What’s in a name? It’s a question that crops up with frustrating regularity in a company like ours – because we’re a company that provides a service for which there is, as yet, no definitive term.
In its absence, when I’m asked what it is we do, I tend to launch into a rambling description of the practice itself: we stand, marker in hand, listening to a talk or discussion and drawing what we hear.
Once I’ve completed my ramble, and the penny has dropped, the question that usually follows is: ‘Ah, so did you do those RSA Animate videos?’ And before I know it, I’m being led away by an understanding friend, who’ll mop my brow with a cold compress until I feel better. (No, we didn’t do those, but we DID do these!).
Over the years, various terms have been bandied about the rapidly-growing community of inky-fingered conference scribblers. But none has lodged itself in the wider public consciousness or even as a preferred term amongst our fellow practitioners. So, while a growing number of people know that we exist, they don’t usually know what we’re called – or, more crucially, what to Google when they’re looking for us.
Of course, we have to call our work something. But our frustration comes from being stuck between making use of existing terminology that we’re not altogether happy with, and running the risk of confusing clients further by adding yet another label to the mix. Scribing, graphic facilitation, visual minutes, visual note-taking, graphic recording, sketchnoting, graphic harvesting, realtime infodoodling are all – well, nearly all - in regular use.
Specialists in these various forms of live pictorial knowledge-wrangling will explain that there are differences between them, and that there are circumstances where one approach is more appropriate than another. Those differences can seem subtle - inconsequential even to the conference organiser who just wants a wall full of doodles. But a wide variety of philosophies and priorities are at work behind all that frantic squeaky penmanship.
As this type of work gains momentum it’s important to distinguish your aims and methodologies from the rest. The more graphically and visually literate people become - conditioned by our increasingly visual culture - the more naturally they accept the notion of mapping ideas spatially, and the more willingly they embrace the power of pictures. What is currently a steady rumble of interest in our field could soon become an explosion of activity, bursting out in all directions from the narrow confines of best practice carved out by its early exponents.
As with the development of writing millennia ago, what started out as a form of record-keeping has the potential to be a medium that entertains, surprises, challenges and even moves people. Rather than attempting to be a conduit - a faithful recorder – it’s possible for the person with the pen in their hand to allow a little more of their own judgement, wit and imagination into the work. It’s the difference between documenting what happened and telling the story of what happened. And as we sit down to define what it is that Scriberia offer, we see ourselves as storytellers first and foremost. Our role is to turn what we hear into something memorable, shareable and emotionally involving.
Of course, there are still times when cold hard facts need capturing too, but fundamentally we’re interpreting the information - rather than logging it – attempting to look beyond the words and into the meaning, and then to play that meaning back to our audience in as engaging a way as possible. It’s more like graphic journalism than graphic recording: collecting the data is not enough; it’s how you communicate it to others that counts.
A year or so ago I read a graphic recorder’s take on why she feels it’s important to resist the urge to interpret “There are always two meetings going on: the one in the room, and the one in your head,” wrote The Grove’s Rachel Smith. “The only experience that you can guarantee everyone is having is the one that is happening there in the room. The only person attending the meeting in your head is you.”
I don’t question that there are circumstances in which simple, pragmatic, well-organised capture is best, but I do wonder whether it’s ever possible to truly remove your own thoughts and judgements from the process. Besides, if there’s a distorted version of that meeting going on in the visualiser’s head, then surely that applies to everyone else in the room too. “There are no facts,” said Nietzsche, “only interpretations.” And it’s those interpretations that our clients value.
But, you may ask, who are we to be imposing our own creative reading onto the meeting; throwing our clients’ hard-won insights to the unpredictable winds of artistic interpretation? David Sibbett, founder of The Grove and author of a number of excellent books on visualisation in meetings, warns “many visual facilitators and recorders underestimate the power of their pens and what it means to put down images and words for other people.”
It’s not a responsibility we take lightly. But let’s not confuse being interpretive with pursuing a personal agenda. Everything we do is geared towards generating maximum meaning and relevance for our clients. We take the view that as empathetic, well-informed individuals with artistic ability, our role is to do what no one else in the room can: to provide a fresh perspective on the content, to take what we’re hearing and make it sing.
There seems little point in hiring a creative thinker and confining them to the role of note-taker. We look for patterns and connections, but also metaphor, analogy and humour - those ideas that transform the bare facts into a piece of engaging visual storytelling.
That’s why, when we’re building our team, we look for great thinkers with illustration skills strong enough to back up their best and most original ideas. There’s no point thinking of the perfect image to capture what you’ve heard, if you can’t execute it successfully, under pressure. Generic imagery is not memorable imagery.
Relevant and original visual thinking, done on-the-fly and executed skilfully is fiendishly difficult. When it falls short you can be left with a patchwork of vignettes with little to indicate their relative importance or the relationships between them. We’re very aware of this, and have worked hard to ensure we’re capturing deeper meaning too; looking for underlying structure, and not just skimming the surface for easy-to-draw information.
We’re committed to our approach, convinced that sensitively interpreted, well-illustrated content gives our clients an output they can connect with on an emotional level, one they will remember, share and continue to use to tell their story. In the age of information abundance and attention poverty, that level of engagement is valued highly – and rightly so.
That’s why, when we look at the existing terminology, we’ve always been keen to avoid those labels that imply neutrality, such as graphic recording, visual minutes, visual note-taking and the like. The type of live visualisation I’ve described needs a more proactive title. Graphic facilitation is a take-charge kind of term, and a well-established one, but still sounds like the invention of a consultant desperately trying to justify costs to a client. We use it, but only when we’re also providing facilitation in the traditional sense; managing the group as well as visualising their discussion.
Given the name of our company it’s perhaps no surprise that we feel ‘scribing’ is the right term for us. It’s an ancient word – coming from the Latin scribere, meaning "to write" – and one that’s had numerous uses and applications. For millennia, particularly before the advent of printing, almost all literate cultures made use of scribes. They served their communities as the record-keepers, the preservers of stories and ideas, and, in some cases, the co-developers of the very systems of symbols and glyphs they used to capture all this information. Over time the term has also been applied to map-makers, engravers and graffiti artists, as well as to lawyers and journalists. And while all of these uses relate in some way to what we do, none perfectly mirrors our own set of priorities.
But ‘scribing’ is an ancient and ever-evolving term. Regardless of time and place, it’s a word that consistently hovers around at the coming together of mark-making and the content that inspires those marks. It’s been flexible enough to remain applicable and relevant even when culture, society and technology change around it. And as we continue to evolve our own brand of live visualisation - one that values expression and sees interpretation as a virtue - we feel the age-old yet adaptable ‘scribing’ is the word best suited to coming on that journey with us.