The invention the Post-it® Note is generally attributed to a combination of serendipity and ingenuity; a perception that is reinforced by the widely circulated photograph of a scientist with a Post-it® Note stuck to his head bearing the drawing of a light bulb. But there was more to it than just serendipity and ingenuity. The third leg of that stool was dogged persistence.
In 1968, Dr. Spencer Silver, a chemist working at the 3M Company (originally the “Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company”), was working on developing a strong adhesive for aerospace applications. However, what he accidentally created was a low-tack, reusable adhesive. This adhesive was sticky enough to adhere to surfaces but could also be easily peeled off without leaving a residue. What Silver discovered was something called microspheres which retain their stickiness but with a "removability characteristic”, allowing attached surfaces to peel apart easily.
For years, Silver struggled to find a use for his invention. “My discovery was a solution waiting for a problem to solve.” But that didn’t keep him from touting the merits of his creation to colleagues. "I came to be known as Mr. Persistent because I wouldn't give up.”
Silver's invention, which was initially viewed as having limited practical use within 3M, caught the attention of another 3M scientist named Art Fry. In 1974 Fry was looking for a solution to help him bookmark pages in his hymnal while singing in his church choir. He realised that the low-tack adhesive developed by Silver could be the perfect solution. Eureka moment #1.
In 1974, Fry and Silver went on to collaborate and develop what we now know as Post-it Notes. They applied the adhesive to small, yellow pieces of paper, creating a self-adhesive note that could be easily attached to surfaces and removed without causing damage. The product was initially called the "Press 'n Peel" memo, but it was later rebranded as the "Post-it Note."
That renaming exercise actually made a big difference, and was a result of Eureka moment #2. Once Fry and Silver found themselves writing messages on their new notes to communicate around the 3M office, they realised the full potential of the idea. "I thought, what we have here isn't just a bookmark”, said Fry. "It's a whole new way to communicate." A much bigger market. The 3M bosses were satisfied.
Post-it notes were introduced to the market in 1980 and gained widespread popularity due to their versatility and convenience. They quickly became a staple in offices, homes and classrooms, evolving from a simple bookmarking solution to a tool used for note-taking, organisation, brainstorming and creative expression. Today, Post-it notes come in various sizes, colours, and shapes, and they continue to be an essential part of everyday life for many people around the world.
So, even though everyone regards the development of Post-It notes to be an amazing success story, what isn’t fully appreciated is that it took more than 10 years for the product to finally get the internal support it needed to reach its target market. The Post-it note was created by a confluence of many contributing factors. No solitary event prompted this celebrated invention, and neither did a deliberate design process anticipate its final form.
Story Idea: Laurie Rosenwald
1. Post-it® Notes logo redesign, 2021
2. Art Fry with note on head. Spencer Silver to the right.
3. 3M Company logo. Designed by Siegel & Gale in 1977.
4. Adhesive side of a Post-it note, magnified 555 times with a scanning electron microscope. Credit: Margalob.
5. Organising with colour-coded Post-it Notes.
6. “Sticky Note Therapy”, Photo: Phil Roeder.
7. Mona Lisa Post It Note. Credit: mrsmorinsartroom.blogspot.com.
8. Video: How Googlers turned an office into a sticky-note art gallery, 2020