A Day in the Life of a Scribe

If you haven’t come across a scribe before, then we hope this will provide insight into how an Innovation Arts graphic facilitator works. If you have seen our work at an event or a conference, this might answer some of the questions we are often asked about this fascinating and vibrant discipline.

The primary function of scribing is to visually capture a conversation into a clearer and more digestible form. The visual map of a discussion aids those present by providing visual interest and capturing the flow of ideas, so the participants can see what they are saying. It works afterward to help those who weren’t there access the overall themes and shape of the session. Visual capture brings the messaging to life and makes it more approachable and memorable, particularly to those who employ a more “right-brained” way of learning. A mixture of iconography, graphic forms and metaphors instantly bring meaning to the words, and visualizing complex messaging and strategic thinking also helps to align people in a way that simply talking can’t. This is most useful when graphic facilitation is employed to capture a group discussion as it breaks down the barriers of language and terminology, different levels of understanding and engagement. Ultimately, we know through research that people are most susceptible to learning when they are in a “childlike” state, and the playful medium of drawing stimulates this, enabling the audience to access their collective inner child.

A typical day in the life of a scribe goes something like this…

It’s the first day of a three-day conference so it’s an early start. I wear comfortable shoes and do a few stretches to ensure I’ll be ready to spend the whole day on my feet. I have a healthy breakfast and check my emails on the way into work. Among the messages in my inbox is a client request to graphically capture their wedding (this is not the first wedding I have scribed)!

The three-day conference I’m headed to today is located in central London and involves the construction sector, a sector I am familiar with because our team has had a lot of experience across a wide range of disciplines. We have scribed everything from child soldier experiences and talks about music in schools, to economic conferences outlining the latest trends in the industry, business strategy collaborative decision-making events where the content is being created as it is being scribed. Besides large media events such as TED Global or Wired’s annual Innovation Lectures, we have also scribed private and public events ranging from business leadership away days to global banking summits. Ultimately, the nature of the content makes no difference, because no matter what it is being discussed, we are experts in listening, understanding, and presenting the messaging in a way that everyone can understand and be excited by. That is why scribing is such a powerful tool.

There are many different reasons for using graphic facilitation, and many different contexts in which it can be employed. Primarily, scribing is a tool to break down the complexity of strategic conversations. The visual content acts as a record of that moment in time, which could afterward be used as a piece of communications for a larger audience who were not present at the event. Sometimes, the scribing will be developed into an infographic, an annotated illustration (what we call a “rich picture”), animations, storyboards, etc. Our scribing lives on in large murals at the London Transport Museum, and the offices of News UK, and Microsoft.

In preparation for the construction event today, we have spent the past few days speaking with the client about their agenda, speakers and content, and getting a feel for the images and metaphors that will both reflect the intent of the discussions and resonate with the audience. We also research the speakers, their style and presentations so that we are comfortable with the content once the session is underway. Sometimes, a shorter event conference will only allow a brief research period, but however much time we are given is enough, as the real art of scribing comes from listening and making connections between the different discussion points to track the conversation. For clients who want to achieve a specific outcome or output, we will spend a much greater period of time in preparation to ensure we can help them achieve their objectives.

I arrive at the venue around two hours before the session begins to prepare the area where the scribing will take place. This time it’s a large ballroom including a stage and seating for 1,000 people. I will be scribing on my favorite medium, a white board system called MovingWalls, portable, erasable white work walls on wheels, which are easy to transport and link together to make a wall several meters in length. My tool of choice is a whiteboard marker, and I tend to carry an array of different types to ensure I’ve got a good supply for the entire job. The Innovation Arts style is usually monochrome, but it depends on what is right for the session.

We are often asked, “How do we scribe? Is it difficult to listen, capture the information, and then turn it into an illustrated InfoMural with the key messages? How are you always so sharp with the content?” The only way I can explain is that it is a craft you learn and perfect over time. Although I have done a lot of preparation for every scribe I’ve done, just before the presenter starts my mind stills and I listen carefully to her speech. As an avid rock climber, I used to jump off cliffs for fun—to do this successfully, you can’t walk up to the edge of a cliff and over-think it, you need to empty your mind and take the leap. That’s similar to how I approach the start of every scribing job.

Sessions vary, and if it’s a complex one there will be new information delivered every few seconds. It’s an intense experience, and scribes try to simplify the content by drawing from the mental image bank each of us cultivates, working from muscle memory. The strongest image that links to the information will shoot to the front of my mind, and I commit that to the board. It’s difficult to explain how any creative process happens, but experience, creativity and imagination have helped me and our team of scribes build up a vast bank of visuals in our heads, so we know we can draw the right picture, quickly.

The theme of the conference provides me with a nice frame for the InfoMural on which I hang the content, in this case the journey of the event. Metaphors help to clarify the content and add visual interest, and can come from anywhere, from a carefully considered likeness, or a sponsor’s recent safari holiday, to a nearby magazine illustration which, once contemplated, seems wonderfully right for the situation. At the end of the day, with the InfoMural a third of the way completed, I meet up with the client sponsors for a debrief to chat about the outcomes of the day and prepare for the next day’s session. It’s important that the space on the InfoMural is planned in my mind so I leave enough room for all the speakers throughout the event, and for more ideas and connections to emerge as the content develops.

The final task of the day is to take a call from an American client who wants Innovation Arts to come to Atlanta to scribe their large international conference. We talk about the event and their expectations and arrange a Skype call for early next week.

I get home and decompress with a family dinner, and a quick run with the dog. The next day I will do this all over again—what a great job!

Innovation Arts is a hybrid strategy consultancy and design agency. Innovation Arts brings a fresh and highly effective approach to stimulating ‘group genius’ through design practices that stretch people’s thinking and initiate ideas. 
Described by GQ as the ‘management consultant of the future’, the Innovation Arts team is a mixture of strategists, management consultants, designers, advertisers, branding and communications experts and artists, all skilled in helping organisations make change happen. It’s a unique blend that helps an organisation think differently about the challenges it’s facing, as well as address them.
Based on their experience of working repeatedly with some of the leading FTSE100 and Fortune 100 companies, governments and civil society organisations, their clients engage them because they deliver systemic, high-quality, sustainable outcomes with less risk, more certainty and in a fraction of the time compared to conventional approaches.
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