Published on October 28, 2014

How to avoid getting overwhelmed (#1): In praise of graphic recording

By Amy Pollard

Dr Amy Pollard is Deputy Director at Involve. She has over 10 years experience working on accountability, policy and power, and a passion for using effective public engagement to drive positive change.

300- 2

The world is a complicated place, and if you take understanding it seriously it’s almost impossible not to get overwhelmed from time to time.  The trick is, of course, to find ways to avoid getting overwhelmed but still preserve the richness of the complexity – which is usually where interesting and progressive things come from.

I have been thinking about this recently in relation to two apparently disparate things:  the popular and increasingly common use of graphic recording at participative workshops, and the seemingly intractable challenge that seems to be emerging in my old policy stomping ground, the post-2015 debate on sustainable development goals.  I’ll post on the first of these today.

Graphic recording is when an artist or graphic illustrator does a live drawing of a meeting or an event – using words and pictures to capture what gets said.  They listen and draw in real time, so that participants at the session can see how their conversation feeds into the picture as it gets drawn, and at the end of the session there is a large canvas that visually shows the discussion.  From my experience, graphic records almost always seem to go down extremely well with participants and organisers alike.

Traditional text-based recording (ie. taking notes with words or doing full transcription of what is said) often falls foul of the complication → overwhelm problem.  So much is said at a workshop that writing it all down leads to information overload; but writing just a few things down usually means privileging some people’s views over others, and leads those reading a written report to wonder how many liberties have been taken with the synthesis to produce a compact number of ‘key points’.  In a room with lots of different conversations going on it’s very difficult to hear all the different points, never mind produce a linear narrative.

The interesting thing about graphic recording, for me, is that it doesn’t resolve the ‘be comprehensive/be concise’ tension but it adds an extra component – an appealing aesthetic – which can go a long way to overcoming it.  In my opinion graphic records don’t necessarily capture what is said at a participative event more ‘wholly’ than traditional notes, but what they can do extremely effectively is capture the feeling that develops between participants as they interact.  When people come together, listen to each other and articulate ideas that are new to themselves (as well as each other) something deeper is happening than just an exchange of words.  As Spike Jones’s character in Her, Samantha, would put it, the meaning is in the space between the words.  There is a wholeness – a communion, if you like – that a written report tends to do violence to.  By using a different aesthetic, graphic records convey the fact that people had a coherent conversation that made sense and that they understood each other; they didn’t just say a load of things that look like mess.

I have been really impressed by the integrity of graphic facilitators in their recording work, especially the team who recorded for NHS Citizen, New Possibilities.  To listen, synthesise and accurately reflect what happens when people talk is a challenge that gets more difficult the more seriously you take it, and the mark of those who do it well is often that they reflect on how they could do it better.  But whilst graphic recording shares the same challenges as a host of traditional devices for creating a workshop output, I think they have a potential for conveying some of the ‘intangibles’ that is rare to find in other mediums.  A good graphic record is more than a pretty picture, with strong content as well as style; but it’s important to realise that using a different aesthetic can be a powerful thing in its own right.

Image credit: New Possiblities

Leave a Reply