Hit print

Cross-posted from LinkedIn.

In our digital and environmentally conscious workplaces, paper is becoming rarer. Our tools are digital, and our deliverables are posted to shared servers or passed around through email and chat apps. Printing on paper is even actively discouraged in some cases. I know someone whose email signature encourages readers to think twice before printing in order to preserve natural resources.

That’s an admirable sentiment. However, our team has found that printing documents and posting them on our walls has driven our team to new heights of efficiency and creativity. Lately, we’ve been printing almost everything we’ve been creating and posting it in a common area near our desks. Here are some reasons we’ve been doing that and some things we’ve learned along the way.

Printouts let you see relationships

Because the human eye saccades extremely quickly, we are able to take in a vast amount of visual information by simply glancing around. The reasons for that are evolutionary and beyond our scope here. The key thing to know is that you’re able to take in a lot more information when it’s arranged spatially in front of you than you are by accessing chunks of it in a serial fashion, such as when you click through a slide deck or navigate a computer folder. That’s why infoviz guru Edward Tufte has long advised that you buy the biggest computer display you can afford — the efficiency you gain when you can use eye movement instead of clicks and gestures to compare information is massive. For the foreseeable future, we will not have digital displays that cover our surrounding walls and let us quickly and easily post vast amounts of high resolution visual documents to them. For now, we have printouts.

Don’t just print the new stuff, either. Sometimes, when I dig into my archives, I’m surprised to find gems that are highly relevant to current work. Printing old, relevant work and posting it next to current work is a better way of exploring the relationship between these than would be putting them in the same directory of files. It also gives your work a sense of continuity and purpose, since it reminds you that many problems that seem very different aren’t really so, and that you’ve steadily been gaining expertise in your area of focus.

Showing other people printouts is courteous and effective

Studies have shown that people report that reading paper is more relaxing and easier for understanding complicated information when compared to reading a screen. If you want a good user experience for the stakeholders for whom you’re creating stuff (and you should), let them enjoy your work on paper, at least some of the time.

It’s easier to remember information you saw on paper, too. We can retain information seen in digital files, of course, but current evidence points to paper as superior for memory formation. One theory to explain this is that we use multiple senses when we encounter paper, including haptics and smell, so we have richer sensory input associated with the information. It also may be because paper allows us to use spatial memory. By laying out documents on a wall, you give people another way to retain the information you’re trying to communicate. For example, viewers might associate one of your ideas with the top corner of the wall next to the door, and this may make it stickier in their minds.

The spatial relationship between your viewers and the printouts is also something to consider and design intentionally. Important material that you really want people to see should be posted so that its center is about 57 inches above the floor. This is the same height many galleries use when they hang artwork, and allows a comfortable viewing angle for most people regardless of height. Oftentimes, if we have a document with many design concepts in it, we will post our favorite ones at eye level, and let the others proliferate above or below so that passersby who stop to spend more time exploring can discover them.

Immersing yourself in your work lets you enjoy the fruit of your labor.

There’s something to be said for the way documents up on walls establish the presence of your team to other departments and promote your team’s value to the organization. While it’s important that the wider org understands the value you bring, perhaps more important is the feeling of being immersed in your own good work as you spend time in the office. Humans do work for a variety of reasons, but one of them is for the satisfaction of a job well done, and seeing your own work up in your surroundings makes you feel competent and plugged in.

Another advantage is that the team’s physical environment will change naturally to reflect the state of the team and the organization. When a project gets old, if it was really cool and people still enjoy remembering it, leave it up. You’ll instinctively know when the posted material gets stale. When that happens, take it down and recycle it. If it’s stale, it’s unlikely you’ll need it again very soon, and if you do, you can always print it again. What you don’t want is to feel burdened by the weight of past work or bothered by seeing work that you always wished you had iterated one last time, or that has negative feelings associated with it. If you get a heavy feeling when you see posted work, take it down. If you love it, consider it a part of the decor.