Did you know we each have our own, personal visual language? With a little practice, we can learn to extend our own personal style to communicate in an approachable way that conveys meaning at a glance.

At She’s Geeky this year, I attended a session taught by Alexis Finch (@agentfin), well-known for her sketch notes. From my personal perspective, studying visual art alongside computer science in college, there was a time when I could render beautiful imagery in charcoal or oils. I even used to develop cartoon faces of my colleagues. However, being able to communicate visually in a business setting is a different skill, and I never thought it would be worth my time to develop such a skill. In just an hour, Alexis convinced me along with many folks who would never self-identify as artists that this was already within our reach.

She started by asking each of us to remember a time before we learned to write, when the act of writing itself, forming letters, was actually drawing. What was it we drew then? Or later, what was the thing or pattern that we drew in the margins of our notebooks at school. What do we doodle when we’re on the phone?

Research shows that doodling actually helps you remember what you hear.

Research actually supports what I’ve found to be true in my own experience. In a 2009 Applied Cognitive Psychology study, Jackie Andrade studied pure doodling while listening to boring material. “Unlike many dual task situations, doodling while working can be beneļ¬cial…The doodling group performed better on the monitoring task and recalled 29% more
information on a surprise memory test.” I would guess that doodling as a way to reproduce significant points from something you would want to remember would have much higher impact.

We spent a few minutes doodling. I was delighted to see the variety of pattern and shape. I suddenly recalled that moment in elementary school when it seemed that everyone learned to draw puffy letters all at once, and someone’s signature cat reminded me of the bunny that I would faithfully reproduce at Easter. From precise curves to bubble-circle shapes, every individual demonstrated that they already had their own, very personal, visual language.

Next, Alexis taught us to draw a dinosaur in 9 easy steps. Miraculously we were all competently rendering a quick sketch of this funny creature. In this class we learned simple recipe-like techniques for little drawings and how to combine them to convey meaning.

simple arrow outline pointing left with words "magical arrow" on the right
This “magical arrow” pointing to a word or with a word next to it will draw attention to some part of your notes.

Typography, or whatever you call it when you are drawing letters, is a very simple way of creating a sketch. You can pick out individual words that catch your attention and then arrange them in a sketch. This way you don’t actually have to remember a full quote to represent the meaning that was significant to you. You can use cursive, block letters, variation in capitalization and different aspect ratios to convey a feeling.

Typography is a sketch note: the word typography is in all caps, next line has "is a" with lines to the left and right filling the horizontal space, then "sketch note" is in cursive.

Humans have evolved to respond to faces.

"I like starting with eyeballs" three faces show happy/cheer, despair, and another unhappy wide-eyed emotion, additional face is cropped at the margin
We learned simple techniques to produce faces that convey emotion.

I don’t know if my brief notes here convey the power of this technique. I hope some readers will be inspired to experiment. I will there were a visual language dictionary, where we could all follow simple recipes to empower visual communication.

Check out additional sketches from Thinking Visually session notes.

In 1997, I attended the Grace Hopper Conference for the first time. I was already quite accomplished in my career. My first startup had been acquired. I had worked as a software developer on both After Effects and Shockwave. My code was used by hundreds of millions of people. I believed that I had eradicated all impostor syndrome issues.

The Grace Hopper “celebration of women in technology” was then held every three years. There were a few men scattered about the conference, but every speaker was a woman and every talk was a technical talk. I sat there, surrounded by more technical women than I had every seen in my whole life. I listened to talk after talk that stretched my technical abilities. I remember ones about parallel processing, new compiler tech and how one researcher was making chips to sequence genomes. It was amazing. This was a great conference independent of the gender of its speakers and audience. I started to think about the innovative work I was doing and what parts of it might stand out and be interesting to speak about. I caught myself thinking: “I could do that.” And then I snapped to attention: I had never realized that I had been holding myself back.

Later as I searched for role models, I struggled to find well-known women who were pursuing a technical leadership role where they would continue to “do the work” rather than pursuing a management track. Often, I would suddenly realize in a conversation with a male engineer that I served as an “existence proof” of a competent woman engineer.

There’s a lot of research that supports the need for more, visible women (ditto for other unrepresented minorities). The stereotype threat, where simply being reminded that you are part of a negatively stereotyped group can cause your performance to falter, is easily enacted when you see no one like you on stage, and few like you in the audience. Not to mention, the simple discomfort of a professional conversation mistaken for sexual invitation. The book Women Don’t Ask referenced research that showed: if there are less than 30% of a visible minority, and someone from that minority speaks, most people (both from the majority and minority group) will assume that person speaks as a representative of their minority group. XKCD has a delightful illustration of this phenomenon.

When Sarah Mei and I started the RailsBridge workshops, we had a hypothesis that there could be a simple solution to this problem. Statistically there were more women engineers in the SF Bay Area than there were Ruby engineers, which may still be true today. I had been wanting to learn Ruby for a few years before I did. There’s alway new tech that we all want to learn. What if, we simply taught more women Ruby… could we change the balance? Sarah Mei gave a great talk on how that succeeded.

For the first workshop, we struggled to come up with women teachers. Of course, those we found or remembered, had been there all along, but had stopped attending the male-dominated events. There were women in the community — not 50% by far, but a lot more than the 3% we were seeing. Once the workshops created a community where women felt welcome, more women started coming to the meetups. These events are social, as well as professional development opportunities. Research supports that people don’t learn well when they feel uncomfortable. Experienced engineers don’t actually need meetup events or conferences in order to learn new tech. However, I believe the conferences need us. The industry needs us to be visible and outspoken or we will never overcome the very real, though often unintended, sexism and racism that exists in the world today.

Sometimes today when I read news stories or see headlines contrasting images flash in my mind. The stark contrast of rich and poor in the United States today often feels like living in the third world, as I remember it as a kid living in El Salvador and the Philippines. I’ve captured a few of these, in style of the Internet meme, which tell the story in a way that is perhaps more accessible that the numbers used by the economists.

Living in the third world. Image shows a shanty town in Fresno, California and another in Chancheria, Peru

Fresno image via Salon article via No, poverty is not the fault of the poor
Chancheria via Mission Meanderings, blog of Rev. Canon Dr. Ian Montgomery

3000 SHOES: living in the third world.  Image shows closets filled with shoes, Mariah Carey's on the left and Imelda Marcos' on the right

On the other side, looking at the very rich, Imelda Marcos made headlines with her 3000 pairs of shoes left behind when she and her husband fled the Philippines in 1986. Here in the US, celebrity closets tell a similar tale “Mariah Carey has also admitted to owning between 2000 and 3000″ pairs of shoes, and Linday Lohen reportedly has 5000.

For those who might feel that this is emotional hyperbole, there’s data tracking this very real trend. Economists quantify the gap between rich and poor with something called the GINI index, which is getting worse in the US, while getting better in El Salvador. (In the graphs below, a lower number is better.)

Gini index from 1913 to 2004 is U-shaped -- peaking in 1928 and 2004 with low points from 1940s to 1070s
Gap between rich and poor is increasing in the US since the 70s
GINI index shows that the gap between rich and poor in El Salvador is decreasing in past decade.

What I Remember…

I was in 4th and 5th grade when I lived in the Philippines and El Salvador. I saw extreme poverty, where public schools lacked books, where children and sick people begged on the street. In the Philippines, we travelled to rural areas where I saw people who worked in rice fields and live in huts on stilts. Their children were skinny, but not starving. That was the middle class. In Manilla, the Americans and very rich, lived in a walled city around or near the army base. We went there for Halloween, and the poor kids would sneak in and try to get candy from the rich houses. One of the moms told me she only gave candy to kids in costume, since she didn’t want to encourage that kind of behavior. I wondered why I was allowed to get free candy and these other kids couldn’t. Would it be okay if they came back next year in costume, pretending not to be so poor and hungry?

In El Salvador, there was a soccer field near my house, and up the hill beyond an overgrown area, in the shadow of the Sheraton Hotel, there was a place where people lived packed together in little shacks made of metal roofing material with no running water or electricity. We didn’t live behind walls in air-conditioned houses as some of my friends did, but we were members of the Brittish-American club down the street where we could swim in the pool. Sometimes, I would see kids my age with dark hair and wide brown eyes peering over the wall at the pale kids splashing each other with moms sitting in the sunshine with their big sunglasses and iced drinks.

One day my mom came home from the bank. I think she was in shock, because she told me she had just seen someone shot by the police. “Because they were poor,” she told me. Perhaps oversimplifying the situation, perhaps not.

When I came back to the United States, I was acutely aware of how privileged I was, how wealthy my family, relative to many of the people of the world, despite being middle class in America.

And now?

In the intervening years, I’ve seen my country decline for the majority of the population, while the rich become richer. I hope that by illustrating this contrast, or lack of contrast, between these worlds, more people will see what is happening around us. With awareness, I hope we can work together to change it.

In my little corner of the world, I’m volunteering in way that I believe makes a difference. I think government policies could have more of an impact, but that’s not really my area of expertise, so I focus on education, where individual effort can have significant impact. I do this work with Bridge Foundry and its related volunteer initiatives. If you see the same trends that I do, and you have a job or have skills to share, get involved. Make a difference.