The first time I came into contact with what I later called visual practices was in 2016. I was attending my first Training of Trainers bating in this new world called Non-formal Education. The overall event was accommodated by two women* who did something very different. Whenever we gathered with all participants of the various seminars, they stood at the front of the room, faced the wall, and started drawing, rendering in images what participants were saying with words. Those images developed as the sessions progressed, collecting different moments and mirroring them on paper. I have never seen anything like that. And I was hooked.
Later, I learned that this is called a Graphic Recording. I immediately understood what impact such drawing had on participants. It gave the mind another thing to rest on besides the spoken word. It triggered an additional path of learning. It supported sense-making. From there on, I went on a journey of self-paced learning to broaden my skill set and add it to my repertoire as a facilitator and learning space holder.
But as I dove into the deep end, I quickly realised that various terms were used simultaneously and in part to differentiate one practice from another. Graphic Recorder, Visual Facilitator, Scribe, Sketchnoter, Illustrator, Graphic Facilitator and and and… It was super confusing. What was this thing I was doing called? To answer the question for myself, I sat down and tried to make sense of it all. This blog post is the result of many hours of pondering and shuffling. It shall aim to be a resource for you to get a picture of what Visual Practice is and what it can do for you and your event. Please be aware that the following is MY sense-making, and others in the field might use different terms or the same ones differently.
A short history of Visual Practice as a professional field
Humans use images and simplified drawings to create a narrative and transfer knowledge since, well, forever. But let’s not start there. Regarding the history of visual practice as a field of work, it was in the 1970s that it began to form. According to David Sibbet in his 2001 article ‘A Graphic Facilitation Retrospective’, Visual Practice originated from the San Francisco, USA, consulting environment. Back then, Sibbet, Fred Lakin, Geoff Ball and others started simultaneously to look into the impact of large-scale visuals on problem-solving processes, group productivity, or information retention. All of them were inspired by architects, designers, computer engineers, artists, and psychologists and worked in close proximity to each other.
This fertile environment gave birth to several different approaches. Interaction Associates coined the term “group memories”. Out of SRI came the idea of “generative graphics”. Sibbet’s company Grove Consultants International finally trademarked the term “group graphics”. Reading publications from that time, it becomes evident that Visual Practice, still called Graphic Facilitation back then, was an umbrella term for all interaction between a group process and large-scale generative imagery. A facilitator often created it in parallel to facilitate the group process itself.
In the 1980s, a lively community of graphic recorders, graphic facilitators, visual thinkers and similar established itself in the San Fransisco Bay Area. Under the flagship of Leslie Salmon-Zhu, this community started to gather in annual conferences in the Western USA, aiming to create a community of practice, first locally and, shortly after, internationally. At one of these conferences, Jennifer Hammond Landau coined the term “visual practitioner” to describe a wide range of practices within the visual field. In just a couple years, this term would become part of the name of the International Forum of Visual Practitioners, a non-profit organisation born out of the conferences. Today, this global organisation has branches in the Americas, Europe and Asia.
The basic vocabulary of Visual Practice
As diverse as the field’s history and the practitioners within it, so is the vocabulary to describe the different practices. A simple Google search and you will quickly realise that different practitioners use various terms to refer to one and the same service. The reason for this is certainly that Visual Practice and its multiple sub-disciplines are still relatively young and only to a minimal degree explored by academia, which most of the time leads to the creation of formal terminology. This diversity is then increased by different geographic traditions bringing up different terminologies.
Therefore, I acknowledge that the following descriptions are based on my individual practice and how I was able to label different services more precisely. Consequently, these terms and their definitions are not the ultimate version but are what I am using coherently throughout my practice and website, as well as any outward-directed communication.
Visual Practice is the term that describes the entire field, independently of the role the visual plays in the facilitation or learning process. A visual practitioner is a person who translates thoughts, ideas, words or concepts into visuals. The aim is to engage the listener or learner in subconsciously processing and retaining information by connecting it with the visual.
All services clustered under the umbrella of Visual Practice have at their core the intention to increase learning, engagement, and long-term impact of content through visual representation. Depending on the role of the visual practitioner when relating to the group, we talk of: Visual Facilitation (when the practitioner actively engages with participants and shapes the learning or collaboration environment) and Visual Harvesting (if the practitioner is only a silent observer).
The visual practitioner does not interact with participants or the audience in all the practices collected under visual harvesting. Instead, they are entirely passive and only support the engagement with and comprehension of the content.
Graphic Recording / Scribing / Sketchnote
Graphic recording is conducted live during a meeting or event. The visual practitioner will summarise conversations and identify key messages through images and text. You can imagine it as an interpretation of speech to visuals. It can be done digitally or on paper as well as remotely or on-site.
Including a graphic recording in an event has multiple added benefits. First, it increases audience comprehension, engagement, and retention during presentations, talks, workshops, and similar events. That is because visuals and text allow for additional ways of understanding content and increasing focus by giving the eye something else to rest on.
Knowledge maps are the asynchronous cousin of graphic recordings. They are based on audio/video recordings or minutes/notes of a meeting. The visual practitioner summarises and translates those into visuals. The final images can be used in various ways, similar to the after-event use cases for a graphic recording.
Infographics / Illustrations
Here the visual practitioner draws up a graphic or illustration based on informational input. This differs from Knowledge Maps, which are always done for events or meetings. Infographics aim to simplify and contextualise complex concepts in a visual form.
Data Visualisation / Information Design
Data visualisation is similar to infographics but works solely with data inputs. As a result, it eases comprehension and allows for higher engagement based on its visual clarity.
Explainer / Whiteboard Videos
An explainer video is a short, typically animated video used to explain a product, service, or concept simply and engagingly. Some visual practitioners work with animators, so they only need to develop storyboards and visual vocabulary. A subcategory of explainer videos is whiteboard videos which are recordings of the actual drawing out of the images.
In all sub-practices of visual facilitation, the visual practitioner engages actively with the participants or a group of learners. As a result, they shape the processes and impact the outcomes of conversations.
Here the visual practitioner fills the role of a facilitator designing, implementing and following up an entire group process. What differentiates this from what is commonly understood as facilitation is that they purposefully include visual elements in the process. These can be prepared flip charts, activity posters, or activities for the participants to generate visually. In its truest form, the visual practitioner works by themselves and handles all visual aspects. Nevertheless, it happens more often that they actually collaborate with a graphic recorder to generate collective images of the overall process. Sam Brad has a blog post about how this collaboration works best. Check it out here.
Graphic Process Consulting
Filling the role of a consultant, the visual practitioner works with organisations on design processes that use a lot of media in interactive visuals. It is often used for organisational change processes to visualise and simplify complexity. The co-create visual can allow them to see the problem from different perspectives and understand it from a bird’s eye view. It is always a highly participatory and interactive process that guides image generation.
Visual Learning Design
Visual learning design is used when visual practitioner combines their knowledge of how we learn with the impact of visuals for learning. It is a practice that draws its influence from different fields and approaches. The visual practitioner uses visuals to impact the individual learner and guide the learning journey. In the online world, this often happens with purposefully designed Miro or Mural boards.
The term Creative Facilitation was coined by PYE – Partners for Youth Empowerment. This facilitation practice foresees using art activities -such as singing, drawing, writing and similar – as the core learning activities. Groups are enabled to draw insights from seemingly unrelated activities.
The practice of Visual Practice
Now that we worked out the different terms and sub-practices, I want to familiarise you with some of the people working in the field of visual practice. I will also share some resources with you if you want to dive even deeper.
Leaders in the field of Visual Practice
Brandy is a US-based visual practitioner who gained prominence with her book ‘The Idea Shapers: The Power of Putting Your Thinking Into Your Own Hands’. In recent years she has shifted from conducting graphic recordings herself to teaching visual thinking to the whole room via her ‘The Agerbeck Method’, a 90-day course to visual thinking transformation.
Kelvy combined scribing with Otto Scharmer’s Theory U. Through that, she developed the sub-discipline of Generative Scribing, emphasising empathic listening and visual co-creation. She published the book ‘Generative Scribing: A Social Art of the 21st Century’.
Sam is a graphic facilitator who combines organisational change facilitation and visuals. He works primarily in justice and change spaces focusing on social impact work. He co-edited the book ‘Drawn Together through Visual Practice’.
BiKaBlo is a Europe-based global consultancy which was among the first to promote visual thinking in Europe. They developed THE visual dictionary that, to this point, inspires countless visual practitioners worldwide. You can find it under the title ‘Bikablo: Das Trainerwörterbuch Der Bildsprache = Facilitators Dictionary Of Visual Language.
My Inspirations & Friend-Visual Practitioners
Full disclosure up front, Chris is one of my best friends and an outstanding Visual Practitioner and Creative Facilitator. Coming from the movie industry, Chris intuitively understands story-based and narrative-driven visual engagement of learners and participants alike. In addition, he brings genuine playfulness to his work, enabling participants to grow beyond their assumed limitations.
Alejandro Gil, also known as Ale Listens & Draws, is another fantastic Brussels-based Visual Practitioner. Having a background as a trainer, he today focuses mainly on Graphic Recording.
Jacinta is an Australia-based graphic facilitator who uses doodles to unlock and engage group processes. She works on a diverse set of topics and is just an overall joy of a person!
Visual Practice Resources
Here are some more books about visual practice which I can warmly recommend.
- Visual Meetings: How Graphics, Sticky Notes and Idea Mapping Can Transform Group Productivity by David Sibbet
- The World of Visual Facilitation by Rachel Smith, Tim Hamons and Jeroen Blijsie
- The Sketchnote Handbook: the illustrated guide to visual note taking by Mike Rohde
- The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Picturesby Dan Roam
Here are some more things all around visual practice
- IFVP – International Forum of Visual Practitioners
- Neuland markers – Especially if you live in the minority world (aka Global North), there are no better makers than those of Neuland. They are water-based , re-fillable and overall awesome!
- Stuck on a word and no idea how to visualise it? I love to use google search with ‘ word I am trying to visualise + icon or symbol’.
Why should you book a Visual Practitioner for your next Event?
The majority of us are visual learners. Therefore, including visuals in your event increases engagement, understanding and retention of your content. Visual Harvesting techniques allow your content to live beyond the moment it is said or shared. Your participants can engage with it whenever they want to refer to it in an easily understandable way. You can also share it with a broader audience than those who have been there.
Visual Facilitation practices are impactful thinking tools that unlock every group process and generate impressive outcomes. Formerly stuck conversations can gain new momentum, and confusing concepts can finally start to make sense. Participants gain new tools and confidence to express themselves when using visual tools. Conflicts get resolved by getting everyone on the same page. Conversations are slowed down, but understanding is significantly increased.
All these aspects are just some of the apparent benefits of visual practice. The best way to understand the subtle ways it shifts every event is to experience it in person.
Now that you have a better understanding of visual practice and are ready to book a visual practitioner for your next event, you can check out what services I am currently offering under this umbrella here.
As always, this blog is a labour of love, so I would appreciate it if you shared it with your networks and helped me spread the word.
Love and Appreciation,