Today I’m joined by my friend MJ Broadbent. As a graphic facilitator and recorder, MJ uses visual thinking to help people communicate more effectively. In this episode, we talk about how drawing can help folks understand each other and make everyday life more joyful.Listen to the full conversation
Jorge: MJ, welcome to the show.
MJ: Hi Jorge. Thank you for inviting me.
Jorge: Oh, thank you for being here. It’s good to have you here. Why don’t you tell us about yourself?
MJ: Wow, that’s always an interesting question. I’m an emergent designer. I’ve studied graphic design, and my career and my way of forging through life has just been completely emergent. I really love to use visual explanations and I think the common overarching theme in terms of the work that I do and have done and looking at doing as I continue is, is connecting people with information in whatever manner that may be. It was originally traditional graphic design and then it became digital space and the nonlinear experience that were websites and apps and software. And then it became how do people… What kind of information do they need when they’re being bombarded with information? And so I began to do graphic recording and sketchnoting and so forth and teaching people that really we can do that kind of visual sense-making on our own and with other people by reclaiming our innate human capability of drawing things, of making marks, just the way we write letters, we can write other symbolic language that demonstrate what it is that we’re thinking and hearing.
Jorge: I’ve known you for a while now and we’ve interacted in professional contexts where you’ve worked in large corporations and we’ve also interacted in things like conference spaces. And my picture of you in conference spaces has you seated at the back of the room when someone is presenting, capturing the presentation in beautiful — what I guess what are, they’re called sketchnotes — but these kind of visual representations of what the speaker is talking about. And it’s a mix of like words and pictures, right?
MJ: Mm-hmm (affirmative). It’s right.
Jorge: Is that what you mean by graphic recording?
MJ: It is. The term graphic recording in the professional community of practice is generally understood to be someone who is scribing or writing in real time. Graphic recording is thought of as the large scale poster sized or you know, big boards, white boards or large format paper that might be on the wall or on a whiteboard or something that’s visible to the participants in a meeting or in a conference room. And the actions are very similar with sketchnoting, which is a term coined by the wonderful designer Mike Rohde, who runs a blog called the Sketchnote Army. And it’s just become hugely popular in the recent period of time — I would say, well, a decade or more — as a form of visual expression concurrent with the idea and the cognitive science that when we as human beings make marks on paper, most people have greater recall of the content, whether they’re making meaningful marks, that represent content that’s coming into their ears and their consciousness or whether they’re making abstract marks like crosshatching them in the margin.
For me, I am able — I’ve curated — an ability to listen and choose what it is that I would want to write down to capture what I’m hearing. It’s a very personal curation that one does one listening and scribing because it’s very different from a court reporter or somebody who’s capturing or any kind of true recording where you’re capturing all of the fidelity. How we’re recording right now is capturing everything and we could get a transcript and that would include everything we say. Graphic recording and sketchnoting by nature of the fact that you’re using your hand, you can’t possibly write it all. So you have to choose. And I tell people the way that I choose is really same way we think about what level of content fidelity we need in order to communicate. To whom? Am I making this for myself? Am I making this for other people? What is the communication act that I want to achieve through this? So I’m intentional.
Sketchnoting conferences — and I’ve had the good fortune to do sketchnoting for Lou Rosenfeld’s events, Enterprise UX, which recently became Enterprise Experience, and the DesignOps conference as part of the support team. So I’m listening and I’m drawing the taste, like kind of the tip of the iceberg. Kind of key moments. Some of it is coming from the slides. Some of it is those interesting fun voiceovers that the speaker has or something that’s happening in the conversation that might not otherwise be caught, a key quote or a joke. And sometimes they are words and sometimes they’re visuals. And what’s nice is for these conferences, there’s a body of work that people can look back on — people who were there can look back on and say, “Oh yeah, I remember those key points.” Or, ” Which talk was it that I heard that theme or that particular concept?” And they can look back and quickly see where that was. They can also look at the arc of the whole thing over a period, you know, a set of, I think there’s ten pages for a two day conference and say, ” Where do I want to highlight?” Or maybe a trip review, if I’m going back and talking about my experience of the conference, I can say, ” here’s a talk.” It’s a visual people could use for their teams, just to summarize what it is that was there and add their own thoughts.
And then for people who were not able to attend a conference, they can look at what generally went on there very quickly and perhaps make a determination about where they want to invest time in looking at the videos that are available after the fact.
That’s a key piece of information management, to the main theme of your work and your podcast. That I think, my gosh, so much information is flowing at us. How in the world do we decide where to go back when we missed something? We have… I know I have tons of intention. I’ve tons of email that I’ve marked, I’ve flagged and I need to pay attention to and it’s really hard to go back in time if you don’t catch something in the moment and take care of it just then, it becomes more effort to go back. So I find that the sketchnoting is tremendous for that purpose. Being able to very quickly visually summarize or assess something.
Jorge: I’m thinking that folks might be wondering if it’s faster to draw than it is to write.
MJ: That’s a great question. And the way that I think about it, I started to allude to it earlier. I teach basic drawing or drawing skills for those who say, “They can’t draw.” And I do this in a variety of ways. I’ve done it in a lot of workshops and conferences and it’s part of a design thinking curriculum that I’m currently facilitating inside of enterprise. If anybody’s ever played the game Pictionary — most people have had some experience with it — it’s basically visual charades, very, very simple based on a word or phrase. And the way you win is that have to represent that object or that concept as quickly as possible. And this is the underlying principle in the drawing. Drawing it… By drawing, I mean the act of, of putting a stylus or a pen to a surface, you know, whether it’s digital or it’s analog. You’re making marks, and those marks need to have a meaning.
If you’re not skilled at quickly drawing a horse and you can much more quickly write the word horse, and you’re in a time situation, you’re gonna write the word horse. What happens with people who can draw imagery or iconography or any kind of other symbolic representation is that they’ve developed the ability to make that thing, that representation, really quickly. Where they might say, “I’m going to come back in the break and add a couple of things in.” And generally there’s a little bit of finishing work that will happen maybe in the five, ten, fifteen minutes afterwards. You can do some couple of embellishments and kind of finish it up. Letters are visual symbols that form words that form sentences, that form paragraphs. And we can do that similar thing with other kinds of verbal representational language, visual language.
Jorge: I know that you do this for conferences and I believe that you also do it for meetings and let’s say… a presentation in a conference is a structured argument, right?
Jorge: And one of the keys I think to this type of work, if it’s going to serve the filtering or summarization purpose that you brought up earlier, one of the keys to it is bringing out the right visual hierarchy so that the main points somehow draw your attention. And can you talk a little bit about the differences of doing this in a more structured setting such as a conference versus a less structured setting?
MJ: Absolutely. That’s a great one, and I think you articulated it very well. In fact, at conferences we’ve all experienced — those of us who’ve attended any conference — have experienced that some speakers have highly structured, “here’s how I’m going to tell you three things or six things.” Or they have really clear visual aids that help mark those chapters or themes or key points. Others are very good at storytelling and some speakers will use no visuals at all and they’re really just creating a story arc that we don’t know how planned it is or how extemporaneous it is. So it can vary quite a bit even in a structured setting such as a conference.
When people are having less structured conversation — and I do support executive briefings, for example at several corporations — and so there are big decision makers exchanging information and time is very valuable, so it can easily go from a structured, “here’s our capabilities” to “let’s talk about how that serves your particular need” you know, customer, who’s a visiting customer. And so I will typically go to a different format where I’m wanting to capture key aspects of the back and forth. And I’ll just use two different colors and I will tend to use less imagery. So it presents more like a dialogue. And you can see by the color which party is speaking. So it becomes more like the Q&A that you would see at the bottom of anything. You know, the letter Q and the letter A are there, so you can distinguish which, or an interview transcript, that kind of thing.
And so I’m not capturing everything that’s there, but at least there’s a record of the nature of the conversation and particularly if there’s excitement about something that relates back to a theme or capability that’s been discussed before. I can link that, I can visually link that on the chart, the chart being what we call the drawing itself, the physical artifact. So it can be challenging and especially if you don’t… Managing space when you don’t know how long or how deep something’s going to go. When I’m doing graphic recording on large format, it’s much more freeing because we’ll start the day, the start the meeting with a pretty large piece of paper. And if you don’t use it all, you can trim it. I’m working on a smaller format in sketchnoting, which is typically a personal size of notebook of some kind , it’s either in your lap or it’s on a table in front of you or on a workspace that’s right in front of you so that people around you can see it. But generally the whole of the room or the audience does not see it until after, until you publish it. So that’s another distinction about the size.
Graphic recording — the large scale version — can be very valuable for meetings and conferences because people see that it’s happening and they can watch in meetings, they can see that they’re being heard and that, that they’re being paid attention to. And it can change the dynamic of the conversation. They become more focused often, and they feel cared for in a way. There’s somebody taking this, this step, this action and that there will be an artifact afterward. So a lot of just times we’re in rooms where people are doing a lot of talking and maybe someone’s taking notes. Mostly people are looking at what do we need to do coming out of this meeting? And then maybe capturing action items, but the capturing the content or the key aspects of what’s being discussed, is something that I think we can do more of.
Jorge: You’ve been talking about paper and notebooks and that brings up another question that I had about your process, which has to do with the mechanics of the actual drawing. I assume that you are drawing on paper as opposed to digitally, right?
MJ: Presently I continue to really love the pen on paper, whatever scale is, and I have a lot of different pens, love them all. There’s a trend right now and lately with the greater software and app capability to do this on tablets and people… It’s just more portable. And I have not fully embraced it yet. I think I have a mental block about working on a screen. We spend so much time with screens. But there are folks who are doing it and I’m excited to continue exploring it because it’s just, it’s a different way of working.
I did recently get an overhead camera. There are many makers, the one I happened to get was IPEVO. And it allows me to connect the camera to my computer and demonstrate to somebody who’s not next to me or to a group of people, I can draw analog and it’s projected basically onto the screen, large or small. I’m pretty excited about that because it’s a little bit of a work around in terms of how do I get to show my work or demonstrate something in action when the human beings are distributed.
Jorge: As for the “final deliverable,” to, say, your clients or when the conference has finished, for example, do you photograph the drawings and share them that way? Or how do they make their way from the paper world to the digital world?
MJ: That’s a great question. Typically for sketchnotes, I will photograph them initially so that I can put them on social media and publish them quickly. So they go out to attendees in Slack or on Twitter or on Facebook or anywhere. And then what I will do for the final deliverable to make PDFs, or in the case of Rosenfeld, they put PDFs on the website next to each of the speakers in the program. So they’re stuck there… And they are not stuck there, but they’re published there. And before that I will do high resolution scans and make sure that the lighting is even, and the colors are even and so forth. And it’s a quick flatbed scan and don’t spend a lot of time doing, you know, photoshopping or anything. But just a quick, quick scan. And then same thing goes for the big paper versions. There’s a specialty shop that does very large format scanning and digital posts. And then you can have an image, a jpeg or a pdf. And those go to the client and the paper original goes back to wherever it would best serve the folks who generated the content.
Jorge: That’s great. I wasn’t aware of the large format scanning piece of these. That’s good to know.
MJ: Kind of tremendous. There’s a firm, happens to be local to us here in the bay, but they do work for people all over the world, and nice, really great folks. It’s Landau Chartworks.
Jorge: So I’m wondering how, if any, this way of working influences the way that you manage your own information. So things like commitments to yourself and others. I would expect that like taking notes for your own purpose, like this would play into it, but beyond that, how has it changed the way that you manage your own information?
MJ: Oh my goodness, this is… That’s a huge topic. Yes. It… Where do I go first? I make visual lists. I do when I sit down and I want to think about something. Last year I did a kind of a, “let me look back on the arc of the different ways I’ve been a professional in the world.” And I took a big piece of paper and I started thinking about how to organize it. So I did… This was not a straight up graphic design and visual communication, how might I make a PowerPoint slide type of a, an inquiry, a visual inquiry. It was a more organic, “what do I notice about the cycles and themes of the way that I’ve been making visual sense of things?”
So ways that I use drawing and sketchnoting and basically words and pictures in my everyday life to… One of the ways I enjoy using it most is making little notes, little post it notes. And that can be for myself or for my domestic partner or, you know, on something in the refrigerator or on a food item that I have put in a bowl for a gift. You know, I make some interesting lettering, get some cool pens.
Recently I got some new black jeans and you have to watch out when you wash them. You don’t put light-colored things in there because you know, the dye will leach. And so I made a note to make sure to use cold water and I made the big blue cold with the waves underneath, like kind of just as a reminder. So I’m… That’s kind of fun. And then also a really cool way is on a little simple calendar or paper calendars on the refrigerator. And sometimes I’ll put a little drawing of something that happened that day. The way people make journals. Yeah. Maybe it was the weather or something you ate. Just drawing simple little icons, or you know, I keep colored pens around the house. We have cups of pens everywhere and so that’s keeping it fun.
And it’s always nice when somebody else is involved. They enjoy it. It’s like how we used to be about getting paper mail, getting a letter in the mail. And then, I think the other part is, in terms of how I manage my life, I can’t have a conversation with people in, in person, often cannot have a conversation without drawing something. So I keep, I keep pens in my bags and I want to make sure that I have the ability to (unintelligible) and sketch something out, the napkin sketch type of thing. When I was working at GE Digital, I really would just walk around with my laptop and a pad of paper or some stack of printer paper and I’m just drawing things and talking about. Show what I mean or listen to other people and say, “Is this what you mean?” And get into a conversation with them about it.
Jorge: You know there was a while back — many, many moons ago as they say — I used to use the a Franklin Planner…
Jorge: … to keep track of things like meetings and to do’s and stuff like that. And there was this kind of tactile pleasure to using this thing. And it was a big bulky thing that I had to drag around in my bag, but I remember that I spent perhaps too much time looking into things like page templates for that thing and being very mindful about where certain things went. Like I would keep track of to do’s in one section of the thing and appointments in another.
So digital has completely taken over from things like the Franklin Planner, but there’s been an interesting phenomenon. Over the past, I would say five years or so, I’ve noticed that there’s been a resurgence in folks keeping track of things and I’m thinking of things like the bullet, um, I think it’s called The Bullet Journal?
Jorge: Where folks have rediscovered the pleasures — the tactile pleasures — of keeping track of this sort of information in an analog format. And when I hear you talk about the various pens that you use when you talked about like, “Well, you know, I did the blue pen the word cool, and I did the little wave,” like to me, that speaks of this… This tangible aspect to drawing with pen and paper, which digital just cannot capture. Yet, at least. I’m wondering if you have thoughts on that or if you can tell us about the pens that you — because you’ve talked several times about the pens and how much you like the pens…
MJ: Oh my gosh. Well, yes, but here’s the thing. I’m gonna make an analogy to our ability, the way that we navigate ourselves literally through space, and we use Apple Maps or Google Maps, or when do we need to go from point a to point b, we say, “Please, please computer, tell me how to go.” And then we follow those directions. And then we have no, literally no memory other than maybe the physical experience of, of going through space and maybe whatever you noticed along the way. If you have good visual recall, you might say, “Oh yeah, I remember passing this street and that street,” because you saw the sign. But you could not recreate that because it wasn’t memorable, and you didn’t … The amount of control that you had, was a little more passive than if you had to look, consult a paper map and create a turn list or create some kind of notes to yourself as you would drive or navigate or walk to the place.
And so what we’re talking about is a kind of, it’s not stickiness in terms of attention, but it’s stickiness in terms of memory. And so when you make — this is back to my earlier point of when you physically make marks — and you’re being intentional about it, you’re saying, “I’m, you know, I want to put this or that onto the surface, the paper, or the tablet or the…” And that’s where it gets blurry in the digital space.
If you’re drawing on a tablet, and you’re choosing the thickness and the color and the scale and the hierarchy and you’re creating something there, I think that still is just as good, just as meaningful, as if you’re doing it on paper because you’re in charge, and you’re putting it there.
What we’re talking about is, what’s going on for you behaviorally and cognitively with this act? How is it affecting your interpersonal relationships? If it’s involving other people, which typically it would be… Well, it doesn’t matter. It can be with yourself. If I sit down with a piece of paper, and I want to make sense of something for myself, I tell people, this is one of the things that goes on in my workshops, you’re going to have a different relationship with your ideas and with your thinking if you externalize it onto the paper, than if you keep it in your head.
I’m not saying it’s better, it’s just different. I mean it can be better. I think it’s better, but it’s not, it’s not a judgment call. And then if you’re going to have a conversation with somebody else, or you’re in a conversation, and you’re not sure or you want to be sure that you are communicating effectively, drawing anything, drawing scratchy marks and a couple of labels or if it’s a model, or it’s a plan… Well it could be any subjects. It’s going to be easier for you to have accord with the person, agreement. And both of you come away from it, or the multiple of you go, come away from it with a shared understanding.
I don’t think you know about this, but I’m excited to be taking these concepts into a new course that’s going to be offered at Stanford Continuing Studies this fall. And it’s taking the need for collaboration — for effective collaboration — that is, that takes people in meetings or in rooms or in conversations and they’re speaking words , to make it tangible. To use this very simple, Pictionary-like visual language, which in the course description we’re calling Simple Sketching, and to use them in facilitating group communication.
So this is going to be six sessions on Wednesday evenings starting September 25th. And we’re going to look at how do you do that? How can you listen and draw and engage and make people focus in a way that gives them much more satisfaction and much more traction and allows people to see, who we’re not there to see what happened. It allows people who were there to have a common frame of reference and empowers everybody to be doing happier, more focused work.
Jorge: That’s fantastic. Congratulations.
MJ: Thank you.
Jorge: And it’s also a great summary of what we’ve been talking about thus far. So I think that’s a good place to wrap up our conversation. So, where can folks find out more about you?
MJ: I can be found on almost every social media platform at, @mjbroadbent. So I’m on Twitter, on Instagram, on Flickr, and my domain is mjbroadbent.com. I’ll be putting information about the upcoming course and some other meetups that I’m supporting into these places.
Jorge: Fantastic. Well, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.
MJ: Thank you, Jorge, for your excellent work around information, which is critical.