How The Post-It Note Could Become The Latest Innovation Technology


David Lavenda

March 26, 2014

In 1978, F.W. Lancaster, an information scientist from the University of Illinois, prophesied the dawn of a paperless society in his book Toward Paperless Information Systems. In the book, Lancaster laid out the evolutionary steps from print to electronic publications, starting with scientific journals and eventually leading to popular literature.

Thirty-six years later, how close have we come to Lancaster's prediction? On one hand, the use of paper has been on the decline over the last 10 years in the U.S., thanks to a transition to the likes of electronic newspapers, ebooks, and magazines. On the other hand, the average American still uses 531 pounds of paper every year, according to Statista. And worldwide, the use of paper is actually increasing.

So it's ironic that the transition from paper to electronic documents is considered innovative and futuristic, while the newest tool in the innovation shed might just turn out to be a 2,000 year old invention: paper.

From Document Routing to Innovation Catalyst

Two years after Lancaster prophesied paper's demise, 3M introduced the Post-it Note.

Initially conceived as a way to bookmark pages, organizations quickly discovered the business value of Post-it Notes, using them for routine tasks such as routing stacks of paper documents, according to Jeff Hillins, global business director for Post-it Brand. Slapping a yellow Post-it Note on a stack of papers with instructions for the next reviewer was simple and intuitive.

But with the rise of electronic documents, the need for Post-it Notes to route office documents began to decline. While still used for myriad other purposes, such as recording passwords and leaving notes for colleagues, the Post-it Note was almost headed for the Smithsonian.

But the little, sticky papers are now getting a second life, seeing a resurgence in a new and unforeseen way; as a tool for innovation and collaboration.

In his book, Change by Design, Tim Brown, CEO of the design and innovation company Ideo, recommends the Post-it Note as a perfect tool for brainstorming, because it provides a way to converge on a solution when many possibilities exist.

Specifically, Brown proposes brainstorming sessions, during which each idea is written on a single Post-it Note and then stuck to a wall. Then, each participant is given a stack of Post-it Notes and told to stick a note on each idea they like. The ideas that accumulate the most Post-it votes progress to the next stage. This process continues until consensus emerges.

Abigail Sellen, principal researcher at Microsoft Research and co-author of The Myth of the Paperless Office, explains why this works. "Paper is a temporary medium," Sellen says. "And Post-it Notes were designed to be temporary, including how they stick to things." So using short-term uses like brainstorming and innovation processes are a perfect application for Post-it Notes.

Sellen points out other properties that make paper ideal for ideation. Paper is particularly good for moving from private spaces to public spaces when working with others, she says. The Post-it Note allows you to take ideas from your mind and share them with colleagues. Paper is also easy to share on a large canvas, because it is not being limited by the size of a computer screen. It can be stuck on top of other things, such as flipboards, walls, and tables. Furthermore, paper affords free-form annotation, so marking up ideas with a pen or marker is simple. Paper also affords following a history of ideas, since one note can be laid directly on top of another.

With all paper has going for it, Sellen says she is not even sure paper consumption will decrease in the workplace, but she points out that we will probably throw more of it away.

Using paper to unlock solutions

Image: Flickr user Jason de Runa

With all the focus today on design and innovation, 3M has identified the need for specialty Post-it Notes products. To educate the public about the utility of Post-it Notes for innovation and collaboration, 3M recently launched a Post-it Note Collaboration website. The website provides 13 suggestions for using Post-it Notes for "building brilliant ideas together," including storyboards, fishbone diagrams, mindmapping, and affinity diagrams. The website includes detailed instructions for how to complete each process.

Analog Meets Digital in a Paper World

How long will paper continue to be the right tool for planning and ideation? How long will it take someone to figure out how to replicate paper's utility in the digital space? An interesting development in the paper world of innovation/collaboration is the synthesis of Post-it Notes with digital technologies.

Recently, 3M and Evernote got together to enable people to marry Post-it Notes to electronic documents, or in Hillins's words, join "analog to digital" technologies. The new product lets people photograph a Post-it Note. It then translates handwritten notes into searchable text and uses the paper color to categorize the note into predefined subjects.

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Using Evernote with Your Post-it Notes

Can the Post-it Notes go completely digital? A variety of digital Post-it Note apps already exist, but the properties that make paper attractive doesn't translate directly to the digital world. Sellen believes that we will get there, but she wasn't willing to offer a prediction of how long it will take--probably a wise move considering the success of Lanscaster's 36-year-old prediction of the paperless office.

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