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The Impact Initiative has closed. This website has now been archived and will no longer be updated.

Getting your message out there: Are visuals always the right choice? Exploring your visual recording options and the latest innovations

© Julia Hayes 2018

Dec 2018

Whether you are running an event or want to disseminate research outcomes, finding accessible ways to engage your audience and spread the word is a concern of researchers and organisations alike. Creating a visual summary of your key messages provides people with a quick, accessible and engaging way to see what you are saying (Mendonça, 2016), but are visuals always the right choice? It all depends on the purpose of the session, where you want to communicate the information and the process that best meets the needs of your audience.

You may have seen RSA animation talks, in which a speedy hand illustrates the main points of a presentation, or perhaps been at an event and seen someone like me who, when not writing my PhD, spends much of my time illustrating the content of conferences, live, through listening and summarising key themes using words and images.  

Known as graphic recording (or sometimes sketchnoting, scribing or visual recording) I have illustrated events ranging from small health promotion events in leisure centres to large international livestreamed events, such as the Global Disability Summit 2018.

Additionally, I have been asked to visually summarise policy and research reports, such as this one by the German Development Agency, GIZ.

The advantages of using these methods include:

  • Convey complex ideas simply

Distilling large amounts of information into images supports the communication of your key messages 

  • It’s inclusive

Using pictures transcends the need to read or be fluent in English

  • People feel heard

People find it incredibly powerful to see their story, or words, up on the graphic.  At the disability summit, I drew the story of presenter Primrose Mandishona, leading her to come up to me, mid-session, to sign it personally (see her section below the word ‘Inclusive Education’)

  • Spreads the word

Your comms team and the audience tweet the growing graphic, and share their photos with others once they return home, giving it a life that a written report can only dream of

However, is it always the best thing to use? 

Keeping the graphic live, after the event

Is a graphic useful after the event?  Scanned jpegs of posters can be shared via social media, and snapshots of key messages added to reports to make them more accessible and engaging. Mendonça (2016) also gives examples of ways in which they can be used after the event, using post-its and group drawings, allowing different audiences to add to the conversation that the graphic creates. As a focus of her PhD research, she also co-created cartoons that illustrated the stories of her participants (Mendonça 2018).

Scribe fatigue and recent innovations

Is visual recording a trend which will pass? Like all techniques, I have seen it evolve in recent years.  Used in all sectors,  innovations include projecting images created live on an iPad, a growth of small scale sketchnoting, and creative variations including stackable foamboard pyramids or even drawing in the dark, using glow pens, at an evening event.  It all depends on the purpose of the session, the needs of your audience and the space in which you are working.

Graphic recording.jpg

Graphic recording in the dark by Cara Holland
Graphic recording in the dark by Cara Holland,

Graphic recording in the dark by Cara Holland,

Alt Text: 
Graphic recording in the dark by Cara Holland

But I can’t draw!

I know you think you can’t, but remember when you were little and you could draw not only a house, but a car and a horse? Almost everyone thought they could draw at some point in their childhood – so when did you decide you couldn’t? To help you develop your skills, there are lots of products out there, including: 

  • Books 

Sunni Brown’s book The Doodle Revolution is good for people who consider themselves non-artists, or Ed Emberley’s ‘Make a World’ books, which teaches you how to build on simple shapes, incrementally, until you have a visual language ready to go.

  • Face to face training 

There are also many providers who offer training to teams in not only drawing skills, but also graphic facilitation – in which you use visuals to accompany consultations and staff training.  Considered the godfather, David Sibbet established and has trained many of the graphic facilitators out there today.

  • Online training

The most recent innovation has been the offer of interactive online training that allows individuals, or whole teams, to access online coached sessions, such as the course offered by Graphic Change who offer a free boot camp. 

As you might have anticipated, I think that visuals are a good choice, and that the format and process can be adapted according to the needs of your audience and where you want to communicate the information. But more than that – why not start learning these skills yourself? You can already draw buildings, stick people and that random shape that appears at the side of your page when you are scribbling your own notes during meetings.  What have you got to lose?


The Impact Initiative blog posts are either from individual researchers or from major research programmes. Some of the blog posts are original source and are written by researchers and experts connected to the two research programmes jointly funded by ESRC and FCDO: the Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research and the Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems Research Programme. Other blog posts are imported from related websites and programmes. 

The views expressed in these blogs reflect the opinions of each individual and may not represent the Institute of Development Studies, the University of Cambridge, ESRC or FCDO.


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