Redesigning the Visual Thinkers Toronto Show & Tell

Along with Patricia Kambitsch and Alex M. Chong, I co-organize the Visual Thinkers Toronto Show & Tell. It’s a small gathering of graphic recorders, sketchnoters, mindmappers, doodlers, illustrators, artists, students, and so on, and we meet on the last Tuesday evening of every month at OCAD University (100 McCaul Street). We’ve had six meetups so far, and we’ve been thinking about how to make the meetups even better.

The goals for the meetup redesign are:

  • Encourage people to share their work so that others can learn from them and give feedback (if desired)
  • Line up different speakers who can share techniques and approaches
  • Help people improve their visual thinking skills through challenges
  • Here’s the agenda from a past meetup:

    7:00pm Welcome and brief introductions. There’s usually a visual question posted on a nearby wall or bulletin board. For example, one time, participants were asked to map where they were on a “visual thinking” map. Another time, people drew things related to weather.
      Overview of the Visual Thinkers Toronto meetup
    7:10 Presentation and Q&A
    7:30 Open space show&tell: people volunteer topics they would like to discuss, and then the group splits up into smaller groups. People have paper and markers so that they can take notes. People are free to shift from group to group. For example, someone once brought three editions of a cookbook spanning different decades in design. Other people have brought delightfully-illustrated shopping bags, inspiring books, and so on.
    8:10 Open space round 2
    8:45 Report back from open space, final remarks
    9:00 Pub night (often at Sin and Redemption)

    The current approach is good. The open space is great for a multiplicity of topics. Still, there are a few challenges we’d like to address. It can be difficult to find a speaker – sometimes there’s a last-minute scramble. It would be great to get participants to be more actively involved both during and after the meetup, too.

    This is what we’d like to try as the new agenda structure:

    7:00pm Welcome, brief introductions, plus “Share Your Work”. Before the meetup, people can upload things they’d like to share to the Flickr pool or e-mail it to me at [email protected]. I’ll compile the images into a presentation that will loop as people come in and settle down. As before, there’ll be a visual question posted on a nearby wall or bulletin board too.
      Overview of the Visual Thinkers Toronto meetup
    7:10 Technique presentation and Q&A: In addition to accepting volunteers, we might also brainstorm some topics of general interest and then ask people to present on them (or present them ourselves).

    imageGroup doodle: There’ll be a wide roll of paper and markers or pastels so that people can doodle during the presentation. This has actually been part of all the meetups, but it might be good to explicitly encourage people to get down there and draw things. (And it helps people remember!)

    7:40 imageIn focus: Brave souls share something they’ve worked on, optionally for feedback and suggestions.
    8:00 Open space
    8:30 Recap of the open space
    8:40 Harvest: We review the group doodle and the open space, and people talk about what they’re planning to take away from the meetup.
    8:55 imageVisual Thinking Exercise: We set a group exercise that people can do at home. For example, for emotions, it could be “Draw different emotions and share them with the group in the ‘Share Your Work’ section. For example, you can start with joy, sadness, trust, disgust, fear, anger, surprise, anticipation. Play with more!”
    9:00 Pub night

    Meetup communication plan example:

    July 16 (-2 weeks): Meetup announcement, call for speakers and in-focus, and submission instructions for “Share Your Work”

    • July 23 (-1 week): Meetup reminder, announcement of speaker, soft deadline for Share Your Work (unless I can find something that makes this easier to do)
    • July 31 (+1 day): Notes, challenge reminder, and instructions
    • August 6 (+1 week): Follow-up e-mail with notes and the challenge
    • August 13 (+2 weeks, –2 weeks): Follow up e-mail with challenge results so far, meetup announcement, call for speakers and in-focus, submission reminder
    • August 20 (-1 week): Meetup reminder, announcement of speaker
    • August 28 (+ 1 day): Notes, challenge reminder, and instructions

    Here are some theme ideas:

    • Emotions (this is the next one we’re doing)
    • Visual biographies
    • Quick lettering
    • Visual ways to plan your life
    • What makes drawings funny?
    • Working with colour
    • Choosing the right visualization for your data
    • Drawing abstract concepts
    • Beyond the built-in charts
    • Tool talk
    • Fun with words

    It would be interesting to do a survey so that we can learn more about people’s interests, prioritize topics, and see what other ideas we can draw out from people. =) Maybe after a couple of months with the new meetup structure, or if I have the mental bandwidth to do a survey?

    I’ll keep you posted on how this meetup redesign works out!

    (Curious about Visual Thinkers Toronto and want to join us at one of these meetups? Sign up at!)

    • Cassandra Pollack

      Great work, Sacha! I like how this is evolving.

    • Jennifer Shepherd

      I’ve been hosting a Graphic Jam in my kitchen in Ottawa for the last two years. I’m happy to share the format that we’ve experimented with in our time together. Keeping things simple and focused on what we want in the moment keeps the design and administration burden light.

      Our group size has ranged from 2-10 people on any given gathering, but often it settles in at a size of 4-6 people. What we find works well is to create the agenda at the beginning of the session, based on what people are motivated to explore together. Examples of what we’ve done:
      – Live practice: recorded a TED talk then compared our work, offering likes, wishes, and questions for each other
      – Shared and talked about resources that we like: books, websites, videos
      – Specific skill practice: work with perspective, writing with different fonts, etc.

      – Graphic jamming: throw some ideas into a hat, pull them out one at a time, and draw as many visual ideas that come to mind as possible in a short period of time (which often ends when one of us has had enough after a couple of minutes). Then we compare what we’ve created, ooh and aah over each other’s ideas, and move on to the next one
      – Project-specific input: Sometimes we come with a project we’re working on and need some help with. We might have a gig coming up and want to think about potential images to draw on a challenging topic. Other times, we share what we’ve tried practically to address a particular creative need (such as how to create an animated video with no budget).
      – Agree on optional homework to work on during the next month on our own time. We always start the gathering with a review of what people created and celebrate each other’s efforts and exploration.

      What sets us up for success is clarity of why we’re gathering in the first place, and what values underscore how we are when we’re together. We create a shared intention to leave “judgment” at the door; the monkeys of self-criticism are often with us, and we park them at the doorway for 2.5 hours to allow ourselves the space to play and explore together.

      We also have a closing session at the end of the year to look back on our gatherings and acknowledge our learning gems.

      The format works for us!
      I’d love the opportunity to connect with the group in Toronto and explore how we can collaborate and learn together.

      Jennifer Shepherd,
      Ottawa, Canada

      • That’s a brilliant format, and I’d love to get something like that going (especially if we can find out how we can do it virtually! =D). Thank you so much for describing it in detail. Anyone in Toronto want to try something like this? I’ll float the idea by the other co-organizers, too.

        • patricia kambitsch

          Yes, I love what Jennifer has done. I think it’s great for a group that is specifically for visual harvesters: (sketchnoters and graphic recorders/scribes/facilitators). I would be happy to meet with a group that does that, even if virtual.

      • patricia kambitsch

        Thank you for sharing this with us, Jennifer! I love the simplicity and the focus. Also the sharing of challenges and projects takes advantage of the opportunity of a gathering of individuals. Keep us posted on your progress!