Graphic recording: How to get started

Data visualization professionals often focus on numbers, helping to tell the story of what, when, where, and how much. But more often than not organizations first need to better understand the why and how (this is known as qualitative data).

Before there is a need to communicate key insights, there is always a need to communicate first about what insights will matter most to the people involved, and therefore what data to plan, collect, analyze, and present.

Graphic recording is a method for using visuals to support communication and understanding during real-time dialogue. Hand-drawn illustrations allow teams to simultaneously collect, analyze, and report qualitative data about people and groups.

There are several reasons why graphic recording is hands-down the best method for visualizing qualitative data:

  1. It’s an opportunity for thorough reporting. Graphic recording captures both broad themes and the actual language used.

  2. The method mirrors the content. By portraying social processes, the visual both reflects and highlights the interactions themselves.

  3. Relationships are kept central - and they are supported. Real-time graphic recording allows partners and stakeholders to better communicate and understand one another in the very moments when decision making is happening.

  4. It’s exploratory in nature. Qualitative data is inherently dynamic, not concrete, singular, or fixed. Graphic recording allows for multiple realities to be explored simultaneously, helping everyone better understand the complete, evolving context.

  5. It allows for remembering and reflecting over time. Groups of course change over time. Participants can revisit the visuals to not only recall what was discussed but to remember their personal experience was. They serve as a fun, ongoing feedback loop for continuous, thoughtful decision making.

When I first started helping organizations with communicating about data and complex topics, I quickly gathered that they needed more help with internal and partner communications to reach meaningful, shared understanding than they did with external and mass communications to persuade anyone else.

Unfortunately, too often these internal communications are overlooked, side-stepped, or rushed through. Social dynamics are complex and navigating them can be overwhelming. As with any good data visualization, graphic recording makes understanding this complexity easier and communicating about it transformational.

For example, during one meeting I graphically recorded, the two groups that had been convened had so little understanding of one another that they spent almost an entire hour debating about whether to proceed with the agenda for the meeting. By the end of the meeting, they could clearly see that the solutions to the questions and concerns that they had initially raised were easily found among one another.

The process of graphic recording can support internal dialogue as well as any communications that follow. Many times a graphic recording I created during a team’s process became a visual that they proudly shared with others as a representation of not only the “who” and “what” but the “why” and “how.”

Perhaps the best news of all is that graphic recording is a tool that doesn’t require extensive planning or even knowing software to begin using it. Like all data visualization, it does require a certain degree of visual clarity and, above all, the willingness to stay true to the data and to consciously engage in a thoughtful process in order to share it in a way that will be meaningful and effective.

Here’s some tips for getting started:

  • Practice listening objectively. As always, content is king. To make sure you are capturing the most important ideas and themes, you need to both listen without judgement and allow time for thinking and synthesizing before making marks.

  • Learn the basics. Whether you are using markers on paper or a stylus on a tablet, you’ll need to slowly master lettering, using bullets, lines, arrows, and boxes, and drawing people and faces. If you are, like most people, unfamiliar with and/or intimidated by drawing, start with the visual alphabet below.

  • Build your vocabulary of visuals over time. Again, focus on developing this based upon key concepts rather than exciting icons or complex metaphors. For example, when people are describing emotions I often use hearts and when they are talking about ideas or “aha”s I often use lightbulbs.

  • Mind the big picture. Draw connections between ideas, use size to emphasize ideas or themes, and consider layout ahead of time (many folks start using graphic recording by using pre-existing, pre-drawn templates).

  • Practice, practice, practice. Only real-time practice will flex the muscles you need to write and draw faster, capture content more accurately, and become more helpful to the folks in the room. The easiest way to start may be to capture one-person talks or podcasts in a private notebook (also known as sketchnoting) and then work your way up to capturing discussions publicly. I offer workshops so you can get your feet wet among other beginners.

  • Leverage our supportive community. We love helping others learn more about this incredible, little-known tool. If you have any questions, please leave me a comment below and I'll reply for the benefit of all readers!

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What happens when we connect with "the other"

As I take stock of another year gone by, one thing I am reflecting on is that this year I really embraced my own identity as a connector, liaison, mediator, network weaver, and culture nomad. It took me years to realize that it's no coincidence that most of my collaborators are leaders of networks. I love assisting them with addressing the unique communication challenges that come with bridging identities, disciplines, industries, and/or sectors.

One of my personal favorite ways to traverse apparent divides is to attend conferences where I can meet with folks outside my own industry. What makes conferences so much richer in my opinion than other learning experiences (books, podcasts, webinars, even classes) is that they are like "microtribes." Attending them is like immersing yourself in a group that has specific languages, behaviors, and ideologies. You get exposed to a range of perspectives and ideas from different people who tend to share similar roles, experiences, and/or goals.

This past year I had the great fortune to meet with many microtribes - from ones focused on data to ones filled with art to ones all about civic engagement. At each conference I attended, I was both enough of an insider to want to be there but also enough of an outsider to be reminded of all those things that we experience when different tribes come together within workplaces, networks, even nations. For me it was a ongoing experiment in connecting with "the other," or someone significantly different from me.


Here's what I noticed happens to us when we visit other tribes and meet those who are different...

First, we get uncomfortable. In particular, we feel confused and perhaps even conflicted. For example, I got confused about what feelings folks were holding back expressing publicly, how they neglected to think more consciously about including those not at the table of power, and why it was so difficult to talk about profit and purpose and passion in the same sentence. I felt conflicted about what I could or should call attention to for the benefit of other attendees (for example, of course whether the visuals speakers may or may not have used were effectively conveying their ideas).

If we stick through this initial displeasure, we are sure to discover and learn. Of course I learned so much: about how rapidly Denver is changing and why, the history of social network analysis, religious traditions associated with sustainability, how designers are helping orgs respond rapidly to stakeholder needs, not to mention about countless tools I can use to support my work and that of my collaborators. We also have an opportunity to teach others who may not think, understand, or act the way we do. For me this often looked like demonstrating and/or teaching graphic recording, sharing how creative work can catalyze social change, and encouraging other creatives to become more socially and civically engaged.

As we learn, our connections and conversations, including within our own tribe, deepen and our potential for collective transformation expands. By participating in multiple conversations I was able to notice larger trends. The chaos that environmental advocates and civic engagement professionals groaned about was the same chaos that creatives called us to embrace, for example. While more people may be more willing to talk about equity and inclusion (and notably some still aren't), the conversations tend to be surface, cyclical, or, sadly, not among a diverse group of people. Overall, too often when people come together, they are thinking only of appealing to their own tribe and not about including the people who will help move them forward.

What I couldn't help notice above all else is the great paradox of so many people talking about how there isn't enough conversation nowadays. Personally, I think there's plenty of talking. What there needs to be more of is learning, or in other words more willingness to get uncomfortable. That's the best way we get to action, specifically the kind that really matters.

I invite you to look for ways to let yourself grow through discomfort next year. Perhaps you'll consider volunteering in an unfamiliar neighborhood, attending a conference you don't really belong at, or simply asking someone you disagree with to teach you something that perhaps you can then pass on to someone else.

I know being a "nomad" isn't for everyone, but most of us do like to travel to new lands every once and awhile. If we want the tribes we belong to - our families, workplaces, cities, and nation - to be better, we probably need to do it more often than we like.

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Tips for sharing research visually

This Academic Writing Month, Janet Salmons asked me for my suggestions on sharing research work. My responses to her questions are below.

What approaches do you recommend researchers take for using visualizations and images of various kinds to communicate research findings? Is it different for qualitative or quantitative researchers?

Like research and writing, creating images requires thoughtful process. I highly recommend that anyone and everyone use a design thinking process. This includes thinking about who your audience is and gathering information about them before developing ideas, and then using sketches or prototypes to test ideas over and over. Something else to consider, whether you are a quantitative or qualitative researcher, is what type of visual serves your goal best. Photos are great if you take them yourself to capture something very specific. Digital graphics created on a computer are great if you can keep them very simple. In my opinion, hand drawings are often the best because they can be specific and approachable, but what they aren’t good for is showing highly technical ideas. Graphic recordings are visuals created during real-time dialogue so can be great coupled with some qualitative methods.


How does one “proofread” a visual representation to determine whether the message was presented clearly?

A trained eye learns to “proofread” but even we need to test our visuals with real people (ideally, several very different ones, or at least ones who represent those we are trying to communicate with) to learn whether they are clear and how we might improve them. This is why I am a firm believer in the design thinking approach. It ensures that you are putting the viewer first from the very beginning of your process. That is the best way to develop messages, visual or otherwise, that will resonate and spark new understandings.

What software tools do you recommend? Are there free or cheap options available for student or new researchers?

There are many online tools and of course software programs for creating visuals, and which to use largely depends on the type of visual you are creating. For those that are data-based, I prefer Tableau Public, but Excel or Google Sheets work too. I also prefer Prezi over Powerpoint (a free version is available). For geographic maps you can use Google Maps or ArcGIS Online (public or education version), and for network maps Kumu is an easy, free option. Regardless of which you choose, I recommend always starting with pen and paper. You have the most options available to work out ideas without fussing with technology until you are clear about what exactly you need to create.

What resources are available to help us develop graphics, diagrams, or even photographs that clearly convey ideas and relationships?

There are entire fields of study dedicated to this! Namely, art, design, marketing, data visualization, graphic facilitation… You can find a variety of beginner courses online, such as on Skillshare and Lynda. Stanford also has a Virtual Crash Course in design thinking.

Some of my favorite thought leaders are Edward Tufte, Alberto Cairo, Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, Stephanie Evergreen, Dan Roam, Nancy Duarte, and David Sibbet all of whom have written incredibly useful books. To learn more about using visuals to support groups, read Brandy Agerbeck’s Graphic Facilitator’s Guide or Sunni Brown’s The Doodle Revolution (see video) or my own short ebook, Using Visuals to Support Collaborative Work. There’s also a new book called Visual Note-taking for Educators. One of my favorite resources on human-centered design is’s free Field Guide to Human-Centered Design.

What’s most important to understand about design– the study of using images to convey ideas– is that it is really all about practice. Just like research, if you want to do it well, you can’t just study it, you have to do it. Over and over again.

This blog was originally published by SAGE Publishing's Methodspace for Academic Writing Month #AcWriMo

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Using visuals to support your writing process

Many of us are well trained in using writing to develop and convey our insights, but only some of us learn how visuals can help us organize and communicate our ideas.

It’s well worth learning what you can, because visuals have the unique ability to help us:

  • Develop ideas and understand experiences that language can not yet describe
  • Gather and analyze complex and/or abstract ideas in simple, immediate ways
  • Communicate across language, knowledge, ideological, and other barriers
  • Impact decision-making, which largely happens in our pre-lingual, pre-rational brains

The best visuals balance the use of thoughtful images and words, and the best writing balances thorough explanation and visualization. Writers that use visuals to describe their ideas help their readers better understand the frameworks of thinking that inform what the writer is seeking to convey, and they make it easier for readers to share those ideas with others.

The most effective way to incorporate visuals into your writings is to start using them at the beginning of your writing process. Here are some tips for using visuals throughout your process to help both you and your readers better understand your writing:



  • Photos and videos are great for documenting people, places, and things that inspire you. In fact, if you’re not sure what does inspire you, you might take a look at the photos you’ve recently taken.
  • Simple drawings, for example of maps or flowcharts, and/or collages can help you play with ideas. See if you can suspend judgement about whether your creations look like you want them to and instead focus on having fun and seeing what arises.
  • Drawings generated from group conversations, also known as graphic recordings, are great for capturing and reflecting on not just your own ideas but the ideas of your colleagues or counterparts. Since thinking itself is largely a social activity, this type of visual can be incredibly clarifying and empowering.

Organizing and Focusing

  • A great way to begin synthesizing ideas is to write them on sticky notes and experiment arranging them on a desk or wall surface.
  • Diagrams are great for organizing ideas. Some worth considering using are mind maps, brace maps, circle maps, Venn diagrams, 2×2 matrices and feedback loops.
  • When you are ready to start focusing and begin writing, you can create timelines, Gantt charts, and/or PERT charts to plan your production process in a way that can also hold you accountable.

Sharing, Publishing and Presenting 

  • Graphics are excellent for supporting ideas in proposals, articles, reports, and books. Unlike your writing, which may be incredibly thorough, graphics need to be as simple as possible to be understood very quickly. Plan to take as much or even more time developing these as you do your writing.
  • Don’t forget to also use these graphics to share ideas more widely, for example on social media or websites and in emails or presentation slides. Be sure to ask others what your visuals mean to them so you can revise them just as you would your writing.
  • Photos and videos are great ways to personalize your work and make it more approachable for wider audiences. For example, you can take photos or videos of yourself conducting research, making it through pivotal benchmarks in your writing process, and getting published to share your process and build a following online.

This blog was originally published by SAGE Publishing's Methodspace for Academic Writing Month #AcWriMo

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