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The art of visualizing: how to select a method for visual thinking

Today, we live in a predominantly visual world. Why?

The process of recognizing a word is more complex and takes longer than recognizing an image. The human brain has evolved into a sophisticated visual pattern-matching machine whereas the invention of text is relatively recent in terms of evolution.

The Pictorial Superiority Effect is well known in research: the more visual the input, the more likely it is to be recognized and recalled at a later time.

Images can also cross language barriers that text can’t: the universality of symbols you encounter all over the world in airports is a good example.

Text and oral presentations are not just less efficient than pictures for retaining certain types of information; they are way less efficient. If information is presented orally, people remember about 10 percent, tested 72 hours after exposure. That figure goes up to 65 percent if you add a picture. The inefficiency of text has received particular attention. One of the reasons that text is less capable than pictures is that the brain sees words as lots of tiny pictures”. John Medina, Brain Rules.

For that reason it is increasingly common to invite a visual note-taker for meetings and conferences: indeed, visualization helps people to reach a common understanding and follow the discussion.

Visual thinking is a growing field encompassing a variety of profiles and practices, each with their own specificities. While the form in which these profiles express their work may seem similar, the goals may be wildly different.

Graphic facilitation

Facilitation is the art of fostering ideas and innovation in other people’s minds.

A graphical facilitator leads a workshop and uses visualization to animate the discussion. It is executed live and records the meaning of the discussion visually. This visualization is shown to the audience and helps them visualize the reasoning of the discussion. The visual feedback helps participants and motivates the generation of new ideas from it. Studies demonstrate that people are more involved in the conversation and if someone loses his/her focus, he/she can quickly catch up.

When to use it: Ideation workshops, focus groups

Target audience size: 8-10 people

Who: Facilitators with graphical skills

How: The produced graphics take an active role in shaping and guiding the discussion

Graphic recording

The main difference with the graphic facilitator is that the graphic recording is done in the background: typically, the note-taker works in a corner of the meeting and the audience’s attention should not be focused on it.

By listening and a taking notes, this passive observer records the contents of the discussion. Most frequently, the note-taker receives a brief from the facilitator beforehand to understand the context of the meeting and be able to be efficient quickly. Graphic recording is great way to visualize the entire discussion and read a summary of the main ideas.

A graphical note-taker usually draws and writes on a large whiteboard or panel. This panel is shown to the audience after the meeting and can be used as a high-level summary of the discussion.
Here are some examples of Graphic Recordings created during design sprints / meetings at Backelite:

When to use it: Conferences, meetings, workshops, focus groups

Target audience size: large

Who: note-takers with graphical and synthesizing skills

How: A live summary done in the background

Sketchnoting

Sketchnoting is a personal initiative that is close to graphic note-taking.

Like the Graphic note-taker, the sketchnoter usually doesn’t actively participate at an event but is part of the audience. Sketchnoting is more about taking notes in a visual way for oneself rather than for a large group of people. Sketchnoting is usually done on a personal notebook or piece of paper. These notes may later be shared.

When to use it: Conferences, meetings

Target audience size: For an individual, but can later be shared

Who: Anyone

How: Replacing or accompanying regular textual notes

Conclusion

In conclusion, graphic facilitation and graphic recording are both activities requiring professional skills. Sketchnoting is a tool that can be used by any individual to facilitate the recording of the essence of an event. These visual notes will likely stand out against the more standard textual notes and be easier to come back to.