The stationery required to design software

Everything you need for sticky (note) growth

My software design training (as much as it could be called that) was in a mixture of strategic design thinking and graphic/communication design. 

I ended up designing software by a mixture of choice and accident. After a foray into management consulting with a design twinge at Engine, I’ve ended up spending the last seven years involved in different kinds of software design companies at EMC Consulting, Sidekick Studios, and now Makeshift.

Along the way I’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing software engineers, and very talented interface designers who’ve introduced me to many useful digital tools to help me design better software including code management services,  product management apps, wireframing software and interface design things

The non-digital toolkit

But, as my digital toolset has evolved and grown, one part of my design toolkit has remained pretty static and actually become more refined - the stationery I use.

Now physical bits of stationery are not the first thing that come to mind when you think about designing software, but in my experience printing stuff out, drawing and talking as a group around a design are essential to collaboration and new ideas. And if you are going to physicalise your digital designs, you should use the right tools.

“Physical bits of stationery are not the first thing that come to mind when you think about designing software”

So, here’s my list of stuff that I use, and some notes on what I use it for. Below I’ve taken a picture of my full toolset, and I’ll go through each one in turn. I’d love to get your feedback on these choices and what you use.

Pens.

There are only two pens I need. PaperMate Flair in black and red, and standard Sharpie in black. I use pens for writing, of course, and for drawing simple wireframe interfaces - the PaperMate Flair is best for this, and the sharpie is best for writing on Post-its. The sharpie is also great for highlighting bits of interfaces. 

I find these two pens give me the full range of line quality I need. I can go to a pretty high resolution, but also keep things open and indeterminate in order to invite feedback. A note on pens not to use: Biros - no. Not clear enough. Other colours - no. Unnecessary distraction and they don’t show up on coloured Post-its.

Paper.

A3 and A4 + cheap sketch books. That is all the paper you need. I like to take a big stack of new paper when I sit down to do interface sketching, as it makes it feel like there’s lots of potential. 

A3 is best as you can draw a reasonably ‘screen sized’ box, but still have space for annotations or a smaller mobile view concept. I’ve finally settled on the 99p sketch books (ruled, squared or plain I don’t mind) as I draw so many big pointless doodles that Moleskines felt totally over specified.

“Sketching interfaces on paper is an essential part of software design”

I think that sketching interfaces on paper is an essential part of software design - its often where you come up with really new ideas, and its also the only place you can really conceptualise an entire app in one go (this normally requires sticking stuff on the wall).

Record cards.

These are essential to designing software. I use the 6” x 4” and 3” x 5” record cards for all sorts of things, but mainly for writing tasks / to do items for sprints (we then pin them on to large foam boards). They are also really useful for drawing tiny low resolution screens to illustrate key information required during stages of a user journey.

Post-its.

Only use Post-it branded Post-its. Cheaper Post-its are a false economy - they fall off the wall, and the colours are annoying. I prefer the warm neon and cool neon sets (I’d pick warm over cool generally) as this gives you a good range of colours to play with. I generally like to have all four main sizes available - tiny, square, letterbox and the ‘super sticky’ large size ones.

Cutting and sticking.

Once you’ve drawn your wireframes, printed off your graphics ideas you have to stick it all on the wall. 

Sticking things on the wall is a very important part of the design process - it gives you a huge canvas to visualise large flows through an app, lets you identify visual design inconsistencies and provides a way to get a group of people to feedback on an idea via notes, post-its and so forth. 

I like to use scotch / magic tape for connecting together pieces of paper, and then use coloured artist tape to highlight things or draw large grids on the wall an so on. Its also helpful to have a cutting mat, and a scalpel to hand.

“Sticking things on the wall is a very  important part of the design process”

Making it real helps make it better

In addition, sticking stuff up is just a great way of ‘socialising’ ideas around a company - the value of having something that people can see is huge, as it gives them something to ask you about. 

It’s often the ‘what are you working on’ unexpected conversations that lead to the big ideas, and having stuff up in and around your team’s space is a big catalyst for these moments.

So, that’s my stationery stack. What’s yours? Let me know on Twitter, and if you liked this post sign up for our newsletter below to get more of the same in your inbox once a week.