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In Praise of Grids

ink drawings of people
People at Mishka's on a Saturday morning

I'm a member of the Davis urban sketching community. I almost always mark up a grid before heading out to sketch. I like the firm boundary (which I can break if necessary or if I want a particular effect), I like to work small so that I can work fast (important when sketching people), but mostly, the grid provides a flexible container within which to work.

My travel sketchbooks ALWAYS have a grid. I make a template from some cardstock and this allows me to tuck it into my sketchbook so I always have it ready. Working on a 6x9" format I make six rectangles, usually, in non-photo blue pencil, which allows me to ink in the borders or not later. I have made many sketchbooks with Sundance Felt paper which is folded into signatures but not bound until I get home, so I don't end up with tons of unused pages or, conversely, run out of room.

ink and wash drawings of Iceland landscapes
Iceland travel journal spread

In the spread above, I used the entire grid for my one drawing of the Öxarárfoss waterfall at Thíngvellír, whereas on the facing page, I took two rectangles for the top left and bottom landscape sketches, and a single rectangle for the flag at the parliament rock and arctic grasses.

I've been pondering how best to use a grid in my large format captures of meetings. My 48" x 92" paper is divided easily into vertical thirds by the fact that division between the three boards is clearly visible. I think I'm going to play with marking the horizontal sheet in thirds too and save intersecting points for especially important places, or drawings, or focus spots. I'll report back!

ink drawings of people and plants
UC Davis Arboretum Terrace, September 23, 2017

It takes a lot of guts to get up in front of 80 people and declare, as a scientist, that you don't have all the answers. Answers they need -- in this particular case, what the best way is to protect their livestock from predators. When some of those predators are protected by law, lethal control becomes less of an option.

Yet this is what happened on Thursday, August 31, at the Hopland Research and Extension Center. Researcher Alex McInturff provided a survey of what works, what doesn't, and most importantly, what we still don't know. It opened the way for a panel of ranchers to say what their greatest challenges have been with predators. (For many, two-legged predators and dogs, rather than coyotes, mountain lions, bears or even wolves have been the biggest problem.)

I was privileged to be able to capture the conversations over the course of the days as participants saw demonstrations of different control methods then came back together to talk about it. When you say "we don't know" you are opening up the question: what if? what if we knew? and -- most important -- opening the way for coming up with a collaborative solution, where all stakeholders contribute their knowledge and experience. (For now, the biggest way forward seems to be to try a combination of techniques and keep switching them up to stay a step ahead.)

Kim Rodrigues photo
Hopland Research & Extension Center Director Kim Rodrigues sums up the day with using Listen-ink's charts

Navigating the Medical Maze

drawing of heart and caduceus
Medicine + heart: graphically recording the maze of medical treatment

I'm honored to have been asked to guide someone through an exciting new medical therapy to treat a genetic condition.

Medical advocates are people whose purpose is to sit with a patient during medical visits, take notes, ask questions if things aren't clear, and advocate for the patient if needed. Often, particularly with serious diagnoses, patients are not able to hear, process, and remember everything that is said during the barrage of information, treatment options, pros and cons of each, pain management issues, and so on. Having a medical advocate present ensures this is all covered so the patient can evaluate all the information in a less stressful environment and much longer time frame. It is often useful to have this person not be a family member, who is similarly facing a lot of information that will impact him or her directly.

If the medical advocate is also capturing the information graphically, along with the patient's hopes, fears, dreams, and is able to motivate them through the treatment -- how much more powerful could this be? I'm excited to see. Stay tuned!

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Getting a Book in Print: Think Like a Publisher

Received wisdom is that publishing a book can help you establish your authority in your field. Nathan Berry, Robert Bly, Gerry Robert and many others are very confident that it's the way to be seen as an expert. But book publishing is a beleaguered industry and editors are overwhelmed; the odds of finding your manuscript accepted for publication are slim; the odds of the book making it to the remainder shelves seem to grow with each passing year. Publishers are always eager for the great new bestseller, but what they mostly see are manuscripts they'd have a hard time persuading anyone to buy, manuscripts that end up on the dreaded dec pile I described in this post.

There is, of course, self-publishing. Publishing-on-demand is a relatively low-risk way to enter the self-publishing game. That said, it would probably be a great idea to follow the same rules as you would if you were sending in a book proposal to a publisher. Ask yourself these questions: Is this book covering something that's been published elsewhere? If it is, does it have a new take on the subject? Have you bought books by the competition? If not, what makes you think your intended audience will want to buy yours? (Does your intended audience even buy books? Do you have a good sense of who your intended audience even is?) Is a book the best way to say what you have to say? Might a journal article, or even a blog post, say it better, more succinctly, with a lot less time and aggravation?

If you've given thought to all these questions and you're not sure whether you should go ahead, consider having a graphic facilitator draw out your book plan. You might be on to a major winner, though definitely do the math to see whether it's worth your time, energy and cash. Writing a book and getting it published takes a lot of all three, so it might be worth spending a little up front get help asking yourself the tough questions.

 

Capturing Oral History Differently

People who are interested in genealogy are told over and over to interview the living before it's too late. To ask them what they know of their own forebears, or even rumors about them; what it was like when they were young, whether they can identify people in old photographs. It's a big project and can seem overwhelming.

I have started to interview some of our elders to ask these same questions and realize that graphic capture of oral history can be an excellent tool for genealogists. Best if a family member does the interviewing, they can focus on the subject while I quietly capture in the background. Using a digital audio or video recorder helps too, but the essence is caught in one sheet of paper.

Below is a prototype "short sheet" I made with a friend; working larger would allow more room for material.

Oral history graphic
Short capture of oral history, March 2017

Incidentally, speaking of connecting with our elders, be sure to check out Susan MacCleod's Humans of St. Vincent's on Instagram. A project of great humanity.

Graphic Recording is Like Translation

The best  job I had in college was as a translator for a project of hail suppression in southeastern Spain funded by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture. This region of the country is almost entirely agricultural and was at risk of weather patterns often resulting in damaging hail. It was fun, it was very lucrative for a poor college student, and it taught me to listen, hard.

Graphic recording feels to me very much like translating. You get input in a certain form -- spoken language, perhaps with PowerPoint slides thrown in to the mix -- and your job is to output the results visually in real time. You have to listen to every word and make sure you understand what's said, and get the essence down, quickly.

Of course a lot of the work is also interpretation: deciding on the fly what to put in and what to put down. A lot gets left out. My job is to capture the essence and make the connections. (People are better at this than they usually think -- we do it all the time. If someone asks you what a book you've just read is about, you don't recite the whole book, after all.) Yet selecting what's REALLY important, synthesizing on the fly, getting it down quickly and making the pieces work together: this is my work.

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What Motivates Me

The past week has been a blur – capturing conversations following three separate performances of Pronoun, a play about a transgender youth’s journey with his peers, parents, school and the medical establishment. The cast was entirely made up of high school students from Davis.

I have been so energized by these conversations. I hope my graphic capture was able to help energize participants. Here’s what I noticed, especially on the third night of my activity onstage next to these amazing high school students: What we do in graphic facilitation is a kind of performance. We are, like the young actors in this play, hoping to bring understanding and clarity, and at the same time to inspire activism. In my case, it is finding a way for my professional work to ignite and stoke my own activism. Meaningful work, captured and organized meaningfully.

Alison Kent laughs as Director Emily Henderson wonders how many hours there can be in a day. Photo by Robert Schulz.
Alison Kent laughs as Director Emily Henderson wonders how many hours there can be in a day. Photo by Robert Schulz.

This is a week when so many of us are wondering where to put our energy and activism. Pronoun director Emily Henderson, pictured here, said during one of the panel discussions that she had only enough energy to have her activism intersect with her professional life. I couldn't have put it better myself.

Frightening Diagnoses: Visualizing Healing

I've been honored to work as a graphic recorder individually with people with serious illnesses, to help them face their fears and, more importantly, visualize hope. It is a great gift to be able to bring people clarity in the midst of overwhelming (and terrifying) information. We can help map out the intricacies of our medical system to make it easier for patients to navigate their care once the scary diagnosis has been made, which also allows multiple support team members to see all the same information.

In this work, I use a large pad of paper while sitting down, not large boards -- I need eye contact. Then I ask them how they are, how they are feeling. They usually give me involved medical information which I'm obviously not qualified to evaluate, but I can usually tell pretty fast whether they trust their doctors or not, which takes me in the direction of their actual treatment. Acute patients are usually on multiple medications which usually means they tire easily, so it's important to be efficient -- and ask them to envision what their healing (medical / spiritual) looks like. They are sometimes a bit stumped so I offer some possible images -- like a flower opening, say. I show them the paper during the process several times and make sure this is where they're comfortable and that almost always causes them to say "can you draw a XXX here?" -- they do get it and then start to drive the visualization process.

I can imagine this process also to be very helpful for patients in hospice. Dying people have many fears -- being alone, being ignored, being in pain -- and acknowledging these fears honors them and holds space. With sick and dying people it's essential to let go of our own religious ideas/principles and respect theirs, but I don't probe this -- I let them bring it up if they want to. If they do, it's pretty easy to guide them to envision it!

One client put her five different sheets (done on five different sessions) on her ceiling, so when she was in bed awake at 3:00 am wracked in fear, she could look at her metamorphosed butterfly and calm down. This client had also had some pretty negative initial medical contact and wanted me to record that to shake it off.  I gather this is not unusual at all in cancer diagnoses; in her case, she ended up with a stellar team (much further away, but that's how it goes), and I was able to record them as a group, each helping to heal her, with herself in the center. I included all her friends and family -- her non-medical support team -- so that the circle of healing is holistic and substantial.

 

 Adding Faces to your Meeting Notes

I was once sent to a meeting to represent an organization whose board I'm on. Sitting in a meeting with people I mostly didn't know, addressing a topic with which I was unfamiliar, I started to sketch their faces and surround them with the things they said. They were likenesses, not portraits as such, but recognizably (mostly) to the people whose faces they represented.cap referral dwg

People came up afterwards and wanted to take photos. It was a very different record of their meeting than the usual meeting notes. It was engaging. It was whimsical. And it caught the essence of their meeting in a way they all recognized. Most important, it helped me remember who had said what, and that gave me a greater connection with them to be able to work as a colleague.

James Lake has a great post here where he gives shortcuts on how to draw faces.

If you aren't confident in your drawing skills, try the art of the art-free caricature by Roy Blumenthal. Roy added this note to a comment:

In Scott McLoud's UNDERSTANDING COMICS, he offers a very powerful reason why my artless caricatures work...

The more REALISTIC a drawing is, the less universal it becomes. The more GENERALISED the drawing is, the more universal it becomes.


So, think of the most basic version of a smiley face... The circle with the big arc representing a mouth. That is almost universally recognised across multiple cultures, education levels, and class strata as a happy face.

As you add detail, so the recognition factor narrows. As an extreme example, consider a realistic picture of a man smiling broadly, showing his teeth, and his eyes clearly wide open and looking directly out of the page at the viewer.

In many Western cultures, this will be identifiable as happiness. But in many other cultures, it could be confused with arrogance, anger, deception, violence. The realism of the depiction makes it MORE AMBIGUOUS.

So back to my artless caricatures... They take the minimum recognizable trait of the person being depicted, and they abstract everything else. They lack any sense of realism. This makes it easy for viewers to identify them. And they aren't judged aesthetically.

I love this approach and I am working to make my faces more generalized.

 

 

We all like to feel heard -- especially in a professional context where there may be unequal power in the room. An engaged workforce is important for productivity, for teamwork, for a unified mission. Strong leaders know this.

We've all been in a meeting, though, where someone is so intent on what they're going to say -- something that will amaze the whole room -- that they are not listening to what's going on. They are rehearsing in their head how best to say their piece so it will have maximum impact. Many of us do this, if we're honest. I know I have.

Catching this contribution and getting it down on paper in front of the whole group is one of the most powerful impacts graphic facilitation (or graphic recording) can have. I've seen shoulders go down, the whole body tilt forward, eyes lock onto the speaker as it happens. The person, previously alone and marginal, really joins the group at that moment.

Acknowledge contributions from everyone including the slow-to-speak, whatever their reasons. Capture them visibly. Watch your meetings become more productive and meaningful.thatguy