10 reasons why creatives should start working with a pen and paper

Ogilvy's group creative director, John Long, encourages the pen and paper approach

Have you thought about the effect technology has on your creative work? Maybe you should. Over the years, as agencies connected our desktops to the internet, wired our offices with wifi, doled out laptops and finally, smartphones, few paused to consider their impact on our work.

Like giddy children on Christmas morning, we snatched up these shiny new digital tools with glee, dismissing the few skeptics as cranky old timers or Luddites.

Today, we still love our InDesign, our Photoshop, our Final Cut, our Word. Okay, nobody really loves Word — but you get the point. It’s understandable that we love these things because they’ve undeniably taken a lot of the tedium out of our jobs.

But have they improved the work? I doubt it.

A lot has been written about the decline of craft in advertising recently, and if you accept that premise, I submit that technology has played a role in that decline. I’m not arguing technology is the primary culprit, but it’s surely a factor. Craft will inevitably suffer when HD video can be shot with a smartphone and delivered almost instantly to millions. That’s just common sense.

But I also wonder about technology’s effect on the most important tool at our disposal: our minds.

Look, we can’t un-ring the bell. And no one — including me — wants to go back to typewriters, Photostats or 35mm. But we could take an alternative approach and choose to use tech selectively and thoughtfully.

So here’s my modest proposal to creatives: the next time you get a new brief, start the work by hand, on paper. (Sorry, a stylus and tablet don’t count.) Once you’re into rounds and executions, by all means, fire up that MacBook Pro. But try — just try — starting the old fashioned way.

Here are 10 reasons why you should.

  1. Digital is distracting. Creative thinking happens when the mind has time to wander—when you’re a bit bored. And if you’re constantly fidgeting with emails, Facebook updates, and text messages—you’re selling the work short by handicapping yourself.
  2. Writing by hand stimulates your brain. According to Forbes, an Indiana University study found that freehand writing stimulates the brain in three distinct areas that typing doesn’t—and has a similar effect on the brain as meditation.
  3. Writing and drawing by hand slows you down—in a good way. The efficiency of technology has tricked us into believing we can produce great ideas quickly, like magic. We can’t—excellence still takes time and focus. “Perhaps the greatest thing about handwriting is that the very act of doing it forces you to focus on what’s important. It is, in essence, a moment of mindfulness,” neuroscientist Dr. Claudia Aguire writes at Headspace.
  4. Writing by hand enhances learning. Researches at Princeton and UCLA found that students learn better when taking notes by hand, partially because of what scientists refer to as “concept mapping.” Enhanced learning comes in handy in advertising as we frequently have to produce work for new clients and unfamiliar categories.
  5. When you write by hand you actually produce more ideas. A University of Washington study showed that “when children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas.”
  6. Scribbling is fun. There’s a reason you did it when you were a kid. Craft is tedious, backbreaking work. But in the early ideation stage you need room to mess around. And when you’re just starting to crack a brief, you need more rough ideas and fewer polished ones.
  7. Writing by hand makes you smarter. Okay, that’s probably an exaggeration. But Psychology Today outlined a myriad of cognitive benefits to writing by hand, including comparing its effect on the brain to playing a musical instrument. Pretty cool.
  8. Paper doesn’t have a “delete” button. When you write or sketch by hand, you have a permanent record. Sometimes you get lucky and land on something good early on—and if you’re deleting as you work, you could be throwing away gold.
  9. It’s easy to fall into patterns in digital. Very easy. And we’ve all done it. Starting a new project with an old template. Repurposing material from a previous save. The same fonts, patterns, grids. A blank piece of paper simply doesn’t have all that baggage.
  10. The greatest advertising campaigns in history were created that way. Helmut Krone didn’t use InDesign to create the Volkswagen “Lemon” ad and Steve Hayden didn’t concept the 1984 spot with MS Word. Be like Helmut Krone and Steve Hayden.

On a personal note, I’ve tried this pen-and-paper-first approach myself and was genuinely surprised by the results. The bottom line: almost everyone in our business seems to own a Moleskine notebook. Try putting them to use for something more important than meeting notes. You might just find that your work gets better.

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