As a multidisciplinary team, Reboot often uses unconventional tools to help our clients talk through complex problems and create shared understandings. As our resident doodler, I have started experimenting with graphic facilitation to add another tool to our kit.
The graphic facilitator is a relatively new role in the world of workshops. The practice grew out of a network of West Coast consultants in the 1970s, who were inspired by the visual approach designers and architects took to solving problems and collaborating on projects. Today, it has become popular at both commercial and public sector conferences. At Reboot, we have seen how its strengths are especially useful for co-creation processes. When convening a group of diverse stakeholders to “create” together, graphic facilitation meets a need for new tools and strategies to break traditional dynamics and hierarchies—allowing groups to be truly collaborative.
A graphic facilitator works in real-time, illustrating conversations in a way that helps synthesize and emphasize important points. The role of a graphic facilitator is flexible depending on the meeting’s context. For example, as part of the core facilitation team, the graphic facilitator can serve as a form of entertainment to keep listeners engaged, or as the primary notetaker for an event.
More generally, the graphic facilitator becomes the public listener. Brandy Agerbeck describes this role as connecting all voices, inputs, and ideas while synthesizing and recording them—creating a visual map of the meeting. This map can be a tool for organizations seeking more innovative or participatory approaches to their work.
Breaking down established barriers and hierarchies is crucial in the early trust-building phase of a co-creation process. When organizers resist icebreakers (often out of fear that they’re too cheesy or informal), a graphic facilitator can help bring color and fun to the room.
In co-creation sessions, every person arrives with their own perspectives, top-down pressures, and out-of-work distractions. Subconsciously, attendees use these lenses to filter how they connect with and understand other people in the room.
The graphic facilitator can be a connecting force. Seeing a visual representation of the co-creation process generated in real-time allows viewers a fresh, more holistic perspective of the group’s conversation—helping remove personal filters.
Verbatim meeting notes can be a useful record after the fact, but the visual feedback of graphic facilitation can help shape the real-time conversation. Graphic facilitation’s strength lies in its natural ability to track and synthesize conversations into themes by using visual tools such as images, arrows, clusters and color.
Watching these visual cues come to life can inspire and spark new ideas as well. We have found this especially useful in our co-creation workshops. In order for true co-creation to happen, the group needs to develop a shared vision—something that can be hard to do when there are mixed perspectives and goals. By visually articulating the feelings and themes through a neutral listener, graphic facilitation can literally develop a shared “vision” record.
Once an event or gathering is over, it can be hard to sustain the energy and ideas, and even harder to communicate to colleagues and others about the decisions reached. This is especially difficult for a co-creation session, which is a new approach for many organizations, and from which organizations may be eager to see the “so what” or the tangible outputs. Creating a written summary or report can be time- and resource-consuming; graphic facilitation offers a ready-made, easy-to-digest visual representation of the event, which can be shared immediately.
Co-creation isn’t just about the workshop, it’s about what you build out of the workshop. Graphic facilitation provides a tangible output that can bridge to that next step, giving the team more time and space to create other outputs.