Monday, 10 September 2012

The Future of Graphic Facilitation; where is it going?

I have recently been reading Brandy Agerbeck's book, 'The Graphic Facilitator's Guide'. By the time you read this I will have finished it and will probably be reading it again or for the third or fourth time. This blog is partly a personal review of the book and a commentary on how I see graphic facilitation developing in the near future. It will also, I hope, be a stimulus for discussion about the development of graphic facilitation and the various styles and approaches to the work.

When you first encounter Brandy Agerbeck you might find her personal style quite outlandish; quite different, compared to others practicing graphic facilitation. Initially when I was reading the book, working through the chapters on listening, thinking and drawing I was thinking, "yeah, well, this is okay, it's all familiar, exactly as it should be...". It was not until the section on synthesis ('Putting It Together') did things really start to click for me. Similar to myself, Brandy has an artistic background: in her case, it was Fine Art. Most people who get into graphic facilitation enter it from working with people in one way or another. The first manual on graphic facilitation that I ever read said that those with an art background find doing graphic facilitation more difficult because of a tendency to want to finish their drawings and make them highly polished. Nevertheless, despite her fine art background Brandy's approach is entirely scientific. For example, colours are not just used by her in an artistic way for delineating forms, contrast and highlighting; they are pre-determined in their usage to give meaning to different aspects of the meeting or event. Many of you may not realise that art is, in any case, taught and approached as a pseudo-scientific discipline involving investigation, experimentation, research, and the study of materials and their application. So Brandy's approach is to carefully plan how she will use lettering, bullets, colour, lines, arrows, drawings of  people, boxes and shading. Only in her own personal style and iconography is Brandy's particular artistic imagination really obvious.

I studied at art college, but my area was design. Everything I have ever done since has had a design element. Design is very much a formal scientific discipline. Most - the larger portion - of my working life was in supporting people with learning difficulties, but even here the design approach was very relevant; in fact the design approach is relevant to many disciplines. I got into graphic facilitation through person-centred planning and for a few years, up until about 3 years ago, practiced graphic facilitation and as part of my later role as a staff trainer, delivered basic courses in it.

You may ask what experience have I to be commenting on the future of graphic facilitation and I agree that, compared to many, I have very little. In fact, I consider myself very much to be an aspiring graphic facilitator. However, I have kept abreast of the developments in graphic facilitation which in the last year, alone, seem to be racing ahead, especially with the use of new technology; an area where my own equipment is rapidly becoming out dated. Mind you, in relation to the latter point, I have to agree with Brandy Agerbeck; you can't beat pens and paper, even if you only keep them as a back-up.

Observing the trends and developments in graphic facilitation, there seems to be a spectrum of approaches to the discipline; from the very formalised, using templates to direct and control the process of a meeting or event, right through to very free and colourful recordings, jam-packed with detail. In the former approach the space for creativity and diversity from the set template is dependent on the flexibility and intuitiveness of the graphic facilitator. With templates there may be no need for the separate roles of meeting facilitator and graphic facilitator. They can be the same person and it is for this reason that companies like The Grove and Meeting Magic are selling pre-printed or down-loadable items. They enable managers and leaders to facilitate their own events employing an added visual dimension. There is nothing wrong with that and is an important part of the development of the use of visual thinking. I have been doing some similar work, recently, on the use of templates for trainers so that participants may use their visual intelligence to enhance their learning. However, a graphic facilitator can bring particular skills to a meeting that the manager or internal facilitator cannot, not least of which is what Brandy Agerbeck calls 'listening from the outside'; giving equal credit to each participant no matter what their role or rank is in the organisation.

There are many, many examples of the freer approach to graphic facilitation. These large, colourful and, dare I say it, crowded charts are often, but perhaps not always, recordings of big events such as conferences. Working in the social care field, I became across various charts produced at events looking at education, child care, care of the elderly as well as my own field of learning disability. At first sight, many of these seem to be wonderful 'works of art', but often, when I try to understand their meaning and what happened at the event, I get lost in all the imagery. To me, even pure graphic recording needs to have a facilitation element in that it facilitates understanding of what happened and the conclusions, if any, that were drawn. For those people at the event it will be easier to understand the chart; they were there and part of the discussions, but I wonder how easy it even for participants to come back some time later and remind themselves with many of these examples.

Brandy Agerbeck's approach to graphic facilitation lies somewhere in the middle. While they have their uses, she describes templates as "hard to adapt if the meeting's needs change." She advocates that, if used, they should be simple, unrefined and hand drawn, but that the "assignment of filling in a template restricts (participants) thinking to what is in front of them, and people may not address what's not on the template." Nevertheless, how she sees the task of facilitating a meeting or event, visually, is far from the free form recordings described earlier. For Brandy, the role of the graphic facilitator is to foster meaning and understanding, make connections and draw out themes, enabling the participants to make decisions. This is best achieved if each type of line, each colour, each form of image or icon and the typography is predetermined as to its use; not in an overly strict way, but such that it adds consistent meaning that the participants can relate to and that can be easily understood when viewed later. In her book, Brandy outlines each element individually and how they all relate to each other. For me it was the section where she describes how these elements all work together and how different combinations of the elements are valid for different circumstances, that gave me my 'aha' moment. It came together for me because it's how I've always worked; this is design - using differences in lines and colours, etc., to denote various meanings and connections to show links and flow. As a kid I used to draw comics so stylised lettering and iconic mark making are almost innate. I just need to do more practice now.

So where is graphic facilitation going? All approaches and styles are valid and can meet differing needs and circumstances. The question that each graphic facilitator needs to ask themselves every time is whether what they are doing is meeting the needs of the group. My initiation into graphic facilitation was through person-centred planning which is largely based on templates that direct the meeting. Each style of person-centred planning was developed to meet the needs of individuals with particular types of needs; from PATH with a template similar to The Grove's  'Graphic Gameplan', through MAPS  and others which have more open templates, to my favourite approach, Personal Futures Planning which has a number of suggested template based formats which may be used or can simply be facilitated as the meeting requires. My preference is for this kind of open, but organised kind of style. As attractive and exciting as the large colourful information packed charts are, I don't think I could produce similar work without using clear coding and a clear indication of the process that took place or the flow of the event.

The population of graphic facilitators or people practicing graphic facilitation appears to be growing rapidly. My feeling is that all the different styles of graphic facilitation will continue to grow in use according to both the nature of the practitioners and the differing needs of people and groups being supported by its use. The number of forums for sharing and discussing practitioners' work is also growing, particularly on the Internet. Courses in graphic facilitation are held all over the world now. Graphic facilitation is being professionalised. Perhaps in the not too distant future we will see courses in graphic facilitation held in colleges or even universities. Perhaps even more important than the specific development of graphic facilitation training is that the practice itself is at the forefront of a movement to improve visual awareness education across the board. It complements the movement in adult training and education for Accelerated Learning. Anything that improves people visual awareness and skills is to be greatly welcomed.

Quite rightly, basic graphic facilitation training is largely about having the opportunity to have a go and lose all those inhibitions about drawing that people seem to develop as they leave their childhood behind. Beyond this, however, the guidelines that Brandy Agerbeck offers in her book seem to me to be the ideal basis for professional courses. No doubt similar guidelines are offered on most advanced graphic facilitation courses already. Graphic facilitation seems destined to have a great future ahead of it, whether through more people taking up the profession or adopting and practicing the skills and techniques in their own areas of work. It's exciting work. For practitioners, the excitement is in using their skills to help people; for participants it's seeing their hard work, ideas and opinions embodied into a 'work of art' that enhances what they do. The paradox of graphic facilitation's success and development might be that as its use becomes more commonplace, it may become less exciting for those that benefit from its use. But that's a long way off yet.

Brandy Agerbeck talks about a 'rousing call to arms'; challenging people to go out and do great work. She believes that the principles she describes are universal to the work and will serve her readers and any groups they work with well, but she goes on to say that we need more graphic facilitators in the world. And so, with this blog I want back-up and reiterate this call for us to celebrate and expand the work, to make it more widely known about and, perhaps, for graphic facilitation practitioners to engage in a debate about its future and the relative benefits of the varying styles and approaches in order to foster best practice across them all.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this book very much as well, and then went to Chicago to study with Brandy for a few days - it was excellent. I, too, came to graphic facilitation out of person centred planning and find the differences fascinating. Perhaps the most interesting idea in Brandy's work, to me, is the idea that the graphic facilitator "facilitates" - that as well as the artistic choices there are choices based on the group's dynamics as reflected in the charts. Great conversation - thanks! aaron