-- Contract Magazine
The Second Oldest Profession
ABOVE: Graphic facilitation by David Williams, Trapdoor Media
And that seems to be the role of the graphic facilitator today—huddled in a dark cave (or Marriott ballroom), standing at the cave wall (or 3M Post-It flip-chart pad), and illuminating the wisdom of our tribe's elders (or doodling while the CFO prattles on).
As professional graphic facilitators, we're doodling while people struggle with complex issues facing their organizations and the world at large—Big Hairy Scary Things like preparing for the Avian Flu pandemic, ending chronic homelessness, rebuilding the healthcare system in weather-ravaged Gulf States, saving the U.S. federal government from itself, and fretting about the future of TiVO.
Graphic facilitation covers almost anything that involves visual learning as a tool for critical thinking, problem solving, and strategic planning. "Our practice has roots in ancient traditions of paying attention, reflecting, recording, and remembering for the future," says San Francisco-based graphic recorder Leslie Salmon-Zhu. "We help bring ideas forward, help collaboration, help direct the 'light' to the individual and the collective wisdom in this world."
How It Works: Brain Games
The basics of graphic facilitation involve drawing and talking. Whether addressing a small group standing at a homemade white board or a large group in a giant auditorium, a graphic facilitator can simultaneously wrangle a group discussion and create large and colorful visuals that play back the themes of the conversation.
Brain-based research and recent advances in neuroscience have proven that people are much more creative and innovative when multiple parts of the brain are stimulated simultaneously through audio/visual input and emotional response. To designers and architects, this is not a particularly revolutionary idea.
What happens when people watch a graphic facilitator at work is pretty amazing. A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal performs an action and when the animal observes the same action performed by another animal, particularly a representative from one's own species. Even as passive observers, when we watch another human do something—throw a football, swing on a trapeze, eat an ice cream cone—the neuron "mirrors" the behavior of another animal, as though the observer was himself performing the action.
Canadian graphic facilitator Christine Merkley writes extensively on the history of the practice. On her company site, MakeMark.com, she itemizes the benefits:
- Gets everyone on the same page
- Elegantly handles different points of view
- Increases the level of dialogue—quicker
- Involves all the major learning styles
- Creates excellent meeting documentation
Scribing in the 4th Dimension
We consider him the Godfather of graphic facilitation, and he has a sweet villa on an island. He built it himself, and it's very difficult to find. To get there, one needs to fly in low over a calm, warm sea. Because it never rains where he lives, much of his art is displayed in an outdoor studio. On a wooden deck meandering along the rocky coast, diagrams, graphics explaining complex ideas, and personal iconography emerge from slots in the ground and float in the air. Inside his airy villa, bookcases team with masterpieces from luminary minds. A fire pit with circular wooden benches serves as the central meeting place for travelers to visit, share ideas, wrestle with questions, and receive answers.
At the center is a tall, slender man named Sunseed Bardeen with a deep tan and a whip-like white ponytail, and he welcomes anyone to visit his Story Studio. The only catch is that Sunseed Bardeen lives in a 3-D interactive prototyping space in Second Life, an avatar-based world with 1.3 million residents, 10,000 of whom are online at any given time.
This is a dream come true for David Sibbet, founder of The Grove Consultants International and pioneer in the field of graphic facilitation. Sibbet spent a couple of long weekends (with his wife safely out of town) to build this showcase to demonstrate to his peers and strangers what can be done in this environment. "Second Life is the Wild West—digitally speaking," says Sibbet. "There is everything in here. It's not a gaming site, but a place where anybody can do anything, within the evolving rules of Linden Labs, the host."
Besides the gee-whiz factor that virtual environments like Second Life offer, the main challenge confronting Sibbet lies between the engineered interface of online collaborative spaces and the raw, intuitive reality of people working together in the flesh. Let's face it, watching a real person scribble out a hot, new idea on a beer coaster can be much more engaging than the slickest, thickest deck of animated bullet points.
Rising Tide, Converging Trends
Even in more conservative circles of strategic planning, the desire to visualize planning is on the rise. John Caswell of Group Partners in London sees interest growing across all industries. "We believe strongly that there is a tremendous interest in alternatives to the bland, academic consulting approach provided by the mainstream consulting firms," he says. His firm works internationally with leadership teams in large and complex organizations, delivering everything through a blend of consultation, strategic partnership, graphic visualization, innovation, and high-tech computer modeling. For Caswell, the real value of these services lies in helping clients make informed strategic decisions faster. "The client can feel immediately that she didn't need that solution—even if she doesn't really understand it," he explains.
In working for more word-oriented professional services, for example accounting and consulting, graphic facilitator Mark Pinto of Cleveland sees that his clients have a hard time handling anything that is difficult to quantify or to measure concretely. He finds that people from the healthcare and the non-profit world, however, are much more receptive, perhaps because they already work with difficult, intangible, and human notions of "value." As he sees it, they sense that "feelings and emotions play a stronger part in their solutions."
Being attuned to those feelings and emotions is critical. The mega-blogger behind Loosetooth.com, Chicago-based artist and graphic facilitator Brandy Agerbeck considers herself an artist first and foremost, but expresses a bit of queasiness when called one in a professional setting. "I always feel funny when clients call me an artist. I define artist as being so much about self expression, that it doesn't feel right in that context." When it comes to working with her clients, this extremely prolific visual practitioner sees herself more as a hybrid facilitator/visual communicator who expresses on behalf of the many, instead of herself. "The images, she says, "are truly in service to the ideas and the process of the group."
In 2004, I started a blog with the bombastic name of The Center for Graphic Facilitation (graphicfacilitation.com) to try to get my head around a trend I was seeing, namely the emergence of Web-based collaboration tools and shifting models of facilitating groups through visual learning. With the normalization of open source, Web services, and funky Flash animation, more people are interested in how to incorporate the real-world experience of people sketching out ideas with the virtual world experience thanks to all the connected blobjects and interactive hootenannies afforded us by Moore's Law. Within the last two years, there has been not just an increase in traffic, but also a change in the types of readers coming to the site. It's not just the Second Lifers or professional graphic facilitators anymore. More people are seeing how they too can come into the cave and think in pictures.
Peter Durand is creative director of Alphachimp Studio Inc., a small firm that explores visual learning as a powerful tool in critical thinking, problem solving, and strategic planning. He is also assistant director at the Vanderbilt Center for Better Health, a 32,000-sq.-ft. innovation center and facilitation space in Nashville.