Everyday Design Icons

An Ode to the Whiteboard, Corporate America’s Least Appreciated Office Tool

Why the symbol of corporate creativity will survive the remote-work era

Rob Walker
Marker
Published in
5 min readMar 31, 2021

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Photo illustration: Save As/Medium; Source: Getty Images

Chances are if you’ve spent time in offices, you’ve spent time around whiteboards — and, perhaps, you’ve spent time dreading them. But where did these things come from, and how did they become a physical symbol of the mandatory brainstorming session?

Fittingly, the precise history of the whiteboard is somewhat tentative and subject to revision and correction. Many accounts give inventor credit to a Korean War veteran named Martin Heit, who discovered he could write on film negatives with a Sharpie, then wipe the markings away; in the mid-1950s, he designed the first whiteboard, essentially coated with a similar laminate. Others say it was really Albert Stallion, an American in the steel business, who devised the original whiteboard in the ’50s or possibly the early ’60s.

Let’s just leave both names on the board and link them with a question mark. Whoever dreamed up the original whiteboard, its use was fairly limited until a second invention came along: the dry-erase marker. “Early whiteboards were not significantly easier to clean than blackboards, requiring a wet cloth to remove the ink,” one history explains. “It wasn’t until 1975, when Jerry Woolf invented a nontoxic type of dry ink, that whiteboards really took off in popularity.

In its early days, the whiteboard was pitched as a product for the home — maybe paired with a phone as a handy way to jot notes mid-call. That never caught on, but because of the dry-erase feature that made it so instantly reusable and tidy, it soon became a popular alternative to the dusty chalkboard in educational settings. But according to most accounts, the whiteboard really took off in the 1980s and 1990s, when it took hold in offices. In a certain kind of office — tech firms, for example — they became practically mandatory, a symbol of spontaneous…

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