Traditional Tools for the Digital Trade

Maybe it’s the smell...or the texture...or the reminder that my hands can do more than type on a keyboard.

I can’t fully articulate my love for traditional tools, even as I work in the digital space for a digital agency to help our clients serve customers through digital experiences and channels.

The same tools I loved as a kid—pens, pencils, paper, and markers—are the same tools that I love and rely on each day. 

Of course, I still need my digital tools. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to do my job. But they bring with them some extra baggage, like:

  • Distracting or unnecessary features
  • Close proximity to the black hole of social media and email
  • The spinning wheel of death
  • Reliance on Wifi and/or power sources

Here’s how I use some of my favorite traditional tools in context of my every day.

Client Workshop Facilitation & Visioning Sessions

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Key tools: Post-its, Pens, Markers

Key benefits: Rapid pattern identification and relationship mapping

I like to go into workshops and visioning sessions with two sets of Post-it notes, each a different color.

Throughout conversation, I write down any goals I hear on one set of Post-its. These can range from the lofty, “Radically improve customer experience” to the more tactical, “Generate more qualified leads through the portal.”

With the other set of Post-its, I write down any hurdles, challenges or pain points that I hear. These can be explicitly expressed pain points OR latent ones extrapolated from conversation. Often, the latent insights are the most significant. These can range in complexity from internal barriers to not fully understanding the problem we're trying to solve.

I’ll stick these up on a wall during the conversation or after the meeting with internal teams during a regroup. This allows us to explore ways to group insights and map obstacles/challenges to goals. In many cases, we discover that a lot of smaller needs wrap up under one umbrella goal, or we identify a thread of obstacles that have an impact on a number of goals or initiatives. This relationship mapping leads to prioritization of next steps.

During research initiatives, we can apply this same methodology to build affinity diagrams. The possibilities are endless!

An information architect at heart, I love the flexibility to group, structure and understand how component parts (i.e. component insights) work together to help design productive paths forward.

Rapid Ideation & Prototyping

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Key tools: Graph paper, pen, markers, whiteboard

Key benefit: Smothering the internal editor and naysayer in all of us

There’s truth behind the common adage, “Behind every good writer is a brilliant editor.” It applies to any creative field, not just writing.

However, when exploring innovative approaches to problem solving, often it’s best to lock that internal editor in the basement. It’s easier to do this when you’re rapidly sketching in your notebook or on a whiteboard with your team.

You can sketch content ideas, user flows, campaign concepts, editorial calendars, content models, UI screens, activation plans, personas…truly anything…without the cognitive speed bumps that come with technology tools that slow our idea flow. This also keeps our ugly friend, fear, at bay.

You don’t need roots as a designer to sketch. All you need is the confidence to not give a shit about instant perfection, and to give more shits about getting to the best solution possible. I highly recommend live sketching with clients to build greater collaboration and information flow across teams.

Sketching allows us to be wrong quicker, which gets us to “awesome” even faster.

Designer Paula Scher designed the Citibank logo on a napkin. What else was invented on a napkin or scrap of paper…things meant to be thrown away?

Individual or Collaborative Note Taking

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Key tools: Roll of paper, notebook, pens/markers

Key benefits: Improved memory & slower thinking

During a group brainstorm or discussion, it’s fun to roll a ream of butcher paper across the table (yes, like Macaroni Grill) to set the stage for collaborative thinking. Creating opportunities for visual communication, rather than relying solely on verbal communication, can help reveal greater connections and spark new ideas.

The best part is: There’s an artifact to point back to long after the conversation has ended, which serves as a primer for future conversations.

To sum things up, the benefits and drawbacks of these traditional tools are as follows:


  • Allows for rapid insight capture that can be organized, categorized and synthesized through various methods
  • Cultivates deeper learning by writing notes by hand, activating a specific type of cognitive processing
  • Gives your eyes a much-need rest from screen time
  • Creates opportunities for more candid feedback; people are more likely to give an honest critique of something sketched than something polished
  • Creates freedom from idea constipation or the “curse of the blinking cursor”
  • Limits distractions and unnecessary constraints for more engaged listening


  • Messy handwriting can be difficult to translate (especially if it’s my handwriting…)
  • Sketches can leave things a little too open to interpretation without the right explanatory context
  • No simple, streamlined way to digitize notes
  • Pen smears on hands, clothes and occasionally one’s face

What about you? How do you use traditional tools in a digital world?