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What makes a graphic recorder? Interview on CNA 938 The XX Files with Yasmin Jonkers

Kailin was featured recently on CNA 938’s The XX Files with Yasmin Jonkers. The XX Files is an hour of news, analysis and inspiration featuring Singapore’s best and brightest women with Yasmin Jonkers. Here’s a transcript of the interview by Yasmin where you’ll learn more about what makes a graphic recorder, and advice for young women aspiring to explore this art.


Yasmin: Hello there, I’m Yasmin Jonkers. This Monday on the MasterChef contest last night, piping two other guys, and their judges – Audra, Damian, Bjorn – would have had a lot to say about the performance of those guys. Tomorrow on The XX Files expect to hear from Audra Morrice who is a judge and she’ll be talking about Jonathan and how well he did, why he won and what’s the future of MasterChef?

Tomorrow Susan takes over on The XX Files and on Asia First in my place for the next two days because I’ll be headed for a course.

Well, I’m still going on show today. We were talking about art and earlier Nur Ida talked about how it’s therapeutic. Our next guest uses art to actually help visual learners and also, you know, to add a little flair to events that happen here in Singapore.

So let me explain how I met her. I was hosting a tech event recently and whenever anybody went up on stage, there was a woman who’s a graphic recorder, who actually sketches out not just images of the person speaking, but all the bullet points from the presentation. So, the minute you look at her work, you kind of get a good helicopter view of what was being presented on stage and you remember all the main points. Takes such a talented, smart person to put that all together and really helps you.

If you’re somebody who’s a visual learner, somebody who learns and remembers by reading and seeing pictures – Huang Kailin is blessed with this gift. She’s a graphic recorder, founder of Picture People Plan. And she draws simple explainers when speeches are happening over and over again.

Hi, Kailin. How are you?

Kailin: Hello Yasmin.

Yasmin: Did you like that little introduction? I mean, I was so impressed by your work and all we did was get to wave at each other at that event. Remember that?

Kailin: Yes.

What does a graphic recorder do?

Yasmin: All right. Great work there. What does a graphic recorder do and when did you realize that you had the skills to be that person?

Kailin: So to summarize what we do, we draw out ideas quite literally at meetings and conferences, and events like the one you were at. And how we do that is we create large visual summaries that are drawn by hand on the spot.

So given the pandemic situation in recent years, beyond the physical medium, we’ve also started doing that digitally. So what Yasmin saw at the tech event was, we actually were drawing on an iPad, and that was actually projected live while the event was going on.

How much do you need to know about the subject matter to be able to draw out ideas?

Yasmin: It was wow. Do you have to have a very good understanding or briefing of the subject matter before you actually engage yourself in this drawing, because that was about cyber security, not everybody knows everything about it.

Kailin: I would say that you will just need a sufficiently good working knowledge of the subject matter, because most times when people do bother to hold an event to explain what they do, they want to make it as simple (as possible) for the audience as well. So that means that as long as we know enough of the jargon, that should help us understand the meeting well enough to actually visualize it and take down notes of it.

Yasmin: So you’re not just the graphic recorder, you’re a visual translator, aren’t you?

Kailin: In a way, yes.

Yasmin: All right. So you did very well with the cybersecurity topic, but have there been others that you’ve struggled with perhaps? And you thought, I don’t really know how to put this into pictures.

Kailin: There were some, there might have been some events where they started throwing out acronyms which were not in the brief, and I couldn’t study like, in advance. Usually what I will try to do is, I’ll try to understand what’s the key point that speaker is trying to make, and I would put it down as best as I can.

And if it’s done in a digital format, and what I usually do is, after the session, I will check in to make sure that I’ve captured things correctly, you know, spelling that needs to be corrected, acronyms that I need clarification on. Usually that works.

But it also helps in a way that, because of the nature of work, there’s a lot of filtering involved. So sometimes, maybe what is (sic) spoken, that particular technical point, it wasn’t important enough to be included anyway, so that’s all right.

I think one of the quirks (of the work) is that we speak a lot faster than we write, and we write a lot faster than we draw. So there’s actually quite a fair bit of filtering. So I’m not not usually too hung up if I hear something I don’t quite understand, because that might not be something that needs to be captured anyway, when it boils down to the summary or the gist of the matter.

Yasmin: Hey, you know, most people go into conferences and come out feeling overwhelmed anyway. There’s always too much. But the work that you do, makes your life almost like attending a living university, because you’re constantly going to events and you’re learning and you’re learning and you’re learning.

Kailin: Yes indeed.

Yasmin: So you must be very smart, very well informed.

Is graphic recording something new?

But since the MICE events have become much more normal and commonplace now, have you had a lot of work?

Kailin: Well I do see work picking up. And these days, there is also, I would say there are also more clients exploring hybrid options. For instance, we might, like at the event you were at, there was a physical audience, but there were also people joining in online. At some other events, they might have us do it, do the work in a physical medium, but have it streamed online. So there are actually many different permutations now in terms of the medium. And what we try to do is, we do try to customize that according to the needs of the client.

Yasmin: So Kailin, obviously, because of the pandemic, I haven’t been to live events in a long time, and some of the ones that I’ve been to are still very formal. They don’t want to have any sort of graphic representations, do you know what I mean? The diplomatic ones. So yours was a first for me. Who started this trend, you know, of having graphic recorders at events? Is this a new thing?

Kailin: I would say it is relatively niche, although not entirely new. In the States, it started about thirty to forty years ago. And my guess is it might have started as a way for facilitators at meetings, instead of like, scribing notes down on flipcharts, they might have started layering on certain other elements. And eventually it expanded to this form of practice where people would be creating large scale visual summaries of an event or meeting, and participants get to take home like, really, a one-page picture of what transpired.

And in Singapore, some years back there was the Our Singapore Conversation. I think it was also a form that was used, and it was also featured in the media. So we do see sometimes pockets of that being shown in local media, but it is not something that you do come across on a frequent basis, I would say.

Do you have a dream to be at a certain event? Maybe on a world stage?

Yasmin: But I’m sure like you say, you know, the jobs are picking up and your profile is just going to grow. Do you have a dream to be at a certain event, perhaps being a graphic recorder there? Maybe on a world stage or, you know, when a huge dignitary comes to visit or something like that? Do you have such a mission?

Kailin: Actually that does add a lot more pressure. (Laughs.)

Yasmin: (Laughs.) What have I done? What have I just said to you?

Kailin: But I do enjoy events where I get to travel and it’s also quite fun. It’s actually more fun for me, personally, doing more intimate events. Because at intimate events, you get to be a lot more, I would say, spontaneous? And most of the time, at more intimate events, they may not run on such a hard and fixed (sic) agenda, which also means that you get to listen in and just pick up not just what’s explicitly spoken, but also what’s implicit, how are the participants responding to what’s being presented, what actually resonates with them, what’s important, how does this translate into their future work, for instance. Because sometimes at meetings there might be follow up needed, or it might be part of something that’s bigger, so you’re also helping them to kind of visualize it, even like create a picture of the vision that they’re gearing towards. So I actually do enjoy intimate events a lot more.

What’s the educational process or training to get to being a graphic recorder?

Yasmin: Kailin, what’s the educational process to actually get to what you do? I mean, in terms of training, is there a specific module for this or is this something that you picked up on your own?

Kailin: I learned it from a mentor. So, kind of like you, I saw someone doing this at an event, I was like, wow, okay, this is amazing. So I wanted to learn. And back then I was in the organization development line, so we actually got someone in to train us. When you actually boil it down to the basics, actually, most of us already have the skills that are needed, to some extent. For instance, we can write, we can capture basic notes of meeting, we can draw at least stickmen. We don’t actually have to be like a great artist to be able to visualize ideas, so stickmen actually works, sometimes.

So if you can put all that together, and also layer on that, you know, listening skills and the ability to kind of translate ideas on the fly, be able to filter, and also make sense of what’s being said, what’s important, what’s not, themes, what’s a visual metaphor or some pictures I can use to actually draw together the essence of the conversation. That works.

Beyond that, it’s a lot of practice. And I do see that some people perhaps are kind of more born with the skills? I would say I’m blessed, because I used it to do some translation work and –

Advice for those aspiring to become graphic recorders?

Yasmin: Yes, you know, yours is a case of multiple careers which is building on one career to be something else and then again, yeah, that’s incredible.

Okay, any advice for people who want to be graphic recorders? Because it sounds like a great sort of second career, or third, or something to do on the side. Yes, I know that they’ll potentially take away business away from you, but think of all the young women aspiring to do this one day, what would you say to them, Kailin?

Kailin: I would say, believe in yourself, and really try to recover that child-like faith that you had in yourself as an artist. And, just like, you know, enjoy the process, play with it. And when you get to a level that you’re competent in this, then go ahead and start exploring this as possibly like, you know, a career option.

Yasmin: Okay, fantastic advice and great work. You’re one of the best out there. Thank you for talking to us today.

Kailin: Thank you Yasmin.

Yasmin: Huang Kailin is a graphic recorder and founder of Picture People Plan.

(Broadcasted on CNA 938 on 4 July 2022)

Catch CNA 938’s The XX Files with Yasmin Jonkers on Weekdays, 9am to 10am & 8pm to 9pm.