People think better in pictures. That’s a fact that graphic recorders know well. These artists come to company meetings and panels to summarize information being shared through real-time drawing. For New York-based ImageThink, the burgeoning sector has allowed two artists to join the corporate world, one meeting at a time.
The company’s first seeds were planted six years ago when Heather Willems, a fine artist, was working on a gallery show, painting interpretations of overheard conversations. It seemed all too similar to graphic recording, a customer told her when she described it at her day job waiting tables at a restaurant.
After finding out what exactly graphic recording was, she used that chance meeting to work as a graphic recorder at his company, Capgemini. Soon she was exchanging her waitressing shifts for gigs illustrating corporate meetings. She eventually invited Norah Herting, her friend since their college days, to join her. When the economy turned and the freelance work dried up, the two of them decided that it was now or never and the two created one of the first organized graphic recording firms. They each put $500 into a joint bank account and ImageThink was born.
At their start, lack of real competition helped the two gain traction. Graphic recorders existed in Manhattan, but those free agents thought like freelancers. In order to win clients over. Those contractors itemized and charged separate fees for things like creating a digital version of the work while Herting and Willems built a business model with turnkey pricing to streamline the entire graphic recording experience.
Most importantly, they listened to their clients and they adapted. After overhearing a client say that graphic recording art on paper didn't look slick enough to share in critical meetings, they started creating all of their work on foam boards, a move they’ve seen others in the industry replicate.
"We were the only semi-organized firm in New York," Herting says. “We took ourselves seriously in terms of our professionalism and the kinds of clients we wanted to have."
And despite the downturn, there was still a great deal of demand for people who could make even the dullest business meeting fun, all the while capturing the scrappy, creative energy of a start-up. The early days of ImageThink saw slow but steady work, with the biggest challenge getting the word out that their industry existed in the first place.
Work picked up and they were able to hire their first full-time employee at 16 months into after the company’s founding. Today, they've served companies in 13 countries such as and have regular clients in the healthcare, pharmaceutical, IT and telecom industries who Herting says are slowly embracing creative ways of thinking and communicating. The firm counts Google, Time Warner, The New Yorker, Viacom and LEGO among their regular clients. "Over half of our business is repeat business," Willems says.
This year ImageThink was the official graphic recorder for SXSW Interactive covering more than 50-plus panels and sessions, displaying their massive illustrations in the conference hall afterwards for attendees who missed those talks. ImageThink’s own workshop had just 30 slots and a waitlist of 200.
Willems and Herting say their approach is to capture the mood, tonality and excitement in a room. "It helps people connect and it creates ownership around the content and the discussion and helps carry the ideas that they shared in the meeting forward," Willems says.
"When we go in and do something incredibly spontaneous but also something incredible low tech, people really respond to it because it's refreshing," Herting says. "It reminds people of their own visual being and their own visual way of thinking. It excites them to see that intersect with their world and their work."
Herting has found combining her artistic talents with the corporate world particularly fascinating. She sees overlap with companies’ push for iteration, risk-taking and working lean, with what artists do every day in their studios. "I've learned that there's a lot of mutual need for artists and creative thinkers and the business world," she says. "They need each other."
With only six full-time employees and a handful of frequently utilized freelancers, ImageThink is a still a small company. However, the company handled 184 graphic recording sessions in 2013, a 25 percent boost over 2012. They've gone from working out of apartments and coffee shops to having their own office and more than $1 million in revenue last year alone.
Still, while graphic facilitation is on the rise, it still isn't commonly known. Their best marketing is through demonstration. "We are offering a service that lots of people don't even conceive of as a service,” says Herting. “It's most powerful when it's experienced. When you try to describe it to somebody, some people are like 'Wait, what's happening?'"
When it is experienced, it might go by number of names, including livescribing, visual journalism and even infodoodler. Says Willems, “There isn't a strong industry precedent around the language."
Meanwhile, competition is growing. Herting and Willems estimate that there are 15 or so freelance graphic recorders in the New York City area, and that direct competition has sprung up in other cities with firms in Austin and one in Chicago founded by three friends of the firm. The duo welcomes the challenge. “What is important to us is that people entering the field are professional and deliver quality work, because this elevates us all,” Herting says.
As for the future, Willems admits she hopes that the success of ImageThink will eventually give her the flexibility to return to her first love. "Our goal for ImageThink when we started was to finance our art practice," she says. "One of our goals is to return to that creative space."
In the meantime, they'll just continue honing their artistic craft in panels and board rooms across the nation, with one foot in the business world and the other in the artistic world.
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