7 Tips for Great Graphic Recording

Tuesday at Maga, Jim Nuttle led our graphic recorders and designers in a mock graphic recording session, using TED Talks for powerful content as inspiration.  The experience and ensuing discussion led us to curate a collection of tips for graphic recording.

Seven Tips for Great Graphic Recording

1 – Find the point.

The speaker begins with a story, explaining in verbose detail a single interaction between two characters.  Frantically, you’re scribbling away, catching as much as possible.  The punchline hits, and the story suddenly turns into merely a tangential metaphor for the speaker’s main point.  You’re now lost, having preoccupied yourself with the details, but missing the real meaning of the story.  Avoid the trap of recording every detail – record memorable points along the way, but find and track the main ideas first.

2 – Silence the critic.

Graphic recording is rapid, frantic, and stressful, and your worst critic will only be yourself.  As you practice, learn to silence the self-critical thoughts in your head and find your flow of recording.  Save critiquing your work until you’re done with a session, or even until hours later.  As one of Maga’s recorders explained, graphic recording is the “ultimate juggling act,” where one must balance between her logical left and visual right brains, all while attentively listening and synthesizing meaning from speech.

3 – Understand the context.

Before walking into any graphic recording session, you should have undertaken some level of research.  You should have a rough understanding of the companies or parties involved, the audience, the relevant stakeholders, the likely content of the session, and the outcome they’re looking for.  This knowledge will help you contextualize your graphic recording, and cater metaphors, image content, and layout to your specific audience.   At first, these might have to be conscious performance tweaks, but they will become innate with practice.

4 – Look out for verbal cues.


Speakers are all-too-often taught to “tell them what you’ll tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them.”  Luckily this structure lends itself to your work; take advantage of these and other verbal cues.  One example we saw today was, “So the three things I learned were…”  These cues help the storyteller create a framework for the content of his speech, let it help you understand progression and organize content.

5 – Work on your repertoire of visual tools.

Arrows, lines, banners, boxes, bullet points, bubbles, etc. help organize the progression and relatedness of the visual metaphors you’re creating; you should practice drawing and using these elements until the become second nature.  Keeping some consistency and creatively framing your work is also a great way to create an iconic style for your work.  Faces, people, and commonly used metaphors are also important to practice.

6 – Use color.

Use color to separate ideas, link trains of thought, and accentuate key points.  If you’d like, try to match the company or organization’s commonly used or brand colors as you go.  But be careful not to clutter your design with too many or clashing colors – we suggest sticking to three or four at most.

7 – Practice.

Every graphic recording session is different.  You may find yourself recording a creative brainstorming session one day, and documenting a quarterly financial report the next.  A great storyteller’s progression of ideas will be conveyed completely differently than a stiff mid-level manager’s.  You’ll have to cater your recording to many different styles of speaking and audiences.  This expertise only comes through practice, and you need every experience to improve.  Never turn down an offer for work.

3 thoughts on “7 Tips for Great Graphic Recording”

  1. I like all of these suggestions, except for the last one: “Never turn down an offer for work.” I love getting practice (and getting paid), but I will not do graphic recording for a cause that I think is wrong. For example, someone recently wanted me to do graphic recording for an event which was a PR effort for an opponent of marriage equality for gay people. Thanks, but no thanks. Everybody has lines they won’t cross, and that is over the line for me. I support everybody’s right to marriage, regardless of their sexual orientation.

    Otherwise, excellent tips!


  2. Great tips, and not only for beginners. Every one of these is something that I still work on as my practice develops and evolves. Jim’s a wonderful visual practitioner and I am always mesmerized by watching him work. Thanks for passing along your collective distilled wisdom!

    Jonny — Good for you for not letting money and exposure trample your principles. You go!

  3. Thanks Rachel! Didn’t mean to come off as preachy in my comment. Just making the observation that everyone has their own lines they don’t want to cross, so it’s good to know what your lines are in advance so you can focus on work you believe in.

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