Image of a whiteboard.

Whiteboards & Visual Brainstorming

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. Visual brainstorming is what we do when we’re trying to figure out how to visualize something. This is especially important for preparing slides, posters, and handouts. But I also find it helpful for other tasks like outlining papers.

Here’s how I used to go about making a poster before using a whiteboard. I’d make a copy of a 3000-word paper on a computer, adjust the paper size to poster size, and cut about 1000 words to make it all fit. If I had time, then I’d try to add a couple of images. The end result was basically a 2000-word essay on a huge roll of paper. E.g.,

Nick Byrd: Philosophers' Brains Poster

Nick Byrd's Network Account of Willpower Poster

Needless to say, these didn’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. Over the course of a few weeks, I’ll sketch out some visualizations of the paper’s main ideas/findings. That way, I can envision my poster (or slides, etc.) before I even sit at the computer to make it.

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.

Nick Byrd's Cognitive Styles In Philosophy Poster

Conclusion

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.

Published by

Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. When he is not teaching, in the lab, writing, exercising, or relaxing, he is blogging at www.byrdnick.com/blog