Graphic recorders use symbols and colors to illustrate the world of business

Santa Cruz Sentinel

At the most recent gathering of the Santa Cruz Tech Meetup, a decidedly low-tech event unfolded: an artist at a large white board translated the far-reaching discussion about mobile apps and digital learning into illustrative metaphor with multicolored markers.

At the end of the July evening, the story of PayPal, Google and The Digital Media Factory had inspired images of the Earth, a thumbtack, dollar bills swirling between mobile devices, a shopping cart and a blazing sun peeking behind a cresting ocean wave. There was a sense of movement above the simple outline of an audience. At the very edge was a toddler holding a bottle and pointing at a vast blue ocean. It was the first time the monthly drop-in meeting of local tech industry people was documented in symbols and images by a graphic recorder.

“It brings people together through a shared memory,” said Dennis Britton, a software group communications consultant with Cupertino-based Agile Visioning. He calls graphic recordings “evocative documents,” and says they have an enduring quality that words or meeting minutes don’t have. “It helps people remember the value they got out of that experience. Not only did you receive information, but you also had a human experience shared with others.”

Elizabeth McClellan, a San Francisco art teacher who documented the July 7 event, listens closely for metaphors when she’s doing graphic recording. “I’m trying to hear key concepts,” she said. “Google was one of the speakers. Immediately it makes me think of big thumbtack on a map.”

McClellan focused on the company presentations but also wanted people to remember what it felt like to be at the event. At one point in the evening when Google was showing a map of the ocean, a small child in the audience pointed and said “Water!” And everyone laughed. McClellan included it in the drawing.

From foot-high stacks of documents, Sheryl Nigro, a Santa Cruz-based executive coach and graphic recorder, has created thematic images for companies, but she has also adapted the process for individual clients. It is a tool for leadership development as well as corporate facilitation, she said.

“It isn’t cheap, but it has legs,” said Nigro, who says she is busier than ever despite the recession. “Graphics engage more of the whole brain. It taps a lot more of the innovative capacity of the individuals.”

Graphic recorders charge hundreds to thousands of dollars per day.

Nigro often creates a custom template or metaphor for a company before documenting the real-time events at a meeting. She also summarizes ideas as part of a presentation to groups.

When working for the Santa Cruz Planning Commission a few years ago, she created an image of a river and riparian zone to portray a sustainable economy. There were rafts and rocks and a dam depicting challenges.

“Flow was the operative word,” she said.

When working for Calaveras County, the location of Mark Twain’s famous jumping frog contest story, Nigro created a lily pad ecology-based illustration. When working with architects, she had them sign a Greek column at the end of a meeting portrayed on a long scroll. And one of her coaching clients inspired images of a Blue Angel pilot landing in the Emerald City of the Wizard of Oz.

“It’s not fine art,” Nigro said. “It’s a tool. People get excited when they see color go on a wall.”

Peter Gaarn, a consultant with the Monterey Institute for Social Architecture, used a graphic recorder when facilitating a discussion a few years ago with Cabrillo College staff and executives about the college’s future.

“As you graphically record, it becomes a catalyst for people to connect ideas and move things to a higher level of value for whatever that group is working on,” Gaarn said. “There’s something about when people create in that format: the memory seems to last longer. People seem to remember it intuitively.”

On the Net

To see Elizabeth McClellan’s depiction of the July 7, Santa Cruz Tech Meetup, visit:

This article first appeared here.


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