Amar Sagoo

27 December 2007

Surface computing, move over!

For a few weeks now, my two team-mates at work and I have been using a “horizontal” whiteboard, lying across the desk surface between us. I had been wanting to try this for a while, but it wasn’t possible because of our previous desk arrangement. Now that we have this large area of space between us and no partitions, this small whiteboard fits perfectly without getting in the way.

Horizontal whiteboard setup

We’ve found ourselves using it virtually every day, illustrating explanations, walking through calculations and brainstorming design ideas. Visitors will intuitively pick up a pen and start using the whiteboard when explaining things. It somehow seems to invite people to use it more than most whiteboards. However, it’s not only a collaborative tool: it also makes a great scratch-pad when you’re brainstorming on your own. To ensure that it stays useful, we make an effort to keep the board clean; nothing tends to stay on there for longer than a day or so.

Overall, it’s being used far more than any wall-mounted whiteboards we’ve had near us, and I think this is due to two key differences to wall-mounted boards. Firstly, each one of us can reach the board very easily without having to get up. You just turn your chair slightly and there it is. Secondly, the whiteboard is between us, so it feels less like a presentation aid and more like a collaborative work surface, accessible equally well from all sides.

If your work involves collaborative problem-solving, and if your desk arrangement allows it, I highly recommend setting up a whiteboard like this. Don’t make it too big, because you won’t be able to reach all corners and it will also eat into your desk real-estate. I think ours is 90×60 cm, which is just right. I also recommend investing in some pens with a finer tip than the standard ones you tend to get. Those are designed to be visible from a few meters away, but you’ll find them too thick for handwriting at a comfortable size for close-up work. Edding do quite a range of dry-erase board markers.


  1. My favorite desk when I was growing up was a massive steel state surplus monstrosity--must have weighed a couple hundred pounds. Its surface was a 3'x6' expanse of white particle board, which I discovered took graphite very well, and could be wiped off easily with a little water. I covered the thing with notes, doodles, to-dos, IP addresses, etc. It was brilliant.

  2. The first thing I thought of was to add a lazy-susan-style base to it so you can swivel it around more easily.

  3. Kind of like using bar napkins to scribble ideas, except erasable. Could be useful on plane trips when you need to discuss work with the person next to you.

    If you need to take a snapshot of what's on the board, you can take a literal snapshot with a digital camera.

  4. A big old pad of drawing paper is nice too, because you have a record of the old stuff folded to the back. Also, more kinds of pens!

  5. Yeah it's great isn't it? :)

    Another good option is simply to use the back of an old 'whiteboard' calendar; the surface is usually suitable for whiteboard markers... and they can be much easier to handle!

    It's cheaper and simpler than even the cardboard whiteboards you can buy.

    How inventive of me, I've gone back to days I worked for a printer, and the desk calendar/doodle pads we gave out to our clients. ;)

    Now you can buy a ~$650 ($Aus) version called the iPad. :)