UX Mastery Podcast #6: Visual Facilitation with Marcel Van Hove

UX Mastery Podcast #6: Visual Facilitation with Marcel Van Hove


We chat with Marcel Van Hove, a Bikablo-certified visual facilitator, about graphic recording, visual thinking, and how honing your drawing skills can give you a competitive advantage.

We recently had the good fortune of meeting Marcel Van Hove, a visual facilitator and trainer. Naturally we got talking about drawing, sketchnoting, graphic recording and the rise of visual thinking in the workplace.

Marcel kindly agreed to continue this conversation with us on our podcast, and this episode is the result of that chat.

You can listen to this episode directly in your browser—just click the “play” button:

Here are some of the links mentioned in this episode:

Note: If you’re interested in Marcel’s workshops, he has kindly offered UX Mastery readers an exclusive 10% off the workshop fees. Use the discount code uxmastery to receive your discount on checkout.


Matt: So welcome to another UX Mastery podcast. I’m here with Marcel van Hove who is a visual facilitator. So Marcel, welcome

Marcel: Thanks very much Matt

Matt: Pleasure. Let’s start by hearing a little bit about yourself, what you’ve done and your background please.

Marcel: Umm yes, I’m definitely an I.T. geek. I have a background in I.T. for almost 20 years now. I started my first company in the first I.T. bubble, probably ‘97 or something like that; it’s not 20 years yet. Since then I developed software and through the world of software I came to working with people and through that I came to visual facilitation.

Matt: So, let’s start by hearing in your words what visual facilitation means.

Marcel: Ok. Visual facilitation is, for me, a way to facilitate meetings using visuals to keep the conversation running and to help people to collaborate better. So for me, the facilitation part is a very big one and the visual is a tool we use to help people to work together.

Matt: Right, and we met at the Melbourne visual facilitators meet up which you organised. And there have been some great numbers so there seems to be quite a lot of interest in the power of visuals to collaborate lately.

Marcel: Yeah, it definitely picks up more and more. I started this Meet-Up when I moved to Australia 3 years ago almost. Since then I run it monthly we were 2 or 3 people and now we are often up to 10 people. So yes, it’s picked up and I’m very happy that in Australia graphic facilitation, visual facilitation is picking up.

Matt: Now, you moved to Australia from Germany, which is your country of origin and on your website you talk about this German company called Bikablo. Can you tell us a little more about who they are and what they do?

Marcel: Yes sure. Many people wonder what the word Bikablo means, and it means the first two letters of the German word “builder carbon block” which roughly translates as “picture block”. And this relates to the first product, which was a visual dictionary where you had very iconic, symbolic drawings to express your ideas in pictures. So it was the first book from Bikablo, which came out more than 10 years ago now, and it started to become a drawing school. Today, as of last month, we have the Worldwide Bikablo Academy which is a training school.

Matt: Right, so our regular listeners and anyone who has been to a UX Mastery workshop will be very familiar with this idea of visual vocab, but Bikablo have taken that visual vocab and really formalised it haven’t they?

Marcel: Yes, there are a group of 25 trainers at the moment and we meet once a year at least. They meet in Europe often, like they run many trainings per month. At the moment I run one training per month in Australia. And we redefine the symbols over and over again, we prune out all the details that makes it complicated for people to draw them and we make it simpler and simpler and simpler—to make it even quicker on the whiteboard and on paper.

Matt: So, I’ve looked through some of these Bikablo visual vocab visual dictionaries and you’re right, they are very simple, very easy-to-draw objects. What’s the philosophy behind Bikablo and why is this such a useful tool?

Marcel: For us at the Bikablo Academy, it’s really this simple shape and to open – everyone can learn this technique, you don’t have to be an artist or you don’t have to be a crazy person to pick this up. As I said, for myself, I’m an I.T. guy who then figured out that drawing together is quite handy and quite useful. I learned this technique myself and I had this strong assumption that I had, that I couldn’t draw and I think many people have that problem in their head. They think “I can’t draw” and we get people drawing and reactivate actually the drawing skills of the people.

Matt: ‘Cause I know there are going to be people listening now who say “Ah, Matt says they’re really easy to draw but he can draw, so it’s easy for him to say that!” But they really are like basic squiggles on the page aren’t they?

Marcel: Absolutely. We run a fundamentals class and on the first day we start with relaxing your arm, using your whole body to basically manage to interact with the flip chart and then add a pen to it and then create a straight line, then we start drawing. So we really really start very basic. That’s the philosophy to enable it and of course it doesn’t stop there, it’s just the start. Many people start with Bikablo technique and then soon develop their own symbols to actually have on the second day of the training – the practitioner level – an exercise we have that’s called symbol safari where we combine symbols to create more complex symbols to make sense in your more abstract or more complex world; like user experience design or like when I do portfolio management in a company then I need more complex symbols – it’s not only the light bulb but it’s maybe the lightbulb with something combined with it.

Matt: You know, I don’t know if anyone has studied Chinese or Japanese but I lived in Japan for 3 years and the philosophy of learning the japanese Kanji characters is very similar. Like there’s a bunch of repeatable symbols and you combine them to make other symbols and you make stories in your head about how to remember. But the stories you’re making for these symbols for drawing aren’t going to be as elaborate because they make sense to you from the get-go. You don’t have to invent some story.

Marcel: Yes. There’s actually a website which is Chineasy and they explain the symbols in drawing – it’s a guy from Melbourne who did this, I heard about it, and they explain how the symbols in Chinese work.

Matt: There you go interesting. So, some people might be thinking “Well, this is all very interesting but how does it relate to user experience?” What role can a visual facilitator play in the UX world?

Marcel: Well, I don’t have a strong background in User Experience, but in my world, when I work, I have to bring people together. So we need to agree on the best practice or the best trade or best design for some way to come up with ideas and for me drawing together on the whiteboard is the way to go. It’s a bit like a hammer and you see all problems become a nail but it’s quite often the answer for many problems in knowledge work. So in user experience design – let’s, for example, say you want to have a customer journey through a whole software experience then I am using the second day of the training the visual story telling approach where we go through the story block and we apply the Bikablo emotion figures which are expressing the emotions. And we basically teach them how to tell a story on this emotional level with these emotional figures and that can be applied to your customer journey for example.

Matt: Absolutely.

Marcel: So I would say, if you’re a good… I don’t want to offend anyone with this… I’ll basically say User Experience Design is not only screen design, right?

Matt: Absolutely. I don’t think you’ll offend any of our audience. No, I agree.

Marcel: The thing is there, the more, to see the big picture, yeah? And how the screens maybe interact and what is strong in the storyline from let’s say this app or so. We can use the symbols like the emotional figures or the icons to express that.

Matt: And so, UX aside what other places are these visual facilitation skills useful? And what kind of roles or careers are there available for someone who chooses to pursue this visual facilitation stuff?

Marcel: Everywhere. I once used it with games at my child’s birthday and we drew together—like Pictionary or something. But for me drawing is really like learning a language and the question is then where is, let’s say, Spanish useful, if you learn it, or Chinese? The same question applies here—it’s everywhere where you have to find a way to communicate. So drawing, and this easy simple drawing technique, it’s just a lifelong skill that I’m absolutely sure it’s not a question whether you have to learn it; it’s just when, if you work in creative work.

And many people start drawing on the whiteboard and overcome this fear without Bikablo and it’s now, to come over this hump, towards this first mountain. But I think I missed your question. The question was where is it used as well. So I have also an agile coaching background, which means I work with teams as Team Coach and help them to organise their processes and in this complete coaching world it’s very applicable. Like visual coaching picks up; we have a great lady in Melbourne, Cristiana Anderson, who likes visual coaching and has a life coaching background. That’s something that I think is very valuable. And we’ve done this with people where we drew basically a landscape map of their career path and see where they want to go. So visual coaching is one.

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For me then the whole idea of presenting your idea, leading a meeting and presenting the idea. There is this quote by Dan Roam: “The person you can present his idea on the whiteboard gets the funding”. So in the whole entrepreneurship world, if you can express your idea in a picture you’re very strong. So visual presentation is actually the goal of the first of the fundamentals training.

Matt: We’re also seeing roles for graphic recorders and workshop facilitators appearing more and more aren’t we? What is a graphic recorder?

Marcel: A graphic recorder is a bit like a fly on the wall; he is not interacting with the group, he’s just listening to the people, capturing it on the big screen, whiteboard or paper or digital even then re-projecting to the group with a data projector. And quite often at conferences I think in Germany, when I look at how much is going on there almost every conference now is facilitated with graphic recorders and visual facilitators to do that. The way you do that is just you capture, you bring it to the screen, people can watch what you do and through that they gain a new insight of that.

Matt: So just to be sure, it’s real time. As the conversation is happening.

Marcel: It’s real-time, as the conversations happen you capture this with your pen on the big screen and the people see what you do and even interact with that. When it comes to the interaction I would say that’s visual facilitation.

Matt: So graphic recording is just capturing … and then graphic or visual facilitation is more interactive, how does that work?

Marcel: Well I see myself as a visual facilitator because when I graphic record I want to go back from the wall and ask the people for more info and I want to interact with the people in a facilitator’s role. I think if you just focus on your drawing and create a nice piece of capturing the big picture than it’s more graphic recording. As soon as you interact with the people and use your facilitation or coaching skills then you step into visual facilitation. So for me graphic recording is the half picture of the whole graphic facilitation or visual facilitation.

Matt: So when you’re working as a visual facilitator, is there another facilitator there as well or are you doing both?

Marcel: Quite often it is split; one person is the facilitator for the group and the other person is the graphic recorder. If you combine it in one role, you become the visual facilitator. Many people see that differently, but that’s how I see it. And that setup works well: one person can focus on their drawing and create a very nifty nice drawing and the other person to access the group. So if you have one person for that pair I would say they are a visual facilitator.

Matt: And when you are working in that role as a graphic recorder or graphic facilitator I imagine there’s a kind of balance between making something that looks beautiful, and then being comprehensive and capturing everything. So where do you land on that spectrum, and how do you make decisions about balancing aesthetics with completeness?

Marcel: Yeah, absolutely. So this is the beauty of it, as there’s almost no competition because every visual facilitator or graphic recorder has their own style, and the client can choose which style they like. For me, where I land is the stick figure drawings—I want to get the message right. I want to have different layers in my drawing where I see this is, let’s say the question in one layer, the answer in another layer and then the reaction is in the third layer in the picture. So I want to have this structure; I have this I.T. background and for me this systematic approach which is like a drawing on an atlas where you have many many description layers in your world map. It’s what I aim for. So quite often when I start, I create my legend first, to have the backbone of what I will do, and then I add these layers as I go.

Matt: So it’s a very systematic approach. So does that mean, do you often have some kind of layout in mind from the beginning or does it just evolve organically?

Marcel: Quite often I know the outcome of the workshop or the background or let’s say in a conference it would have a theme and there I often have a layout which I can recommend if you are new to graphic recording. So stick figures is the way I like to go – and maybe the other reason I don’t have any illustrative background, so I can’t do that and I don’t want to do it. Because it’s the intention of the people and the content to get right.

Matt: But you still, I mean I’ve seen your work and it’s still lovely to look at and it’s full of colour and hierarchy and … it’s still visually interesting, right?

Marcel: Thanks for that, but that’s just the beauty of the Bikablo technique because what happens there is you get this cartoonish outline right? From there you just add shades, which is learned as well, and from there you add pastels or other techniques to make it have a consistent, nice look. So it’s a very systematic approach in the drawing itself and through that I think our eyes can relax and find their way through the picture. So if you have a – we teach templates as well – if you have a template there it makes it logical; let’s say there’s a road with a sun at the end of the mountain. So there is this classical way of reading it from…

Matt: So that’s bringing in metaphor isn’t it?

Marcel: Yes. So it looks like wow he can draw! But I can’t. But the thing is I’m not an artist but people assume that this would be the case.

Matt: So what are the key skills and personality traits that you think make a good visual facilitator?

Marcel: Yeah I would differentiate here between a graphic recorder and a visual facilitator. For a visual facilitator – this is classic people people like you really like people you like to interact with them you like to bring them to this collaborative mode. For me this is quite strong if you have a coaching background – or as well a domain specific background in the way you work. Let’s say you do this in Finance and you have a Finance background – if you start drawing there you will be much stronger than the average other graphic recorder or graphic facilitator on the market because you understand the people more. You are more in their mindset, so that’s something very specific. It’s like the long tail of the graph.

The graphic recorder, on the other hand, is more likely bring it to the paper, drawing a nice picture. So there is space for all kinds of people. And this is the beauty of it. When you meet at the international conference which is at the moment is on next week in Austin, Texas. When you go to this international conference the IFVP you see so many different kinds of people. They all have one thing in common: they draw. That’s really cool. That’s it.

Matt: Fantastic. Now, you mentioned you have some workshops coming up in Australia. Can you let us know some details about what’s on the horizon?

Marcel: Yes, so what’s on the horizon, just check the website around monthly trainings in Australia marcelvonhove.com. In terms of what’s coming next, next week I’ll be in Sydney for 2 days. For the first day is the Fundamentals level the second day is the Practitioner level. It’s July 13th & 14th together with Brainmates, they nicely gave me the room there it’s very good. Then in Melbourne on the 8th & 9th of September, this is locked in and I think I will soon put out the next dates for the rest of the year. So just stay tuned, check the website, check Eventbrite, it’s all on there.

Matt: Fantastic, so if anyone is interested in learning the Bikablo technique for visual facilitation that’s where they should go. And you’ve got your monthly visual facilitator’s meet-up in Melbourne.

Marcel: Yes absolutely. So, we have a monthly meet-up at The Cooper’s Inn it’s super nice to hang out there they are very friendly people and you just come around and ask questions and we draw together. We put actually a big paper like a napkin on the table and draw together on the back of the napkin.

Matt: And what day of the month is that again?

Marcel: It’s last Tuesday of the month.

Matt: We’ll put links to the workshops in the show notes.

Well Marcel thank you so much for your time we really appreciate you explaining to us about visual facilitation. If people want to keep track of what you’re up to where can they go, are you on Twitter?

Marcel: Yes I’m on Twitter. I’m on Twitter with @marcelvanhove. Just check my website marcelvanhove.com or add me on Facebook. But I’m more active on LinkedIn than I am on Facebook.

Matt: LinkedIn. Ok very good. Thank you very much Marcel.

Marcel: Thank you very much Matt.

Written by
Matthew Magain
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