Back to the drawing board

Published in Renegade Collective issue 16, November 2014.

Despite the PLETHORA of electronic tools available to the MODERN WORKPLACE, the humble whiteboard might just be the LATEST KILLER APP.

Fresh from a trip to Berlin to attend EuViz, the European Conference for Visual Thinkers, Practitioners and Facilitators, Jessamy Gee is keen to show off her new whiteboard pens. The set of 13 multicoloured Neuland markers retails for US$46.50, but that’s a small price to pay for the primary tool of your trade. Jessamy works as a graphic facilitator, through her visual communication business, Think in Colour.

Clients from across the corporate, government, start-up and non-profit sectors bring her into their meetings to capture the discussion and translate it into visually arresting illustrations, word art and cartoons.

It might sound like a bit too much fun to be anything more than a gimmick, but research has shown that graphic facilitation delivers substantial benefits.

“There are three main reasons why we use [graphic facilitation] and those are engagement, comprehension and memory retention,” says Jessamy, gesturing at the whiteboard she’s prepared especially for our interview in her Fitzroy studio in Melbourne.

“It’s not just someone drawing pretty pictures on a board. It holds your attention, holds you in the content.”

Her whiteboard displays statistics from Brain Rules, a book by molecular biologist John Medina.

According to his book, listening to a words-only presentation will yield 10 per cent recall after two weeks, if it’s only pictures you might recall 35 per cent, but if a presentation combines both words and images you’ll remember 65 per cent of the content – a whopping six times more than if it was just verbal.

“And that’s where the real power of graphic recording is,” says Jessamy. (There is some contention around terminology in the industry, but in general ‘graphic recording’ is used in traditional presentations with a speaker addressing an audience, whereas ‘graphic facilitation’ is more collaborative, involving the whole group during brainstorming or round table discussions.)

“The pictures are fantastic, but it’s the combination of hearing it, seeing the pictures being created in real time and having the words in there as well, it works.”

But Jessamy has also noticed that having images presents changes in the way participants articulate their thoughts in that moment.

“They’ll start to use a more visual language, which allows for a different conversation to happen,” she says.

“They start using metaphors to give a richer description of what it is they’re talking about. They actually get further in their conversation because they’re talking about things in a way that they might not have done before.”

It’s this kind of shift in thinking that Boston-based IdeaPaint wants to help foster in the workplace. Invented by a group of college students who wanted to free their ideas from the dimensions of a standard whiteboard or flip chart, IdeaPaint can turn any surface into an erasable whiteboard.

Companies the world over, such as PayPal, Reebok and Zappos, as well as schools, universities and other organisations, have since discovered the value of turning walls, doors, desks and, well, pretty much anything they want into seamless writeable surfaces that give ideas room to grow.

“What we’ve seen over and over is that when a person is freed up from a piece of paper or a 4×3 whiteboard and all of a sudden can write seamlessly around the whole room, a couple of things happen,” says John Stephans, president of IdeaPaint.

“More people get involved, so we democratise the way ideas are generated and built upon. And ultimately, teams get to better ideas faster, so it’s creating the broadening of idea generation and ultimately idea execution.”

IdeaPaint also makes it easier for people to collaborate and sketch out ideas whenever and wherever they strike, whether it be at the water cooler or in the lunchroom, rather than being confined to official meetings behind closed doors.

“One of the big things that we do when we consult with companies is talk about not segregating your collaboration area to a conference room, because ideas happen all the time and everywhere,” says John.

“If you’re ever in our office you’ll see IdeaPaint everywhere, and what we’ve seen is that it encourages constant discussion around ideas and building up ideas. But we see R&D teams use it to code, project management teams use it to track projects – it’s used in a variety of ways.”

John has also witnessed the transformative power of hiring experts like Jessamy for graphic facilitation.

“I think their greatest skill is quickly synthesising what’s being said verbally and translating it into a simple yet relevant visual image,” he says.

“And when you see someone who’s really good at this, it’s truly impressive. The energy of the room goes up. The other thing it can help with, especially for companies with a multinational presence, is that it really crosses language and learning barriers.”

Graphic facilitation is a relatively new phenomenon in Australia, compared to the US and the UK where it has been practiced and researched since the ’70s, though more than 20 ‘solopreneurs’ and agencies now offer the service locally.

Jessamy belongs to a tight-knit group of about seven local facilitators who refer work to each other, and she has travelled all over Australia as well as to New Zealand and Asia for gigs.

“We cannot fill the demand, it is huge,” she says. “Once people see it, they’re sold. It just keeps growing and growing.”

Initially, some clients show concern that the process will be too distracting or that drawing pictures is too childish, but once they see the results they’re hooked. But Jessamy believes some of her most innovative work comes from community engagement projects, such as at Maroondah City Council in Victoria where Jessamy facilitated several stakeholder group meetings, using the graphics produced at one session as the starting point for the next.

“So they’re not going over and over the same stuff, they’re building on it, which has been really useful for them,” she says.

Next time you want to generate some creativity in your team, get away from the computer screen and start scribbling on the walls.

“Think about when we were all kids,” says John.

“One hundred per cent of us wrote on the walls at some point. Writing is a very instinctive thing to do, and what we’ve created is a way for people to be active, to do something that’s natural and to not get in trouble for it.”


Company President John Stephans shares his top tips for generating great ideas.

Far too often the most senior person in the room takes the pen, and he or she is the only one who talks and everyone else sits back and listens. The physical act of giving everyone a pen really changes the dynamic. As soon as that first person walks up to the wall, it opens up the whole discussion.

Create areas that are natural for discussion. In our sales area we have three walls of IdeaPaint that our sales teams are constantly using to build upon ideas and work on trackbacks. It’s nothing formalised, but they’ll take that opportunity during breaks or at the beginning or end of the day to build upon what they’ve learned.

I’ve been in many meetings where someone will bring up an idea and someone else will immediately say, ‘We’ve thought about that before, it doesn’t work.’ Well, really? Why didn’t it work? I’ve seen too many potentially good ideas get squelched under ‘we’ve done that before.’

What happens after the meeting? What do we do with all the information we just took down? What are the action steps that need to be put in place? At the end of the day, the brainstorm is just one part and the execution is what’s going to make it all come to life.