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I'm Thibaut Sailly, an independant interface designer based in Paris. Say hello on twitter or by email at bonjour ✉ tsailly ◦ net.



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A good meter

version française

A rather active and respected designer on the French scene called Jean-Louis Fréchin never misses an opportunity, on Twitter or in speaking engagements, to say how painful it is to him to see the notion of innovation associated with a bunch of Post-It stuck on a wall. This little piece of paper is quite emblematic of the whole “Design Thinking” movement, a well packaged and easy to digest design method aimed at getting non designers types involved in “designing” a product or a service. It has become the Innovation Passport to be showing off in meetings where the goal is to have good ideas for the future of the company.

A few months ago, taking Jean-Louis Fréchin's anti-post-it rhetoric a little literally I'll admit, I dug out an old tracing paper roll I had put aside in a cupboard. What could be more different to a Post-it than a 30 meters long sheet of paper?
Putting aside my notebooks and A4 paper sheets, I made some room on my desk, opened the protecting tube, unrolled a good meter and got to work.

Oh, happiness.

Before getting to my detailed feedback, here are some examples of how sketches looked like, structurally speaking.

some example of sketches done on a tracing paper roll showing the progress of a task completion or a smartphone app
some example of sketches done on a tracing paper roll showing information organisation in different spaces of a smartphone app
some example of sketches done on a tracing paper roll showing progress in the composition of a screen for a smartphone app


The first thing I noticed was the pleasure to start a sketch or a sentence, not having to worry about the room left before hitting the border of the page, while mentally in the midst of developing an idea.
It allows to let go and dive more comfortably in the Zone, as it reduces logistic side of sketching.

The horizontal format is especially adapted to sketching consecutive screens representing a task completion in an interface. The generously available space also allows for more detailed and articulated comments, making them understandable by yourself the week after, or by anyone else.

The big picture

Beyond the gain of comfortable space for sketching, being able to see how an idea has evolved and came to be in a gaze makes this tracing paper roll a winner compared to a sketch book. From your point of view, it's more spontaneous to roll back on an idea and branch it out to some alternative set(s) of options. It also becomes easier to point out how two ideas are related to one another, if it's important to make it clear. Need to draw an arrow between two sketches 60cm apart? No problem.


Writing to explore ideas isn't the most natural thing to do when what you're good at is visual thinking, but putting down ideas in words and articulated sentences helps clear your thoughts and keeps your feet on the ground. It's also a good way to bounce out of a dead end, and helps a lot communicate your work more efficiently to your colleagues. The available space on this almost infinite piece of paper makes it easy to have texts and sketches side by side, a real gain in the construction of a thought you'll need to share afterwards.


Speaking about communication with colleagues, presenting the evolution, dead ends, remaining interrogations and tracks to follow on a visually unified document help them understand where you're coming from, enrich and challenge you on points that didn't make it to the solution you're suggesting in the end. Two or three meters of tracing paper beat ten PowerPoint slides any day when it comes to discuss a process. The conversation is also more active, as everybody can physically stand side by side in front of the document, instead of watching a projection screen while seated in a dark meeting room.

Scanning the sketches to share them electronically is very easy, using the panorama option you have in recent smartphones camera apps. It's how I made the examples you see above.

detail of a tracing paper roll placed on a wooden desktop


You have to have some room on your work table to feel the freedom this tracing paper roll offers.

Moving this paper around is noisier than your typical printer paper, so colleagues could become upset if you're not precautious enough when manipulating it.

Portability gets a hit when compared to a notebook, so this is to be considered if you have to get around town with your working equipment. But it's doable.

People might think of you as a fancy type how's trying to artificially draw attention on him(her)self.

Having a light-coloured writing surface underneath the tracing paper is recommended. If your desk is dark, you'll get less contrast between the paper and your sketches than if you had a light desktop. A sheet of 22"x28" white bristol paper taped on your work table will do nicely to overcome this problem.

Summing up

So, Post-its or tracing paper? Of course this question doesn't make much sense, as the two mediums are made for different purposes. If the Post-It helps to explore and organize parts of a given context (as long as it sticks, mind you), a real big sheet of paper helps - from my experience anyway - to reflect upon this context and build an articulated answer to it. In French drafting supplies shops, these rolls are called “calques d'étude”, or “study tracing paper”, and there's a reason why.

If paper is already part of your work process, I invite you to get one of these tracing paper rolls and test the influence the tool has on the expression and sharing of your ideas.

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