Group Dynamics and Jon Bell’s Sketchbook

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Jonathan MaimonFollowSep 23, 2014

I was becoming frustrated. For at least fifteen minutes, only three people out of a group of ten were speaking. I tried to interrupt for the first time at 8:20 pm. However, I couldn’t find even a split second opening to ask Jon Bell, the group’s facilitator, whether I could change the subject from organizational problems at Microsoft to something else. Finally around 8:35 pm, I squeezed in a question to the group’s facilitator. “Hey Jon,” I asked. “Can I change the subject?” He blushed. Did he find my interruption offensive? Possibly. Nonetheless, he said “sure”. I took that as my cue to continue. I followed up with “I’d like to ask you about your sketching practice, and your sketchbook specifically.”

Perhaps I should have introduced my topic differently? I hate it when conversations are monopolized by a few people. When I have something I’d like to say or a question I’d like to ask, it is physically painful for me to keep that idea in my head until I can find a convenient time to ask. It makes me anxious. My heart rate speeds up, I start sweating. I look at my watch to see how long it has been since that idea first entered my head. Is this feeling universal? I’m not sure. When I have something to say, it feels like something is stuck inside of me and I must get it out into the open. It’s like holding a poo for too long: either the feeling subsides and you don’t feel great about it or you lose control and shit your pants.

I wish facilitators would take a moment to say, “I’d like to pause for a second, and see if anyone else has something they’d like to add.” Then, they could slowly look around the room, making eye contact with each person. Perhaps nothing happens the first time. People are generally afraid to be put on the spot. However, I bet the second or third time the facilitator broke the rhythm of the conversation and asked everyone else if they had something to say, someone new would chime in with a unique thought or idea.

I think it would have been interesting to have recorded the conversation and calculated for how long each person spoke. I think the data would show a highly skewed distribution, where 20% of people account for 80% of the conversation. This doesn’t seem very democratic. While in theory every person has the ability to contribute at any time, in practice this is rarely the case. It is extremely difficult to interrupt with a new thought, and it may be construed as offensive to say, “I’d like to change the conversation”. Maybe that’s why Jon blushed.

Jon Bell’s sketchbook

I was curious about sketching practice. I see sketching as a window into someone’s mind and how the how they think. I respect Jon. I wanted to get a sense of how he thinks about the world. The best way to do this would to ask him to talk about his sketching practice. Much to my surprise, Jon stood up to retrieve his sketchbook and show the group a few pages.

It was enlightening. It was interactive. I found it to be far more engaging than idle chatter. I bet that everyone in that room can recall at least one of the images or corresponding stories Jon shared from his sketchbook. I’d be hard-pressed to believe that half or even a quarter of the people could recall a summary of the conversation that preceded Jon’s sketchbook demonstration. People, but especially designers, think in pictures. That’s why I found Jon’s show-and-tell to be so engaging.

Here’s what I liked about Jon’s sketchbook. On many pages, he turned his sketchbook on its side and drew in landscape rather than portrait. Also, he often draws on every other page, although not exclusively. The reason I found this interesting is that earlier that day, I was looking to purchase my own sketchbook. I complained to the floor manager at Blick Art Supplies that the Moleskine notebooks were too narrow. I hadn’t considered that I could turn these Moleskine notebooks on their side to draw. Functional fixedness!

Jon uses a 5”x8.25” 104-pg soft cover Moleskine, without lines. It’s just so happened that Liberty, the bar where we met Jon, uses Moleskine notebooks of the same size as their menus! The waitress took Jon’s sketchbook inadvertently, thinking it was a menu. So when I asked Jon about his sketchbook, he looked around for a bit, and then said “actually…I think the waitress took it.”

When Jon returned, he showed us three images from his book.

First, was an early layout of a schedule for Design Play Seattle, a weekend-long conference he organized. There were three abutting boxes: one for Friday, one for Saturday and one for Sunday. The Friday box had some time blocked off, the Saturday box was open, and the Sunday box had some time blocked off as well.

The second sketch was an idea Jon drew while listening to a talk at Twitter’s Seattle office, given by the guy behind the “I can haz cheeseburger” meme. The idea was that Twitter should do more to facilitate political activism. Specifically, why not build a feature that lets individuals call Congress, directly in the Twitter interface? Jon thought this idea was so brilliant that he decided to sketch what a “call Congress” feature might look like on Twitter’s site.

Jon’s third sketch was a game plan for a talk he was slated to deliver. Jon drew twenty boxes on one page, four rows of five boxes each. Each box represented a unit of time. Next to each box, he jotted a word down, which represented the idea connected to that unit of time. He also annotated some boxes with time codes. For example in the second box, he wrote the time“2:30” to indicate when he should aim to wrap up the second topic: of all things, that topic was sketching! If I recall correctly, it was a quote saying “we jot down not to remember for the future, but to remember the now”.

The idea is to use a sketchbook to imprint a memory today, not to save a paper memory for the future.

Here’s what I found most interesting about Jon’s sketchbook practice. He gives away the sketchbooks when he’s finished writing on all the pages. Jon didn’t think this was such a big deal, but when he tweeted to his followers that he was finished with a sketchbook and he was giving it away, someone tweeted back a mere seven seconds later, saying he would like to have it!

At the end of Jon’s sketchbook show-and-tell, he looked at me and said, “I guess at the end of this conversation, I should probably give you my sketchbook.” I thought this was very generous. However, he followed-up by saying, “there are still some empty pages, so I’ll need to keep it for now”. I’ll have to monitor his Twitter account so I can be the first to respond when he’s finally finished with that sketchbook!

Jon concluded with a comment that drawing in a sketchbook should not be bigger than it needs to. It should be your place to draw things fast, as they come into your mind. You’re not using it to become a better artist. You’re using it to become a better thinker. Thinking as a designer means drawing and communicating your ideas quickly.

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