Anyone can be a great visual thinker

Anyone can be a great visual thinker! (…and what comes off of it)

by Rimi (Sagorika) Datta
Digital Business Analyst at the NZAA

One of my favourite animated films of all time is Ratatouille, and in that, a famous chef had a book which roughly translates in English to be: ‘Anyone can cook!’ I always took that to be no matter where you come from or what you do, you can always hone your skills and become better at something you’re passionate about. That is exactly what I say to people who dismiss sketch-noting*, graphic recording# and visual facilitation^ by saying, “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly do that! I can’t draw!”

The thing is, you don’t need to know how to draw to be a good visual thinker, and in turn, a good graphic recorder/sketch-noter! Iconography, when simplified, is just lines and shapes and when combined with words translates to a medium used to more powerfully convey the message across to the reader.

I wasn’t a confident artist myself, but I took two courses facilitated by Zhi Lee, at my former organisation. From then on through just a little bit of practice, expanding my visual dictionary and leveraging the cornucopia of resources provided by Zhi, sketch-noting became second nature to me!

A sketch of Rimi sketchnoting

Still don’t believe me or think that this sounds too much like a plug? Well, let’s illustrate this with a few examples of how I use it with my team at the NZAA.

The picture above is me that’s happily sketch-noting (in case it wasn’t apparent).

Story mapping session

Like most scrum teams, wayyyyy before starting build my team engages in the user story mapping session (popularised by Jeff Patton). You should definitely check it out if you don’t know about it; in essence, we use framings statements that act as a brief to map user journeys, explore and fill out cool features and ultimately, draw lines as to what constitutes the minimal viable product and the subsequent releases along with a development strategy.

Example Sketchnote by Rimi Datta
Example Sketchnote by Rimi Datta


Prior to doing this, as a business analyst, I always work with the product owners to understand what the product is, who is it for, what is the benefit to the organisation and the customers, etc. This is when I graphic record the whole framing brief with the team before the session and get it into the journey mapping session with me. We stick it up in a prominent place visible to everyone so that each and evert one of the participants can refer to it during the workshop and we never lose sight of what really matters. If there is ever confusion about a feature/task, we just look at the framing statements for guidance and we’re usually back on track!

Here’s one of the earliest ones that I created and we used for journey mapping. In fact, when the project was paused and restarted later, this also helped us recap a lot of the features that we were aiming towards.

Multiple stakeholders, no sweat!

So what do we do when we have multiple stakeholders: product owners, subject matter experts, external partners and the internal team, who each have their valid opinions on what they want? It may be a tough facilitation session, but may become even more complex when things everyone agreed upon in a previous workshop have suddenly been forgotten in the next workshop resulting in a lot of revisiting and discussion to reach the same consensus again. In the past, we have avoided this by just graphic recording the outcomes of the first session and then using that as an input to visually facilitate the second session. If there are any conflicts between participants about previously agreed upon items, we refer back to the sketch-note, remind everyone of the consensus, get a resolution and move on!

Sketchnote of design principles for a web project
Sketchnote of design principles for a web project


So here’s an example of an artefact created when we were finalising design principles to optimise conversion rates when building a web form for a project.

The best part? Even though we came up with these for a specific web form, the principles were so ubiquitous, that we’ve decided to refer to them when building new forms. It’s pasted in our team space now, so that when the time comes, we don’t need to go hunting for it in an old confluence space or a powerpoint presentation (places where it would have been if we didn’t graphic-record it).

Team sessions and resulting assets

It is essential that a team has regular check-ins to first create and then revise team artefacts. Examples of these are team charters, social contracts, the definitions of ready and done, etc.

One such example is the elevator pitch. For clarity, the elevator pitch focuses on your product’s unique selling point and condenses it into a spiel that can be related from the moment you step into an elevator and to when you get to your floor. This is a great exercise for project teams’ first kick of session, so they truly know how to ‘sell’ their product and understand its value.


But, it can also be beneficial to create for a team itself—so that they don’t lose sight of their vision and mission and what they’ve set out to do; but more importantly, get a shared and aligned understanding of their purpose and value.

Elevator pitch sketchnote example by Rimi Datta
Elevator pitch sketchnote example by Rimi Datta

Individual members of the team first came up with what they thought was the team’s elevator pitch, after which the team collaboratively combined the parts that resonated with all and fit best with the team’s aspirations to create the elevator pitch.

So you see? Sketch-noting and visual thinking is not just about pretty pictures on a wall which exhibit artistry. It is in fact, a way of life, an essential skill of a facilitator’s tool-set! You may have heard the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words”; but let’s amend that to be: even though a picture may be worth a thousand words, those words are subjective, with each person interpreting their own understanding of the picture. However, a sketch-note is a picture with words, and that is more meaningful to a team than a picture can ever be!

So if you want to try your hand at sketch-noting and visual facilitation, contact Teamworx for enquiries about their course on Graphic Recording and Visual Facilitation.