I have always been interested in art, and I’ve had a special fondness for street art in particular ever since I can remember seeing scribbles and drawings spray-painted onto the buildings in my neighborhood.  Street art, murals, and graffiti all tell stories of communities in ways words alone never could. Images impact us on an instinctual level, and they linger in our memories to commemorate our human nature as it unfolds through time and space.

As soon as I stumbled onto the concept of visual thinking, it was exciting not only because of my love for organic graphics, but also because it can also be used in the moment, to be a powerful ally in listening and engaging diverse perspectives for authentic inclusion.

Visual Thinking is, in its simplest explanation, is seeing words as a series of pictures. For anyone looking  to dive into learning more about visual thinking, I recommend this video from loosetooth.com. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yr6DN20NHvs).

In my work, I use visual thinking primarily through graphic facilitation and recording. These are the practices of listening and creating a visual representation of what is being discussed, presented, or shared by someone or a group, using drawn words, simple images, and color. This helps conversations flow better, as trust is created by demonstrated listening, engagement is awakened, and ideas are captured in more meaningful ways. Once completed, we have a collaborative image that contains not only the concepts discussed but the energy of the discussion as well, in ways that typed notes alone never could. It is a great way to bring accessibility and equity to conversations, especially when language or other communication challenges might otherwise get in the way.

I have used graphic facilitation in various ways, but some of my favorite experiences have been with a group of young adults who were a part of an inclusive social justice focused youth program, comprised of members with and without developmental disabilities. The group was passionate and had a lot to say – however, many of the group’s members had a tough time contributing meaningfully to staged conversations. I used the 4 Plus 1 Questions tool to help me sort the learning from our experience with using graphic recording with this group to capture their vision. (you can find the 4 Plus 1 Questions here: https://helensandersonassociates.co.uk/person-centred-practice/person-centred-thinking-tools/4-plus-1-questions/)

What we tried

It was the evening before an all-day event, where educators, service professionals, and parents gathered to plan for future college education opportunities for students with disabilities. It was important that the youth’s ideas and perspective would inform these conversations, as they were the ones whose futures were directly at stake. So, we got together in an office and I put large sheets of paper on the wall, as well as paper and scented markers on the table around which the youth sat. We had a series of broad questions (What does college mean to us? Why is college important? What could change for the better?), and we posed these one at a time to the kids, as I wrote and drew pictures of their thoughts on the large paper.

What we learned

We quickly learned that they had a lot to say! Taking turns speaking became important, as well as encouraging those to speak up who were a bit more shy at first. They loved the graphics and made sure that I got what they were saying. Having food as well as paper and markers for them was also really helpful in making people feel comfortable and stay engaged by drawing or writing some of their thoughts down as well.

What we were happy with

The group stayed engaged and came up with great ideas and thoughtful input for all of the prompts. They titled their graphic and were proud of it – they added some of their own drawings to it and several signed their name onto it. It was important that they all felt ownership of their input. Everyone around one big table worked well, it was easier to take turns talking and for people to feel listened to. It was also awesome that the kids could look at the graphic created and recall their ideas to present to the adults the next day! Their message was received and used for planning.

What didn’t go quite as well as we had hoped

Nothing every fully goes according to plan, especially not when you’re with a group of teens who feel strongly about the topic at hand. A few times, people would get especially fired up at something said, shout over each other, or shut down a bit as they felt talked over. Several of the youth have also had some romance between them as well as friendships over time, so seating arrangements could have been less distracting if we had thought of that ahead of time. As far as the graphics, I will stay away from using pastels for shading, as it gets too messy when people want to add their own drawings or name to the large graphic.

What we will try next time

We all agreed in hind-sight that one hour maximum would likely be the best for any type of intense input gathering. We will also have to group make ground rules (their words) so that we can keep peace and order more effectively, and make sure everyone gets a fair chance to contribute as they wish. We will always have graphic recording, as well as snacks, markers, paper, and fidgets – these absolutely make for more productive and accessible conversations. We will also ask some of the older youth and siblings to disperse more evenly with the younger kids, so they can help them get their ideas out and be best included.

This learning also helps us creatively think about how graphic recording and facilitation might help other groups share their perspectives. For example, we can use this with anyone looking to plan their own life,  plan with loved ones, or strategize with a team. We can use graphics to help invigorate team meetings and other conversations where we are attempting to capture diverse perspectives or input.

To learn more about graphic facilitation and inclusive working with youth contact Aniko Adany at aniko@helensandersonassociates.com