A whiteboard is pretty versatile. It can be used many times for many purposes. I use it during meetings and while working alone. In this post, I’ll explain how I use a whiteboard for creating visual aids.
1. Visual Brainstorming
I am very committed to the digital workspace. My library, papers, notes, handouts, etc. are in the cloud (more about that in this post). I do all of my reading and writing on a computer or a smartphone. But very occasionally a physical workspace trumps my digital workspace.
Visual brainstorming is one task for which a physical workspace outshines the digital counterpart. By ‘visual brainstorming’ I just mean our attempt to visualize some project, decision, outcome, etc. Because working memory is limited, it is helpful to externalize one’s ideas on something like a whiteboard so that cognitive resources can be dedicated to achieving whatever end the brainstorming is aimed at. So, for example, when preparing a presentation, one will want to dump their ideas onto some easily accessible medium — like a whiteboard — and then work on turning that mess of ideas into a coherent slide deck, poster, handout, essay, etc.
To illustrate the utility of visual brainstorming, consider how one might make an academic poster. Here’s how I did it before I used whiteboards. I’d take the 3000-word paper that is supposed to become a poster, adjust the page dimensions to poster dimensions, and try to cut at least 1000 words from the paper. If I had time, then I’d try to add an image to help explain the big idea(s). The end result was basically a short essay on a huge piece of paper. E.g.,
Needless to say, these posters don’t exactly draw crowds at poster sessions.
More recently, I’ve started sketching out my poster ideas (and other ideas) on a whiteboard before making anything digital. And now I prioritize visualizations more than text. So, over the course of a few days, I’ll intermittently throw visualizations of the paper’s main ideas/findings onto a whiteboard as I think of them. And then I’ll spend an afternoon turning the best visualization(s) into one or two drafts of the poster (or slide deck, handout, etc.). That way, I have a pretty clear vision of the final product before I start tinkering on my computer.
2. Easy Access
My whiteboard is right next to my desk. So my visual brainstorming is always in my peripheral view. Curiously, breakthroughs on my visual brainstorming usually happen when I am working on something else. While at my computer, I will glance at my visual brainstorming and think of a way to visualize something better than any prior attempt. And since the white board is right next to me, it is easy to add these ideas to the whiteboard. And I can go right back to the work on my computer when I’m done.
3. Some Results
Since using a whiteboard, I find that the visual part of my teaching and presenting has improved. For instance, my posters are no longer covered in massive amounts of text. And when I’m lucky I find visualizations that communicate otherwise wordy and/or verbally complicated ideas. These two things make ideas easier to digest. Here’s an example of a more recent poster.
It often takes many sketches and drafts to figure out how I want to visualize ideas for conference presentations, class discussions, etc. Sketching lots of drafts via keyboard and mouse is tedious. It’s better on a physical surface. A tablet and a stylus are well-suited for this. But I’m a grad student. I don’t have money to for a tablet and stylus. So an otherwise redundant university whiteboard does the trick.