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Putting pen to paper is the first step in the design process

Senior Product Designer at Discord Brittany Forks shares how her ideas take shape through the art of journaling
Putting pen to paper is the first step in the design process

What’s the first thing you do when you’re starting a new project? We recently asked that same question on Twitter and found that the majority of people start by sketching on paper. Our team is curious to hear and see more about that practice, so as part of our new interactive event series, Same Page, we’ll be asking folks to share their Process Pages with us. Process Pages are those first few drafts at the start of every project — whether they’re scribbles in a notebook, bullet lists in a journal, wireframes on an iPad, or diagrams on a whiteboard.

Brittany Forks is an expert at putting pen to paper. She regularly shares photos and stories about her journaling practice on her Twitter account. We asked Brittany about her methods and about the ways in which journaling and sketching help her share ideas with her team as a Product Designer at Discord. 

How long have you been journaling and what do you think the benefits of journaling are for you personally? 

I found journaling, by the way of scrapbooking oddly, I was an avid scrapbooker as a kid via the scrapbooking craze of the late 90’s. I loved documenting and celebrating milestones through art and design. I suppose scrapbooking is also responsible for my career as a designer as well. 

Throughout college I was a compulsive lecture notes re-writer and fancy notebook collector. I would experiment with elaborate note taking systems using multiple ink colors and highlighters. Early in my design career I’d always have a dot grid notebook handy to jot down ideas and sketch throughout the project lifecycle. 

I found the Hobonichi Techo community online in 2015 and was amazed at how each community member’s journal entries were intricately constructed with different pens, markers, stickers, and washi tapes. The community members would write about their day, but would also track all sorts of things about their daily lives in their pages like what outfit they wore that day, caffeine consumption, mood, incoming/outgoing mail, books they read, money they spent, and tasks completed. All of this was decorated with glitter, cute characters, and a rainbow of pens, markers, and paints. The Hobonichi Techo community represented the merging of two of my favorite things… meticulous documentation (quantified self) and graphic design. 

My journals are like time machines where I can get an idea of what I did and how I felt on that specific day. I can see trends in my habits and behavior and watch them change and evolve over time. This data is important because I use it to examine which habits are working well and which things I can leave behind. Sometimes it’s also fun to get nostalgic and flip through old journals. 

Why do you think the practice of journaling is helpful specifically for people who do design or design-adjacent work? 

Journaling is great for self-reflection and low-stakes unstructured creativity. Being creative in my journal allows me to experiment and fold what’s successful into my design process. The unsuccessful or unfinished pages are never seen, even then, there’s usually something good in the bad to fold into the next experiment. 

The unstructured nature of journaling allows me to connect things in my mind that I might not normally connect and that’s how you get unique and interesting solutions to problems in my personal work and professional work.

Your pages seem to incorporate a lot of different sketched and drawn images, as well as mixed media like sticker collages. Could you talk a little bit about your journaling process? 

My method changes slightly each year by which journal I choose. In the past I’ve mainly used the Hobonichi Techo Original that has a daily format or the Hobonichi Techo Weeks that shows a whole week on each spread. This year I chose the Jibun Techo DAYs, a totally new planner with a totally new format. In the DAYs, each day’s page has an hourly timeline running down the center of the page so my entries are centered around my daily schedule. 

Usually I pencil in what I did and ate that day around the timeline. After the schedule scaffolding is down, the creativity starts. Sometimes I’ll pick a theme and design the page around that, or if it’s a holiday I’ll theme the page around that. If I don’t know what to do I’ll pull up Instagram and browse some journaling hashtags to get some inspiration and begin sketching the full layout that way. After I’ve got the layout looking the way I want in pencil, I’ll pull out my pens, markers, and watercolor to ink and color everything in. During inking I’ll pull out my stickers and washi tapes to add in more decoration. I like to use stickers and washi to fill up blank space and cover up typos and mistakes. I’ve collected stickers forever, and journaling is a great excuse to use them. 

The DAYs incorporates many of the features of bullet journalling with the index pages, monthly and weekly spreads. I rarely fill the monthly or weekly spreads out because it’s easy enough to flip through my daily pages to get the data I need. As for to-do’s--I keep a whole other notebook (Mnemosyne N182A) for all my work related to-do’s, ideas, and meeting notes. This notebook is very unstructured, tactical, and is in a very raw format. To-do’s and bullet points are scribbled down and scratched out. I will transfer bits and pieces of the work notebook to my DAYs if I want to immortalize it. My work notebook is a messy work in progress, while my DAYs is a finished record of my holistic state on that particular day. 

What do you think it is about the feeling of putting pen to paper that helps get the ideas flowing? 

At the beginning of a project, I am definitely sketching and writing about different ways the project could go. Sketching helps me branch good ideas off of okay ideas or understand the flaws in others. I like to sit and meditate on a problem for an hour or two then go back to my stakeholders, ask questions, get their take, and return to my mediation space a couple times to really dig in deep to the problem. This ‘private → public → private’ workflow gives me time to come up with my own point of view and validate those ideas with others.  

Even though journalling is a solitary activity, people seem inspired to come together to share their enthusiasm for the practice. Are there any journaling communities, or specific practitioners, that you look to for inspiration? 

If you are passionate about something, you naturally wanna talk about it with like-minded individuals. My journaling has definitely evolved and improved by learning from the community. I belong to a Hobonichi Discord Server where we discuss the best journals, pens, indie stationery shops, and show off our latest pages. Otherwise I browse Instagram hashtags (mainly #hobonichitecho and #plannerlove) for inspiration, trends, and process improvements. I have learned so much from this community and I am grateful for it. 

We’d love to see your Process Pages. Submit them by email or by sharing on social media with the hashtag #ProcessPages. If you’re interested in discussing what works for you in the design process, join us for Same Page, an interactive event series that explores a design-first approach to building products.