Why I still start all my design work on paper

Published by Nela Dunato on at 19:41 in Thoughts, Graphic design

Why I still start all my design work on paper

Like for most designers nowadays, all my final design work is a digital creation. However, in the beginning stages — logo brainstorming, website wireframes, illustration sketches, poster compositions — I prefer to work on paper. (You can see this process in detail in my posts inObscuro logo design process and Komfor band logo design process)

Even though some people are poking me to get a tablet PC because they're sure I'll absolutely love it, I'm postponing it as much as I can.

I know tablet PCs are practical. I know it would enable me to have an ebook reader and a sketchbook all in one. That's very nice. But actually, I'd rather not have it right now and rather invest money in something else.

If you're wondering why I decided against getting a tablet PC at the moment, here are my reasons, accompanied by some rough behind-the-scenes sketches.

Website wireframes on paper
Here are some very messy wireframes for my other website inObscuro. These are just a few of many such pages I've made for this project.

I already spend too much time online

This is the single most important reason behind my decision.

I spend way too much time in front of my computer, and now that I have a smartphone I'm online even when I'm outside. I have a terrible self-control when it comes to internet, so for the sake of not being online 24/7, I'd rather not get yet another mobile internet device. There.

But let's say that wasn't the problem, what other benefits might there be?

Rough logo sketches
Early concepts for 4D-monitoring visual identity on the left, and further development, plus an idea for a business card (and the finished business card) on the right.

I'm more focused when I work offline

Like most people nowadays, I have a terrible focus too, and find it very difficult to work with the Internet's siren song calling me to check e-mail, blog comments, Twitter, Facebook, deviantART and other corners multiple times in an hour.

Procrastination is usually at its highest in the beginning, before you even start your work. (By the way, I have a post on that as well: Productivity Tips from a Hopeless Procrastinator)

In the beginning stage when I still don't know what to do, this is a huge problem because every question "What do I do now?" can be answered with a devilish "You could check your e-mail..."

I have to be sitting away from my computer to remove this menace completely. I work on paper until I get a pretty good idea of what I'm going to do once I sit in front of my computer, and by then I'm already immersed in work and thus less likely to procrastinate.

It's easier to get a big picture when everything is in my view

My desk with sketches for a logo
My desk with sketches (and a questionnaire the client filled out) for the Wild Woman Spirit logo

When I work, I usually have papers strewn across my entire desk, giving me an overview of different approaches I've already tried. This enables me to go back and forth with different solutions, as well as having multiple references at a glance.

Even with a 2-monitor setup, I still can't quite get this effect on my computer — even less on a tablet.

Limitations of the medium can be helpful

I always start working in grayscale, with a pencil or a pen, and a lot of time even when I'm working digitally. This ensures that the graphics and interfaces are readable and easy understandable even when no color is present. When working digitally it's easy to skip this step and dive right into color combinations, ignoring the effect only placement and value contrast can have.

When working in grayscale, low-res medium such as graphite or ink, you can immediately see where the problems arise. For example areas are too thin or too close together, or it's not clear what the design is about without color.

Basically, every design should work even in black and white. If it doesn't work in black & white, it won't work in color either.

Hand-lettered logo for a band, made in ink
Hand-lettered logo for the band Komfor, made in ink. The entire process is documented in my blog post: Komfor band logo design process

It just doesn't feel the same

Even though I'm a happy Wacom Intuos user (which is years ahead of tablet PCs in terms of ergonomics and responsiveness), that's still not exactly like traditional media. Nor will it ever be in my opinion, nor does it really have to be.

Digital and traditional mediums are different, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. I prefer sketching on paper to sketching digitally, and I'm also pretty particular when it comes to choosing art supplies for my sketching toolkit.

More opportunity for happy accidents

Each medium has its own personality, and you should accept it for what it is, even if it frustrates you.

Traditional tools can offer another dimension to your work that you may miss if you work only digitally. Your stream of consciousness as you doodle could take you places you wouldn't gotten otherwise. It's exciting, and it has been helpful to me in the past.

Rough logo concepts on paper
Early logo concepts for Adventure For Me

Ink runs much longer than a battery

Both tablets and sketchbooks are great for working outside. Right?
However there is the little issue of battery life.

I don't often run out of ink in my pen, but even when I do I have several other alternatives in my bag.
When I run out of battery on my phone, I don't have a spare phone.

Now this may not be a good enough reason to you because you always make sure to charge your tablet, but to me charging the phone is enough of a hassle so I'm not super into being dependant on the nearest power outlet.

Sketchbook with a rough sketch of a poster
Sketchbook with a rough sketch of a poster for Rikon 2012. I got an idea for this poster while being outside, and noted it down immediately.

People usually don't steal sketchbooks

I like to carry my sketchbook around because I think it's essential that we're able to note our ideas anytime, anyplace (which I also recommend to all creatives). I especially like to take my sketchbook to the beach. I can leave it in my bag without fear it won't be there when I come back.

(You can check out some examples of stuff I like to do in my sketchbooks while on the beach in my post Sketchbook Adventures: Summer Lettering Fun.)

I do leave my phone out of sight occasionally, but I would never, ever leave a tablet unobserved because dat shit's expensive, yo!

I'm sure I could think of more, but this is what came off the top of my head right now.

What do you prefer, digital, traditional or a combination? Why is that?


Nela Dunato

About Nela Dunato

Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.

On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...

Your comments

  • Karen J

    Karen J
    2014-04-02 at 17:57


    "The paperless office" was somebody's idealistic fever-dream. It's been held up as THE ideal for everybody - even though there is no such thing as "One size fits all (well)" - in any context at all!

    I too Love-Love-Love my pens and pencils (and crayons) - they use whole different pathways in the brain than keyboards and screens. They engage my body in whole other ways than a keyboard and mouse. And a "stack of drafts" is visible proof (to the Doubters in my head) that I *have* been "doing something productive", even if it's still not ready for prime-time!

    Blessings to you, Nela!
    Looking forward to more ...

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