by Pen Mendonça
I had the great pleasure last week of graphically recording of one of the main events at the amazing #socialcarefuture gathering in Manchester. The session was called Glimpses of the Future and my graphics are here:
With a gathering like this it is important to find the best ways to communicate information and ideas and a range of approaches are needed. There is a current conversation about the role of graphic recording as one of these approaches. As someone who has supported hundreds of partnerships, consultations and meetings, including within the NHS, I thought I’d add to the conversation. While I am often described and identify as an artist, like many British-based graphic facilitators working in this field, I have a background in social care, advocacy and social justice, as well as in facilitation. Some of us also have lived experience of the issues we represent.
I agree that there needs to be critical thinking and clarification about the values, purpose, processes and impact of creative approaches, including by those who undertake, access and commission them. It is equally important of course when undertaking such thinking not to dismiss potentially impactful methods based on personal opinion, individual access needs or aesthetic preference.
Graphic or visual facilitation, graphic recording and related live visual recording practices such as ‘sketchnoting’ have recently been enjoying unprecedented growth. But in Britain, graphic facilitation has been used for decades, particularly within social care. It has contributed to person-centred approaches, mapping exercises, strategic planning, the development of new models, service design and evaluation. It has been employed within civil society organisations, the NHS and education, from the clinic and classroom, to co-production and decision-making in the boardroom. You can see examples of graphic facilitation being skilfully used within maternity by @AnnaGeyer, within service user engagement and co-production by @EngageVisually, within person-centred approaches, co-production and organisational development by @jon_ralphs, and there are many, many more examples.
The purpose, approaches, visual style and tone of graphic facilitation varies as much as the contexts it is applied within. A record of a discussion about asset-based approaches to social care (@socfuture) or the achievements of British Asian Women (@awaawardsuk), for example, will not be the same as a record of a public meeting one week after the devastating Grenfell Tower fire. The graphics generated in these contexts are as unique and subjective as any other kind of text produced by an individual or group, and participants and audiences will bring their own interpretations. As Catherine Belsey suggests there is a transaction between the cultural vocabulary of the text, and that of the reader (Belsey, 1980, 2002). Due to its popularity in some (but not all) sectors, graphic facilitation no-longer has the ‘wow!’ factor it once had – here the quality of the listening, writing, facilitation and representation becomes increasingly important. However, it is always worth asking questions about who it is that gets to decide whether or not a process represents quality.
Where graphic facilitation can be particularly effective is in support of engagement with diverse individuals, communities, organisations and partnerships. This includes improving access for those who may be early English speakers, those who may not read and write well or who are non-verbal, along with their families, friends and lovers, frontline workers and senior leaders, in other words, lots of us. It can help groups to see the ‘bigger picture’, to identify shared vision and values, to highlight key differences, to uncover and commit to solutions to challenges. For some it is a process that can create an explicit group memory (Ball, 1998), which can take ‘thinking to a whole new level’ (Sibbet, 2010: xvi). The graphics developed may be used to communicate ideas with a larger and alternative audience, often with significantly more success than the average academic paper.
Of course, practices like graphic facilitation are not going to be accessible or helpful to (or enjoyed by) everyone, including some with visual impairment or neuro diversity. But no methods are inclusive to every individual, or appropriate to every situation. All have benefits as well as limitations, and all can raise ethical concerns. Yet there are examples of graphic facilitation being evaluated favourably by many groups including people who have been affected by dementia, disabled people, indigenous communities, school and university students, senior civil servants, politicians and activists. Given that visual language has become increasingly important over recent decades, many children and young people find it particularly valuable and use it to express themselves.
As the NCCPE Images of Engagement Competition judges recently observed, my work asks a lot of the viewer, but that is ‘part of its power.’ Some examples reflect messy, dynamic and at times opposing and contradictory ideas, others are written and drawn in different styles, providing clarity and deeper analysis through more rigidly structured designs. There is a place for filtering and condensing discussions and concepts, but also times when the most useful thing to do is to visually describe the journey of the conversation, to show complexity and energy, to invite questions, rather than seeking to imply consensus or produce an over-simplistic summary. Contrary to popular opinion, the primary aim is not always to create visuals for a wider audience following an event, the work you see may have been developed in a particular moment, to support an individual or group of people to think through challenging ideas (a lot of work does not end up being shared on social media). Note, graphics may also reflect practical working conditions, try capturing a seven-hour Children’s Rights Inquiry on to a small section of wall in a hot, over-crowded room in Portcullis House, Westminster.
My own work has supported those working for the human rights, health and wellbeing of the Windrush Generation, of disabled people, of older people, of single mothers. It has helped to celebrate seventy years of BME contribution to the NHS; to capture the concerns and passions of teachers, ex-offenders, learning disability nurses and modern slavery survivors (@empwrsurvivors); to represent the magic of @ukblackpride, of a coproduction process in Hertfordshire, an appreciative inquiry in Grimsby, of young people’s experiences of augmentative and alternative communication in Charlton. One Twitterati critic recently asked of the graphics: ‘Where do they go? Is there a room where they all go to live after all our meetings, conferences and workshops… is there an exhibition of them somewhere?’ Over the last year graphics I’ve developed collaboratively have found their way in to the House of Lords, public exhibitions, magazines and schools, on to office walls and screen savers. They have been displayed at Westminster Abbey, the Apple store in Regent Street, a village in Kenya, a conference in the States, a blog in the Netherlands, a peer-reviewed journal, even a flag outside Barking and Dagenham Town Hall. The possibilities for disseminating and amplifying ideas through graphic facilitation are endless, its potential impact as a process that supports conversation but also results in visuals, should not be underestimated.
Like other approaches, graphic facilitation involves diverse and imperfect practices, but it can, as part of a wider process, enable people to be heard, seen and valued. It can help promote engagement, community, creative and critical thinking, and enable the kind of cross-sector and cross-discipline partnership working we need for the future. Crucially it has the potential to increase understanding of discrimination and intersectionality, and to support joint solutions to addressing rising levels of inequality. Given our current challenges, we need to open our minds to a range of innovative approaches, whether that be verbatim theatre (@BigHouseTheatre), musical theatre (@MiXiT_MUSIC), music (@shirleyjtmusic), comedy (@LostVoiceGuy), gamified methods (@BiteTheBallot), storytelling by board game (@TheWindrushGame), by archive (@simartin) by embroidery (@RachelleRomeo) or Skype. We need to find ways to engage with the public we serve, in all its beautiful diversity, to bring leaders and communities together, to communicate more effectively.
Pen Mendonça is a graphic facilitator and cartoonist with more than twenty years experience of working across the UK public, private and voluntary sectors. Her graphics are widely published and exhibited, and have been translated in to numerous languages. She has a background in social care and advocacy and is currently completing her PhD at Central Saint Martins, where she has developed the concept of ‘Values-Based Cartooning’ as a research method for those working on contemporary social issues. Pen is an associate lecturer at the London College of Communication and a visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art. Her academic work is published in Studies in Comics, Studies in the Maternal and by Demeter Press. Her book will be published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. For further information see: @MendoncaPen www.penmendonca.com and an article on graphic facilitation https://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/journals/view-issue,id=3190/
This graphic was developed by Pen Mendonça with Jim Thomas @Longhouseman (Skills for Care UK) and @MelanieHenwood in 2013, as part of a wider project looking at the implementation of asset-based approaches in adult social care. Its earlier iterations were developed live, in collaboration with multiple projects and participants.