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

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 and collaborative creativity. Today, dry-erase boards (still usually but not always white) are available in a variety of sizes and material variations, from a slew of brands: Viz-Pro, Quartet, U Brands, Lorell, Magnatag, etc.

Even as the object strives to be a symbol of open-ended creativity, it can also evoke the dreary reality of merely performing creativity at yet another mandatory brainstorming session.

Despite this, the whiteboard has never really been celebrated. Consider, in contrast, another familiar office brainstorming tool: the Post-it note. The story of its accidental invention — a 3M scientist was trying to devise a super-sticky substance and accidentally created distinctly weak adhesive — has been told many times. And the brand gradually morphed into a lucrative franchise for 3M. It was even included in the landmark 2005 Museum of Modern Art exhibition Humble Masterpieces, a celebration of industrial design “marvels” that were absorbed without fanfare into everyday life alongside the paper clip, the Swiss Army knife, and the Chinese takeout box.

There is little evidence of similar love, or even respect, for the whiteboard. For example, when I asked experience designer Ida Benedetto for her take on the whiteboard, her first response was: “Not having been around one in a while feels like an upside of the pandemic.” She was partly kidding, or at least exaggerating, but Benedetto has a point. When you bring up the whiteboard to designers, the first response is almost immediately a discussion of attempts to replace it with digital alternatives: collaborative software such as Miro that lets far-flung participants sketch ideas, perhaps in conjunction with a group video call. In Benedetto’s case, she moved from a consulting firm where whiteboards were a prominent office feature into a new job where the new remote-work norm translated to digital whiteboarding.

Part of what makes the whiteboard an everyday icon is that, even as the object strives to be a symbol of open-ended creativity, it can also evoke the dreary reality of merely performing creativity at yet another mandatory brainstorming session. Stefanie Shunk, principal and design director at architectural and consulting firm Gensler, recalls a period when some firms treated whiteboards “like art,” sometimes kept behind doors in a boardroom and theatrically revealed as a sort of highfalutin creative tool. Turning the object into an attention-getter rather than a tool “was horrible from a design standpoint,” she says.

But that’s become rarer as different material options involving lacquer and glass have made it possible to build dry-erase boards into offices in a more naturally integrated, seamless way, with natural walls and surfaces that happen to have the potential to be “activated,” as Shunk puts it — meaning you can jot formulas, quick diagrams, or sketched-out management schemes directly onto fancy conference room walls.

And even for more workaday whiteboards, there’s an additional factor that the pandemic era has actually underscored: the value and appeal of whiteboarding as an analog, tactile experience. Even though Shunk is a Miro fan, too, and sees digital whiteboarding alternatives as tools that will stay, she understands those who miss the days of playing with markers at work. “The thing about the whiteboard is that it’s in person, with other people,” she says. “It’s one of those tools that can bring us together.” That includes the way we use the whiteboard as something accidentally playful — leaving behind cryptic messages for whoever uses the conference room next (or maybe even playing a prank.)

What it amounts to is the office equivalent of a campfire: a gathering-place symbol whose value has less to do with the exchange of information than with the simple fact of physical communion.

This is why the physical whiteboard will likely persist even if it can’t match its digital successors on functional terms. “A physical whiteboard is just one information plane,” Benedetto points out. Digital ones allow for multiple, richer information layers. On the other hand, she concedes, a physical whiteboard is pretty effective in creating a “temporary socially visible surface for information.”

What it amounts to is the office equivalent of a campfire: a gathering-place symbol whose value has less to do with the exchange of information than with the simple fact of physical communion. “I miss the whiteboard,” Shunk admitted in a conversation that, of course, happened on a video call. Clearly, it’s not just the object she and others miss but what it represents: not endless riffing on potential futures but the tangible stability to riff together, in real time, in person, in a present we share together.

Author The Art of Noticing. Related newsletter at https://robwalker.substack.com

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