We love wallpaper!

The inimitable Terence Eden recently wrote that “Post-it’s aren’t agile – they’re wallpaper” so I started thinking (A LOT) about wallpaper…

Sam Villis
7 min readFeb 13, 2020

First up, read Terence’s brilliant post here:


Look, it’s pretty difficult to argue against the sustainability of post-it’s or their accessibility because those are fixed arguments and if we agree that we believe in protecting the environment and including everybody then yep. Stop using post-it’s right now. I agree. Let’s step away.

I’d challenge some of our notions of accessibility, I learn and work in a visual and kinetic way. I doodle when I’m listening, it helps me to focus on what’s being said and I find tech like trello really difficult because I don’t get the sensory feedback of moving a tangible thing in a physical space. There are also studies to show that kinetic learning helps to improve memory. Plus, there are lots of different tools technical and non-technical that we can use to make our techniques more accessible, physical boards are only one — making things better for the people we work with is another blog post though.

I am interested in why we use post-its so much. What they mean and the unconscious signals they send. So when Terence wrote that blog post I started thinking *a bit too much* about wallpaper. At 5am. When I should have been sleeping. Not composing blog posts…

So, let’s talk about wallpaper.

Wallpaper is pretty

Ok, not that horrible textured stuff, and it might be a faff to hang, but look:

Cole and Son Melville, and House of Hackney Liberace wallpapers

Wallpaper designer extraordinaire William Morris said:

Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

We put wallpaper in our houses because it’s beautiful, because we want to signal something about how we live to the people who visit us. We want them to notice. We want them to love our home and, by extension, us. We want to show ourselves and start a meaningful conversation.

Post-it’s are (almost always) bright colours and that works because people notice them in a similar way, when they spot something new, they start new conversations. This is the beginning of a connection with another human. Our post-it covered walls become the start of a conversation, the physical embodiment of blog posts in our built environment.

Think about the ultimate “wall(paper)”, graffiti.

A picture of some graffiti wallpaper

If you look hard enough you’ll often notice a visual language emerging between artists; copying, amending, vandalising each others work, or painting pieces in proximity as if to answer a question or ask one. One walk through the streets of Bristol or Shoreditch will show you that there’s a conversation going on. Whether or not you understand it is a different question altogether.

Obviously not everyone is a fan of graffiti, and what we all “think to be beautiful” will be different and interpreted in different ways.

A previous senior leader I know went to a meeting at the Government Digital Service. When they came back they sneered at the post-it’s that lined the walls and made a joke about the “hipster kids” organisation as a result.

And yep, more often than not the one room in the house that is wallpapered is a nursery or kids room. Maybe we associate bright colours, pattern and design with childishness, domesticity, frivolousness. Either way, it’s the opposite of work.

House of Hackney Dinosaura wallpaper

We paint our houses in muted tones. Maybe because as we grow up our lives get noisy. Maybe pattern and design has less appeal, or adds to the clutter.

Maybe we find it harder to choose, find or afford the right design and pattern, and so we grow out of the ability take advantage of using a visual language. We grow out of it. Or maybe we’re scared of getting it wrong.

Hanging new wallpaper over and over again because it isn’t right or perfect isn’t an option, once it’s up you’re really stuck with what you’ve got. Changing requires time, effort or money (that we don’t have — some of those wallpapers are eye-wateringly expensive).

Much easier to slap the paint on once and forget about it, right? You can always cover up any cracks or blemishes with a quick patch up later if you need to.

See where I’m going here? ;)

Pattern and design are not in line with the seriousness of work. Changeability and imperfection are not in line with our pervading ideas about releasing things into the world. We seek stability and certainty in most aspects of our lives, it’s more comfortable that way. Who can blame us. We’re human.

If you must use wallpaper, maybe put it in the spare room?

Wallpaper is a radical act

Alright so it’s not pure anarchy or Extinction Rebellion levels of radical, but based on the above it’s easy to see how it can take some courage to use wallpaper in our lives.

If you watch any interior design tv shows (like I do) you’ll have got used to the word wallpaper being coupled with one or more of the following:

  • “statement”
  • “dramatic”
  • “theatrical”
  • “bold”

I disagree with the Urban Dictionary definition of wallpaper as:

The quote below is taken from a very recent article in Vogue, linked below:

“Let the paper hold center stage,” says Ireland, meaning: wallpaper is meant to be a statement, so let it. “Go all in and be bold!” says Zajack.

I work at the Cabinet Office, and yesterday I built a whiteboard. I sat at my desk with scissors, gridding tape, print-outs and obviously a big pile of post-it notes. I had already sketched what I thought I needed in my notebook, and as I built the board — in a busy corridor of my open plan office — a couple of thoughts went through my mind:

“People will think I’m messing around and not working”

“Cutting and sticking things isn’t real work”

“Am I allowed to do this?”

In honesty, I felt anxious, I was worried. I was careful to do this over lunch time in case anyone questioned me on my motives. “Cutting and sticking” and creating the board felt revolutionary, bordering on dangerous in this context.

A picture of my incredibly non-revolutionary whiteboard.

Anyone who has read any feminist or intersectional theory will also recognise this feeling, it often gets called “taking up space” and helps us consider who gets to be seen and who doesn’t, who feels comfortable in different environments and what the impact of being seen can be (especially if you are a woman or a woman of colour).

It’s what makes manspreading such a humorous and useful tool for showing how different people feel about being in a public space… and it’s also the reason why there are fewer female street artists:

But big, loud, wallpaper takes up space. It sits in its environment and says “Hey! Over here!” It’s demanding of our time and attention like a child, it’s distracting, it’s different and, unashamedly so.

And we have to acknowledge, I think, based on the conversations that I continue to hear at One Team Gov breakfast or at UKGovCamp, that working in this way, using agile methods, is still not embedded well within government. Those of us who work in this kind of way often face criticism, dismissal, or our work can lack visibility.

That’s why we need to use all of the tools at our disposal to start those conversations, we need to show our work, quietly and confidently declaring “Hey! Over here!”. It’s still important and necessary to hold the space for different ways of working and thinking.

And that’s why post-its are like wallpaper, but maybe not in the way you thought.

This post came to me at 5am and I spent a couple of hours drafting it over breakfast and before the school run. I tidied, added pictures and edited at lunchtime. Thank you to everyone who replied to my tweet asking for your favourite wallpaper, all of the responses were excellent!



Sam Villis

Service design and organisational change. Previously at: Social Finance, Local Digital Collaboration at DLUHC, GDS, Cabinet Office, M&CSaatchi.