If you’re interested in learning about the noble and growing career of creative service called graphic recording, known also by various names such as graphic reporting, visual note-taking, and scribing, this insight is for you! I say “noble” because similar to ancient Egyptian scribes, modern day scribes offer an important visual documentation service for some of the day’s leading organizations and thinkers. The main difference between an ancient scribe and a modern day one, is that it’s a lot easier to fix a typo today than it was 3,000 or so years ago. I can see myself now in ancient Luxor, sweating over which of the right pictograms to inscribe —
Thankfully, today there are far fewer hurdles to mastering the ability to document ideas graphically than back in those days. And in this Insight I will share with you some practice tips that can help you gain confidence in your ability so you can begin to do graphic recording like a pro!
Why is graphic recording gaining popularity?
First, I will assume, because you clicked on this article, that you have some familiarity with what graphic recording is, either because you have witnessed it firsthand at a meeting, or you have seen pictures on social media, or perhaps even those whiteboard explainer videos that first came to prominence about 10 years ago.
Graphic recording has a long history (I’m talking modern now, not ancient Egypt) that goes back to the early 1970s in the San Francisco Bay Area of the US. Interaction Associates was the first firm to pioneer the use of graphic facilitation and graphic recording. And soon after, other organizations and individuals began to incorporate it as part of their collaborative process. Some of the most prominent of these people and organizations were David Sibbet (the "godfather of graphic facilitation") and the company he founded, The Grove; and Matt and Gail Taylor, of MG Taylor Corporation, who used graphic recording and facilitation as part of their DesignShop meeting process. If you want a more in-depth history then you can read about it here.
Businesses and thought leaders are discovering that what was deemed “soft skills” are in fact hard wired into our humanity.
The bottom line is that graphic recording was utilized by these early practitioners as a way to enhance strategizing, design, and collaboration through the power of visual thinking. It is growing in popularity today due to many factors, but I feel the most important two are 1) our increased expectation for visuals and graphic explanations due to digital media and products (smartphones and ubiquitous monitors) and 2) the now recognized mainstream acknowledgement of the human need for storytelling to inspire and guide businesses and organizations. Businesses and thought leaders are discovering that what was deemed “soft skills” are in fact hard wired into our humanity.
Scribing fulfills both of these needs because it reinforces the collective memory of a meeting by highlighting its key themes and ideas graphically and uses visuals as a real-time storytelling tool. Stories combined with graphics are an undeniably compelling and persuasive form of messaging, communication, and education. Also, let’s face it, there is a fun aspect to them too that helps liven meetings and make them more engaging. As we have shifted to more remote meetings and conferences due to the never-ending story of the pandemic, the call to add any amount of pizzazz to them has only intensified.
Which brings us to this point where you now know something about this growing world and you want to join in some way, what graphic facilitator and author Sunni Brown calls, “the Doodle Revolution” (Sunni’s 2013 book is about the many variety of ways people can use simple visual thinking skills, not just scribing, to supercharge their creativity and problem-solving ability, I highly recommend it). You could not have picked a better time than now because I feel the need for graphic recording and visualization skills in general are only going to increase as the world becomes more complex and dependent on storytelling. Thankfully, the entry barrier to learning how to master the skills needed for visual note-taking are relatively low. All you need are writing tools and a surface to draw on — and you do not have to spend a lot of money either just to practice.
How to begin practicing so you can look like a pro
To develop your graphic recording skills you should practice by watching speeches and discussions and scribe them in your personal journals, sketchbooks, or even digitally in your favorite drawing app. I will go over later my favorite way to work on your listening and scribing skills, but first I want to give you some resources to practice with.
If you want to do this at a professional level, then you should own an assortment of quality markers. The bulk of my marker set is made up of Neuland markers, which are a European product. They might seem a little pricey initially (especially with international shipping) but I find they are worth every penny. But to just get started practicing, I recommend whatever you can afford. Here are some tools and resources I suggest:
Sharpie Electro Pop Permanent Markers, Fine Point, Assorted Colors, 24 Count. These markers will work well for practicing in a journal or sketchbook. You can draw objects and shapes great with them, and write letters as well, but to really practice your text penmanship I think it’s best to use a chisel tip marker.
Sharpie S-Note Creative Markers, Highlighters, Assorted Colors, Chisel Tip, 24 Count. These markers are chisel tip and work best for lettering. I recommend owning both chisel and fine point markers for practicing in your journal or sketchbook.
Mr. Sketch markers work great if you plan to practice on larger surfaces, like 25”x30” flip chart paper. I use them in conjunction with typical Sharpie flip chart markers because they are chisel tipped, whereas normal flip chart markers are always bullet tip.
Sketch Pad, 9”x12”. Strathmore 455-3, 400 Series Sketch Pad, 9"x12" Wire Bound, 100 Sheets, White. Rotate it on its horizontal side so you can write and draw landscape, because that is closer to the width you’ll use in professional circumstances.
Journal 5.5”x8.5” It’s also good to have a smaller journal to practice in because you can easily take it with you. I have tons of journals that are filled with creative stuff like: scribing practice, mind-maps of things I find interesting, ideas for future projects, etc. It’s cool to keep journals! It was a practice I picked up from my MG Taylor days and I continue it to this day, though now I only journal digitally with my iPad.
Now digital tools could take up an article or two on its own, so I will only focus on the basics that I personally use. First off, if you don't already own some sort of tablet then I highly recommend you purchase one. I use an iPad Pro, but there are many other solid brands out there to choose from. Do your own research and find one that works for you. I like the iPad Pro because it is a stand-alone tablet, as opposed to something like a Wacom Cintiq which needs to be hooked up to a computer, and the iPad is also the industry standard. Though if you’re serious about getting into digital art and design, not just scribing, then you should probably also own a large tablet like a Wacom or Huion to connect to your computer.
Procreate is the app I use for remote scribing. I have also used Sketchbook Pro but Procreate was recommended by some trusted colleagues. There are other drawing apps out there, a lot of it comes down to personal taste, but I find Procreate very straightforward to use. Being straightforward and having a clean and simple interface is huge when you work digitally because just that small extra hurdle interferes massively when you are first making the switch to working digitally. You will find that you aren’t as quick just because you have the added complexity of dealing with the interface. Therefore, you want to make sure your drawing app is one you’re totally comfortable with — for me, this is Procreate. Though there are others that I know are very popular such as Adobe Photoshop, Affinity Photo, Concepts, Astropad, and the aforementioned Sketchbook. As always, do your research and find one that works for you.
[Drawing apps are great for remote scribing, but if you plan on keeping a digital journal (and I think you should) then you should download a note-taking app. These apps are good because not only do they work as journals, but you can practice your scribing techniques and organize them by searchable names. I use Noteshelf but GoodNotes is supposedly topnotch too.]
My favorite practice method
I have recommended watching TedTalks and other YouTube conversations since they started online as one of the best learning tools to hone your listening skills. Podcasts and roundtable discussions, like the Hollywood Reporter’s Roundtable series work well too. I would recommend first choosing a discussion or presentation that is no longer than 15 or so minutes to practice from.
Once you’ve found a subject to listen to, now it’s time to get your practice tools together. The first thing you will want to do is to choose a limited color palette. My scribes typically use no more than 7 colors and I have created work using 2-3 colors only (black and red was quite popular for a while). Using the same set of colors on a project gives your work visual cohesion and harmony. If you’re using flip chart markers, your palette will automatically be limited since they only give you 7. But for practice, try to use only 4 colors at first and then add others as you learn.
“Good artists copy, great artists steal,” Pablo Picasso
That famous quote from Picasso that Steve Jobs liked to often cite to describe how Apple continuously innovates its products is one that I use a lot to explain how to get better at any craft. I want to state upfront that I realize there are some inherent issues with that quote because: 1) Apple has been credibly accused many times of taking ideas from others and 2) a white male artist who appropriated African art styles, while the mainstream world largely ignored or failed to respectfully acknowledge Africa’s influence and inspiration for a long time is problematic to say the least (however, I do believe Picasso was the most important visual artist of the 20th century and I’m writing this article on an Apple iMac computer for the record). That said, I really feel the best way to learn any skill well is to study those that have come before and take techniques of theirs that you like and incorporate them into your own work. The fine line you must walk is that you shouldn’t wholesale take someone else’s style and pass it off as your own. I remember once seeing a post years ago in the Graphic Facilitation group on Facebook from a new scribe in Europe who wanted our opinion on their work. Those of us who knew said, “well, it looks great, but that's because it looks exactly like Brandy Agerbeck’s work!” So steal an idea here or two from a variety of sources, but you shouldn’t completely repurpose someone else’s entire style and make it your own.
You have probably seen at some point scribing that you consider good, use that scribing as a reference to practice from and to build your own approach to the work. This is what I mean by "stealing" — take a good look at the work you like and deconstruct it. Ask yourself what it is about the scribing you like. Things to look for are:
- The ratio of text to images. Was it text heavy, or was it more dense with graphic elements?
- Did you understand the story they’re trying to convey? Or if it is industry specific, can you at least follow the thread of ideas?
- Notice the drawing style. Pay attention to when they chose a simplistic style versus when they added something more elaborate. Ask yourself if the elaboration added to your understanding of the material, or if you simply liked it because of aesthetics.
- What colors did they choose? How many were used? Was the overall tone bold, or did they use a softer palette? I tend to use black or other really dark colors like purple for writing text and drawing outlines. This is especially key in live situations where you want people to be able to read your work from a distance. I use brighter colors like red mostly to highlight or for artistic purposes. If I do write text in a bright color then it is generally larger text with fat lettering like for headlines, subtitles, and FX lettering, not for normal text.
By examining the choices others made and trying to understand and duplicate their techniques you can start to build your own house style. I always say that scribing is not about being a “great artist”, because drawing is simply a tool you use to tell your visual story and you are always acting in service to the client. But there is now more than ever before a multitude of ways to carry out the craft stylistically due to the explosion of “personalized scribing” with the influence MG Taylor had on big consulting in the mid-90s. So though graphic recording is not necessarily about being a “great artist” I urge you to inject your own personal visual style into your work. As long as you listen attentively and unbiasedly, capture the story in a way that gets the point across, while also being appealing to your audience, then you can call yourself a good graphic recorder.
When you have selected your video to practice from, your chosen method and tools (paper vs digital? — my advice, practice both), and your color palette, start practicing capturing the video in real-time.
An introduction to the FACT(S) — my ingredients in a good graphic report
I have written previously about the basic components of what I believe are a good graphic recording piece. I call these components The Six Storytelling Fundamentals of Graphic Reporting.
But there is also another way of conceptualizing the main ingredients that I think accentuates the reporting aspect more concisely, and also works as a mnemonic device, and that is the FACT(S) model. The FACT(S) model is a “starter model” for graphic recording. It contains the same fundamentals except written and organized in a slightly different manner. OK then, what are the basic facts?
I will go into more detail about the FACT(S) in my next Insight. But for now, here is a brief look at what this model represents:
- Frames. Framing is a device we often use in graphic recording to contain or highlight certain aspects of our work to show a relationship. Frames help make scribing more digestible by chunking together bits of similar content, using lines, colors, and shapes to call attention to them or separate our “story” into chapters. Without framing, people can get overwhelmed by scribing, turning your visual story into information graffiti (the bad graffiti any dope with a spray can can do and not the wondrous street art you can find in places like my city).
- Actors. Actors are the characters or objects (in scribing even inanimate things can become actors, i.e. “talking buildings”) and whatnot that you draw to help communicate ideas. Actors don’t necessarily mean “cartooning” like in character animation or comic strips, though you can do that too if need be, but actors can be even more simplistic. The power they have is in their simplicity. Symbols, icons, and child-like drawings like “bean people” and “star people” are simple and powerful tools because not only can you draw them fast, but they are more universally understood. Sometimes, cartooning in the animation/comic strip/comic book sense can be too specific. And it is in the specificity where you can start to lose universal mass appeal and understanding. For example, both of the drawings below are doctors. But the cartoon on the left of the man is specific (and the default drawing option too many times for some people), while the right is a simple scribing “actor" (in this case, a "star person"). There’s nothing wrong with drawing cartoon characters like the left version, but you better make sure you balance out your representations throughout your project with various ethnicities and genders. If you are scribing at a conference of physicians, which one of these drawings do you think more people can identify with? The key is to have balance.
- Connectors. Similar to framing, connectors help tell your visual story by showing a relationship, except instead of containing a group of similar ideas, they link together different items and concepts to depict: sequence, parent and child relationships, and contrasting ideas. Lines (dashed, direct, bi-directional, etc), arrows, and color can all be used as connectors.
- Text. Text is probably the most important ingredient. Because I have done graphic recordings where I have drawn almost nothing, but I have never done a scribe without some kind of text. There is the general text that will probably make up the bulk of your writing, but there are also specialized text forms that you use for titles, subheadings, bullet lists, word balloons, quotations, labels, FX lettering, etc.
- Story. The final (S) represents “story”. And it is the culmination of the other FACT components. “Story” is about placement and flow and showing (often subtly) the beginning, middle and end of your story. You write the facts down, while placing a visual narrative around the facts to create the story.
Those are the facts of graphic reporting. Do you always need every single of one of those elements to make a scribe? Not always, but you should use some combination of them to separate your graphic recording from mere note-taking. Like the ingredients in a food dish, each chef can have their own way of putting them together. This is how you inject your personality into your graphic recording and give it your own flair.
You are your own best critic
So now that you have an introduction to the basic practice elements you’ll be on your way to scribing like a professional graphic recorder. Practice scribing using a presentation or discussion video you’ve selected. Try and incorporate as many of the FACT(S) as possible.
When you're done, go back and listen again to it without scribing this time just to see how well you captured the conversation. Pay attention to:
- The things you missed or wish you had showcased better.
- For the points you did capture, ask yourself if they are clear and concise.
- Be sure to also imagine other ways you could have depicted them. For instance, if you are very literal minded, think about abstractions and simple models you could have done. Or if you are good with abstractions, then practice some simple cartooning like bean people and star people to help make some of your points.
After you’ve done that self-analysis, I suggest capturing the same conversation again using the benefit of hindsight. You won't of course get this opportunity of knowing the content ahead of time in a real-world situation, but it's a great learning tool in the beginning to help you start to gain confidence with scribing. It will also help you learn how to fill your canvas appropriately. And I do not necessarily mean filling every square inch of your canvas, because white space can sometimes be a powerful storytelling tool in its own way, I mean fill as in the placement and flow of ideas on the page — depicting the beginning, middle and end of your story.
Which brings me to the end of this story about how to start practicing this noble craft of creative service that is graphic recording (and its myriad of other names). I hope you were able to gain some knowledge from it, and I would love to hear back from you if you are new to this world or just an experienced scribe looking for some inspiration. If you haven’t done so already, be sure to sign up at the bottom of this page to join the mailing list to be alerted to the next Insight and to read about our upcoming learning opportunities! I will continue exploring the FACT(S) model and share more knowledge that I have gained about graphic reporting over my almost 30-year professional career as a scribe. Follow Griot’s Eye on social media for even more information, graphics, and tidbits regarding the craft.