I’ve been lucky for the past year to be on the production team for a weekly corporate video series. My role has been to provide the artwork (and some video production work) for this video feature, which has thousands of devoted viewers in its niche field. It’s been a fascinating experience delivering this kind of work for a business, and as an artist I’ve learned a lot of important lessons along the way.
The project I work on is basically a version of something with a few names: graphic recording, visual note-taking or graphic facilitation. You’ve seen it at conferences — an artist sets up with an easel to the side of a speaker and visually digests the speakers’ words and concepts into a visual representation that strengthens and reinforces the speakers’ points.
In my case, I do this while a speaker rehearses what they’re going to say in front of a camera and draw visual notes on a whiteboard. After I’m done my drawing, the speaker then goes on camera next to the whiteboard and uses my notes as a prompt to guide them along.
The drawings and lettering is all freehand and is not meant to look polished. The goal was for it to look casual and a bit spontaneous, not slick. There are a number of dimensional restrictions on the space I can use, as well as the colors and the level of detail I can employ, all for a variety of boring technical camera and green-screen-related reasons. But within these restrictions I’ve been able to have a lot of fun, see for yourself: Here is the landing page for all the videos of this project – it gets updated weekly.
So, here’s what I’ve learned.
1) You’re not a special snowflake
We generally have only an hour to set up, draw, and film. The most important thing is that the speaker in front of the camera has plenty of time to go through their takes, so you don’t want to spend 45 minutes of the hour with the speaker waiting around for me to finish my drawing. I need to get in there, listen to them run through their lines, draw their concepts, and then hang back as fast as I can so they can get the camera rolling. Most of our speakers are very busy and schedules are tight, so that one hour we have with them can’t be wasted.
When I first started on this project drawing on these whiteboards, my designs were kind of fanciful and honestly, they took a little while. There’s one I remember doing that was going to feature the then-CEO, and as you can imagine he was EXTREMELY busy. But we wanted to do something impressive for a CEO. And I think I spent almost two hours sweating over all the details on this… whiteboard.
I’ll be damned if I didn’t code half the apps that appeared on those mobile device screens, practically. And yes, after all that effort, this whiteboard did end up looking pretty sweet while the CEO presented against it. But there was no way to replicate this effort weekly – it would be way too impractical for me to spend two hours creating each week’s whiteboard. It’s not a smart use of time or resources for a video that’s barely 5 minutes long on average, especially since these whiteboards often need to be wiped clean and used by other staff for business reasons! Plus, I’ve noticed we get diminishing returns after spending 15 minutes drawing a whiteboard. These are whiteboard sketches, let’s be real.
Now that I’ve been working on this project for a while, we have a nice process down and I’m usually able to get these whiteboards done in 10 minutes or less. Granted, they are not painstakingly detailed like they used to be, but it was important for me to strike a balance between delivering what’s needed for the client’s project and doing what’s practical for the ongoing success and efficient production of the project. Me going all diva over a whiteboard sketch would just hold up the whole thing. Plus in more than a few cases, in order to keep the weekly schedule, we have to film and publish the video on the same day within just a few hours. (As I also do the video editing, so I can’t get too tied up!)
tl;dr: It’s important to do a good job, and you have to suit the client’s needs and suit the business, but you don’t want to get precious about what you’re doing.
2) Don’t get too attached
There’ve been more than a few times that I’ve been lucky to have inspiration hit me at just the right moment, or perhaps the topic I was illustrating particularly resonated with me. Those are times I really wish I wasn’t just sketching on a whiteboard. A group of us will stand back and admire the work, often the speaker will go “whoa, that’s really cool” before coming in to present against the whiteboard… but after the camera turns off, the eraser comes out and all that cool work gets wiped away.
For example, this was a Whiteboard Wednesday I was particularly proud of, and it just so happens that the speaker presenting from it is very well-respected in this field, so it was a double honor to work on this. Plus, I got to draw hackers in mohawks and who the heck wouldn’t like drawing that?
I’ve often thought of these whiteboards as my own version of the Buddhist sand mandalas. As soon as I’m done creating one, I get just a few minutes to enjoy what I’ve done before it gets destroyed. On the days where I’m not happy with what I did, it’s a relief. But when I’m particularly proud of that work, taking an eraser to it is humbling.
Getting detached from the permanency of my work, simple as it is, has allowed me to try a lot of new things in how I try to visually communicate. I can give a concept a shot, and if it doesn’t work, oh well, next week we start again clean. Working on a whiteboard has helped me let go of old habits and techniques in other media too, so it’s had a great cascading effect throughout my art.
tl;dr: You’re going to have to erase that work of yours pretty soon, in some cases, the moment the camera gets shut off. And then you’ll have to draw another thing. And another and another. Allow yourself to let go and you’ll find yourself growing in new ways.
3) While you can advise your client, but their opinion will always trumps yours
Even more humbling than the regular erasing of my work is when I sketch out an idea and the speaker him/herself goes, nope, that’s not working for me. The topics I have to illustrate are generally very specialized and often technical, and I have to rely on the expertise of the speaker to determine if my visual notes are actually relevant. It helps that I have some knowledge of this field, and that’s why I’m able to continuously translate these specialized topics into visual notes, but no matter how much I like something I sketch out, if the speaker/client doesn’t like it, or if it’s not working for them, their expertise and opinion matters more.
Of course, that doesn’t mean I can’t politely explain why I may have drawn something in one way, or perhaps elaborate on what I’m trying to accomplish with a visual metaphor. But hey, I can get things wrong. Most of the time though, I draw these ideas with the speaker right there with me, and we have a great back-and-forth about what kind of visual representation would work. Sometimes the speaker even has their own ideas on what I could draw, and while it’s not always what we end up going with, more ideas are always better than just one or two.
To add to that, I’ve been very lucky that I’ve yet to work with a speaker who was insistent on doing something his or her own way—I know it’s fortunate indeed to work in a creative capacity and be given the space to do my own thing.
It’s hard sometimes though to hear unsolicited suggestions on what to draw or not draw. It requires me to put my ego away and say, you know what? I don’t have a monopoly on good ideas and I should always be receptive to hearing what others have to say. I’ve never regretted pushing my ego aside for this.
tl;dr: We each bring our own expertise to a project. As an artist working for a client, it’s our job to listen and to communicate important information, but we also must respect the expertise and requirements of the client. Ego can’t get in the way.
Extra Super Bonus Life Lesson: You’re not always going to knock it out of the park
There were some topics I’ve had to illustrate that, frankly, were really hard for me to figure out. There are a few videos of Whiteboard Wednesday where the speaker is basically presenting to a whiteboard of text and callout boxes. I was just stumped on what to draw.
There are other times where I have my own excuses—if only I’d had more time to think out the concepts, if only I hadn’t felt so rushed, if only I hadn’t been feeling exhausted/sick/whatever—and I know in those cases, the work is not my best.
Just like with the sand mandala mentality, and that everything we do is temporary, you just have to do the best you can at that time and move on.
And you have to be able to make peace with the fact that, sometimes, you are going to accidentally draw Kip from Napoleon Dynamite, and it will be hilarious.
Ouch, Napoleon, you’re bruisin’ my neck meat!
I have been so, SO incredibly lucky to be able to work on this Whiteboard Wednesday project for over a year now and going. It’s allowed me to expose my work in new ways and I’ve had people from the most unexpected places come up to me and ask me about my work. It’s also opened up a number of new opportunities to me that I never would have been able to dream of before, so as humble as a whiteboard sketch might be, it has allowed for so much more.