: loose, when it is being worked on, and in coverslips when it isn't. All current documents relating to a task are kept in a transparent coverslip. The type of coverslip used is closed on two sides only so that the contents can be extracted as easily as possible. The coverslip contains a title sheet at the top of the pile that has the name of the task written at the top (TASK 1) and the bottom. This first sheet also has a space for handwritten notes. If the documents form too bulky a pile then the task is split into two coverslips (TASK 3 Sales and TASK 3 HR) with a reference to each on the front sheet of each. Operational files may also be needed that cover several tasks (Issues in France). These also are each contained within a coverslip. All these coverslips are stored in a tray, or trays, called WORK IN PROGRESS (WIP).

There is no specific order to the paper within the coverslips. It is a principle of the system that every piece of paper is looked at once a week. In practice, the most recently-referred to pieces of paper are near the top: this facilitates culling in due course. This weekly review is the key to the system's success. It means that dependencies and inter-relations are continually being exposed and examined and held in human short-term memory whilst the review is being carried out. Flicking through paper does not involve any mental effort: certainly far less than logging in and out of documents on a screen.

Every tray or space is governed by a series of rules that are easy to implement and require no effort to maintain. Most of the rules relate to time, but there is an overarching rule that any tray or box that becomes full is attended to immediately. This I have understood is, or was, a feature of Japanese production lines: a physical space, or KANBAN, is allocated for the output of a process and as input to the next process. If a KANBAN becomes full, then inputs cease to be added and priority is given to reducing the contents to an acceptable amount.

The system is initiated by a very simple series of processes.

Work comes in. It can be formal on paper, jottings on a telephone call just received, or a printout of an email with information that will need to be referred to frequently. All this paper is put loose into a filing tray marked OVERNIGHT AND TODAY. There is one rule for this tray.

OVERNIGHT AND TODAY must be empty at the end of the day.

The PAPER WORKSPACE, is normally the square yard or so of the desk beside the computer. This can contain any amount of paper in any order or piles or scatterings. There are three rules that govern the use of the paper workspace.

PAPER WORKSPACE must never contain paper from more than one task

PAPERWORKSPACE must be cleared when current task is completed

PAPER WORKSPACE must be cleared at the end of the working day

In the simplest situation all this work is all for the same task. You put the paper from overnight and today into the workspace, works on it until whatever you are doing is finished for the moment (or until you are permanently interrupted) at which point it goes into a coverslip in a filing tray labelled CURRENT TASK. When you are ready to resume work on it the contents are taken out and scattered in workspace as before. There are two rules for current task.

CURRENT TASK must contain paper only in a coverslip

CURRENT TASK must contain only one coverslip and contents


The first advantage of this system is that it grows organically. Task files are not set up until they are needed. The second advantage is that the system recognises that people work best when they have paper to shuffle around, make notes on, place side by side, clip to or unclip from. The third advantage is that paper never goes missing because the chaos of paper on the desk is all from one task.


It is a fortunate (or very bored) executive who only has one task to control. New tasks are dealt with in exactly the same way as the first. However, because there can only ever be one current task, the new coverslips are stored in the filing tray called WORK IN PROGRESS. From time to time they will become the current task.

Loose paper is never passed between these trays, only in coverslips. New documents (or documents that may have become misfiled) can of course be transferred into coverslips.

Pressure of work will often prevent you from giving thought to everything in OVERNIGHT AND TODAY. Anything unattended during the day or at the end of the day to is dropped into a tray or box on the desktop called HOLDING.

More rules:

WORK IN PROGRESS is thinned out (or expanded) when full

HOLDING is reviewed every day, and thinned out when full

Documents from holding may be passed back into overnight and today. The purpose of the system is not to dispose of documents but to ensure that they are regularly reviewed.


All tasks in WORK IN PROGRESS AND CURRENT TASK are reviewed once a week. Every document (say 1-3,000) in work in progress and current task is scanned through. It will normally take less than half-an-hour,


The blue border represents the conceptual boundaries of the desk. The desk of course is rectangular or L-shaped like any normal desk! Very large bound documents do not fit well into this system. As far as is possible they should be accessed on the screen (ELECTRONIC WORKSPACE) in conjunction with the paper processing in paper workspace, and individual copies of pages can of course be printed out. Where this takes too much time, a separate archive of bound documents may be kept on the desk. This is DESK ARCHIVE.

As a general rule, all documents are filed electronically (ELECTRONIC ARCHIVE). Some formal project documents may need to be kept on paper: Architect's Certificates, purchase orders, and formal sign offs as example. These are not part of operational work control and should be kept in a CUPBOARD ARCHIVE or filing cabinet. The frequent review process will lead to a continual winnowing of paper. This is dumped into a CULLING BOX (an empty box of photocopier reams is ideal) and this is reviewed when it becomes full. This is a last backstop to prevent anything valuable being thrown out. Anything having lain undisturbed in the bottom of the culling box for a month or so can safely be placed in the TRASH.


The system operates perfectly as described in the foregoing pages. Attempts by well-meaning (but misguided) colleagues to graft on Pending trays and Bring-forward files, and to file the work in progress alphabetically in punch-hole files, have all ended in miserable failure. The system is designed to keep paper mobile and instantly accessible. Pending trays and Bring-forward files hide it out of sight. Files live in cabinets and cupboards, preferably virtual. A list of work in progress (including current task) can be useful, pinned up on a cubicle partition. Written by hand on a sheet of A3 it can contain notes for instant reference in response to a phone call. The trays can usefully have a sheet of coloured paper placed on top of them after review (with the time of last review) so that new work is separated from sheets that have previously been looked at.

The full system takes less than a day to set up. There is no maintenance time separate from the review of the documentation, other than a few seconds occasionally sweeping a deskful of documents into a coverslip, and further set-up tasks such as expanding kanbans. There is considerable time saved from the following:

Being able to find any document within seconds

Never losing any documents

Not having to sort filing into alphabetical or any other order

Arriving at a clear desk in the morning

The system does not tie you to your desk — quite the opposite. Nearly all the archive filing and the project chart and other documents are electronic. Task files can be pulled out and will have the advantage over punch-hole files that only current information is included. Also, all the documents are available to any other member of the team or the office who can operate the system in your (frequent) absences with virtually no training. The system holds information in piles, but the piles are labelled.

The following is a summary of the rules.

-- Martin Ternouth (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

Wow. Really, Martin. Wow.

I would say I have a similar system but not as formal or complex. I order my project folders (very nice thick clear plastic ones with metal clips to help hold the papers in...bought them on remainder a while back and have yet to see them again--pity) in a time sequence, either by due date or by occurence. For example, I may have a project due on the 3rd, a trip planned for the 6th, another deadline on the 14th, and so on, and the folders are arranged from "sooner to later," as my wife says. This adds a further dimension to the information (time) and lets me keep track of my schedule. A minor addition, I'll warrant, and I stand in awe of this system. In the same way that you write a 20 page letter because you don't have time to write one that is 2 pages, I'm not organized enough to be that organized.

I prefer paper almost always to electronic. I have a difficult time editing electronically and much prefer to edit manuscripts on paper; I lose my sense of the writing's length (and sometimes organization) on a computer screen. Paper contributes to our sense of dimension--we can sense that the writing is long, or that we're almost done, the folder is full, etc.

I also like the idea of computer icons communicating these aspects but doubt they will ever replace the mise en scene of a big manilla folder or clothbound book in our hands.

Paper is (paradoxically, to my mind) also dimensionless, in that on a 2D surface we can "create" a 3D (or 4 or 5) space. We can use pencils, ink, crayons, whatever. It can be read without an upgrade or new software revision at any time in the future, provided the materials don't degrade.

-- Max M. Houck (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

I would like to make mention of David Allen's excelent book "Getting Things Done", which describes his LIST- based system of organizing thinking. He has one categorize projects by various levels of thinking, (i.e., action items, current projects or "someday/maybe", lists of areas of responsibility, life goals etc) and then organize action items by context (office, computer, errands, travel, home, etc) and time available, rather than the A through C priority system which does not adapt well to changes in circumstances. It has forced me to really see what my true priorities are, and how to line up my "action list" with the current projects I am committed to completing. He calls this "knowledge work" and he teaches how to organize one's own work in an effective way. It is the only system that has worked for me over time although I still struggle with staying current.

I do prefer to use paper, binders and folders. David Allen is adamant about filing being quick, easy and keeping file cabinets 3/4 full vs. packed. I know there are lots of people who use computers to "do" his system but I seem to need the physical paper and binders to feel it is "real". He leaves it to individual preference and tells how to set up a paper binder system.

I can hardly wait to investigate Edward Tufte and what he has to teach me, as it may prompt a visual way of organizing myself that is ultimately more workable for my style of thinking. I do find mind-maps drawn on paper a good way to get an over- view of all the "moving parts" of a situation or project, and I can integrate those with a project binder for example. Thanks for the interesting thread, I will check back to see what is added!-- Andrea

-- Andrea Winchester (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

I do my best thinking on 11x17 paper, and often I need to keep it. Most office supply catalogs have next to nothing for this. Eventually I found 11x17.com where one can buy binders, folders, clipboards, and even an 11x17 in-box. (Sounds like a plug, but I'm sincere.)

-- Bill Dodson (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

I am a no-holds-barred technology fan, yet it doesn't escape me that while I can still read and understand my replica edition of the 1768 Encyclopedia Britannica, I am unable to access information on media for a computer I had 5 years ago. While paper can certainly be lost or damaged, it still represents the archival gold standard.

Another important organizational aspect of paper-based systems is the actual, physical existence of the paper. Physical tokens (batons, officer of the day badges, etc.) have long been one of the most reliable accountability systems.

-- Leslie Goldsmith (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

For more on the "hi-rez" superiority of paper for intergalactic messaging, see: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/08/opinion/08wed3.html?ex=1252382400&en=5d6483f134ede447&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland

[link updated February 2005]

-- J. D. McCubbin (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

During the process of responding to proposals through executing them, and multiple such proposals in process at any time, I find computers doesn't provide me a solution to create 1 document per project.

Whether it's the document format problem, or being able to record all pieces of info regarding a proposal (phones, discussions, meeting notes, and formal docs, MOMs), an Edoc on PC or laptop somehow doesn' work. At some point in time, one will have some info on paper and digitising it will just not happen to keep the docs updated.

I looked @ MS onenote and tablet PC, and now use, a 2 dimentional multi-tabbed file. The horizontal tabs seperate projects and vertical tabs seperate the topics within the project. Post-it notes allow me to record updates... and a few blank papers allow me to add details...

One can take this at all places, from client place, to home, to on the road, and considering all the battery hassles etc, works ot better than a laptop/tablet pc/onenote based system.

/prasad gadgil

-- Prasad Gadgil (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

One military filing site I looked at had a protocol of making copies - it takes up more space, but stops two problems of reference pages - both the time in getting the original document, and the likelihood of misfiling on returning them. I've started keeping one hard copy, but multiple electronic copies in different folders for downloaded articles, but I only have a couple thousand, and haven't really stressed the system.

-- Steve Heise (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

In response to the originally referenced article, "The Social Life of Paper", paper flight strips appear to be on the way out. In an interesting twist, the system responsible (URET) was never intended to serve that purpose.

http:// www.baselinemag.com/article2/0,1397,1150847,00.asp

http://ffp1.faa.gov/about/ about_article1.asp

-- Estes

Response to Thinking and Paper

Just as paper, properly used, beats a computer desktop for organization, so too does actual physical space beat paper.

When I set up my current workplace, I took a tip from Edmund Wilson, the literary critic. Wilson used a different table for each project, and would move from table to table during the course of a working day. All of the relevant materials for any given project were simply kept on the tables.

I have fewer tables, but the organization is still spatial. I've put together two adjacent "carrels," with a shared center space, out of specially constructed 7' high bookcases. At the back of each carrel is an older iMac that is enabled for outgoing e-mail, but not for incoming e-mail. (I originally had Mac SEs, but found the fans unbearable; I might have stayed with Mac Pluses, had I had them.) Because I do both scholarly and more popular work, one carrel is organized as the scholarly side, the other as popular. All the books I require are within armreach, and paper is spread out for use.

On the opposite wall, a drawing board serves as a third workstation. I also have an angled worksurface for working while standing.

For general tasks, e-mail, and work that requires more computer power, I have yet another work area with an eight-foot long counter. Above this are sixteen clipboards on hooks where I keep paper accounts and agendas for every project I'm working on.

All of this fits nicely into an 18" X 13" space.

-- Mark Hineline (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

That is, of course, 13 feet by 18 feet, not inches!

I should point out that I got the clipboard idea from two sources: one was a photograph of Lewis Mumford in his office. Mumford used stationary clips attached to a wall. I like my clipboards better (and I prefer them to a bulletin board) because I can take a clipboard down off its peg and make notes, or carry the clipboard to my other workstation -- the deck just outside my kitchen door.

The other source was a feature in "Dwell" magazine.

-- Mark Hineline (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

The "paperless office" myth has been perpetuated for some time. However, as a mobile employee with limited office time requires creativity in developing a system that reduces reliance on paper.

A Tablet PC (TPC) with OneNote (ON) and Outlook has been a powerful combination in creating a GTD system. The Tablet PC functionality reduces the reliance on paper while providing enhanced productivity tools:

Anytime/Anywhere - Nearly all work related documents are in one location. It is rare that any material discussed in the work environment is not distributed in digital format. I can refer to these documents anytime/anywhere on the Tablet PC.

Handwritten Notes - Taking notes during meeting on documents is integral part of the system. TPC/ON provides the functionality to handwrite on any digital document. It is critical to understand my handwritten notes are rarely converted into computer text. These notes remain in my handwriting for later review and are searchable...

Searching - Yes, unconverted handwritten notes are searchable. The new search technology engines (X1, Google Desktop, MS Windows Search) indexes the entire hard drive including the text of all documents/attachments within Outlook, OneNote, etc

Sorting - OneNote's tabular sorting structure works quite well with the GTD system of one folder per project/subject.

The Tablet PC is not for everyone and will not replace paper but its functionality has improved my productivity particularly as a mobile employee. Not surprisingly, backing up the hard drive is critically important.

-- Rob Paulis (email)

Gladwell article URL

The Gladwell New Yorker article can now be found here:


-- Mark (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

Getting things done... using paper cards:

-- Ricardo Stuven (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

I use these cards (www.nextactioncards.com) - their small size makes them perfect to carry around. Small enough to fit in my shirt pocket, powerful enough to revolutionize my ability to keep up with and get the most from my Getting Things Done system!

I utilized many software and Palm-type solutions previously - funny how the low-tech paper method works best of all (at least for me).

-- SR (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

Great thread! As a committed GTD'er and Tablet PC user, I have experimented with a number of software solutions. Ultimately, I find that Outlook and MindManager (a mind mapping program by MindJet) are the best combination for my work. I do use OneNote but it is not a primary part of my productivity system - rather, it is an information capture and storage component in my system. I find that constructing mind maps is far more useful as I can easily rearrange information into a visually meaningful arrangement.

The similarities between Martin's system and the methods David Allen teaches in Getting Things Done are striking and ultimately lead to the same happy state - an empty Inbox. Regular review in both systems is essential to keeping the system working. Thanks Martin, for such a detailed and helpful look at your approach to productivity.

-- Marc Orchant (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

Extreme Programming (XP) advocates in the late 90's suggested using index cards to manage software projects, derived from the usage of CRC Cards. This online book shows some examples of the cards in action. Even today, top XP teams tend to rely on paper over Project. Index cards are accessible and require no training. They can be annotated, sketched on, shuffled, sorted, laid out, pinned up, ripped up, photocopied, scanned, etc -- manipulated in ways that electronic media just can't be. Non-technical team members ("the customer") often find them less intimidating than entering line items in some massive requirements document or project management system.

In 2001, I replaced my Palm V calendar and task lists with a handful of index cards that I carry around in my pocket. They are easier to use in the field than flimsy office paper or post it notes.

-- Alex Viggio (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

Two thoughts -- more or less unrelated to one another, but both, I hope, related to the thread.

Years ago I read a non-fiction book by Isaac Asimov in which he said that after his public talks he was often asked by someone in the audience how he envisaged information transfer systems of the distant future. He said that he always replied along the following lines: he foresaw a time when information could transferred from a storage device to the human brain without requiring any additional hardware for making the transfer, the device being so cheap to make that it could be produced by the million and thrown away when no longer needed, so light and robust that it could be taken and used almost anywhere -- in bed, on the beach, even in the swimming pool. He would then be asked how long we would have to wait for this advanced technology, and would reply that we already had it, in the form of printed books.

The second thought relates to an interview that Frank Wilczek gave to the Chilean newpaper El Mercurio shortly after his Nobel Prize was announced last year. He was asked if he used the computer and other tools for developing his ideas, and replied that he did, but that what he mostly used was pencil and paper.

-- Athel Cornish-Bowden (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

Disappointed with the one-year wall calendars available I am
considering making one from scratch. Perhaps I have not been
looking in the right places.

It should:
show the whole year on a rectangle about 1m by .6m;
show the name of the month, day of the month and the day of the week;
have room to write meetings, travel, projects, etc.
not show clutter such as national holidays, etc.

Long live Paper!

-- Tchad (email)

Thinking and Paper -- Facilitation of Working Sessions

Continuing on the theme of Jerry Manas's submission in July 2002, I have a question about the use of visual information in facilitating working sessions.

Lately, my colleagues and I have been toying with HelixPlan's facilitation system ( http://www.helixplan.org ) for process redesign or project meetings. What are others' experiences with this or other facilitation systems?

I can share some of my own thoughts. The layout, a 3'foot-tall roll of paper tacked to the wall and made sticky by applying spray adhesive, appears to allow a lot of information to be placed within the span of sight. Placing different types of elements (facts, categories, and questions to be answered) on 4"x6" cards of different colors lets the participants spot important relationships, think through issues by comparing & rearranging, and keep track of the team's progress against an explicit agenda.

We largely ignored HelixPlan's suggestion to keep each card to 5 to 7 words, but instead made sure that each card contained a single element, and separated similar but distinct issues. (I was pleased to be able to include hand-drawn sparklines on cards a couple of times!) Also, while it seemed tough to express really complex relationships among elements using HelixPlan, we've been able to lay out designs on large, intricate systems without putting off difficult questions.

I look forward to reading the thoughts of others. Thanks!

-- Tim Snyder (email)

Index Cards and Web Development

I used index cards extensively for designing web applications: The front of a card contains the general description of how a user interacts with a particular page. The back of the same card describes the technical mechanics required for that page.

Using index cards has a couple big advantages specific to this application:

- It enforces a constraint on complexity. If the description of a user's interaction with a page or feature requires more than a 3x5 card to describe, it will most likely be unintuitive and frustrating to use.

- It dovetails nicely with the "Model View Controller" architecture. The "view" (user experience) is detailed on the front of the card; the "controller" (the data processing) and/ or "model" (data storage) is on the back. This keeps the implementation details from confusing the user experience, and vice versa. Also, when one changes, it's easy to immediately update the others.

The other benefits also apply -- cards are an intuitive way to organize complex workflows, they're not as intimidating as computers for non-technical clients, it's pretty darn gratifying to tear up bad ideas, etc.

I expect this is generally applicable to other forms of software, but I can only speak for web apps.

-- Peat Bakke (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

Sony v. Paper

The new BusinessWeek article discusses how SONY may be on the right track to bring an e-book to the people. The real question is - do we want to read e-books? In the late 90s, I worked on a project to convert a large portion of our reporting to e-book format so that they could be read on flights, etc. It was a neat prototype but it wasn't particularly useful.

Most business age people, myself included, still prefer paper. It will be interesting to see what the iPod Generation will prefer...

Further reading: Can Sony Make E-Books Succeed? http://www.technologyreview.com/Blogs/wtr_16103,292,p1.html?CMT=1

-- Tchad (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

I had an interesting experience this week. I work for an engineering consulting firm and we have been hired by a federal agency to revise on of their handbooks. This week we held a 3 day meeting at our office to present our suggestion and get feedback. Representatives from the agency's headquarters and regional offices were present. I have been given the task of writing one of the subsection. I had to sit in for a day and give a presentation on my ideas for my section of the new handbook. The whole meeting was one big Power Point presentation. My section did not warrant its own slide (thank God). When I was asked to speak it was in the middle of a slide. In developing my suggested revisions I made an outline of the new section. It was a simple high school format, capital A, 1, lower case a. Not at all fancy. I typed the outline and ran copies of it. When I was asked to speak I gave everyone a copy of the outline. I gave them a couple of minutes to look it over and then gave a three minute talk on what I was suggesting. It was amazing to see the results. My little talk resulted in the most discussion and suggestions from the group for that day and it was by a very large margin. People who had not said a word all day spoke up many with helpful suggestions. I could see peoples expressions change and see them become interested in the meeting. Amazing what two sheets of paper can do.

-- Paul Boucher (email)

Bill Gates and the paperless office

CNN/Money/Fortune posted an essay written by Bill Gates describing his daily work habits, and the paperless office in particular:


My two cents: If you want a paperless office badly enough, you'll make it work for you. Sometimes, wishing will make it so.


-- Demetri S. Mouratis (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

A most interesting thread. I suggest two things. A simple activity list weekly of what you intend to do with the activity stated, with whom you may need to interact and the due date of the activity. This can be linked to your daily appointment book so that tasks turn into activities that turn into micro activities. The other good modifier to control what you keep in the office is to take a photograph of the office on Monday morning and again on Friday evening. A comparison of what has moved makes interesting study. Over a month,(8 photos) the review reveals many objects that could be archived or trashed. Hope that is of use.

-- Roger Daventry (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

Alex Golub, "Passion for Paper" at


-- Edward Tufte

Response to Thinking and Paper

These workflow diagrams are central to working with David Allen's Getting Things Done productivity methods. The more involved graphic is labeled "advanced". They are available free on the GTD website. Any suggestions on updating the diagrams?



-- Ben Wasserman (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

These look quite interesting, and evoke a poignant note among my piles of stuff, paper piles and computer file-piles. Such organizational guides do require, however, essentially a remaking of one's work life.

-- ET

Response to Thinking and Paper

Martin Ternouth's system for paper handling is revolutionizing my desk. Thanks a million for taking the time to describe it in detail and with diagrams yet! I'm about half way through putting the system in place, and already finding task management much improved.

I am not as smart as Bill Gates and cannot keep a lot of things in my head at once. Also I do not have a secretary, and am visually oriented. Paper seems to work better than electronic tools for work whose ultimate form is still unclear, and for items needing immediacy and instant access. So plenty of paper still used here, even though I work for an IT organization as a Geographic Information Systems specialist.

When it comes to maps, we'll still be using paper until someone invents a thin, light, waterproof, very large rollup screen with near-print resolution and low cost. The GPS mapping unit in my car is great for telling me where I am, but terrible for figuring out where I want to go. The latter task seems to require the larger context and high resolution over a large area that is still only available at reasonable cost on paper.

On the other hand, a PDA, which goes everywhere with me except to the pool, works great for all the items I used to put on scraps of paper that I would then lose or file inaccessibly. These include lists of interesting-sounding movies to rent when they come out on DVD, books to look up in the library, stuff to get the next time I go to the hardware store, tasks I think of at home that must be done at work, tasks I think of at work that must be done at home...

-- Edith Konopka (email)

Single tasking

Khoi Vinh - the New York Times "news design"
guru - talks about the power of single tasking
in the UK's Guardian newspaper.

KV says that computers get in way of good writing
because it is too easy to get distracted by reminders,
e-mail, music, etc.

"But there's a little glimmer of hope: several weeks after my post, I got an email from a friend of mine, Jesse Grosjean, who runs a one-man software company, Hog Bay Software (hogbaysoftware.com). I hadn't spoken to him for quite a while, but apparently we still think alike: he told me he's working on a piece of software called WriteRoom.

This program shuts out all other running applications and allows its users to focus only on the act of writing. I installed an early draft of it, fired it up and was faced with a completely empty, black screen and a blinking cursor."


I was actually sitting down to write when I saw Monday's edition on my desk,
and here I am ten minutes later. Happily distracted.

-- Tchad (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

Fours years earlier/above in this thread (four years? really?) I mentioned the idea of a desktop interface based on piles, or stacks of documents in approximation relationships.

This video shows what is probably the best attempt at such an interface I've seen. I wonder how useful it would really be as a workspace, but it is certainly a great construction. The gestures in particular are very well thought-out.

Watch the whole thing, as there are plenty of unexpected surprises.


-- LeMel (email)

Regarding Virtual Desktops and Email

I put my communication software on virtual desktop two. The instant messengers, chats, email, calendar, and other communication material goes there. This way, chatter is segregated. If there's an emergency, there's always the telephone.

To speed up access to desktop 2, use an accelerator key and map it to either ALT-Keypad-2, or F10. When I'm doing it right, I check it only a half dozen times a day. (The rest of the time, I code or do "real" work.)

On desktop 3 or 4, I run my time tracking software and long term to-do lists (grouped by project). My dynamic to-do list is on paper.

-- John Kawakami (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

I've been using Avery's "Extended Edge Document Sleeves" ($3.99/pack of 6) for some time. They have a nice heft, and the extra 1/2" edge on two sides is helpful in many tangible and intangible ways. Worth a test-drive, especially since they stock them in every OfficeMax store, including the smaller "Express" locations (where I bought my last 2 sets).

-- David M. Cole (email)

Updated link to Galdwell, "The Social Life of Paper"

The article can now be found at Gladwell's website, www.gladwell.com:

http:// www.gladwell.com/2002/2002_03_25_a_paper.htm

The site also contains a link to a pdf file of the article that retains the original layout from The New Yorker.

-- John Jones (email)

Good, the messy desk and elsewhere is making gains:

Penelope Green, "Say Yes to Mess,' The New York Times

Maybe the big cost of messy work is just the agonizing over the fact of the mess--although the time I really bang out the loose ends is when I start to clean up the mess. When something is filed away, it disappears from the possibility of new work and progress although it may be a bit easier to find when needed. Most of my colleagues are highly organized, for which I am endlessly grateful.

-- Edward Tufte

Response to Thinking and Paper

This is a very useful discussion.

There are instances also where it seems to me that using a Mindmapping software (like Freemind) helps in building the thought process and even, to a certain extent, the scheduling on how an idea or a process are to be implemented. The ability to put random thoughts in some type of tree-like structure helps very often in making sure that all knots are tied. Moreover, while note taking seems to be an obvious killer app for both the tablet PC and mindmapping software (Kathy Sierra mentions that connection), I personally am most often using it to build larger documents over time. The main big difference with PP for instance is in the ability to connect several items together even though they would not be connected if they were presented in some linear fashion (like PP).

Igor Carron

-- Igor Carron (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

A lot of discussion has centred on physical layout to aid work flow, which assumes some thinking, at the computer. I believe paper, and other 3d media, aid thinking in a non-intrusive manner: they pose less or no blocks to the inexplicable flow of creative brain activity to its readable expression.

Any mark, written, drawn, scratched, on paper is inherently permanent and often very useful, hence the infamous "show your work" on dreaded exams. Any data entry is inherently impermanent as all tools are immediately and intrusively available to edit and perfect it, which by its very nature is halting to the free flow of creative output.

Conversely, studying artists' preparatory sketches for a final work is often a revelatory insight to their thinking process. A beautiful example is Madrid's Prado museum housing Picasso's Guernica: you access the gallery via a long hallway displaying his sketches developing the tortured cubist poses, and leave the gallery via another hallway with more preparatory sketches. The effect is quite mesmerizing to see the man's thinking captured on paper.

It is paper's inability to limit the free flow of creative output, and it's permanence of capturing our non-linear irrational thinking patterns that is unmatched by electronic means. Perhaps paper's only limit is the anguish of "writer's block" or artists "white paper syndrome", which isn't really paper's fault.

-- Donald Bray (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

My personal system is Post-it's (the larger 3x5-ish kind); like index cards they are small but big enough to be usable, transportable and ubiquitous. I want to stress that the *spatial* organization aspects mentioned by some posts are all to true. One tip for post-it users; use 11x17" sheets as "carriers" so you can shuffle sets of related post-its together. Viola! You can mimic those separate workspaces by shuffling piles of the "carriers" around, just like you shuffle the post-its or index cards.

Interesting read; good discussion. Thanks, John Volkar

-- John Volkar (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

3D desktop paging, despite its lackluster name, is a powerful metaphor for managing the growing clutter of windows on a computer screen. Desktop paging has been around for a while but open-source Beryl, below, made the big splash:

A similar function was introduced for the Mac in Desktop Manager. Desktop Manager doesn't have as much bling as Beryl, but buried in the options, it does offer a simple hot-keyed 3D cube transition, which really is 80% of the spatial solution. If you have a Mac, check it out. I'm working on getting Beryl running on a SuSE box right now.

-- Niels Olson (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

While having multiple desktops at your disposal is a great way to increase effective screen area and keep things organized, I think the "3D" metaphor is actually rather poor. There is a huge difference between three-space and two-space with periodic boundary conditions.

Take another look at the video for proof -- the cube is empty.

-- Matt B (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

Here's a screenshot of Beryl. It's hard to resist showing a few effects, there are so many. One not often illustrated is the view from inside. The window full of tooltips in the corner is for the open source equivalent of Photoshop, Gimp. Click through for a closer look.

-- Niels Olson (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

This thread reminds me of Vonnegut's fictitious painter Rabo Karabekian, commenting on confronting the empty white space of a canvas:

"Yes, and I am reminded now of what the painter Jim Brooks said to me about how he operated, about how all the Abstract Expressionists operated: 'I lay on the first stroke of color. After that, the canvas has to do at least half the work.' The canvas, if things were going well, would, after that first stroke, begin suggesting or even demanding that he do this or that."

Vonnegut, Bluebeard (Dial Press 2006) at 181.

I am a lawyer and I frequently have trouble getting started. One technique that works, if I have the discipline to use it, is the "whirlybird" non-linear outline suggested in Bryan Garner's "The Winning Brief". His conceit, which is not unique to him, is that writer's block is really thinker's block, and that attempting to think linearly in the traditional outline form unduly restricts thought output. Using the non-linear outline (idea in center, spokes of sub-thoughts radiating outward) increases the flux and permits far more thorough thinking about the fundamental problem before actually starting to write.

I took your class in NYC on 4/24 and was blown away. My best seminar ever.

-- Phil Schatz (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

There is a new user interface that supports many of the benefits of physical paper on a virtual desktop.

Check out http://www.bumptop.com

-- Grant Czerepak (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

One possible advantage of paper is that it is calm:

Paper is calm.

It looked for a while that paper could be augmented, calmly, with hypertext, which allowed cross-referencing, something paper wasn't very good at. But look at a typical corperate web-page now, it appears to be in a state of constant alarm, like a vietnam veteran running knife in hand, screaming, through the University Library.

WordPerfect for DOS emulated one application of paper well toom the interface was almost as simple as holding a pen. Press this for bold, that for italic, that for underline, no more complex than changing writing implement in the real world. There's a few things you couldn't do, who cares, this wasn't paper, but it was as calm as paper. Now you've got Word for Windows version 8. Saying that your wordprocessor is more like paper because it contains a white rectangle on which symbols appear is rediculous. Buttons appear from nowhere with bizzare brightly lit symbols on them, menus, status bars all kinds of things demanding to be pressed, pulled down, popped up, selected, and activated. This isn't calm paper, it's like walking up to a piece of paper and having to use it via the controls of a VCR-timer-from-hell.

The extract above was written in 1997. I'm not sure whether things have gotten better or worse in the last ten years.

-- David Magda (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

Napoleon was Stanley's lifelong obsession, and this was the movie he wanted to make more than any other. Kubrick sifted through more than 18,000 documents and books about Napoleon. He constructed a monster index file of the 50 principal characters in his movie, which were all written on 3x5 cards and organized by the dates of all the key events in Napoleon's life from his birth to his death. He had a different card for each character. That way, Kubrick could quickly determine where, during any given period in Napoleon's life, each character was and what that character was doing.

He had 25,000 index cards.

-- BW (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

Love all the talk of papery and paperless offices. After trying everything, I only have 2 ways of getting things done that seem to work.

In the first, I write tasks on a bit of paper and cross them off when I've done them. This seems to work, as there is little else to do all day apart from look at the bit of paper. I transfer incomplete items to the next day's bit of paper. If the bit of paper gets too full, I need help. If it's always empty, the project's finished.

In the second, I do something similar with a a task outliner on the PC. I add each task, and perhaps classify it according to context, importance, etc. Often I use colour to distinguish between context, priority or something. I don't really remember. I then ignore this additional information and do the stuff I feel like doing, and leave the bits I don't like doing. These get done eventually, or they get forgotten. Half the time, it doesn't seem to make much difference. Also, I like to surf the web, so I lose a bit of time there as well.

I have had clients compliment me on closing out items using both methods. The advantage of the electronic method lies primarily on the paper trail. The advantage of the former seems to lie in the lack of one.

It should be possible, even these days, to do an entire project without a computer. All you need is a phone and a bit of paper. Get all emails sent to your secretary, and have all attachments printed. Don't have an email address. Don't send documents. They are rarely useful anyway. Get your secretary to type them for you and send out hard copies. People like getting hard copies, as it's so rare these days. Win win.

Anyone done this in the last 20 years?

- Glenn

-- glenn (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper


NFL: Strategy by cheat sheet


-- BW (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

BW's post regarding NFL coaching cheat sheets brings to light again the immeasurable value of paper as a data storage, retrieval, and presentation device. Imagine doing what those coaches do with PDAs! Yikes. I love my PDA and cell phone but that would never work; the issue is data density.

Paper has so many advantages is it not even a contest. It is light weight. It can be made weather-proof by being laminated (although that does make it much more difficult to modify on the fly). It operates at a resolution typically around 1200 dpi or better. You can zoom in just by moving your eyes closer. It has two sides. And it comes in zillions of sizes, and you can make your own custom sizes by using a really low-tech device: the scissors! And if you don't have one of those, you can just use your hands and tear it!

At my new company, we have printers that are stocked with 11"x17" paper in addition to the typical "letter" format 8.5x11. I have taken to doing nearly all of my mathematical scribblings and note-taking on this larger format. It is amazing how much more information can be fit when 11x17 is the standard, not 8.5x11.

Is paper perfect? Certainly not. Computers can hold and index and classify and compute with data; paper certainly has its limitations. But the high-resolution, large-format paper options available to NFL coaches and newspaper editors and map-makers and statisticians make it hard to beat for all the good things we do with paper.

No single tool works best for every purpose but be wary of those who tout that computers can replace paper in all areas of use; it is obvious that they really don't understand.

Oh, and for those trivia buffs out there: the Kimberly, Wisconsin High School team name? The Papermakers. And their football team is currently 3-0 in the Fox Valley Association standings, outscoring their opponents 136-14. Go figure.


-- rafe donahue (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

my favorite website


-- BWasserman (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

Christian Giordano, one of the Ubuntu designers, is prototyping window parallax and full- screen behavior based on tracking the user location in space through the webcam:

Parallax and fullscreen interaction via webcam from Canonical Design on Vimeo.

-- Niels Olson (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

Susan Kare inventor of Mac icons:

"because an application for designing icons on screen hadn't been coded yet, she went to the University Art supply store in Palo Alto and picked up a $2.50 sketchbook so she could begin playing around with forms and ideas.

http://blogs.plos.org/neurotribes/2011/11/22/the-sketchbook-of-susan-kare-the-artist-who-gave-computing-a- human-face/

-- BWasserman (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

Dear ET,

Here is a lesson in how to create a complete product innovation in a market that has existed for hundreds of years.

The Swedish company Whitelines (http://whitelines.se/) have turned ordinary lined note paper inside out, or more accurately inverted. They have created a range of lined papers that use white lines on a very pale grey paper. The result is that deliberately made marks stand out clearly whilst the supporting grid is just that, supporting. They are low sheen so that the marks stand out and the grey background is pale enough for a photocopier to ignore it.

I have no idea whether they are influenced by your work - but this is a classic example of removing all unnecesary ink and leaving just enough for the task at hand.

Below is one of their "spectra" that describes what they have done.

Their online shop is coming soon.

Best wishes

Matt R

-- Matt R (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper


the NFL remains in the avant-"guard" of information technology:



-- B Wasserman (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

After reading the beginnings of this thread a few years ago I too attempted the system that Martin explained. I ended up using a slightly altered and limited version.

As my job includes high turnover tasks and long term tasks, I had a long term projects holdover tray and the daily WIP tray. Dailies can be prioritized and completed quickly (as they were shorter schedules). Long term tasks would come in after that and be addressed as time allowed and deadlines approached. This is an adjustment made for allowing this system to work in a sales environment and not the project emphasis common in this thread. Tasks are more simplified in a sales environment so I made this adjustment.

Plus, instead of a title sheet within the coverslip, I began to use an idea I saw while at jury duty 2 years ago. The assistant DA during jury selection kept notes on each potential juror all neatly arranged on a clear slip. They would add notes on a potential juror on their individual note as the selection went along. I realized that the coverslip itself was also a place to put information and I ended up putting the task title and associated notes on the front of the coverslip itself instead of needing a title sheet. This is essentially the combining of John Volker's use of post-its on his big papers to Martin's work method.

Along this line, I also began to use my own computer desktop as a giant post-it screen as well. In Windows (Vista or 7), the built-in post-it note (Sticky Notes) is not a well thought out implementation of notes on a screen. All around too big and too inefficient in the use of space. MS OneNote's sidenotes are also a common idea... but again the note interface is too cluttered to feel like a post-it note and it is merely a mini enclosed note in the whole OneNote system itself. Unless you are using OneNote exclusively it is troublesome to use like a physical note.

A noting program, Stickies For Windows by Bret Taylor (which is no longer in development), allows for font changes, color changes, reduction/minimizing to the main header (first line of the note) and can be dragged and placed anywhere on your desktop.* For a notebook user like myself who uses a docking station + dual monitor, this does mean my notes fly all over when switching to just the notebook, but this solution easy covers for the notes and random tidbits throughout the day that could just be cluttered on ones desk or monitor edge that never really belong in any particular "task". I either always lose these or fail to find them easily enough.

The reason why I point Stickies out for post-its is the fact that though paper is the preferred medium for the thinker, as an employee of a large corporation, there are now Information Security standards that get in the way of working by paper. For example, I'm required now to 1) report the document details/contents of what I work on periodically (which isn't terrible with a method like Martin's), and 2) also maintain a clear desk at the end of everyday. So my random notes with no task have to move to my computer desktop to be compliant and all of my tray contents have to go into some desk drawer or cabinet at the end of the day. I'm in a state of adapting with Martin's method because I don't have the organization in my desk drawers at the moment to cram everything in and pull everything out on an everyday basis. A man with a messy desk is going to have a real problem with 1 and 2!

In the thread I have not seen any hint of the current era issue of maintaining the security of your work coming into play with the use of paper. It is I believe a separate topic outside of the scope of this forum really, but it does carry implications to the paper-offices of the coming era.

*[There is also a current "Stickies" program by Zhorn Software that also draws from the earlier creation, but there is more of emphasis on making it a "Window" which I don't feel is the best approach to merely making notes in the way physical post-it's do. However, it does carry more advanced features.]

-- Mayo Ibarra (email)

Response to Thinking and Paper

It is now some 25 years since I first devised my paper management system described in this thread in a posting ten years ago. At the time, electronic files on conventional machines could not be reviewed as quickly as on paper. Increasingly, that is no longer the case. A few minutes ago I read the thread on The meaning of "pessimal", noted the reference to 'The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action', copied and pasted it into Google, found the original article, saved it as a .pdf, and put it into the Kindle app on my iPad. The whole process took three minutes - much less time than it has subsequently taken me to read it and absorb it. I have a $500 ScanSnap for .pdfing (is there such a word?) paper documents painlessly, and these too are transferred to the iPad - which is increasingly substituting for a physical file of paper. However, I still always use paper output for editing: I have just completed my latest novel and have got through several reams of paper in editing the 90,000 words on 200 A4 pages. However, I have also simultaneously put each successive version into Kindle format so that I can bookmark and search electronically whilst editing on paper.

I may in due course make a formal update to my original posting to reflect new technology, but the principles of using paper (and a large whiteboard) for working and intellectual wrangling shall remain.

-- Martin Ternouth (email)

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