Talking about visuals: A discussion with graphic recorder Katherine Haugh


Often referred to as 'visual note-taking', graphic recording is a method that merges data collection and reporting to create a visual record of a discussion.

In this blog, Alice Macfarlan asks graphic recorder Katherine Haugh about her work and passion for translating what she hears into a visual recollection of key points that can be shared with a group in real-time. Katherine is also the author of BetterEvaluation's method page on graphic recording. The feature image for this blog is an extract from Kat's visual notetaking handbook, prepared for #AEA19.

Alice Macfarlan: Tell me how you got started with graphic recording?

Katherine Haugh: When I was in college, I worked at the disabilities centre on campus to take notes for students who needed additional support in class. That was when I realized that my visual notes could benefit others. Shortly after I graduated from college, I moved to Washington, D.C. and in my first job, I realized that there were a lot of opportunities for applying visual thinking and recording skills in meetings.

I started taking visual notes of meetings, conference sessions, webinars, etc. and shared them out with my colleagues who told me they benefitted greatly from them. I was shocked! I didn’t realize my doodles could have such an impact not only on my own ability to digest information but also for others. I was thrilled that I could help translate complex topics related to monitoring and evaluation, measurement, and research design into simple, humorous, and easy to understand visual captures.

I got so much energy out of visual note-taking knowing that I could do something creative that was beneficial and engaging to others, that I set out to practice as much as I could. I offered to graphic record for any session, discussion, conference, or other events. that I found interesting. I went to think tank meetings about security sector reform in the Middle East, to Congressional hearings about domestic policy, to activist and community organizing meetings about local advocacy initiatives, to sessions on NASA programs, aerospace engineering, biodiversity, artificial intelligence, climate change, personal finance – you name it! I even offered to graphic record at someone’s 50th birthday party.

All the while, I honed my visual note-taking skills, learning (from feedback and hours of practice) how to synthesize key pieces of information quickly and effectively, convey the information in a way that reaches the audience and matches the tone of the session, and how to draw an array of fonts, icons, etc. I learned some specific tips and tricks along the way that I kept in my back pocket to share later when training others. Not to mention, I learned a substantial amount about topics that I had little to no previous knowledge on! I’m very grateful that I’m able to create functional art in my profession, that this skill brings me so much energy and professional satisfaction, and most importantly that it can help others to learn, understand, and communicate their ideas more clearly.

AM: Why does graphic recording appeal to you as a medium?

KH: Graphic recording is extremely tactile and so simple. All you need is pen and paper and something or someone you want to learn about. It’s such a great activity in the digital age – to set aside your computer or phone that is competing for your constant attention and turn to a blank piece of paper instead to learn. While I’m creating, my mind is completely open to digesting the information that I’m receiving.

What I really enjoy about graphic recording is that there is a lot of room for individuality. No one interprets information in exactly the same way. So, when you ask people to draw what they hear – you’ll see that everyone has a different picture and a different interpretation. I think that is one of the coolest things about graphic recording as a facilitation tool. When you ask people to draw what they hear, you are really asking them to externalize their internal thinking process. Watching the ways in which people are creative and innovative with their visuals (even if it doesn’t look pretty!) is such a meaningful experience and can help build understanding.

For people like me (for whom drawing is challenging at best), I’m amazed at the speed and dexterity behind a graphic recorder’s work. But as well as being able to draw quickly, there must be an awful amount of quick thinking and processing – you obviously can’t capture every thought or comment on a page, how do you decide what to focus on and commit to ink?

First, I always tell people that the most important thing with graphic recording is this: it does not have to be beautiful; it just has to be meaningful. So, even if you can’t draw a stick figure to save your life – that is OK! Can someone else look at your drawing and make sense of your key point? That’s what you should focus on. Sometimes, that’s better communicated with words instead of pictures. You don’t want to draw pictures for the sake of drawing pictures. Only add them in if you think that will help you communicate your point.

Graphic recording definitely requires strong active listening and synthesis skills. In terms of choosing what to focus on, I think first about the top line take aways. If I walked away from the session and talked to a friend, what are the key phrases I would use to describe what I just heard? I start there. Then, I think about who the audience is for the visual and what they absolutely need to know. If it’s a group of evaluators, for example, I know that they’ll want to know the methodology and approach, etc. but I wouldn’t necessarily highlight these aspects in as much detail if it was another group.

AM: When isn’t graphic recording appropriate?

KH: There are several trade-offs to choosing graphic recording over more traditional methods. The biggest trade off is that with graphic recording, it is impossible to capture every point. If you are at an event in which specific steps or details are critical, graphic recording may not be the best option. You’d want to stick with a traditional or visual report for that type of information.

In addition, graphic recording generally gives off a playful, creative vibe. That may not always be the right fit for the event or audience. For example, if you are discussing something that is heavy or vulnerable for participants, you may want to forgo putting those thoughts or feelings up on large scale paper for everyone to see (though in some cases, graphic recording is used by professionals in art therapy and counselling). Relatedly, if you are at event where confidentiality is needed, graphic recording may not be the right choice for capturing information.

As a graphic recorder, you may also want to be conscious of power dynamics in the room. Your job is to equally capture points from different participants to create a realistic capture of the discussions. If you feel that you are unable to do that for whatever reason, you may want to consider setting down your marker to avoid perpetuating those dynamics.

Graphic recorders have an opportunity to speak truth to power and to unearth or illuminate trends that may be invisible to participants. That is one of the key ways I think it overlaps with the work and purpose of evaluation. At its core, graphic recording is an opportunity to provide a mirror back to a group that shares back with them what they are discussing and working through together. This provides an opportunity for the group to see how they are doing through the eyes of an external observer. In this area, I would advise graphic recorders to draw what they see and hear. For example, if a conference or meeting is full of white men, don’t draw in other diverse characters in your visual. This can provide an opportunity for participants in the room to reflect on representation in that space. However, if the group is talking about their vision for how they would like things to be in their team or company and they discuss diversity and inclusion, then think about how to represent this in your drawing. I think graphic recorders have more power in rooms than they think and should be very conscious of their role and the ways in which they can be, like evaluators, positive agents for learning, reflection, and change.

AM: Who are some other graphic recorders that are doing good work? 

KH: My biggest advice for anyone who is interested in graphic recording is to find inspiration around you! I have a drawer full of snips from magazines, pictures, etc. that inspire me and that I want to try to re-create with my own spin on it. Even more importantly, find graphic recorders whose style inspires you. I love the work of Heather Martinez, Brandy Agerbeck, Kelvy Bird, and Stephanie Brown. I’m in awe of the beautiful artwork that these and other graphic recorders can make. There is a lot of opportunity for graphic recording to be used as a skill specifically in the evaluation space where translating findings into use is of critical importance. I’d love to see more evaluators using graphic recording and visual thinking in their evaluation and facilitation work!


Are you attending an event or workshop soon? Why not try your hand at graphic recording and see how you go at capturing the key ideas visually. We'd love to hear how you go .

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