Interview with Valerie Liberty of Balsamiq who recently submitted her first talk proposal.

Val: My name is Valerie Liberty and I work for a small bootstrapped startup called Balsamiq Studios.

Sarah: I don’t know if you can call Balsamiq small anymore. It is a bootstrapped startup that has emerged to become a force in the user experience world.

Val: We’re so proud.

Sarah: Tell me about the experience of submitting your first talk proposal.

Val: Oh, it was so much fun. There’s a conference coming up here in San Francisco. It’s called Office Optional. It’s for people who work with or without a hard-walled office. As Balsamiq Studios is a distributed company with only one office in Europe, the rest of our employees are all distributed. I got a heads-up about this conference, and after taking a class at Stanford about neuroplasticity and happiness I was motivated to answer this call for talks. My pitch was meant to be a two to three-minute video that took about 10 hours to prepare.

Sarah: Wow. 10 hours… why so long? or maybe I should ask: why so short?

Val: Yeah, it was long because I had never given a talk before, so really, that was a lot of preparation for what the content would be, and working out the technology of videotaping me, what was I going to wear in the video. I probably made 20 two-minute videos trying to hone my message, but I’m really excited about it.

Sarah: Why give a talk?

Val: Yeah, for a bunch of reasons, one, because I’m really excited about what I’ve learned, and really want to share it with other people in my situation who, I think, are first of all growing in numbers. There are people who are just becoming work from home or work-remote employees. I’ve been doing it for six years, and that’s long enough for me to see some cycles. Second of all, because one of the things that I’m dealing with is loneliness and connections with other people while working remotely and only having an online presence with people. To go to a conference, and actually press the flesh with other remote people will be, I hope, super-beneficial and refill my emotional tanks for a few weeks.

Sarah: Excellent. That’s kind of meta.


Val: Yeah. I’m really excited about this new Skype feature, where you can record a call so do let me know how it turns out.

Interview recorded with Skype ecamm Call Recorder, transcription via

Note Upcoming Course: Positive Psychology and the Keys to Sustainable Practice: Happiness at Work: Using Science-Based Practices to Increase Success and Fulfillment (starts May 13, 2014)

Last week I watched the first ever White House film festival. A couple months ago, students all across the country were invited to make short films about the technology in their classrooms or how they imagined their classrooms could use tech. The results are quite amazing. Of over 2500 submissions, 16 were selected and the kids were invited to the White House to see the whole festival in person. The event was kicked off by seventeen-year-old Shelly Ortiz, of Phoenix, who introduced President Obama. Later Neil deGrasse Tyson and other science and popular media celebs introduced film categories.

I believe that great film making is one of the highest forms of applied critical thinking, problem solving ability, and communication skills. I would love to see this kind of challenge emulated by governors in every state or mayors of major cities. We need to inspire our kids to surpass us in their creativity and use of technology.

Here are my favorites:

Double Time. Two boys across the world collaborate on a school project — 8th graders Joshua Leong and Stephen Sheridan from Longfellow Middle School in Falls Church, VA.

Hello From Malaysia. Fictional story of girl sent to boarding school in the US. 17-year-old Kira Bursky from Asheville, NC.

Tomorrow’s Classroom. Real story from today: amazing vision of what a connected classroom can be. Alexander Emerson from Manchester, MA, 8th grade.

Technology in Education: A Future Classroom. Beautiful sci-fi vision of the future classroom. Daniel Nemroff from Wynnewood, PA, 11th grade.

Alex. How one kid’s access to technology accelerated his ability to learn despite severe dyslexia and dysgraphia. Aaron Buangsuwon from Atladena, CA, 11th grade.

Art Tech Collaboration Elementary “Mr. Wood, Mr Wood, come to the 21st century.” Two schools in Naperville, Illinois came together to create this dramatization of how they might interact in the future.

They are all truly wonderful. Check out all of these inspiring student films.

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 beneficial…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.