"Starving" no longer describes to two fine artists who turned their ability to absorb complicated information and draw quickly into a thriving Brooklyn-based graphic facilitation business called ImageThink.
Armed with colored markers and giant white boards, co-principals Heather Willems and Nora Herting attend all sorts of meetings, brainstorming sessions and presentations. Their job is to listen carefully and objectively to what’s being said and then capture the highlights via bullet points, notes and sketches. Among their big-name clients are advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather, toymaker LEGO and computer services giant IBM.“Having graphic facilitation added an element of creativity to our keynote sessions,” says Libby Ashcraft, event manager for the IBM Software Group. She said she hired ImageThink to handle graphic facilitation at the IBM Smarter Commerce Global Summit earlier this year in Orlando. “They were great. They acted quickly and professionally and were a lot of fun.”
ImageThink in ActionI met Willems a few months ago when she set up a giant white board on the side of a room where I was moderating a productivity panel during the New York Times Small Business Summit. She sketched throughout the session and afterwards, stood next to the board while dozens of participants snapped photos of her work with their phones and iPads. There was no need for attendees to be distracted by taking notes. They walked out with the key points captured by Willems.
“We do three things,” said Willems. “We’re listening to the conversation, we’re synthesizing it for the key ideas and the highlights, and then we’re visualizing those highlights in words and pictures. So, by the end of the conversation, there’s a visual record or a storyboard, if you will, of all the big ideas.”
Willems and Herting both have advanced degrees in fine arts. Willems has a master’s degree in photography and has taught art and photography. She admits she never set out to be a graphic facilitator.
“I was preparing for a solo art show and I was waitressing to make a little bit of rent,” she recalls. “While I was at work, to entertain myself, I would listen to people’s conversations and jot them down on napkins and then take all those napkins home and make a mural out of them back in the studio.”
One day she was talking with a customer and he asked about her day. “I told him, ‘Oh, I listen to people’s conversations and make pictures of it.'”
He was so intrigued he introduced Willems to his colleagues at a consulting firm and they hired her to work with them.
Her business also leverages her teaching background. “Combining the corporate environment (with art) created a perfect storm for starting our own business using visual learning as a way to help businesses,” Willems says.
Nora Herting, Willems’ friend and colleague, said she got into it because Heather asked her to help out on a facilitation job. “They needed two people,” recalls Herting. “So, we actually did something called 'tandem graphic recording,' which means two people doing it at once. It’s actually a lot more work because there’s a lot of choreography involved.”
Herting said you have to not only pay attention to what the other person is drawing but share the space on the white board.
“When we finished, all the clients said it looked like one person had drawn it,” Herting says. “It was completely in sync and integrated and that’s when I thought, 'Oh wait! We can be doing this together and delivering the same aesthetic and the same quality product to our clients as a team.' That’s when the seed was planted.”
Managing GrowthThe company, based in Herting’s home, employs five full-time artists and a network of freelancers working around the U.S. and abroad. “We can do small jobs or we can accommodate larger events where they need multiple graphic recorders to help facilitate the conversation,” Willems says.
Referrals keep the phones ringing at ImageThink headquarters.
“The biggest challenge we’re facing now is really how to handle growth,” Willems says. Saying no to some jobs is tough, but it has to be done. “You get to a place where you need to kind of stop and reflect and think about how you want to sort of prune and think about the best direction.”
Advice for Artists
Herting encourages anyone with an artistic bent to think about how to leverage your skills into a small business. “Artists are particularly self-directed, creative, independent thinkers who have to really wear a lot of hats and take on a lot of responsibility in their own creative pursuit,” Herting said. “Those skills are highly desirable.”
Working collaboratively is also a valuable skill for an entrepreneur. “I think that there’s a lot of opportunity because the business world and the creative world need each other,” she says.
John McCormack, an art director at LEGO, agrees.
“ImageThink has helped us visualize future marketing campaign initiatives,” he says. “The greatest benefit is being able to go back to the visual board to jog your memory. After sitting in a three-day meeting, lots of information is lost. Not so with ImageThink on board.”
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