Last summer, I was stuck. I had just started working on a proposal for a new book, and despite commencing countless drafts of potential opening paragraphs in a word processing document, nothing seemed to click.
I would type my thoughts, read them, rub my head, then highlight and delete everything I had written, repeating the process over and over again, with no end in sight. After two fruitless hours of this (punctuated, let’s be honest, with a lot of social media surfing), I shut the laptop and walked away… but not before grabbing a pen and a few scraps of paper.
I went for a short walk, found a nice shady place to sit, and just started writing the words and ideas I so desperately wanted to connect, but hadn’t been able to on the computer. I drew lines around words, dots connecting phrases, made pyramids and charts and circled and underlined, tearing off pages as though I was a brilliant scientist or composer in some film montage.
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What I ended up with wasn’t anything coherent or even legible. It was a mess of scribbles that would have made little sense to an onlooker, but it had its intended effect. When I returned to the computer, the ideas I had been wrestling with all morning fell neatly into place.
My breakthrough didn’t come by way of any flash of genius or divine inspiration, but thanks to the proven benefits of analogue design. In a world where digital interfaces, devices, and processes are ubiquitous and immensely powerful, analogue ideas and methods are enjoying a resilience precisely because of what they, uniquely, can accomplish.
When I speak about analogue, I am referring to processes and products – the two distinct phenomena of the design world – which do not require computers or associated digital technology to use. It can be as simple as paper and pen, paint and canvas, modeling clay or balsa wood, or simple electronics and motors to convey an idea.
Today, with highly capable software and hardware on nearly every computer and phone, using analogue design is inevitably a conscious choice. But it is one that individuals and organizations are electing to use precisely because it differs so much from the same designs created on a computer.
Choosing to use analogue processes and products permits design with minimum distraction and interference
There is a reason why every creative worker and aspiring start-up titan working in a coffee shop can usually be found toting a journal next to their laptop and phone. Paper may be limiting in its physical surface area, but what you can do within the page is constrained only by the stroke of a pen. Indeed, the parameters of a piece of paper and other forms of analogue product are often the kind of limits that spark creativity and invention. Software, on the other hand, is hampered by rules.
I can’t just freely, physically, scribble notes on the digital document on which I am typing this article, and even if I could, it would doubtless feel more cumbersome than putting my pen to paper. There would be issues with saving, and formatting, with finding the right shape of the pointer to write with, and whether that same mark can be seen on a computer writing a different operating system or older version of the software.
Whether you are an architect sketching a building, a consultant scribbling ideas about a presentation, a furniture designer holding up fabric swatches, or a software designer building a website, adopting an analogue approach to the design process changes the very nature of that process. It limits what you can do by space, materials, and time, but in doing so it liberates the imagination to think more freely and creatively. Don’t believe me? Try giving identical pieces of paper to 30 children in a primary school class, and see the range of creations that emerges.
Choosing to use analogue processes and products permits design with minimum distraction and interference – no Instagram checking, no emails, no pinging sounds to interrupt the process. Its results are far from perfect or polished, but they also don’t tend to get bogged down in details, such as the precise shade of blue the font should be, when you really just need to write the text or get doodling.
This is why the ‘back of a napkin’ sketch remains so powerful, why whiteboards are a mandatory feature within any innovative workspace, and why even Silicon Valley companies such as Google require their designers to take courses on how to sketch their ideas on paper as the first step when they are designing anything new on their websites. Design is a fluid process, and too often software is an obstacle in the way.
Many of us can appreciate a beautifully built laptop or sleek digital music player, but none of it is meant to endure
But analogue design goes beyond the process to the object itself. Among the reasons why the popularity of certain analogue products has been growing again (see for example the booming interest in records and turntables, film cameras and board games, pens and paper) is because tangible, lasting objects are the best possible showcase for great design.
The success of the Moleskine, perhaps the most famous journal, is less about any new sort of technology (it’s a notebook!), than about how it looks and feels, and the way carrying one makes its owner look and feel. A business card contains the same information you can find online, but it makes an impression when presented to a new acquaintance. Audiophiles will debate endlessly whether vinyl records sound better than high quality digital files, but there is no argument that they are aesthetically superior.
Let’s face it, there are certainly beautiful designs in the world of digital hardware, and many of us can appreciate a beautifully built laptop or sleek digital music player, but none of it is meant to endure. The first-generation iPod in my kitchen is as useful to me as a small white brick, while any iPhone more than four years old is more prone to be frozen in place. But each night I power up the Yamaha amplifier my parents bought with their wedding cash in 1972, place a record that was pressed in a plant 50 years ago on top of a turntable from the 1970s, and hear the legacy of beautiful, enduring design meant for the ages.
David Sax is the author of The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter
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