It is more than sticks and shapes for Dubai graphic recording specialist

When we speak, Angela “Bug” Fawcett is “buzzing”. After four years of living in Dubai, she had met Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, that morning at a Road and Transport Authority event.

Sheikh Mohammed came over to ask her what she was doing, as she stood by the front drawing cartoons at an easel.

Ms Fawcett had just finished three days of “graphic recording” for the RTA. They had flown experts in, taken them on all of Dubai’s transport and asked for opinions on improvements.

“One of the things suggested was improving the first and last mile for pedestrians using public transport – for instance, putting in air-conditioned walkways, with retail shops along the way. I drew a cartoon of people going into a Dubai Metro station, to bring it to life,” says Ms Fawcett.

So what is graphic recording? It is a way of recording, of minuting meetings beyond plain text. It adds large-scale images and colour, graphics and squiggles, live, to what would otherwise be a dull black-and-white representation (normally a PowerPoint) of what is said.

Ms Fawcett’s drawing is “simplistic – two dots for the eyes, an open triangle for the nose”.

“You don’t have to be a good artist, although it’s fortunate I do have the aesthetic. You could just draw shapes and stick figures. Eighty per cent of the job is just listening,” she says.

“Sketch-noting forces you to listen hard and process what you’re hearing. Only once it is processed can you draw. I capture key points. It’s not word for word. Then I do caricatures of the people speaking, with bubbles to their comments. I pay most attention when I’m drawing.”

The 30-year-old South African studied visual communication design at Stellenbosch University. After graduating she travelled for five years, working at US ski resorts and becoming a “chief stewardess” on board super­yachts crossing the Atlantic and Mediterranean.

She came to Dubai in 2012 and almost immediately met Brett Smyth, chief executive of the employee engagement consultancy EngageME, helping him out with the company logo, then with infographics, maps and so on and ending up full-time with the agency. When he saw her scribbling in meetings, he suggested she might want to turn her doodles into art.

So Ms Fawcett flew to the International Forum of Visual Practitioners (IFVP) in New York and took a Graphic Recording 101 one-day workshop. She lined up pro bono work and “momentum gathered as the work started to sell itself”.

Philip Bakelaar, the board secretary of IFVP, says: “Graphic recording has the benefit of accessing the brain’s extensive capacity to process visual information. It allows for all the hard work done at major meetings to have longer-lasting, greater impact.”

We all suffer from information overload, says David McCandless, the author of Information is Beautiful. Eighty per cent of what we take in is by eye, he says, and, as sight has the biggest bandwidth of our senses, visuals change our relationship to what is being communicated,

The UAE journalist Austyn Allison, 37, is also a fan of combining text and images when he is brainstorming article ideas – what is known as mind mapping. “Writing things down, no matter how random, helps to sort out my thoughts,” he says. “I tend to draw them together with lines, the most important in the middle, subtopics around it. By that stage they’re nor­mally ‘talking’ to each other; this helps construct the flow and argu­ment.”

Graphic recording, while relatively new to the UAE, has become well established in Eur­ope and North America in the past 15 years, says Ms Fawcett. It is “low tech”: all she asks clients to provide is a big enough space at the front or to the side of the room for her 2.5-square-metre paper. She brings foam boards, lightweight, fold-up easels and magic markers (“all colours and thicknesses, they don’t bleed, they don’t run through”).

“I work straight on to the paper,” she says. “If I want to come back to a point, I’ll slap a Post-it note there or pencil a circle around it. Occasionally I’ll chat to the speaker afterwards to fill in any gaps.

“Companies spend a fortune on a high-level strategy, aligned at the senior-leader level – but the people who really need to know are often at the front lines, in the factory or warehouse. People are very visual here – Emiratis tend to prefer images to a big, fat document and there are so many nationalities, with varying levels of literacy and education, that it makes sense to convey business in simple visuals.”

It is a tack that has proven popular. Beyond the RTA, other EngageME clients include Boston and Bain Consulting, Dubai Airports, Dubai Holding, Enoc, Tristar, Visa and Nando’s. An hour of Ms Fawcett’s graphic recording costs Dh1,000 – “below US and UK prices”, she says. “It’s a tough gig – you think on your feet, often for a whole day, with no breaks.”

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