If plastering multi-colored Post-its to a whiteboard doesn’t seem like rocket science, it’s because it isn’t. Stick, peel and repeat: the process is pretty simple. So what makes the 3M product the best thing since sliced bread?

To debunk that question, let’s take a look at the Post-it’s history.  First things first, the sticky-note needed the “sticky.”

The man behind the low-tack adhesive was 3M scientist Dr. Spencer Silver. His formula for the reusable glue would be utilized on the back of the first ever Post-it.

However, Silver ironically first saw his creation as a failure. The scientist had attempted to make a super-strong adhesive when he ended up with the semi-permanent glue. Silver still promoted his seemingly useless adhesive to 3M, but it took six years for the “sticky” and the note to unite.

A colleague of Dr. Silver named Art Fry thought up the adhesive’s first use. He proposed it be applied to the back of bookmarks so they could peel on and off pages without leaving damage.

Bringing these “bookmarks” to his workplace, Fry realized via interaction with his co-workers that the sticky notes were multifunctional. They could act as a communication tool and a new way to organize. There was momentum behind the new invention; it was time to push past the experimental phase.

In 1977, a preliminary product named “Press n’ Peel” was launched by 3M, but had little success in the four cities to which it was distributed. Revamping its marketing strategy, 3M re-released the product as the “Post-it” across the country in April of 1980. This time, the company used a vast consumer-focused product sampling survey to pinpoint what would make the sticky note more popular. Voilà, the Post-it became the huge success it is today.

The first takeaway from the Post-it’s history is pretty obvious: nothing is almost ever “nothing.” Certainly, knowing the perfect solution from the start would suck the fun out of serendipitous success stories like that of the Post-it. Spatial thinking – and patience – has its perks.

But if anything is gained from the story of the Post-it, it should be the need for a human-centered approach. Take the $150 laptop designed by technologist Mary Lou Jepsen in 2006. Lacking a Microsoft windows operating system, the product seemed useless to consumers able to buy the latest and greatest gadget with a heftier price tag. However, the target audience of the cheap electronic device was children in third-world countries, for which the laptop was accessible and – most importantly – affordable.

In designing the Post-it, 3M only managed to make the sticky note as we know it today when the company included potential consumers to co-create the new multifaceted tool. The Post-it became a versatile product because a wide range of people impacted its development and it continues to be dynamic as users engineer new ways to manipulate and engage the sticky notes. Without Fry’s co-workers and the consumer survey, who knows if the 3M product would still be marketed solely as a sticky bookmark.

In this way, the Post-it and other “notable” inventions are like sliced bread.  No one person can take credit for either piece of handiwork because both rise above a simple discovery. Sure, both started off with the basics, a loaf of bread or some adhesive, but there needed to be the user demand: the sandwich craving and the need for a bookmark (and more). Fry’s Post-its would never have seen success on the shelf without the feedback he received from other contributors during the nascent stages of production.

The best creations aren’t driven by a superficial “cool-factor”, but by their usefulness and basic social and economical viability. To this day, a great team of workers and collaborators combine mental resources are essential for keeping the Post-it current for customers (see the new releases since the 80’s in Fig. 1).  A product is made with consumers in mind, but people can still be guided to mold their behavior based upon a new inventive product. It’s up to the modern designer to be passionate and perceive new ways people can manipulate tools to enhance their lives.

My advice: jot that down on a Post-it if you want that message to stick.

By: Kendra Mayer, Media intern and Post-it enthusiast