I keep being so impressed with, and inspired by the things my friends are doing. I say “my friends” loosely to encompass the relationships I’ve known over time–in this case, one that started in preschool, flourished in elementary school, and sort of tapered off into a place of cordial hellos and mutual respect when we went to college. I’m talking about Abby VanMuijen, y’all. A fellow velvet overall and printed turtleneck wearer turned badass illustrator/activist/teacher at Cal Berkeley. You can find her Global POV work here. It’s powerful stuff.
Last night, she and I made our way into SF to catch up and ended up splitting a soft pretzel and beer flight while talking Art. Abby went from majoring in English to Urban Planning, and somewhere along the way, realized her brain was built to synthesize information with pictures. Symbols. Shades. Words. A connector, through and through, and a master of simple messaging, Abby has gone on to teach classes in visual note taking–originally offered to alleviate the frustrations students feel when they take notes during lectures, yet don’t retain knowledge.
Her rules for visual note taking:
1. paper can’t be lined
2. your hand can’t stop moving
I thought… well, hell… I’ll give it a go. Once we threw back the last of our hoppy nectars, we strolled down 5th to the San Francisco Chronicle, where author/artist idol Wendy MacNaughton gave a free talk (and copy of her new book, Meanwhile in San Francisco) to a very very very attentive audience. Leave it to the graphic journalist to present a most captivating story of her work.
An installation of Wendy’s pen + water color works dress the Chronicle building walls.
And here starts the visual note taking. I owe it to Abby for showing me this rabbit hole of efficiency–you may not believe how much I remember:
Wendy started out as a Copywriter for an advertising agency called Goodby. She worked in the city, and described it as her dream job (getting paid to write, endless happy hours, perks and playtime and organized creativity!)
But she was not fulfilled, and wondered how she could get out.
Then she talked about how there was a mix up with her book shipment, and we’d all be receiving a free copy (!!)
Someone in the audience asked if she could speak louder, it was hard to hear in the back.
Wendy was recovering from a cold, and coughed intermittently
She described herself as 5th generation San Franciscan–the first of which who could illustrate.
Pages 2 and 3:
In an effort to find her way out of Goodby, she went to art school, and made some really conceptual art. For one piece, she had a staring contest with herself for upwards of two hours. For another, she portrayed herself hitting on herself.
It was all in hopes of finding a way to stop “selling ice cream and being funny about beer.” Stop advertising. So she went to Rwanda, where she was introduced as the “communications expert of America!” to work on a campaign that would help voter turnout. Half of the population wasn’t literate, so Wendy relied on visuals to portray her message. Her first take on a campaign wasn’t quite relevant to her audience. A tree? What does a tree have to do with people? And freedom?
She went on to solicit answers from the people around her. She asked questions on what to do, and what to make.
And came up with an idea that combined the thumb’s-up symbol, and a finger print (which is how people in Rwanda cast their vote)
Simple, relevant idea garnered 90% voter turn out.
Pages 4 and 5:
Wendy realized the importance of asking questions, and she wanted to learn how to ask them more effectively.
So she went to grad school and got her masters in social work. This is where she learned a code of ethics.
She moved out to the East Bay and barted into the city twice a day. She loved how zen Bart was. Calm. A place that wasn’t work, wasn’t home — a transitional space where people just… were.
She realized they were perfect models, and started drawing them. Sometimes, without even looking down at her paper. When she got home, she’d upload her drawings to her blog.
Pages 6 and 7:
Then, during her second stint in advertising, Wendy looked up at a map in the boardroom. While she was there, dealing with trivial shit and cheeky ideas, people all over the world were living.
She made a list of what she’d do if she wasn’t in advertising.
And then she went to the public library at the Civic Center to start a new project about a group of people she finds interesting, The Old.
Pages 8 and 9:
But when she went into the library, she came to find that there were more homeless people than old people. She noticed there was a full-time Social Worker–employed to assist and facilitate homeless outreach within the library.
Though she expected (and wanted a story on old people) Wendy was open to it unravelling this way.
And for 5 minutes, she watched who came in the Library doors, and wrote down every single person. Their looks; their approximate age.
Those 5 minutes turned into a revelation: many of these people walking in were homeless.
Project idea! Go down to 5th and 6th street and draw what and who she sees.
Pages 10 and 11:
Standing there, drawing her subjects, people were curious. They wanted to know what she was doing, why she was doing it — if she’d sketch them.
She wanted to draw 6th street from the comfort of 5th. Entirely different universes, though, she knew she had to make her way over to depict the people and spirit of that street accurately.
She’s a professional eves dropper and often writes down snippets of what she hears when people are walking by her.
Pages 12 and 13:
Invited to go play Ma Jong with the Chinese community in China town, Wendy spoke about the need to be a respectful visitor. She sketched groups playing, but never took it too far or inquired too much. Importance of sensitivity and respecting the gift she was given.
Be OPEN. stop. look. listen. Realize there are more communities than the ones you frequent, and take the spotlight that’s on you and put it on someone else. Learn about them.
She does all her work on 9 x 12″ paper, and writes notes on the spines.
Pages 14 and 15:
Meanwhile in San Francisco took her 3 years to complete.
She is so grateful to her editors–and in hindsight is happy the burrito diagram made it in!
Her street writing is much more akin to that of a doctor. What we see in her book is her “deliberate writing”
Next, she’ll draw out the recipes for a cook book
Pages 16 and 17:
Someone in the audience asked about her use of social media. Here’s a list and a ven diagram describing her answer.
Wendy reminds us that everyone wants to talk and has a story to tell. It’s a matter of listening. And asking the right questions:
Not “how are you?” but
“What’s going on?”
If it isn’t already clear, this form of note taking jogs the memory into a steady sprint. I am grateful to Abby for the introduction/ good juju, and Wendy for the lightning bolt of inspiration. Maybe this copywriter’s an artist after all… to be continued, I guess.