start with a blank piece of paper

I think this might be one of my best pieces of advice when it comes to communicating effectively with data: start with a blank piece of paper.

I've never encountered a child who didn't enjoy a blank piece of paper and what they can do to it with the simplest of materials: a crayon, a pencil, a pen. For some reason, something seems to happen to most of us over time where we stop drawing. Even if you don't consider yourself to be particularly talented in this space, I want to implore you to channel your inner child. Don't start with your graphing application or presentation software; rather, start with a blank piece of paper and a pencil (or a blank whiteboard can also work well).

Here are a couple of thoughts on why:

  • Iterating is easier: There's something about creating a graph in your graphing application or a slide in your presentation software that causes you to develop attachment towards it. Sometimes, even if we know something isn't quite right, if we've already built the graph or slide, we feel hesitancy towards changing it. This doesn't happen with paper. When I've drawn something, if it isn't quite right, I can quickly recycle the paper and start with a fresh one. Or erase my whiteboard and start fresh. 
  • Clutter doesn't enter the picture: This struck me as I was preparing for a workshop last week where we did an exercise starting with blank paper: when you draw a graph, you don't introduce the sort of visual clutter that many graphing applications do. Starting with a blank page lets you focus on the data, what you want to show, and what you want to emphasize. Get your visual looking right on paper, then use that as your guide when you create the real visual.

In what situations do you find yourself trading in your computer for pencil and paper? What benefits does that approach have beyond what I've outlined here?