Today we’re interviewing Nora Herting and Heather Willems from ImageThink. Their story is really interesting, because they literally went from Heather being a waitress sketching conversations on napkins to creating a very successful visual recording business through newsjacking and other social media tactics that took technological advantage of the very non-technological skill of graphic recording. In this interview, they share a lot of interesting insights about how, as artists, you have creative, experimental, and thinking skills that can serve you really well as an entrepreneur.
Heather: ImageThink came out of a creative practice. In 2006, I had just finished graduate school and was working on an art exhibition. Part of that project was that I would eavesdrop on people in the restaurant where I was waitressing, jot down their ideas on napkins, and then take those stories back to the studio and draw them into a mural or a painting. In the course of my days as a waitress, I would chat a lot with the different clients that I had. One day, I was telling one of the clients about this project that I was doing, and they were very excited to hear that I was transcribing people’s conversations into words and pictures — and they basically offered me a job.
Fast-forward a couple years. I started working at an IT consulting firm in a facilitation group where they use graphic recording as one of the tools to help facilitate conversations. They were looking for another person to fill the role. Nora was my best friend, and she filled the role quite perfectly. Basically, we found great value in depicting people’s ideas visually. When the recession happened in 2009, we took that idea, that singular idea, that singular facilitation technique, and turned it into our business. And it has grown from there to what it is today.
Jasper: Since this is a new concept to me, can you give us some history in terms of the visual recording? Meredith introduced it to me fairly recently, and I have to say I love the whole idea of it.
Nora: The practice of graphic recording started in the late ’70s in the Bay Area. There were also some folks who were doing it for different reasons in non-profit sectors, such as in the Girl Scouts and the Peace Corps. It has actually been around as sort of niche skill for a good 30 years.
Jasper: You could say even more like 6,000 years, because I guess hieroglyphics is the precursor…
Nora: Yes, absolutely! But the unfortunately-named practice of “graphic recording” or “graphic facilitation” has been used in communication and business contexts.
Jasper: Give us an idea of the variety of uses for that. In what sort of context is graphic recording mainly used?
Nora: Anytime there are people having a conversation and sharing ideas, there’s the possibility of graphic recording existing to aid that. For ImageThink, we primarily have corporate clients. Many of our clients are Fortune 100 companies, a lot of technology, healthcare, and advertising marketing clients. But we’re really lucky, because we get to spend time working for NASA in their knowledge-sharing department when they have a summit, to new marketing ideas and pitches for new pharmaceuticals, to conferences that are more keynote, such as lecture-based.
Jasper: There seems to be an advance in the number of people using this technique. Maybe it’s because I’ve just become aware of it, but there seems to be a huge increase in the use of this. I’ve very recently seen it on people’s podcast graphics and in all kinds of different situations. Have you found that it’s expanded in very recent times?
Heather: Yes, both Nora and I have noticed that. I was actually doing a little bit of research recently, and it seems like in 2011 the popularity of the field really started to take off. Like Nora said, there are several practitioners who have been working in the field since the ’70s. But, yes, just in the past 4 or 5 years it has really started to take off. You start seeing it with the animated whiteboard videos and surge of infographics.
Heather: And just people doing sketch notes and visual note taking in general. It’s really a growing culture.
Nora: I think there are lots of reasons for that. One reason, I feel, is that the interest in neuroscience has propelled the notion that a good part of our brain’s wiring is to visualization and visual understanding.
Jasper: I guess it’s part of the whole right-brain’s thinking.
Nora: Yes, and also I think there’s such a surfeit of information that we’re inundated with now, much of it text-based. So artists, advertisers, and training programs are all trying to make information more engaging and more digestible for their audiences. That need is what’s fueling a lot of our field.
Heather: It really feels like there’s basically been an overload of data, and I think that using the graphic recording and the visual depiction of people’s ideas starts to humanize all of that data. It starts to humanize the conversations that we share between each other.
Nora Herting & Heather Willems – ImageThink
They also share a passion for turning big ideas into clear communication. Between them, they have over a decade of experience working as graphic facilitators.
ImageThink uses the art of graphic facilitation to help organizations of all sizes unlock creative potential, train their teams and communicate their ideas by harnessing our innate visual literacy.
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