In 2003, the knowledge visualization knowledgeable Edward Tufte traced that 12 months’s Columbia catastrophe—by which seven astronauts died when their shuttle disintegrated—to a chunk of software program. It was PowerPoint, he argued, that prevented individuals at NASA from understanding the gravity of the dangers dealing with the shuttle. PowerPoint all however forced “breaking apart narratives and knowledge into … minimal fragments,” “a preoccupation with format not content material,” and “a smirky commercialism that turns info right into a gross sales pitch.” Critical risks bought buried on the backside of a multilevel hierarchy of bullet factors below a much bigger, sunnier title. If solely the data had been delivered in a correct technical report, Tufte implied, the astronauts may nonetheless be alive.
Twenty years later, there’s a brand new workplace instrument holding us from absolutely expressing and processing vital info: the digital whiteboard. These boards are huge canvases on which you’ll add and drag round nearly limitless portions of textual content, photos, tables, diagrams, emoji, and shapes. Of their typical state, they’re largely coated with sticky notes on which individuals have written a phrase or three. What the phrases signify in context can shortly develop into arduous to recollect, however that’s OK. Like books used as decorations, they get their worth from the truth that they signify one thing.
Digital whiteboards owe their aesthetic and its underpinning logic to design considering, an ideology that has gathered steam in all types of establishments over the previous 20 years. Design considering is like self-help for organizations trying to make adjustments. Its codified steps—empathize, outline, ideate, prototype, take a look at—promise radical transformation. Within the brainstorming periods which have come to outline it, individuals use Put up-its to scribble concepts and stick them to a typical floor the place everybody can see and rearrange them. This follow is meant to make conferences extra collaborative, priming members to contemplate a wide range of choices earlier than converging on the perfect one. However because the MIT Know-how Assessment described the expertise of a former Google designer in a latest article about rising criticisms of design considering, “for all the joy and Put up-its they generated,” the periods he led “didn’t often result in constructed merchandise or, actually, options of any variety.”
As a substitute, photos of such periods turned merchandise themselves. Images of Put up-its affixed to whiteboards appeared everywhere—shows, articles, case research—as alerts that innovation had occurred. After spending 5 weeks as a participant-observer at a Put up-it–laden “innovation workshop” in 2014, the anthropologist Eitan Wilf concluded that Put up-its had develop into key to reproducing the “standard visible templates of what a legitimate perception ought to appear like.” He additional noticed that the fragmented concepts individuals wrote on them had a fuzzy relationship to the workshop’s aim of enhancing a web site.
By the point Wilf was making these observations in a Midtown Manhattan workplace constructing, sticky notes had already expanded their vary into the ether. The primary digital whiteboards have been bodily objects, usually utilized in faculties, whose screens you might contact along with your palms or a stylus. Starting across the late aughts, a succession of firms made on-line variations. Whereas some are designed for schooling, many are organized round “on-line sticky notice collaboration,” as one of many first of those firms described its product. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, when individuals might now not brainstorm in particular person, digital whiteboard use grew rapidly. Miro went from having 5 million customers in spring 2020 to 50 million in spring 2023, together with employees at 99 of the Fortune 100. Microsoft relaunched its Whiteboard in 2021. A 12 months later, Adobe introduced plans to purchase Figma for $20 billion, partly to acquire the corporate’s whiteboard, FigJam. And Apple launched its Freeform app, which now comes normal on iPhones and Macs.
These boards—usually mild grey and overlaid with a refined grid—are helpful for visible or spatial duties, like arranging photos or making a diagram. However whereas they’re usually marketed for “visual collaboration,” it’s writing—on sticky notes—that occupies a lot of their customers’ time. On-line, sticky notes have shed the bodily limitations that destined them to short-term use earlier than winding up within the workplace trash. By giving them a spot to persist indefinitely, the digital whiteboard has turned Put up-it collages into absolutely fledged paperwork. Whiteboards now provide numerous templates for the sorts of written data meant to durably convey advanced ideas. Many of those templates—corresponding to these you will discover on Miro for a brief, a charter, a research repository, or meeting notes—make heavy use of sticky notes. Even those who don’t use them have a tendency to attract on their iconography, that includes colourful, text-sprinkled blocks.