I just returned from a powerful conference: The Ripple Effects of Visual Practice, IFVP 2010.
The conference marked the 15th year of the International Forum of Visual Practitioners, and met in Redwood City, just south of San Francisco. The hotel where the conference unfolded is appropriately across the street from Oracle and Electronic Arts.
I say appropriately, because graphic facilitation sprung up in the Bay Area. It’s roots are intertwined with the revolution in human-computer interaction and computational power that flowered in the late 60′s in the Bay Area without which Oracle, Electronic Arts, Google, Microsoft, and Apple would not exist.
Reflections on the Origins and Innovations of Visual Practice â€“ David Sibbet and Emily Shepard
David Sibbet, the founder of The Grove, likened visual practice today to the San Francisco Bay, which is nourished by the confluence of sixteen rivers. He and Emily Shepard emceed a conversation about the roots of the practice, bringing up on stage a procession of people who told stories about their personal histories in visual practice.
Tributaries of visual practice include the community input process facilitated by architects, Fred Lakin’s adventures in computer graphics at Xerox PARC, and Cesar Chavez’s associate Juanita Brown bringing graphic facilitators into the struggle for fairer working conditions for farm workers. There were shout outs to Peter Senge, Michael Doyle, Nancy Margulies, and many others. Sibbet ended by noting the recent explosion the interest in visual thinking.
I decided at the last minute to do graphic recording of the session, and figured this was no time for restraint. I was delighted with the result—it’s an accurate portrait of my own excitement as I followed the testimony of the assembled pioneers of visual practice. It also has quite a bit of information packed into it’s exuberant frame.
Dan Roam’s Challenge: Get Your Clients Drawing.
I have seen Dan Roam speak before, but I have never seen him speak for a full hour. What a treat. He is the most levelheaded brainiac I have ever encountered. Here are some of Dan’s big points:
1) Whoever Draws the Best Picture Wins
2) Q: What kind of problems can you help solve with pictures A: All of them
3) Q: Do the pictures need to be complex? A: No
4) Q: But I can’t draw! Is there any hope for me? A: If you made it through kindergarten, you have the necessary drawing skills.
5) Most educators think pictures are like training wheels. They help novice learners build confidence, but are unnecessary for advanced learning. Actually, pictures are like the steering mechanism of the bicycle of learning. They are useful for every kind of learning. Friends don’t let friends learn without pictures.
6) Drawing pictures of who/what, where, when, how, how much, and why of a problem engages all the different visual perception and processing pathways of our brain, giving us a 360 picture of a problem and opens the maximum range of possibilities for solving it.
7) Teach your clients visual problem solving skills. That means teach them to draw—not fancy photorealistic pictures—rather teach them to draw conceptually powerful diagrams to help them explore the who/what, where, when, how, how much, and why of their problems. This will lead them to the who/what, where, when, how, how much, and why of powerful solutions. Instead of drawing for our clients, we need to teach them how to draw.
Tangent: Dan talked about how Washington DC desperately needs visual problem solving. I share his frustration at the lack of visual thinking in DC. The thing is, based on my 2 years working in DC, many people there do not want clarity. If they had clarity, they might solve problems and be out of a job. Or more charitably, they might have to take a clear position, which can be dangerous in organizational or national politics. Dan?
Andrea Saveri talked about emerging strategies for dealing with gnarly problems. Saveri said that we are now in an era of massive, often unexpected change, with hairy, complex, wicked problems. Problems so complex that we have a hard time even defining them or teasing out their causes.
Saveri said that the era of “best practices” is ending. Best practices don’t work for novel problems. We are now entering an era where novel practice is needed. Novel practice includes tapping into data to visualize problems and leveraging the power of experts with the wisdom of crowds. She used the gulf oil spill as an example of a thorny problem. We should augment BP’s 1910 solution (attempting to plug the leak with debris) with crowdsourced ideas.
Value will come less from experts broadcasting their solution from on high and will come more from people who facilitate group formation to provide value. How does visual thinking fit into this proposition? Here a just a couple of Saveri’s thoughts.
1) Data enriched discourse via data visualization:
Dashboards, maps, and mashups to make sense of oceans of data. Make the invisible visible.
2) A new mythology of interdependence. Our job is to unleash new myths where the heroes are groups. There is a visual component to developing and communicating these new myths.
The thematic parallels between the Supernova Forum, where I created real time interpretive murals in late July and this IFVP conference fascinate me. Supernova forum grappled with the implications of a networked world for large institutions, through the lens of communications technology and policy. Saveri looked at the same topic through her own Clay Shirky-esque lenses. Clearly, our capacity to address rapid, complicated, change looms large for a lot of people right now.
Amidst all this deep macro thinking, that little voice in my heart squeaked “Ok, ok, but what about meeeee?” Luckily, Julie Stuart provided just the right session on personal branding.
A few things that popped out:
The energy I bring to a room is a big selling point. Maybe even the main one.
Style is a big part of brand. Embrace my style.
People buy stuff because they want it. They don’t buy it because they don’t trust the seller. The key to conveying trustworthiness is to present myself to people authentically. That sounds easy, but there are lots of layers of the onion to peel back before I can illuminate humanity with the shining heart of the onion that is Jonny. Are you ready? There may be some crying involved.
Many other great nuggets in this session. Thanks Julie!
Visual Practice in the Trenches:
Bruce Flye shared his experience of working as the Director of Planning and Partnerships at the Brody School of Medicine where he employs a range of graphic facilitation techniques. The session was a fascinating journey into the kind of challenges that our healthcare system is facing today, and one institution’s creative approach to thriving in a complex ecosystem. Katrina Geurkink created a splendid visual record of where her mind went during the session.
The Future of IFVP:
The organization got a right on time shot in the arm with the election of 6 new board members. IFVP is an all volunteer organization which relies on the efforts of the board to keep the organization vital and relevant. After years of an overworked, too small board, we decided to expand the board and recruit new board members. In a competitive election we found ourselves with a mostly new board that features members with expertise in technology and nonprofit management, both useful for moving the organization forward. Plus we elected a board member from England, so I guess the “I” in “IFVP” is for real. I appreciate the contributions of past board members and applaud a new wave of visual practitioners for stepping up.
A Few Noteworthy Folks
I met so many vibrant, smart, people at the conference I can’t list all of them. That said, here a few people who made a big impression on me:
John Ward. John reached out to me before the conference to help with the conference. He was very busy coordinating things during the conference itself, but he took a moment to let me know how much he liked the graphic recording I did for the roots of graphic recording session, which meant a lot to me.
Fred Lakin. As so often happens, respect often comes after butting heads. Fred and I did collide during the graphic jam, when he and another esteemed visual practitioner were blowing off steam and annoying the living hell out of me.
Fred produced an event the next evening that blew my mind. He brought in an artist who mixed and processed our live iPad and paper drawings in real time as people socialized in the background. Wonderful stuff.
I bought a copy of Fred’s novel, Live Graphics Nightly, about a future when visual improvisation is a popular art form and it kept me entertained and enthralled the plane flight back to Philly. Fred is a visionary troublemaker, and we need more of that in the world.
Nancy Margulies. I had minimal interaction with Nancy, but I have huge respect for her work, so it was a thrill to just be there with her.
Who I Wish Was There:
One of the best conferences I’ve ever been to. Fabulous speakers and facilitators for all the sessions. All of the sharing is amplified by the graphic recording and facilitation that is woven into the fabric of the conference. If you are interested in facilitating learning, collaboration, and high performance, you should attend this conference. You do not need to have special drawing or visual skills to get a lot out of the event. And next year’s conference will be in Hawaii, so you pretty much have to come.