The pen is mightier than the laser

by Andy Lester

When did we get so subservient to our new typeset-quality overlords that we have to apologize for anything done by hand? Why do we think that the Times New Roman Bold 24 point medium is more important than a well-written message?

Take a look at this sign from a high school drama department.


At the bottom, an apologetic addendum reads "Sorry for the hand written note... computers are not my friend today."

Look at that sign. It's wonderful. Its heading is clear, easily readable, and it catches the eye. The three bullet points are well-formed and thought out. The different colors help the reader differentiate between them.

Why would that sign have been any better if it was laser printed in Word? No clip art, or variety of fonts, or anything that any page layout program could offer, would make things better.

Where computers and printing help is in mass-produced items. Perhaps if this sign's creator had to create a dozen of them to paste around the school, it might have been a work savings, but it couldn't improve the quality.

In the World Of Business, there's no reason to bow down to the God Of Laser Printing, either. In my web development department, we've got Gantt charts and task breakdowns and laser-printed output all over the place, and yet I asked my project managers to create this "dashboard" for each project:


That sheet of paper is from a standard 2'x3' flip chart pad, taped up in our big common area, where everyone can see it from the end of the aisle of cubes. It's not pretty, but it shows me everything I need to know. Each phase in the project is shown, with a red, yellor or green circle to show its progress. Check marks show what's been done.

Pen and paper works on the small scale, too. Extreme Programming uses the concept of the "story card", a 3"x5" handwritten index card that shows high-level tasks to be done. They're easily shuffled and reorganized.

Stop assuming that the computer is the way to go!
Step back and consider what your target format is. Is it something you're mass-producing? Is it something that needs that "professional" look? Maybe you don't actually the computer to take care of it for you...

(For an earlier blog entry along these lines, see
The Curse Of Designing With Microsoft Word.)

When do you leave the computer behind and take pen to paper?


2004-04-26 23:28:34
the curse of the computer
It's the same as software design departments thinking that as long as they use UML and expensive tools to make diagrams they will automatically create a good design (in fact using those tools they'll more likely than not come up with impossible monstrosities, but that's another story).
People (and especially in this business) tend to be so focussed on using that machine that doing things by hand seems archaic (and in this hightech world archaic is by definition bad).
Also look at the proliferation of digital cameras.
Many people seem to think that film-based cameras are now suddenly bad and can't yield a good image now that digital cameras are around.
I've even seen people who will defend the bad points of digital cameras (inherent unsharpness, poor colour ballance) as advantages...
2004-04-27 00:30:15
The pattern is everywhere
This is another example of cargo cult -- of the belief that the ritual (in this case the use of a computer) produces the desired result. Or put the other way around, failure to understand that the ritual is just an artifact of the result.

This is just a particularly maddening example where someone actually achieved the desired result but failed to recognize it for fixation on the ritual.

Unfortunately, this pattern is fostered by the ever growing complexity of modern life.