Whiteboarding 101

A seize-the-marker guide to collaborating in meetings

A colorful collection of writing tools and sticky notes, with drawn-on graphic art, arranged in an organized collage.

Illustration by Beci Orpin

I recently shared the output of a day-long collaboration workshop with my design team at Adobe. Over the day we filled up the whiteboard many times over, and papered the wall with sticky notes. I received a lot of questions about how the workshop was run and structured, how to keep participants engaged, and how to channel all that energy into meaningful outcomes. I put together this presentation a few years ago to teach the basics of whiteboarding.

Everything in it is based on practical knowledge picked up over years of guiding workshops and filling whiteboards at agencies, Facebook, Twitter, and now at Adobe. If you’re a designer, product manager or engineer who wants to have more focused, collaborative meetings, hopefully this will give you a few ideas.

Note: All slides were done with a bullet-tip dry-erase marker on copier paper because... practice what you preach.

Why go to the whiteboard?

Between Slack, Email, Keynote, XD, wikis, Trello, and 15 other collaboration, project planning, and messaging apps, why would you even need to get so… analog? This is a rhetorical question. I think we all know why. Because of LOADD: Laptops Open Attention Deficit Order. LOADD is real.

Every time you casually open your laptop or flip over your phone, 100 apps call your name. Suddenly you’re compelled to Slack that mission-critical meme making the rounds of your dev team, or review a boatload of notifications on Twitter. There are so many things more important than that strategy slide your boss’s boss is sharing about Q2 KPIs. There aren’t really, but you let yourself think that. Bringing your attention and critical thinking back to the matter at hand is a herculean feat. That’s where whiteboards come in.

"Laptops-open Attention Deficit Disorder is Real" written in black marker alongside a stick figure viewing a laptop with "I can multitask" in a speech bubble.

Focus, focus, focus

Going to the whiteboard is an excellent way to capture people’s attention, refocus the meeting, and guide the conversation to more productive outcomes. If people see you really listening, writing down their ideas, and integrating them into a meaningful discussion they’re more likely to drop their distractions and collaborate.

"You can use the whiteboard to: Focus the meeting. Guide the conversation. Visualize context" written in black marker.

Whiteboard sessions are a great way to map out the context around the decisions you need to make, align your team around shared goals and expectations and, most importantly, let everyone contribute. Instead of meetings feeling like one-way broadcasts, they’re more like a play, where everyone can have a voice and play a part.

"A good session can: Align your team. Let everyone contribute. written above four stick figures each with a single-word speech bubble: Now. It. Makes. Sense." written in black marker.

Who should you whiteboard with?

You should whiteboard with anyone: your team, your cross-functional peers, your boss, anyone with whom you need to accomplish a creative or strategic goal. Whiteboarding with other people opens up the creative process, so that people don’t feel that they have to have everything figured out before they contribute. It lets groups form ideas together, and build a shared understanding of the problem.

You should whiteboard with anyone: your team, your cross-functional peers, your boss, anyone with whom you need to accomplish a creative or strategic goal.

Whiteboarding with other people opens up the creative process, so that people don’t feel that they have to have everything figured out before they contribute. It lets groups form ideas together and build a shared understanding of the problem.

If you work at a tech company (or any large organization) you spend half of your meetings deciphering code names and acronyms. Is that the IUS RPQ or the CDX Redux you’re working on? Is that Project Sharknado or Project Mothra that will handle all the new data? The jargon creates an abstraction layer that makes it hard to know what anyone is talking about. A few boxes and arrows on the whiteboard can make it clear what you actually mean, how products and services connect, and whether you’re talking about the same basic concept, even if you’re using different words to express it.

A black marker sketch of two dry erase boards with writing each with stick figures in front of them and above them the words (left) "Your team" and (right) "Your E.P.D."

When should you whiteboard?

You should whiteboard at the beginning, middle and end of your project, and especially anytime you get stuck. It’s the perfect way to get your understanding of a complex topic up on the board and let other people share what they think about it.

In the beginning use the whiteboard to record priorities and assumptions, to define who you’re designing your product for, and to capture the opportunities and challenges ahead. The start of a project is also a fantastic time to map out your team, your partners, stakeholders, and dependencies.

Black marker sketches alongside the words: "At the beginning... Set priorities. Define your audience. Identify toughest problems."

In the middle, whiteboard sessions are great at mapping out crucial flows, discussing your ideal product experience versus the MVP you’re going to ship, and prioritizing feature sets (sticky notes are great for that).

Black marker sketches alongside the words: "At the middle... Ideal product vs. MVP. Map key flows. Sort/rank features."

At the end you can use the whiteboard as an open canvas for retrospectives, letting your team share what worked, what didn’t work so well, and what the team needs to do differently (there are lots of great structures for retros and whiteboards are the perfect canvas).

Black marker sketches alongside the words: "At the end... Retrospectives. Brainstorm version 1.1."

Whiteboards are also an excellent tool for brainstorms and design thinking workshops. I’ve shared some good models for those below!

What goes on the whiteboard?

Filling up all that whiteboard space can feel as intimidating as filling a blank sheet of paper, so creating a little structure helps. Here’s a basic layout for organizing your whiteboard for a big workshop:

Black marker sketch with heading "The Basics" and under it three columns: Left Rail, Middle (where all the magic happens), and Right Rail.

The left rail is for meeting info, the middle is for most of your content, and the right rail is for big questions, action items and a “parking lot.” I often sketch out this structure before the meeting begins. When people walk into the room they know it will be a structured conversation, versus a slideshow. When you tell them to close their laptops and put their phones down, having that structure on the wall makes device withdrawal easier.

In the left rail give a title and date to your whiteboard. Not only does this make the meeting feel official, but it’s absolutely crucial to identify your meeting when you’re searching through the whiteboard photos in your camera roll. Add the goal of the meeting, to set expectations of what people are here to do. Add a time-boxed agenda, even if that agenda might change during the session. Agendas mean that you’ve broken the goal down into manageable steps. A good agenda means that you respect people’s time, and plan on using it wisely. If there’s a successful outcome for the project, write that down too.

Black marker sketch with heading "What goes in the left?" and a list: Title + date. Goal of session. Timeboxed agenda. What success looks like.

The right rail is where you put the big unexpected questions, or mission critical action items that come up during the meeting. It’s also the place where you put the Parking Lot, an incredibly useful tool to help manage the meeting dynamic. It’s where you put any ideas or topics that don’t quite fit with your stated goals. If you don’t have a Parking Lot, a random suggestion will bounce around in the minds of your participants, crashing into your agenda at unexpected times. Once you park that idea, it stays parked.

Black marker sketch with heading "What goes in the right?" and a list: Parking lot (aka Island of misfit ideas). Big questions. Action items.

In the middle goes the good stuff, like context of usage, criteria for success, competitors and indirect competitors for your product, and concepts for what you might do next. It’s the working surface of your whiteboard. You’ll fill it up, take pictures and notes, erase it and fill it up again during a workshop (I usually leave the left and right rail up, just to keep the structure and Parking Lot intact).

Black marker sketch with heading "In the middle?" and a list: Context. Criteria. Competition. Concepts. Things that start with C.

If I’m facilitating and/or scribing a conversation I tend to break the middle space into columns (blame my publication class in design school). It’s easier to document and read columns instead of free form, meandering sentences. Use bullets for each distinct idea or comment. Underline new topics as you move through the conversation. Circle or star those things that stick out to you, so you can remember them post-workshop. That’s all the basic whiteboard structure you need to get started. But wait, there’s more…

Black marker sketch divided into three columns. Left: Helpful tips. Write in columns. Use bullets. Underline topics. Favorite ideas as you go. Middle: Why? Easier to read, transcribe, remember. Right: lorem ipsum text.

Behold, Maps & Models!

I wanted to share some models, beyond basic note-taking, that can really help to transform your meetings. Many of these come from working with designers, PMs, producers, researchers, and strategists at places like Continuum, Hot Studio, Facebook, Twitter, and Adobe. I’d think of them as recipes. You can use them for a variety of purposes: to start a design sprint, brainstorm with your product & engineering team, get aligned with stakeholders, or to kick-off new projects with clients.

I’ll give a brief rundown of each model, and how each can run as a workshop activity. In most workshops we end up stringing a couple of these together, usually ending in a brainstorm session after we’ve developed a shared understanding of the problem we’re trying to solve.

Black marker sketch with a dialogue between two stick.figures. First: "That's all? Fancy Notes?" Second: "No... Behold Maps! and Models!"

Whiteboard Model / Empathy Exercise

Empathy exercise works best with research in the room, or with people who have a good understanding of who their customer is. The primary purpose of this is not to unlock a brilliant, undiscovered insight, but to bring everyone up to the same baseline understanding of who the user is. The dark secret of product design is that everyone tends to start designing for themselves, even if they are not aware of it. Drawing a big friendly picture of the actual customer on the wall, and discussing what they need, want and dream about reminds everyone that this is not about you, this is about his/her/their needs.

Basically, it’s a simplified version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You start by talking about what the user needs, then what they want, then what they dream about. It gets a little speculative, but it usually sparks a good dialog. The perfect follow-up is a short presentation from a researcher, if you’re lucky enough to have one on your team, where they share some unexpected insights about real users. This is a good warm-up exercise to start off the day. Participants write their observations on 3 x 5 sticky notes with permanent markers and hand them to the facilitators who read them off and post them on the board. Over the course of the activity the model fills up with people’s thoughts and perspectives about the user. You get a good sense of what people know and don’t know, and what they might need to learn.

Black marker sketch with the heading "Empathy Exercise" and word/image pairings underneath: Persona: Niche Nerd. Dream. Want. Need 3 x 5 sticky notes.

Whiteboard Model / Context of Usage

Context of usage is about mapping out when, where, how, and why people are using your product. Start by drawing a basic picture of your user (stick figures are OK) in the middle. Write these headings in a semicircle around it, then work your way around the circle, with participants calling out ideas and you recording them by each heading.

Black marker sketch with the heading "Context of Usage Sports Fan" and word pairings underneath: When (Time of day). What (Content). Who (Influencers). Where (Environment). Why (Motivation). How (Device).

Whiteboard model / journey map

Journey maps are a useful starting point for understanding the path users take to discover and engage with your product or service. You can do them in countless different ways, but breaking a long complex process into major stages, and specific steps, is one simple way to draw it. It helps you to quickly understand all the touchpoints people come into contact with, and how each stage involves many different activities and decisions along the way. You can leave the structure blank, or map out the major stages then fill in the steps with your team, and if you need to add a stage or erase a step... that’s the magic of doing it on a whiteboard.

The journey map is a hypothesis; reality rarely lines up as neatly as the journey map you draw on the board. Real user journeys quickly branch into loops, trees and dead ends, but that’s a topic for a deeper dive. One good approach is to work with research teams or shadow users to understand their true journey, with all the bumps and bruises, so that when you define an ideal customer journey, you can seek to address the biggest pain points.

Black marker sketch with the heading "Basic Journey Map Steps in Each Stage," the subhead "Major Stages" and list headings for Discover. Learn. Decide.

Whiteboard model / big jobs, little jobs

Big jobs/little jobs is an effective tool to break down a big decision or activity into all the smaller “jobs” that influence it. For instance, the big job of buying a car, breaks down into smaller jobs like research, test-drive, and financing. Each of the smaller jobs is surrounded by different contexts and challenges. Mapping out the challenges makes it easier to identify, and address, specific opportunities.

Black marker sketch with the heading "Big Jobs/Little Jobs," the subheads "Big Job: Buy a car" and "Small Jobs: Research. Test drive. Financing."

Whiteboard model / Points of entry

Points of entry documents all the paths users take to arrive at your product or service. If you’re working on a small part of a bigger digital service, ask yourselves how and why people will arrive at your part of the universe. When they land, what’s the most important thing for them to see first? What’s the action you want them to take? Work with your team to map out all the points of entry, and how different paths will affect the user’s state of mind.

Black marker sketch with the heading "Points-of-Entry" and the subheads "On Twitter" and "Off Twitter" both pointing to "Desired actions."

Whiteboard model / Mash-up

Mash-ups are a great brainstorm exercise when you want to figure out how to integrate two different, but complementary aspects of your product or service. Start by mapping out all the unique attributes, features and characteristics of your product. Do the same thing for the product or service that you want to integrate. The goal is to use the exercise to create a lens that helps you see both products and services differently. What are their shared characteristics and when does the overlap transform two products into something completely new?

Black marker sketch with the heading "Mash-ups" and a Venn diagram with Stickers in one circle, Twitter in another, and Magic: Stickers on Twitter where they intersect.

Whiteboard model / Co-design

Co-design is a great way to democratize the design process and allow non-designers to play a role in it. Start with a very crudely drawn box, just a simulation of the product you’re trying to design. Put the contents, features, and nav that will fill the screen on sticky notes to the right and left. Based on the goal, what are the features and content that are most essential to your product?

Let everyone advocate for the top things that they think should go in the box. Then strip out half of the content that you put in. You can create different variations and snap them with your phone. This is a good activity for small groups with good working relationships. It allows the non-designers to play a more direct role in the conversation, and to see just how quickly that box gets crowded if you put in everything that’s listed in the Product Requirements document.

Black marker sketch of an iPhone with the heading "Co-design*" and underneath it list-making subheads: Goal. Content. Actions. Nav.

How do you whiteboard?

You don’t need an app, a laptop, a tablet, or a space-aged surface to run a whiteboard workshop. You need a few basic ingredients and the willingness to get up and write.

Black marker sketch with a stick figure asking "How do I whiteboard? Is it an app?" and the response "No" in a word bubble.

Basic ingredients for a whiteboard session

Black marker sketch with the heading "Basic Ingredients" and drawing/word pairings of a whiteboard, coffee/tea, flip charts, 3 x 5 sticky notes, fresh markers, permanent markers, clock or timer, a camera, a good plan.

The power of sticky notes

Sticky notes play a lot of valuable roles throughout the session. They are flexible, tangible and easy to move, cluster, and combine with other ideas. But they also help to democratize brainstorms. I usually mix sticky note exercises with discussions or scribing activities because they let everyone write down their ideas.

Open discussion sessions, where everyone is verbally contributing, favor the extraverts in the room; the people comfortable with their own voice and passionate about their opinions. You don’t always get to hear from the quiet, more deliberate thinkers in those sessions. Sticky notes level the playing field; giving everyone the space to think and write down their ideas before sharing them. Typically I mix big open conversations with sticky note sessions and small group work.

Black marker sketch with the heading "The Power of sticky notes!" along with the reasons they work: Let everyone contribute. Can be moved and sorted. Good for extroverts and introverts. Force people to be brief/clear.

Things to avoid: open laptops and buzzing phones

Have people close their laptops and flip their phones over. Slack, email, Twitter, and TikTok can wait. People rarely get the chance to have focused, productive conversations at work and this is their chance to put all their thought and insight into the challenge at hand. Help them focus by asking them to set their distractions aside.

Black marker sketch with the heading "What to Avoid" with drawing/word pairings of open laptops and phones within reach.

Things to avoid: dried-out markers

There is a place for dried-out markers: the trash. Dried-out markers lurk like vampires in forgotten conference rooms, ready to suck the life out of workshops, by making your ideas illegible and leaving everyone squinting and confused. When you start writing with a marker and you’re not sure what color it is, throw it the #%&@ away. THROW IT AWAY!

Black marker sketch with the heading "Dried-out Markers!" with drawings of markers and the phrases "I feel faint," What color am I?," and "#ThrowAway."

Work on those fonts!

Everyone’s whiteboard writing is terrible at first. It takes a while to turn your mouse-hand into an effective writing tool. But it gets better. The more you write, the clearer it gets. Pretty soon your shoulder will be like iron and you’ll be a whiteboard calligrapher. But don’t limit yourself to just using words, why not try some basic shapes?

Black marker sketch with the heading "Work on Your Fonts!" and the phrases "Ship that app," "Make a moment," "Think about the user...," and "Time to prototype." each written in a different style.

Circles are magic!

If you can draw a circle, or an oval, or even a roughly circular blob, there are so many diagrams and maps and models you can make. Adding a circle to your whiteboard adds emphasis and focus... even drama. What will go in the circle? What will be left outside? You’ll immediately capture your participants' attention.

Black marker sketch with the heading "Circles Are Magic" with drawing/word pairings of Venn diagrams, mind maps, and journey maps.

Fun with shapes and arrows

If you think circles blow people’s minds, try some of the advanced whiteboard graphics above. Don’t get scared; they’re just a bunch of lines, triangles, and squiggly shapes, but they create drama, highlight important ideas and help people break out of their bullet-pointed point of view.

Black marker sketch with the heading "Fun with Shapes + Arrows" with drawings of arrows, line weights, word bubbles, stars, boxes, and lightbulbs.

Stick figures and smiley faces

Finally, it’s good to get comfortable drawing things that signify people. They don’t need to look the slightest bit realistic; smiley faces and stick figures are perfect. A hand can look like a fork, and a phone can look like a toaster pastry. It doesn’t matter; that tiny bit of representation will bring warmth and humanity to your whiteboard session. You probably doodle things like this already during long meetings; just enlarge your doodles by 800% and put them on the board.

Black marker sketch with the heading "People + Phones" with drawings of hands, phones, stick figures, and smiley faces.

Put it all together

Once you get comfortable with basic shapes and writing on the whiteboard you can begin stringing them together into more advanced layouts like the one shown above. The goal is to create structures for collaboration and co-creation, not works of art. The magic happens when that model fills up with everyone’s ideas.

Black marker sketch with the headings "Persona" and "Ideal experience" and underneath them list-making subheads: Insights. Content. Engagement. Interaction.

Your role

When you’re running a whiteboard session you’ll play a lot of different roles:

It’s a lot to take on by yourself, and you don’t have to. Recruit some teammates to join you, then take turns facilitating, moderating and scribing for different parts of the session. Workshops work best with two to three people to share the different roles.

Black marker sketch with a stick figure standing at a dry erase board writing the words Your role: Conductor. Facilitator. Performer. Scribe.

Best practices

Listen deeply. You’ve got your back to the room, scribing madly to record all the ideas floating through the air. It takes all of your attention to make sure you’ve captured the important points. I ask people to slow down, speak in headlines, and to not talk over each other. If there’s a big idea I didn’t quite hear, I turn around, focus on the person and ask them to repeat what they said. It shows that you’re paying attention and that you care about their perspective.

Write down everything you hear, to the best of your ability. Don’t edit people out, even if they say something completely ludicrous. People will test you, just to see how open and receptive you are. When you write down everything it shows the participants that you’re there to integrate their thinking, not critique it or edit it.

Distill, don’t filter. You don’t have to incorporate “um,” “like,” and “I think.” You’re not a court reporter, your job is to capture what they mean, not every sound they make. If you can boil a long statement into a crisp headline without losing the meaning, go ahead. Do your best to write down the essential details of each comment.

Keep things moving. You’ll know when your team is running out of steam. Change topics, start the next activity, have a quick break, bust out the cookies. Do what you need to to boost the energy of the room back up.

Black marker sketch with the heading "Best Practices" and underneath it Listen hard. Write everything down. Distill, don't filter. Keep things moving.

Seize the marker!

Hopefully some of the tools and advice I’ve shared will help you to incorporate whiteboarding into your daily practice, or integrate a whiteboard activity into your next workshop. This is a rough draft, not a TED Talk. If you’d like to learn more about any of the models or methods in the article please comment away and I’ll plan some deeper dives in the future. Until then, SEIZE THE MARKER!

Black marker sketch of a stick figure saying "And seize the marker!" with the words Go whiteboard! Thanks! MC underneath it.

A few good books

I skimmed the surface in this article, based on my personal experience. If you’d like to dive deeper into the intersection of drawing, design thinking and business, here are a few great books and resources:

This article originally appeared on Medium.