November 30, 2022

Eileen Clegg on visual journalism, archetypal languages of shapes, learning visual language, ancient symbols, and shared frameworks (Ep41)

“I think the research will tell us now that the ancient people probably used art and symbols before language. It is something that we all know instinctually because of the world around us. It’s visual. If you situate ideas in something physical, it stays with you.”

– Eileen Clegg

Tim O'Reilly

About Eileen Clegg

Eileen has been a long-time pioneer in visual journalism. She is the founder of Visual Insight, and is now also the CEO of vTapestry, which automates the creation of visual summaries of online meetings. She is the author of seven books including Claiming Your Creative Self and Creating a Learning Culture.

What you will learn

  • What is visual note taking? (02:13)
  • Is visual notetaking for everyone? Is it more inclusive than words or indiviualistic? (06:53)
  • Are special skills needed to be a visual storyteller or note-taker? (09:15)
  • How to start in visual notetaking with common archetypal symbols (13:00)
  • What are some commonly recognized and powerful archetypal symbols? (14:47)
  • Why generative AI is a signal that society has wider acceptance of visual note taking (18:35)
  • What TapestryAI can do for meetings and distilling ideas (25:17)
  • What are some practices that people could try to help them be more effective and balanced? (30:13)

Episode resources


Ross Dawson: Eileen, it’s a delight to have you on the show.

Eileen Clegg: So good to see you, and thank you so much for having me.

Ross: We first crossed paths around 20 years ago. You were the very first time I experienced somebody taking visual notes. On a big whiteboard at the back of the room you were drawing what it is that was being said and everyone was able to go back and have a look and see in just one picture the ideas of the keynote, and since then it’s now become not quite commonplace, but certainly, you see it around quite a bit. But you’re at the vanguard of that. I’d love to hear the story of how you came to be doing that.

Eileen: Thank you for asking. I do remember those times and you as the thought leader about emerging technologies and their meaning for people. I was practicing an emerging technology that is now evolving into a new technology that’s beyond just paper and pastels. But back then, in the very beginning, there was a handful of us doing this on the planet. Now there are tens of thousands; our professional association has many, so it is much more common now. Interesting that it started at Institute for the Future (IFTF). While they were forecasting the world that we see today, what you were talking about then and the thought leaders, it’s all here, your life on a card, they were saying before the iPhone, it was so exciting and we were also excited about technology. But here I was with butcher paper on the wall, four feet tall, with pastels all over my fingers. One of my clients said sometimes it’s like kindergarten around here, there’s pastel dust everywhere.

On the one hand, we have all this excitement about this technology. On the other hand, it’s bringing people together in the room and helping them literally see complex ideas that are hard to grasp with this very old-fashioned way of working and not fancy art. They are very simple shapes that bring ideas together that we all understand. Why does it work so well? We’ll talk about that because I did do a lot of scholarships around that. But in the very beginning, I would realize, if you ask somebody, what would you do with your hands if you’re excited? And they would make a ricky racky (sic), a nervous moving back and forth. After you ask them, how would you show wholeness or health, they will make a circle with their hands. That is that we all speak this archetypal, ancient language of shape. It’s in our bodies, it’s maybe instinctual.

You and I were talking about writing back and forth about our mutual interest in Carl Jung and archetypes. Those are as much instinctual as they are a visual or a thought. Situating complex ideas in ancient language is a pretty exciting way to think about communication. Thank you so much for not only inviting me on your podcast to share this but also for your great questions that had me really thinking about this ancient and emerging way of communicating and how that works together. In the very beginning, back to your question, IFTF, back then we were using visuals to help us understand complexity, share it, and it helped us forecast to see a bunch of disparate ideas, and what were the patterns, and in those patterns, could we begin to see what was next?

That was then. Since then those technologies have happened, and we’re all connected, hyper-connected. Our social lives are really confusing. I can give some examples of that, but you probably have millions who are like, what’s the rule now about that? And we’re drained and we’re tired of cyberspace, the video conferencing, all that, it’s draining our energy, which is why I like your whole notion of overload. I think now, we have a different job than we had when you and I first met with the visuals, and it was novel then. The job now is to help people be, feel more human, creative, and energized, and art is a tool for that.

Ross: That’s a fantastic framing for it. Before we dig into some of that, I’m a big believer of visual frameworks and communication, I’ve practiced that in my way over the years, but is this something that is for everyone, for some people? We have very different styles cognitively. For example, some people are very happy in 3D, and some people are not. How inclusive is the visual storytelling? Is it even more inclusive than words? Or does this resonate more for some people than others?

Eileen: We talk about this a lot and the statistics are pretty fuzzy. We’d like to say 1/3, 1/3, 1/3, so 1/3 of people are highly visual. It does play out anecdotally but the research is hard to come by. 1/3 of people are highly visual to the point where they may really need to put something in a visual frame themselves or see it in their heads visually, but the visual is essential to their cognitive processing. Then there’s another third who might find it interesting, amusing, helpful, okay, that range, and then there’s a third that just don’t use visuals, they’re okay with it but it’s not really key to their way of thinking. Maybe there were some different percentages there but there is that range of people.

However, to your other question about does it affect everybody? I think the research will tell us now that the ancient people probably used art and symbols before language. It is something that we all know instinctually because of the world around us. It’s visual. If you situate ideas in something physical, it stays with you. When you go back to a place, you can remember everything that happened there before. Often we anchor our experiences in visual landscapes. I think that is pretty common, I would say probably more than two-thirds of people benefit from that dual cognition of having an idea situated in a song, or a picture, some other sense besides the rational word.

Ross: This is now as you say relatively common practice, there are plenty of people doing that. As a pioneer in the field, how is somebody trained? How do they develop the capabilities? What are the fundamental skills? Somebody perhaps has a little visual aptitude or in a way of the underlying talent, how do you train? What do you teach somebody? What do they need to learn to be a visual storyteller or note-taker?

Eileen: One of the biggest joys in the last 20 years have been a few trainings that I did, because they were very different than the typical trainings in visual language.

Everybody can learn without exception. First of all, the whole idea that you need a lot of little details, like you have to draw the flower, then that literal translation, it’s not a literal translation, it is figurative, it is a big picture that can contain a concept. As I was saying earlier about how our bodies naturally make these shapes, that’s what I teach people. That’s how I learned. I had no training in doing this. I was a journalist, a print journalist. In my family, I was not the artist my sister was, I was the writer. At IFTF, in the halcyon days, I started doing this just for my own benefit, and it was more fun at meetings. I would just do whatever my body told me to do naturally, I didn’t think: is this an arrow? Is it a circle?

In the beginning, it’s body language, it’s sign language, that leaves a mark. If you can use your body to communicate, which we all do with our hands when we’re allowed to, you can learn how to do this, you learn the flow of that. That’s what I train people to do, not to pay attention to the perfect little drawing. Certainly, the best visual journalists are not the best classical artists necessarily, in fact, usually not because you can’t spend too much time on the detail. It is how the ideas flow and what connects to what. The way that I train people is to have them help somebody else express something difficult. So they get focused on somebody else’s communication needs, and to empathetically listen, and to try to feel what the person is saying, and then how does that look? It doesn’t matter how pretty it is, it matters that they are reflecting something important that somebody else had to say. The training is a lot like that. It’s much more about deep communication, empathy, and just visually connecting ideas.

Ross: It strikes me that one of the great services could be simply sitting down with anybody and saying, tell me what’re you trying to express, let me present it back to you visually, and helping them to understand their ideas better, let alone other people.

Eileen: Absolutely. That’s why I call myself a visual journalist, because in journalism too, that was the highest compliment. For you as well, I’ve listened to your podcast, and you get this compliment as well, like, I didn’t know what I was thinking before I talked to you, but now I understand my own thinking better because of your guidance. So yes, you can definitely do that with the visuals. I do it for my friends and often for young people. It’s a gift to help people with their thinking. I offer you that gift as well. It’s very fun to do.

Ross: Earlier you mentioned this idea of archetypes. This is something where you said that we use our body in particular ways to express ideas. I believe you’ve studied Jung and have looked at that at fairly deep levels. If necessary, let’s go a little deeper to look at the idea of archetypes in this idea of being able to crystallize and communicate your ideas.

Eileen: That’s the evolution, the evolution of this form of communication. What we discussed about connecting ideas and using body language to express ourselves visually, that’s the floor, that’s the beginning, and everybody can do that. As we move up into more sophisticated, thoughtful ways of using visuals to contain information, that’s where the archetypes come in. I do have an interesting story about this too. When I was doing visuals in the beginning, I was strictly using what I mentioned, just the instinctive, intuitive way of using my hands to draw. But what I was drawing were archetypal symbols. I would use spirals in a certain way. I’d use triskelions. These are symbols I really didn’t understand.

I would know what animal to create, and when to put a snake in there. Then I had a colleague, do you remember Bonnie DeMarco? She was Buckminster Fuller’s archivist in the shape of thought. A good colleague, a lot in 3D visualization, very early in that. She saw my work one day and she said: “I want to tell you something, you are using ancient symbols, did you know that?” And I said, no, I didn’t.

That’s when I realized that we probably carry the knowledge of ancient symbols actually in our DNA because I really did not know. Then I began studying why certain images were so very powerful. I wrote a little book, I’ll send it to you. This came to me as I went back for a two-year master’s program in union studies to understand metaphor archetypes and these master symbols. They’re the kind of symbols Jung said, they’re pregnant with meaning. It’s not just the spiral as spiral, it’s something that opens up a kind of ineffable spaciousness, where we read more into it, it actually generates ideas, it doesn’t just capture them. These symbols are very powerful containers for something beyond words. That’s what I studied.

The archetypes are patterns and instincts, when you read a fairy tale, the prince, the king, the grail, those are archetypes. There’s something we all understand deeply, a mountain, a barrier, an iceberg, things that are metaphors that we know because maybe our ancestors ran into icebergs, we know there’s something below there and there’s something showing, these are images that convey a lot to us and show up throughout history and throughout time.

Ross: What you’re saying almost evokes that it is about stories. If something’s static, that’s one point. But the mountain is a challenge, which implies that you’ve got to go and climb it, or go around it, whatever, or the prince is on a quest, this is then about not just what is a piece of meaning, but also in viewing that and pulling that into a story, I presume?

Eileen: Yes. That’s become interesting as we developed, I told you, it’s just going to launch very soon, we developed a technology that can produce a visual of a meeting immediately. Push a button, you have a visual, you have the words, the quotes, I know it sounds impossible, but we’ve done it, if you saw our team, you’d understand how and why we could do this, this particular group. But what we’ve realized is that in order to convey a lot in a very simple picture, we need to use the big symbols in a different way, in this way that conveys a lot of information very, very quickly.

Just for a moment, I lost my train of thought, because I’ll tell you why. I’ve been so heads-down with making these ideas work by working with technologists who actually can make a concept into an algorithm that in talking to you, I’m going back to the philosophy and ideas that led to all of this, but for the last two years, it’s been how to make it work. I just got into that. Let’s go back to your thought that we’re bringing this to people now in an automated way.

Ross: You commented about the generative AI with DALL·E 2, Midjourney, Stable Diffusion, and so on, you said you see a bit of synchronicity in the evolution of those in terms of the state of society.

Eileen: Yes. Again, because of all your great questions, I came to see that connection, it had seemed like a lucky coincidence because we already had generative AI and we already were working with automated visuals. We also could put meaningful phrases in there. I just thought, Oh, very cool, this year, everybody’s into exactly what we’re doing. But because of your questions, as I contemplated that, I thought, why are people so excited about the generative AI? As a friend of mine said, they’re intriguing, but not satisfying, for the most part. They don’t have that artistic excitement that you get when you see a Van Gogh, although some of them are cool.

In the beginning, I was like, Whoa, these are my definition of art. However, the idea that someone can just put in some words, like you said, if somebody is interviewing somebody and makes a picture of their ideas, they can just put in some words, and get a picture of what that might look like. It helps them think differently. It’s fun. That’s another thing. I’m so exhausted in these meetings, and there’s nothing fun about it; and the art, it does so much for us, it’s emotional, we feel our feelings a lot of times we look at it. We turn off the words for a minute, the spinning stops in our brain to look at this, oh, what’s that?

I’ve started thinking about all the ways that art is an antidote to what we’re experiencing today. It’s fun. It’s colorful. It’s not always a direct translation of what has happened but it allows for some innovation and some interpretation. Right now, all the generative AI is up over here and on its own land, but my business partner and thinking partner said, beyond beauty is a utility. We’re taking that beauty and making it useful. Like you’re in a meeting and you’re disconnected but you know at the end, there’s going to be a picture and you’ll look in, are your words in there? How do your words fit with other people’s? And then you can look at the picture and say, why did that quote come out? That’s very weird. But then you can click on it and see where it is in the transcript. Now your transcript is no longer just something, oh, I have to go read that and see what happened, it’s given a different context from the visual. Now you have a whimsical and creative way to look at that meeting.

I know what I was going to mention earlier when I got a little off track. It was that we tend to try to translate things directly, ideas. I’m in that ineffable area that’s really hard to describe but it will be very different for people to have something that is putting words that they use all the time into a different framework. As you said, how do you think about things in your questions? Do you have a framework? This can give people a shared framework. Interestingly, one of the benefits is people start talking in the metaphors they’ve generated. If a bridge happens to come up as a metaphor, then people will talk about, oh, we crossed that bridge, or what’s that shark in the water? Oh, I know what that shark is. Now they talk about the shark and everybody knows what that is.

One thing that we’re doing, and this is something that I wrote about right after the union studies is that words go together in ways that we don’t usually think about, there’s a mental level of communication around action words. You and I are having this conversation, and I’m saying excitement, or I’m saying communication a lot, those words, then we see the kind of conversation we’re having. If we say competition, or winning, or who’s ahead a lot, we know the kind of conversation we’re having. It’s not just about content. It’s about this sense of it, the meaning, the flavor of our interaction, the kind of symbols that pop up. This happened to me too when I worked live and it was lots of fun when it happens because you’ll suddenly have a personal example.

At one meeting, everybody was talking about a value chain, so I’m trying to draw a chain because I just learned how to make a perfect chain, like, oh, good, I have a chain, and I’m going to put all these ideas about the value chain in there, that’s really exciting. But then what they ended up talking about were all the things going wrong in the company. I just put that in the corner, because I’m like, I do not want that to mess up the chain, we’re talking about the value chain. Pretty soon in the corner, there’s this big circle, it is black, in a circle with words in it. Then it’s connected to the chain. Then at the end, this is a client that likes to have the whole gallery from the day, and we would walk through the gallery at the end of the day. It was literally a gallery in New York.

They got to that, everybody says: It’s a ball and chain. We have a ball and chain. This is what’s dragging us down. The metaphor just popped out and it gave everybody an awareness of what their problem was, it was not what they were talking about, it was what they weren’t talking about. That’s what you get is the information in between the spaces can come out in a visual. It’s intriguing.

Ross: That’s a lovely example. So of course, we have lots of ideas and we’re trying to distill that, to make sense of that, so we can know more, understand the world, and make better decisions. And as you say, when you can imagine this long meeting, for example, or a long presentation, and just distilling that into the ideas, that’s when the real value is distilled, it’s a distillation process, but more than that is around evocation. I think that’s a lovely example that you give, the ball and chain, or even the bridge, as you mentioned, where people may not have used the word bridge, but when they see it, that gives them a framework to understand that better. I’d love you to just give me a little snapshot of your new product. That’s out next year, I understand?

Eileen: Yes, early. We’re able to work with it now and we are working, using it with people, it’s not in the marketplace yet. It’ll be in the Zoom marketplace. We have a backend that takes the transcript. We go from audio to the transcript and from that, it generates a picture with layers, and it pulls out the main ideas. The way that happens is this, I’ve told you a little bit about how symbols themselves end up helping us organize information, so the symbols have really helped us build this product. Jung would be very happy to know that. We’ve actually put those symbols to work.

In the end, you push a button and there you have a picture of your meeting, you can choose different backgrounds that would generate a little bit different, you can edit, and you can go back and say these are my five phrases that were chosen as significant phrases. But as a user, you can say I’d really rather have that phrase, it means more to me. Then you can shift that around, you could do a little bit of changing with symbols, of course, not too much, because we want to keep the big flavor of what the metaphor is. That’s the meaning. But there are lots of ways you can play with that, too. We have some fun UX stuff.

Ross: Is it created live, or is it just generated at the end?

Eileen: Right now, it’s generated at the end. We absolutely are going to have it so you can see it being created live. There are so many directions for this, Ross. It’s so exciting. What we have right now is quite useful, just like me being in the room, only not quite there, but with the live visual journalism, not bad, pretty close, so we’ve got that. But you think about the future when you can see it in a square in your meeting being drawn, where you’d have so many ways to use it and play with the tool. With generative AI, we’re able now to create quite an interesting set of visuals. But more and more, there’ll be more self-assembling, more nuance, more reading the emotions in the room more directly. We have ways to read that context so with the subtext, as I was saying, but emotions, there’s so much that’s out there, that’s just endless fun, it’s endless excitement, what’s possible, and it’s very good right now, at the end of the meeting, like what I did if you weren’t watching me do it as we went along.

Ross: What’s the name of the product? And when will it be available?

Eileen: It’s called Tapestry. What we do is generate a tapestry and we like that because it gives a sense of weaving things together, and it feels good. It should be available at the end of 2023. In the meantime, we are working with some enterprises already, some companies, and colleagues already to generate from their transcripts. We have a lot of customer interaction as we get close to launching. We’d love to experiment with you. We can play with it a little bit. We’re seeing how people use it and making our final tweaks. But I would say, I’ll let you know, you’ll be among the first to know, but I think it should be January or February 2023 that it will be in the Zoom marketplace.

Ross: I’m very excited to see that. In the book Thriving on Overload, we talk about the importance of visual communication and this visual framing of our ideas, so this is a way in which you could certainly assist many of us to do that and be more effective at that. To round out, perhaps transcending or not our conversation so far, for anybody, whether they have any visual inclinations or otherwise, what would be some of your practices, you personally, or other recommendations or suggestions for anybody who is striving to do better in a world of overload? What are some suggestions? What are some practices that people could try to help them to be more effective and more balanced?

Eileen: Of course, I’m continually working on that. As I wrote to you, everybody on our team has that awareness, we talk about how we do it, and we do it together. In our meetings, we have meditations, we have our medicine of the week, joy, and emotions, we read even sometimes passages like the one recently, the poet Rumi wrote about the guesthouse, and inviting in even the negative emotions and the difficulties. I think one of our problems, in general, is that we shut down who we are as human beings, the fears, the anxieties, we’re supposed to just have emotional containment and set that aside, but we’re people, we feel those, we bring those into meetings.

One of the ways that I think about it is, there’s a new brain research, that what is most important to cognition is not necessarily all the gray matter, it’s the white matter, the myelin sheets in between the connective tissue, so connecting the ancient brain and the thinking brain, the amygdala, the connections, so anything that can help integrate who we are as human beings with the people we work with, with ourselves. Thinking ahead of time I’m going into this meeting, and what’s on my mind, and really taking the time out, and that’s where the art comes in. People can do that, they can make notes themselves, visualization, of course, if you’re a visual person at all, that can help integrate, even doodling is a way to have an expression for something you’re feeling that you might not have words for, so any way of honoring our humanity.

Our feelings do not always have words to go with them, especially in our culture. Any way of creating space for those aspects of ourselves that aren’t expressed will end up giving us energy back. We’re giving away a lot of energy and thinking about what brings our energy back to us, what integrates us. It’s an inner-outer balance, the internal and external, and keeping the internal. I think art is, and this is something Jung said, it is a translator, between the psyche and the outside world. That is one very powerful tool but the overarching challenge we all have is to keep our internal selves connected and resonant with what’s happening around us. It’s a challenge.

Ross: Yes, that’s actually useful to me, and not least in reminding me and hopefully our listeners as well that taking on information is not purely a cognitive thing, it is an emotional thing. It is about who we are. It’s how we feel in the world. We have to acknowledge those emotions. Journaling is a wonderful thing to do for all sorts of reasons but being able to try to visually capture not just what we are thinking but also what we are feeling is probably really central to our ability to thrive in a world of overload. Thank you so much for your insights and your work, Eileen, from the very beginning. I’m so excited about what you’re creating now. It’s a great pleasure to speak with you today. Thank you.

Eileen: Thank you Ross.

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