In Appreciation of the Classic Whiteboard

My current home office setup is simple. On my desk, I have my portable small form-factor Linux machine. My code, my archived notes, and my reference books are all digital. Behind my back, always accessible, is a large whiteboard. It's where thinking happens.


They say that a poor craftsman blames his tools. While there's truth to it, it's erroneous to assume that a good craftsman can perform regardless of his tools. In the realm of top performers, the smallest advantages can make a difference. Excellent tools are no exception.

This is an appreciation post of the classic whiteboard, the best tool for the trade for researchers and students.

The whiteboard makes it easy to write and rewrite through rapid iterations, for erasing is painless. It nudges you to try different approaches to any given problem.

The whiteboard forces you to write larger than paper, bringing the focus onto the large ideas without getting caught up in the minutiae.

The whiteboard is the most convenient tool for drawing diagrams and writing equations. A piece of paper is too small and permanent; a computer, too cumbersome and restricting. This feature allows you to make connections that you otherwise wouldn't have.

The whiteboard forces you to step away from the screen. When you get immersed into a problem on a whiteboard, the distractions of the digital realm are easier to dismiss. You can think through the problem first, and then digitally archive it.

The whiteboard is conducive to non-linear thinking. You can connect ideas and draw prototypes with ease, with an easy “undo” button of the dry eraser.

The whiteboard, being vertical, allows you to relax and stare at it. Oftentimes, an idea will spark in those silent minutes.

It's no surprise that Prof. Inger Mewburn of Australian National University and Prof. Matt Might of Harvard Medical School also sing the praises of the humble whiteboard.

One of the things I like about studying computer science is that it doesn't require many tools. A computer is enough, which most of us have in this day and age. If I had to be picky about only one piece of tool though, it wouldn't be the computer. After all, a cheap second-hand ThinkPad with a lightweight Linux distro installed will do fine. Instead, I would pick the largest whiteboard that money and space allow as my secret weapon.