On February 15th, the Art Directors Club held a panel discussion with members of the ADC 91st Annual Awards Design Jury. Hosted at the Art Institute, it featured Bonnie Siegler, Sam Baron, Leo Jung, and Nicole Jacek. Much of the discussion centered around how design awards were perceived in Europe versus the US, and what the role of a designer was. To hear Nicole Jacek describe the rock-star reception she got as a designer in Europe was inspiring, to say the least.

As they talked, the conversation focused overwhelmingly on the relationship between the designer and paper. I proceed here very gently. As much as anyone, I learned to draw on paper, and I keep sketchbooks filled with doodles. The act of scribbling is cathartic. But then I thought of my actual work life, the one where I am constantly writing code and interacting directly with a computer. Is there a place in design thinking today for direct human computer interaction, or is the act of art direction limited to the analog?

I got the opportunity to ask the panel how they saw the act of writing code, and how that fit with their emphasis on paper and pencil. One panelist commented that perhaps those who wrote code saw what was technically possible, but not why, whereas the visual creator’s job was to define why, without always understanding how. Another comment in particular illustrated the analog/digital disconnect. A panelist commented that after their drawings and so on were made, the paper was passed to someone else to finish up or code up. But was that really all there was? Doesn’t the act of coding warrant more than a pass-off to someone else?

I have internalized the reasons for using paper and pencil. There are no boundaries, other than the pencil and the texture of the paper. We shouldn’t assume that computers will always remain clunky and mouse based, though. We are already seeing tablets and mobiles overtake desktops as the computers of choice. I think we need to look further than just paper, especially when it comes to designing interfaces and handling data. The role of the computer has been just a tool, and a mildly hated one at that, but things change. What method of idea generation do we offer a young designer who has grown up directly manipulating information on their tablet or computer? Do we insist on paper, even when it doesn’t lend itself to certain forms of creativity like code generation or direct HCI?

I don’t have a perfect answer, but I’m sure in the next few years others will find one. Paper will never disappear, but neither will more intuitive and complex digital interfaces. Perhaps the two can complement each other.