Author Archives: admin

When I attended the Graphic Medicine (Un)Convention online in 2021, the way comics were being adopted by physicians, nurses, therapists, patients, and public health officials blew my mind. The reasons they were doing this were many, but there were some commonalities. Comics are inherently comprehensible on at least two levels -- visual and verbal. They are easily seen as a sequence. The viewer controls the speed at which information is assimilated. Most important, they do not require advanced literacy to communicate well.

I realized something interesting while looking at the incredible presentations that were made during that convention: this is something I was already doing on some level in Graphic Recording. Words + Image, and a sequence. What makes comics so much more than this, though, is the use of sequential panels to indicate time passage. And a constraint in graphic recording is having to make images on the fly at speed, so practice is very important. But another important point is that in comics, comic-book characters are expected and can be used to great advantage when discussing important issues. In this example, I’ve turned a COVID-19 cell into a character.

Four-panel comic about the spread of COVID-19 and communication.

Davis, California was blessed to have a real death-positive role model in Cathy Speck. She lost her mother and brothers to ALS, and when she got the diagnosis, she knew what was in store… but she decided to keep riding her crazy bedecked tricycle around town, even when she got an additional cancer diagnosis. I had this wonderful conversation with her back in 2016.

Chart showing Cathy Speck’s advice on how to be with a dying person

Making the Most of Remote

First, I hope you and your loved ones are well and that you have all been able to move to a long-haul approach to self-isolating. Together, all of us are all going through this extraordinary shift in our approach to living and working.

Organizations have had to pivot almost overnight to everyone working from home. (The Zoom blog reports an increase from 10 million daily users to 200 million since December; Google Classroom, thrust upon teachers with no prior distance learning experience, has tips for improving performance here.) Stay-at-home orders have remade the “normal” working environment for everyone, even for those who are used to working remotely. If you find yourself struggling and frustrated, these suggestions may help:

• Relax/reduce your usual productivity expectations for meetings, and communicate those to your team.

• Provide time at the beginning or end of the meeting for brief personal check-ins; people are craving connection.

• Ask yourself: Does it need to be a video meeting? Could it be a conference call, instead?

• Assume people will have different levels of technical expertise; with practice, everyone will improve.

• Make "patience, patience, patience” your new statement of purpose.

Diagram displaying Zoom (videoconference) etiquette

Finally, consider that folks in your team might be struggling with the competing demands of children, pets, partners, and their own ramped-up anxiety and cabin fever. Expect that their attention will not be as focused as it would be in a face-to-face meeting. A graphic recorder, working remotely, can help here. A visual summary of your meeting can provide a road map for moving forward to a series of actions and can help keep your team on track. (Yes, it can be shared on screen, live.)

I can help you by capturing your remote meetings. Please contact me here if you'd like a demonstration.

Stay safe, stay home. Be well.

Using Graphics to Mediate Conflict

I'm sure you've heard that conflict is a normal, healthy part of being human. If handled well, where both (or all) parties remain calm and talk through their disagreement, are willing to compromise to reach a goal everyone can live with -- yes, this is healthy.

How often does it happen, though, in real life? Let's take the example of a couple divorcing. Emotions are high. Both sides have been advised by their lawyers to go for as much as they can get. From here, compromise quickly begins to look like caving in, and attitudes harden.

Imagine the two parties standing on top of their own respective icebergs -- where the tip of the iceberg, just above the waterline, is the emotive content of their disagreement. Hidden below the surface are the myriad systems--many of them entirely subconscious--that determine the positions of the parties.

Diagram showing two jagged edges of a single iceberg with arguing divorcing couple. Values way below the surface converge.

Lisa Arora is a visual practitioner in Vancouver who trained as a mediator following her own divorce. She uses the iceberg model to help the parties understand that they do have some things in common, often the well-being of their offspring. If she can show this on the wall during a mediation, the parties have already come to a position of agreement before the negotiating starts. It's a clever, interesting and creative way of to move people out of conflict and into solution.

I got into graphic recording at the suggestion of my mediation teacher, who thought it would be a good fit for me, given my background in graphic design and my interest in conflict resolution. I use both these tools to help individuals understand their biases and why they might not be shared by a person who is perceived as an adversary.

If you are in conflict with someone, try sketching out all your positions and assumptions. It might help both of you move forward.

Editing on the Fly

Graphic recording is a kind of performance art where editing takes place in real time, in a process of distillation. My aim is always to capture the forest, not the trees, in a way that allows for the argument or gist of what's being said to be conveyed to those present (or even absent, after the fact).

It is very helpful to me when the speaker announces ahead of time that there will be four main sections, as recently during docent training for a new nature park in the nearby City of Woodland.

The point here was for docent trainees to be able to answer questions that arise when they're leading tours. It was a good, pithy presentation and easy to capture.

diagram showing the different habitats birds need at different times of the year

Consider this second presentation, which was delivered on the same night. The speaker has an encyclopedic knowledge of botany. He gave no sense ahead of time where his talk was going, and indeed it meandered through the history of the Central Valley and the western United States, all of it fascinating. What to highlight for the docents-in-training?

My attempt is below. I see now that I could have done this any number of different ways. The punchlines, however, would probably remain the same: a) the soil type around the Woodland Regional Park hosts alkaline prairie plants (one of them endangered), and b) it is our responsibility as environmental stewards to act to stave off the current extinction crisis.

Diagram showing the available plant habitat at the Woodland Regional Park in a regional context

I suppose the take-home from this is that it helps the graphic recorder if the speaker can give them a sense, ahead of time, of what they want the punchline to be. This experience from last week has reminded me that I can also ask for it.

Mind Mapping

Some people have described what I do as mind mapping. I did some research and found that only a very few charts I make could be described as mind maps. Mind mapping has been used since antiquity as a technique to convey complexity easily, mostly in a linear, hierarchical way (think organizational charts, genealogies, genomic sequences), but was given the name "mind mapping" in the 1970s.

What I do is better described as concept mapping. Concept mapping is more concerned with relationships among disparate ideas and through multiple dimensions. A great example is a world map showing the spread of the new coronavirus: time, number of cases, geographic spread, and virulence can all be shown on one graphic.

These "maps" are useful to illustrate lots of things. Yesterday, for instance, someone asked me how I got into sheep shearing. (I'm not a shearer! But I do help out at shearing day and other events at Meridian Jacobs, a local sheep farm.) I drew this on an index card so I could explain it to her. Although it might not look like an org chart, it's chronologically linear, outlining a sequence of events over time:

Diagram showing a journey sequence from ham radio to spinning yarn and knowledge of sheep

A concept map might focus more on the processes and the associations behind this trajectory and how these things connect, along with other factors affecting the final outcome. Here, I took the original concept and delved into the reasons I got into ham radio in the first place:

Diagram showing a woman's reasons for becoming an amateur radio operator (Ham)

Whatever it is you're trying to convey, getting the help of a visual practitioner to draw it out, perhaps during a brainstorming session, might be a valuable way to understand why you are where you are and whether that's where you want to be.

Writing Your Book

Did you make a New Year’s resolution to write a book this year? Perhaps you‘re planning to write a novel in November, during the month-long sprint that is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Or, you’re not sure yet— maybe you want to keep thinking about it until it’s more than a vague idea.

Drawing of a person thinking about possible book projects
I used to work for a university publisher. That experience taught me that it’s almost always better to think about a book first as a proposal: a one-page outline of your idea, along with a table of contents and a sample chapter. This is true whether you’re planning to send the book to an agent, directly to a publisher, or publish it yourself.
Whatever your final plan, it’s a good idea to be familiar with what other books might compete with yours. Publishing is a risky business, and any editor will want to be convinced that what you are offering is new and, most important, sellable. It pays to do your homework. (A good place to start is to recall what books you bought in the past year. Make it a habit to frequent brick-and-mortar bookshops. Know what’s hot in your field. Be honest: is your idea a book, not just an article or a blog post?)
Once you’ve decided for yourself that a book is a good plan, something that people will want to buy, spend some time working on an outline which will help you develop ideas in a coherent trajectory. This is where a graphic recorder can help: visually mapping out the flow of your book. I’m always happy to help people with projects like this. A little time up front can save months later.
Good luck with your writing project!

Complexity in the Workplace

Complexity is part of our world, and the workplace is no exception. Mergers, expanding a workforce from two to nine and then ninety, changes in regulations, new technology: All of these change the way work is done and can be challenging to implement, even when they're done right.

It helps to think of a workplace as a system. Components of the system are the people (workers, clients, suppliers, consultants, regulators), regulatory agencies, technological systems, products, and so on. Even small changes can affect the whole system. When the system is very large, like, say, a university, a government agency, or an international corporation, the impacts can be magnified and seem overwhelming.

Often, an organization’s leaders don’t put enough emphasis on understanding its systems. When change occurs in one component, that lack of understanding leads to an inability to communicate effectively about how it will affect the organization, leading to loss of morale and, ultimately, trust within the workforce—arguably the organization’s most important asset.

Diagram of someone visualizing the complexity of their organization

Understand your system. Diagram it out. You might need help with this--get it! Even better, make it a team building exercise. Give members of your organization the opportunity to own part of the outcome. And once you think you've nailed it, communicate it clearly. Revisit as often as you need to--changes will continue to be part of our complex world, so embrace them as gracefully as possible and get your team to do the same.

Visualizing Complexity: Why Does it Matter?

Edward Tufte, author of numerous works on representing data graphically, gives a chilling example in the day-long workshop he's been running for years. Engineers working on the Challenger space shuttle mission failed to convince NASA that the lower temperatures expected on the planned launch date, and the possible failure of the o-rings, would constitute an unacceptable level of risk. They had data, they had graphs, they had diagrams of o-rings, but the launch went ahead. As we all know, the Challenger exploded.

What if their presentation had instead featured a graphic like this?

Challenger disaster visual of risk of low temperature

(Tufte proposed a simple, elegant graph that showed the likelihood of o-ring failure in direct proportion to dropping temperatures. In all communication, understanding your audience is key.)

Consider something complex but not quite as distressing: the map of the London Underground. In 1931 Harry Beck, a former employee of the Underground, produced this map, still recognizable to us almost 100 years later:

London Underground map from 1931 by Harry Beck

Earlier maps had followed the city's geography more closely, which is not relevant if you're traveling underground. Subway maps around the world have been modeled on London's, giving passengers information about transfer points and the number of stations between them and omitting extraneous geographical detail.

Mapping the human genome, mapping complaints, mapping where items are found in the aisles of grocery stores: maps are visual tools that can help clarify complexity.

Next week: What complexities are found in your organization, and how might they be made visible so as to render them more understandable?