What makes an office whiteboard different from a screen? The simplest answer is that one is analog, and one is digital. But Johan Liden of New York-based brand strategy and product design firm Aruliden thinks the real answer is less obvious. At their best, "whiteboards encourage people to walk right up to them and start drawing," he says. Displays, on the other hand, don't. Even when they're big touch screens, their industrial design language somehow encourages a hands-off approach.
What makes a whiteboard approachable—and therefore, the perfect tool for brainstorming and collaboration—was the problem Aruliden needed to get to the bottom of when Google approached the firm last year to design the Jamboard. Although hardly the first digital whiteboard, Google wanted the Jamboard to be the best: a seamless physical extension of the company's G Suite of productivity and office apps, allowing people in an office to collaborate with anyone in the world, as easily as picking up a dry-erase marker.
Aruliden's solution? Borrow some of the design gestures of analog whiteboards to make the Jamboard feel more like a piece of furniture than a piece of technology.
Spec-wise, the Jamboard is plenty powerful. The screen is a 55-inch 4K display with stereo speakers, built-in Wi-Fi, and a high-definition webcam. But what makes the Jamboard feel like something besides a piece of tech has less to do with the specs of the display, than what is in front of it: a red tray, just like the ones you'd find on any analog whiteboard, devoted to holding a marker-size stylus and a circular eraser.
The Jamboard's ledge isn't an afterthought, argues Liden. "That tray is the single most important thing letting people understand at a glance what the product is," he says. It's the main design gesture that makes the Jamboard feel like a whiteboard—the equivalent of an open hand extending a marker to someone in a brainstorming session. It's a friendly and familiar low-tech solution to a pain point that pinches the owners of many interactive screens: what to do with the styluses when they're not in use?
Even with the ledge detached and the display turned off, the Jamboard doesn't much resemble the soulless black screens you'll find in any modern office. That's due to the stand, an airy and organic design that was inspired more by the language of furniture than tech. "We really thought it was important to step away from the traditional materials and finishes favored by hardware companies, to make it more about the experience, and not just another black screen in the room," Liden explains.
Put it this way: Imagine if Apple designed a digital whiteboard. Compare that to the aluminum alloy and colorful trim of the Jamboard. The former would look like a giant iPad bolted to the wall, while the latter looks like it could have been designed by Sharpie. High-tech or not, it feels like an accessory to a digital marker. It feels like it was designed to write on.
Google's Jamboard will go on sale later this year for around $6,000. If it is successful, much of that will ultimately be due to the software, which does indeed look extremely impressive. Liden hopes that if Jamboards start replacing analog whiteboards, office-goers will be barely aware of the transition. "Whiteboard companies are far ahead of tech companies when it comes to designing approachable boards that feel at home in any office," he says. With Jamboard, Aruliden's designers they cribbed some of that magic.