Jennifer Cham is a senior user experience designer in the Business Computing Group of the Finance and Administrative Processes Department. When facilitating workshops, attending talks or coaching colleagues she can be found with a pen in hand, sketchnoting - a visual note-taking technique used to demonstrate concepts through a combination of text and cartoon-style illustrations. Jennifer was involved in the IdeaSquare Open Doors event held 15-16 February 2023, where IdeaSquare welcomed the CERN community to showcase what goes on in the space. Jennifer graphically recorded several talks centered around organising events, hackathons, and workshops. We sat down with her to discuss the ins and outs of sketchnoting, and how and why she developed her approach.
Could you start by telling us a bit more about yourself?
I have a scientific background but I would describe myself as a creative and collaborative person. There are many occasions in my career when I have applied creative thinking to solve challenging problems and worked with others to co-create solutions. I started out studying biochemistry and bioinformatics in the UK. I then completed an engineering doctorate in proteomic informatics with GSK (the pharmaceutical company). I investigated and synthesised the needs of diverse scientists, bioinformaticians and computer programmers in order to come up with new algorithms to help researchers quantify proteins using tandem mass spectrometry. I then found an opportunity at EMBL-EBI, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, as a User Experience (UX) Analyst. This was a design role that bridged programmers and scientists and was not dissimilar to the work I had already done for my thesis. Over ten years later I came to CERN, where I have been for two years working as a Product Designer.
How did you first get into sketchnoting?
I started sketchnoting when I was still working at EMBL. I needed a technique to capture important points during meetings and presentations. One of my colleagues was always sketching on a notepad during these meetings, collecting the content of the meeting in a visual form. I watched him and thought: ‘I want to do something like that!’ My first few attempts were dreadful, but I kept trying. I began to realise that you can adapt it for your own needs and have a collection of go-to visual symbols for the specific topics, such as for life science, biological research, DNA, etc. By doing some research and getting feedback from colleagues I learned more about visual thinking, and started to appreciate how useful this medium can be for retaining and disseminating information. For people who are visual thinkers - which is the majority of people - it’s not easy to look at a notebook with lots of writing or bullet points and for ideas to stick.
Soon after this, people started asking to take photos of what I’d drawn because it helped them too. It was at this point that I upped my game and started developing a more professional look. I watched online tutorials to improve my lettering and speed, and I tried out larger formats (aka graphic recording) on walls and whiteboards.
I attended a conference last year and although I was there as a speaker, I thought I would do some sketchnoting while listening to the other talks. People - many of them scientists - would ask me: ‘how did you learn to do that?’ The validation I got was really encouraging. Their feedback reminded me that visuals are powerful tools for knowledge sharing and increase the impact of messages. I was helping people engage with complex content, and with content that could otherwise be dry.
What do you enjoy most about the process?
I like how it is a creative side project, for example I do it in lunchtime seminars or to help out colleagues at CERN events, but also I welcome the fact that it is increasingly recognised as a useful technique in my day-to-day role. For example, in Business Computing we were discussing our core values and our mission as a group. I suggested we use sketched characters as memes for each value - they have now gone viral in the group, on posters and we even have emojis for them when we write instant messages. We also had a workshop at IdeaSquare, the output is now in the corridor for people to see and reminds us of our shared experience.
I also like the process of sketchnoting because it’s a bit like user experience design - it demonstrates the aesthetic-usability effect. The output looks good so people want to engage with it. The aesthetic aspect has a positive influence on people’s level of interaction with the content.
Another plus is the challenge of taking unstructured content and giving the information an information architecture. If you’re designing a user interface for example, using a hierarchy helps the user orient themselves and navigate the content, ultimately making it easier to use. When I was sketchnoting for the IdeaSquare Open Doors event it was for a series of presentations. There were lots of slides but also a lot of anecdotal stories which were quite unstructured. I enjoyed the challenge of taking those anecdotes and making them into something more defined and navigable. The converse is also a challenge: taking something that has a strong structure - perhaps something more technical in nature - and making it more fluid, more engaging. It’s rewarding to make otherwise difficult-to-digest content into something delightful to consume.
Sketchnoting /graphic recording isn’t just for conferences and plenary sessions - you can use it just for yourself for personal note taking, such as in a bullet journal, as a creative pursuit, or even to aid thinking and brainstorming when ideas are slow to come.
In the future, I want to look into potential opportunities to use sketchnoting for visual facilitation, for example in interactive workshops, where individuals can create their own visuals with some help and guidance. Allowing people to have a more visual representation of the topics and ideas that are being explored can make them more memorable and support innovative thinking. It can also be used in other contexts - for example in coaching sessions, or even in conflict resolution situations.
Why not find a wall in your office and start visualising your ideas? You might break down barriers and see the “water cooler effect” as your colleagues gather around your idea-sketching. Even just drawing up keywords or topics and circling them or using a mind-map style triggers new ways of thinking.
How did you find your ‘style’, and do you think it’s something that changes and adapts depending on what you are sketchnoting?
There are sets of tools you can use and graphic recorders you can follow online, these definitely influenced me. For example, you can start by buying or downloading a kit of visual symbols, and then you can adapt and change them as you progress. I would also recommend practising whilst listening to things like TED talks, and do it for meetings and tutorials. When I was still working at EMBL, I piloted a sketchnoting training session with a group of 20 people to teach them more about sketchnoting. Really the learning went both ways because there were some really talented people there. I believe that these creative people also exist here at CERN, and I think that in many roles there is scope to get value from bringing in creativity like sketchnoting. It’s not for everyone of course, some people don’t naturally think in visuals, but very many do and have a natural interest in it. Think: am I a doodler? Does drawing appeal to me? I’ve done sessions with HR at CERN, for example, and with the design team to coach them and show them some tips and tricks in visual thinking.
Sketchnoting at scale (graphic recording) is maybe not for everyone. It is a really physical activity - you’re on your feet, constantly making decisions on what to do next; which pen you will take, planning the layout in real-time. It is also a kind of performance where you are very visible to everyone in the room. It takes practice not to look completely chaotic and to not drop the pens everywhere.
Before any event, I plan a basic lettering hierarchy and if possible have an outline order of how I’m going to do things. For example, for the Open Doors eventl I decided in advance to choose a particular pen for the main title, and then another one for the sub headings and another for the body text. If you don’t do some planning beforehand, your content ends up looking all over the place. Moreover, without a journey or structure to follow people won’t easily be able to process the information in the recording. Something also worth bearing in mind before events is having a few ideas ready - such as key symbols related to the theme, and ideally drawing out the main title before the speaker begins.
We have already briefly discussed your involvement in sketchnoting some of the sessions during the IdeaSquare Open Doors event in February - sessions on the upcoming Science Gateway, hackathons and organising interactive events. Could you talk us through the progress you go through when sketchnoting at an event, and share your experience of being part of the IdeaSquare Open Doors?
The first thing I do is to have a conversation with the organiser, or with the speaker directly to find out a bit more information. For the Open Doors, my first step was to ask what IdeaSquare were trying to achieve by having graphic recordings, and what they will be used for after the event. It is a process where I listen carefully to what the ‘client’ wants and what they expect before designing solutions to meet their needs.
After establishing that the posters would be shown around the space and also on the IdeaSquare website, I made choices about the colours (red is in the IdeaSquare colour palette for ‘events’, this colour also works really well online -because it can appear brighter than in print). I made sure there would not be excessive white space, which can be less effective for images on the web. I also took the shape of the IdeaSqare hexagonal logo as inspiration.
Could you briefly talk us through the three posters and your ideas behind them?
The first two posters were for the talk ‘Hackathons and interactive workshops - perks and perils of behind the scenes’, which saw speakers Andrew Purcell and Neal Hartmann discussing tips and tricks when planning and organising a hackathon, a festival or an interactive workshop. The third was overall ‘lessons learned’ and this distillation could be utilised for people at CERN wanting to find out more about IdeaSquare, to engage with the space, and perhaps even to do some prototyping there.
I played with visual idioms - for example, we’re in Switzerland, so I often like to use mountains, which are featured in one of the posters from the Open Doors event. The mountains inspire me and are great for filling background space! For lessons learned, I approached it as a story about guiding the reader through the steps they should take lit by a lighthouse, borrowing the Ideasquare hexagon shape for the light. For Neal and Andrew, I thought they could be in a boat together riding a huge wave: it can be a bit scary embarking on running an event, perhaps less so if you’re in the same boat!
How do I prepare prior to sketchnoting? I usually arrive early to set up and make sure that my boards are positioned in the right place and that I have all the pens and equipment I need in the right place. I try to be organised and don’t move about excessively, because it can be really distracting for the audience. The team at IdeaSquare were really happy to provide me with everything that I need beforehand, which was great.
What have you learnt through sketchnoting?
Sometimes I am met with resistance. People tell me that some things are not possible to show or explain by just drawing things, which of course is true. Sometimes there is scepticism: cartoons are for kindergarten not the office. For the majority of the time, once I show people examples of sketchnotes created for business-related topics and I explain how these examples had an impact in specific ways, most people are interested and appreciate its potential - and are even willing to have a go. In a world where there is so much information to digest, a hand-crafted pictorial approach can be helpful. For pitching ideas in competitive environments for example - where your ideas need to stand out from the crowd. Personally, I think we could really use something like sketchnoting at CERN, especially when there are interesting events or initiatives happening. I would like to encourage collaboration between departments, for example, by bringing a better awareness of what we are all doing. Even if this is just by having some hand-drawn sketchnotes walking down corridors or in the restaurant areas. They stand out as being different to typical posters or ads. As for all scientific research organisations we should cross-pollinate. Innovation and new ideas tend to appear at the boundaries of things - like when people talk in the queue for the ‘grab and go’ cafe.
IdeaSquare is a really good place to springboard sketchnoting as a valuable technique at CERN. Supporting innovation is the core mission there, so it would be a natural fit - mixing visual creativity and scientific challenges.
What are your future sketchnoting plans?
I want to continue having side projects for pleasure, and I’ll be looking for sketchnoting opportunities within CERN - maybe in my role in BC, in communications, Knowledge Transfer, and at IdeaSquare. I’m excited to see what happens in the future and what projects I can get involved with and who will join me on the journey.
You can find out more about Jennifer’s sketchnoting here, and find out more information about IdeaSquare Open Doors here.