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Mullen and Thompson 2013: Graphic Recording: Using Vivid Visuals to Communicate Climate Change
Electronic Journal of Communication

Volume 23 Number 3, 2013

Graphic Recording: Using Vivid Visuals to Communicate Climate Change

Karina C. Mullen
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, Colorado, USA

Jessica Leigh Thompson
Northern Michigan University
Marquette, Michigan, USA

Abstract: Climate change is a complex and systemic challenge that humans are facing, and effective communication about climate changes needs to resonate with a variety audiences and diverse learning styles. Graphic recording is a method used to depict scientific presentations and conversations about climate change using words and pictures in real time artistic interpretation. This study evaluates the potential of graphic recording to increase the effectiveness (understanding and engagement) of climate change discussions. Using a mixed methodology, findings indicate that graphic recording helps participants better understand complex scientific information about climate change. Interview and survey results indicate that participants believe graphic recording during scientific presentations assisted them in remembering presentation content and linking current climate science to previous knowledge; it helped them stay engaged throughout the science prese ntations; graphics were appealing to diverse learning styles; graphic recording helped participants see how ideas were connected; and that graphic recording increased participants’ self-efficacy toward creating solutions.  Based on the findings of this and other research, graphic recording is a useful communication tool for effectively engaging diverse audiences in understanding the complex and systemic challenges related to global climate change in workshop settings.

Climate change is potentially one of the greatest problems that humans will ever face. The consensus of the scientific community is overwhelming: climate change is happening and humans are increasing greenhouse gas emissions which is exacerbating the problem (Anderegg, Prall, Harold, & Schneider, 2010; IPCC, 2007; Sheppard, 2005). However a large portion of people in the United States are still unsure of the causes, certainty and effects of climate change (Leiserowitz, Smith, & Marlon, 2010; Maibach, Roser-Renouf, & Leiserowitz, 2009; Moser, 2010; Sheppard, 2005). Scientists report being frustrated that they are unable to effectively communicate with the American public and increasingly climatic change literature is replete with discussions of the chal lenges of communicating the complexity of climate change (Moser, 2010).

The difficulty of understanding complex climate science, the daunting nature of a global environmental problem, as well as resistance to adopting “climate friendly” behaviors creates multiple layers of communication challenges. Despite these difficulties, there are numerous efforts to inform the populous about human impacts on the planet and how to mitigate climate change for society’s safety and for the sake of future generations. The Place-Based Climate Change Education Partnership (CCEP) is one of 14 grants funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) focused on improving communication and education about climate change at America's national parks and national wildlife refuges. The objectives of the Place-Based CCEP’s project included:

  1. To learn what ecosystem and management changes America’s national parks and wildlife refuges have observed related to climate change
  2. To inventory current climate change communication, education and outreach efforts
  3. To identify perceived barriers and opportunities to engage park and wildlife refuge visitors in climate change communication
  4. Develop a long-term climate change education strategy for parks and wildlife refuges

Using insights from existing climate change communication literature and the results of the project’s research objectives, the team developed an education strategy to facilitate a diverse audience’s connection with the impacts of climate change on treasured landscapes. Specifically, the strategy is aimed at actively engaging a range of visitors across region, age, gender, education and race in understanding how climate change is changing America’s national parks and wildlife refuges.

The CCEP team conducted research in five pilot sites in the United States: Northern Colorado, South Florida, Washington, D.C., Southern Alaska and the Puget Sound region. These sites were identified by agency partners in the National Park Service (NPS) and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) as “priority regions” in regards to climate change impacts. In addition to on-site focus groups, surveys and interviews, the CCEP team hosted a one-day World Café-style workshop for agency managers, staff, partners and local decision-makers in each region. The workshops focused on addressing relevant questions through multiple and simultaneous small group conversations with key stakeholders. The full process used during workshops is described in the Methods section.

The purpose of this manuscript is to evaluate the potential of graphic recording as a visual communication technique in translating information about complex processes, such as climate change science, in small workshop settings. Graphic recording is a meeting facilitation tool in which a participant acts as a “graphic recorder,” drawing a map or mural of presentations and group discussions. The graphic recorder uses images and text to depict key ideas and information, in real time, during the workshop. The Place-Based CCEP team initially used graphic recording during the climate science presentations at the workshops, and quickly realized the impact the maps and murals had on the audience and expanded the use of graphic recording throughout the day’s workshop event.

To date, the body of empirical literature on graphic recording is small and largely based on qualitative observations. This mixed methods study investigates and ultimately confirms previous anecdotal evidence about the benefits of graphic recording.  The case we present provides additional quantitative and qualitative data to address the following research questions:

RQ 1: Does graphic recording, as a visual communication tool at facilitated meetings, enhance the understanding of complex climate science among members of a non-expert audience?

RQ 2: If effective at conveying complex climate science, in what ways is graphic recording most helpful for members of a non-expert audience?

This study begins with an overview of challenges to effectively communicating climate change and suggested strategies to alleviate such barriers. The following section also introduces some of the theoretical influences that inform the practice of graphic recording. Then we describe the methods and results of this study as well as implications of using graphic recording to communicate science. Finally, we identify gaps in the literature and how this research, as well as further research, is necessary to better understand the potential of graphic recording as a visual communication tool.

Literature Review

In the past five years the literature on climate change communication has expanded exponentially, and different communication methods have been tested and studied. Much of this research has focused on people’s knowledge and perceptions of climate change, their willingness to support sustainable behaviors and how to effectively communicate actions for mitigating humanity’s impact on the planet.

Graphic Recording

Graphic recording is a form of visual communication which can be used in meetings or during presentations. While people are presenting to the group or when a conversation or brainstorming session is taking place, a graphic recorder or graphic facilitator uses hand-drawn words and text, colors and pictures to summarize and organize the group’s thoughts and ideas (Agerbeck, 2012; Kelly, 2005; Roam, 2009; Sibbet, 2008). Deeper solutions and thinking about the larger system enhance the memory of the workshop or meeting attendees (Brown, Isaacs, Community, Senge, & Wheatley, 2005; Kelly, 2005; Marguiles & Sibbet, 2007a; Sibbet, 2008). Using markers and chalks on large pieces of paper taped to the walls – typically eight feet by four feet &nd ash; a graphic recorder captures the group’s ideas visually, in real time as conversations are developing.  Figure 1 is an example of a graphic recording from the Place-Based CCEP workshop in Washington, D.C conducted in May, 2011. Graphic recording is particularly suited for the World Café process, which focuses on small group conversations around a series of specific and directed questions (Brown et al., 2005). Each graphic recording is different based on the recorder, the situation and the goals of the process. For example, some graphic recordings simply capture the key ideas of a presentation (see Figure 1).  Other graphic recordings serve as a map to where the group wants to go – how to take many parts of a system they are working within and move forward to overcome a challenge or achieve a goal. These graphics can then be used as a summary to share the essence of th e talk with people not present during its creation or serve as a visual reminder of action steps generated from meetings.


Figure 1. Graphic of summary of the science showing how climate change is affecting the Washington, D.C. region by Karina Mullen.

Each of these types of graphics is created with a particular purpose or desired outcome. These include focusing the group, showing the flow of the group’s thoughts, comparing or combining ideas, growing understanding of systems, animating meaning and seeing unity. These formats are not mutually exclusive and can be used within each other to better visualize ideas. For example, using a mural-style graphic in a planning meeting can be very helpful, particularly if lists or diagrams are incorporated into the drawing.

Graphic recording has been applied in a multitude of situations from board meetings for businesses and non-profit organizations to large audience presentations such as TED Talks ( It has potential to be applied in many educational and planning sessions and can be utilized in climate change engagement by presenting information in a way that helps people understand a larger picture, clarifies complex ideas and invites group participation (Brown et al., 2005; Marguiles & Sibbet, 2007a; Sibbet, 2008). According to Moser (2010) future directions of climate change communication include “new technologies and modes” such as art and communication focused on dialogic processes. Graphic recording presents a mode in which these aspects can be utilized for deeper understanding and engagem ent in climate change.

Climate Change Communication

Global climate change can be an overwhelming, sometimes confusing or intimidating, topic for people to think about, and it is often difficult to discuss climate change at the scale that is necessary for global social change (Moser, 2010). One of the largest barriers to effectively communicating about climate change is that the changes we will see are not easily predicted. Uncertainty leads to doubt and mistrust among people who do not understand what is happening to the planet or why (Budescu, Broomell, & Por, 2009; Fischhoff, 2011). It is difficult to attribute isolated events to climate change because it is so interconnected with other changes such as seasonal events and natural cycles in our larger, planetary system (IPCC, 2007; Moser, 2010; National Park Service, 2010). Marguiles and Sibbet (2007) reported th at visual mapping of ideas being discussed can help people better understand the complexity of societal change and visualize ideas for the future.

The challenge of effectively communicating about climate change is deepened by traditionally-trained scientists’ lack of public communication savvy and skills; scientists are not known to be adept at explaining their work to a lay audience (Leiserowitz, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, & Hmielowski, 2012; Miller & Fahy, 2009; Mooney, 2010; Rudel, 2011). Mooney (2010) illustrated this sentiment: “Perhaps what is needed instead is a public that is more familiar, comfortable with, and trusting of scientists; that is more regularly engaged by the scientific community on potentially controversial subjects; and moreover, that is engaged ” (Mooney, 2010, p. 3).  Leiserowitz et al. (2012) found that despite communication challenges, a lar ge majority of Americans continue to trust climate scientists (74%) as well as weather reporters (62%) and park rangers follow closely as the third most trustworthy source of climate change information.

Researchers have investigated several ways to make climate change communication more effective to a broad audience, such as the visitors to America’s public lands (e.g., national parks, wildlife refuges, and national forests). Schweizer, Thompson, Teel, and Bruyere (2009) developed nine key messages and ten key principles for communicating about climate change on public lands. The principles include:

  • Know the audience and use credible messengers;
  • Know the claim being made in the message and lead with the strongest argument;
  • Connect to the audience’s culture and beliefs;
  • Make the message meaningful through values;
  • Create an empowering message;
  • Encourage the audience to look for systems, connections and relationships;
  • Collaborate and partner with other organizations;
  • Start from the inside and lead by example in your organization;
  • Communicate about actions; and
  • Make the issue place-specific.

These are essential aspects of effective climate change communication on public lands. However, getting the managers, scientists and staff at national parks and wildlife refuges to coordinate their public messages about climate change is inherently difficult because the wide range of expertise, knowledge and ability. In building place-based capacity for effective climate change communication efforts need to be taken to link scientific understanding of impacts as well as knowledge of the audience. Graphic recording can be applied to these aspects of internal communication. Scientific presentations can be confusing and filled with terminology that the audience may not understand. By depicting complex concepts in colorful pictures accompanied by words, graphic recording has effectively engaged people in climate science as well as chaos and organizational theory (Marguiles & Sibbet, 2007a).

Following the principles of climate change communication from Schweizer et al. (2009), the CCEP team is working with the trustworthy messengers at national parks and wildlife refuges to develop climate change education and communication activities for America’s public lands.  This approach emphasized the place-based impacts of climate change and the resulting management decisions at each site. Using parks and refuges to set the context of the message provides an innovative opportunity to build upon the audience’s connection to place; people are inextricably tied to the places they are familiar with, identify with and with which they have fond memories (Eisenhauer, Krannich, & Blahna, 2000; Hess, Malilay, & Parkinson, 2008; Portier & Tart, 2010; Stedman, 2002; Tuan, 1974).

Inviting non-experts into the dialogue about climate change remains one of the most important yet challenging aspects of science communication. In addition to building upon the audience’s connection to place, another method to engage a broader audience in conversations about climate change is through art (Moser, 2010; Randerson, 2007).  According to Trumbo (1999), visual interpretations of data are an effective way to engage people with science learning. Descartes said “Imagination or visualization, and in particular the use of diagrams, has a crucial part to play in scientific investigation,” (Descartes as cited by Trumbo, 1999 p. 409). In “traditional” science, visualization has played a part in explaining research or phenomena, but has not been utilized to its full potential in education and communication. Graphic recording taps into the potential of art and pictures to create effective, memorable messages (Marguiles & Sibbet, 2007a; Marguiles & Valenza, 2010; Sibbet, 2008).

Not only is data visualization effective for communicating abstract scientific concepts, graphics have also been shown to portray information clearly for better problem-solving and designing (Trumbo, 1999; E. R. Tufte, 2006). Many foundational figures in science used graphics in their breakthroughs: “Einstein used imagery as a way to conduct his ‘thought experiments’” (Mattimore 1994 as cited by Trumbo, 1999, p. 413).

Studies on effective methods of communicating climate change have also revealed practices the media use as well as people’s unexpected responses to these campaigns. O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole (2009) explain how the media’s use of sensational language may actually elicit ambivalent behavior toward climate change. The results showed that although people chose fearful images such as natural disasters to portray climate change in a media campaign, they personally stated those images would not be effective in convincing them to change their behavior to be more sustainable. Instead, pictures of riding a bike, gardening, composting and turning off the lights when not in use resonated with the majority of the individuals (O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009). This study illustrates the complexity of humans’ perceptions of climate change.

Graphic recording offers an opportunity to make the science and challenges of climate change into something that is easy to understand and interesting, if not fun, to look at and think about. These characteristics are, as the research cited above indicates, ways to make climate change relevant and interesting to the staff and visitors at America’s parks and refuges.

Theoretical Concepts

The theories behind graphic recording are complex and numerous. We have chosen to focus on three foundational theories guiding the practices’ evolution: systems theory (Bertalanffy, 1950), the theory of multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1983) and dual-coding theory (Paivio, 1971). After a brief introduction of each theoretical concept, we specifically link key aspects of the theory to the practice of graphic recording. Findings from key researchers in the field of visual communication are noted as they related to graphic recording and communication.

Systems Theory

Systems theory was introduced by Ludwig von Bertalanffy in 1950. In his paper An Outline of General System Theory, he detailed how the route of science has relied on breaking down natural phenomena into “elementary units,” which are examined separately in minutiae, to explain causal relationships (p. 134). Bertalanffy (1950) proposed that instead of creating an understanding of a scientific concept by examining each part independently, a larger-picture perspective should be taken by scientists. Building upon the Gestalt concept of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, Bertalanffy (1950) observed similar patterns of behavior occurring in different fields of science, from biology to chemistry, and imparted upon his audience the concept of systems theory. Defining a system as “a complex of interacting elements… [that] sta nd in a certain relation,” Bertalanffy (1950) outlined several characteristics we can see in systems ranging from ecological to organizational (p. 143).

The concept of systems is a foundational aspect of graphic recording. According to the literature, graphic recording during meetings has the potential to visually show groups how ideas are inter-related because they can literally see the entire network of ideas on the wall (Agerbeck, 2012; Brown et al., 2005; Kelly, 2005; Marguiles & Sibbet, 2007a; Sibbet, 2008). Instead of seeing concepts listed singly on PowerPoint slides in a disjointed manner or simply listening to a conversation, by using a graphic recording in conversations people are able to see all the ideas together and draw relationships or better remember the information presented (Agerbeck, 2012; Beissner, 1994). “The principles of Gestalt perceptual psychology have been applied to visual rep resentation and explain the tendency of individuals to visually group elements into cohesive wholes,” (Koffka, 1935, as cited by Trumbo, 1999, p. 414). To communicate about climate science, which can be inherently difficult to grasp, literally seeing how components of a social or ecological system (or both) interact and influence each other can greatly enhance understanding.

The systems concept of equifinality is also inherently connected with the practice of graphic recording. Bertalanffy (1950) described the achievement of equifinality as multimodal: “the final state may be reached from different initial conditions and in different ways,” (p. 157). By writing and drawing all the different ideas from a group on a piece of paper everyone can see, people can observe that there are different solutions and paths to take to achieve goals or ways of looking at scientific information. By incorporating a systemic approach to meetings, “the elucidation of problems which, in the usual schematisms and pigeonholes of the specialized fields, are not envisaged,” can be clearly seen and new approaches to solving them can be applied (Bertalanffy, 1950, p. 163). By seeing that there is not simply one answer to adapting to climate change, visionaries can co-create innovat ive strategies to live in a changing world and disseminate the important information captured by the graphic to inspire the development of specific messages that they will use to reach a broader audience.

Sibbet (2010) has observed fundamental aspects of systems theory in his noteworthy experience as a graphic recorder. Being able to see the “big picture” and how things are connected is one of the benefits graphic recording provides to a group. For instance, using the mandala format in a graphic of a meeting shows “how parts unify into a whole,” (p. 122). Additionally, using visual processes such as causal loop diagramming, which illustrates feedback loops in systems, can be helpful to show a group how ideas they are discussing influence each other in a whole (Sibbet, 2010).  Again, these principles of seeing systems of all sizes and how they influence each other is an important aspect of good climate change communication, which can be exemplified and enhanced by graphic recording.

Theory of Multiple Intelligences

“Some individuals think more visually than others” (Friedhoff & Benzon, 1991 as cited by Trumbo, 1999, p. 414). Howard Gardner (1983) observed this phenomenon, and many others, in the way that children and adults interact, choose to learn and excel in learning. Aside from mathematical-logical and linguistic intelligences, Gardner (1983, 1992) asserted that bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalistic abilities are also intelligences that should be seriously considered in education systems and understanding one another. By “intelligence,” Gardner (1987) meant “an ability to solve a problem or to fashion a product which is valued in one or more cultural settings,” (p. 25). These skills are used to solve problems or make valuable things a nd are esteemed in a cultural setting, which ultimately makes them intelligences (Gardner, 1987).

Graphic recording is a process that has the potential to create opportunities for people with diverse and different learning styles to communicate and collaborate about complex issues (Marguiles & Sibbet, 2007a; Sibbet, 2010). By displaying information on one large sheet where everything can be seen at one time in a different format than just pages of lists or a PowerPoint that flashes small chunks of information to the audience rapidly and often disjointedly (E. Tufte, 2009; E. R. Tufte, 2006), spatial learners can access, remember the information, and see how the ideas presented relate to one another more easily. By posting the graphics around the room for meeting participants to look at, they are introduced to an opportunity to engage with others who are also examining the posters, which can help verbal and interpersonal learners process the informat ion more readily (Gardner, 1983). In a culture where individuals are constantly interacting with technology having a tactile, human mechanism for depicting information engages audiences more readily than using impersonal electronic methods (E. Tufte, 2009).

These advantages can be particularly helpful in climate change communication, which has traditionally relied on rigorous scientific studies and facts to share information. As the literature shows, hard science does not change values, but understanding how an individual’s actions influence changes in a place that is special to them can (Adger et al., 2009; Hess et al., 2008; Schweizer et al., 2009). Using graphic recording to show how changes are already affecting natural landscapes around the world and how people in places far away are influencing those changes has the potential to be an effective communication tool. Additionally, creating an atmosphere where divergent thinking is encouraged could lead to innovative solutions to climate change mitigation behaviors and communication strategies.

Dual-Coding Theory

Dual-coding theory was developed by Allan Paivio (1971) as one way to describe the how the brain processes information. The name comes from the idea that the two main avenues humans use to represent information are through visual imagery and language. (Mazoyer, Tzourio-Mazoyer, Mazard, Denis, & Mellet, 2002). The theory postulates that these two types of representation are not separate from one another, but in fact combine to help human beings better understand and process information (Paivio, 1971). Graphic recording is a tangible example of how dual-coding in the brain can be triggered in order for a person to learn and remember more effectively. Because graphic recording is using words and images simultaneously to display ideas, according to dual-coding theory and multimodal semiotics the information portrayed will be more easily stored and accessed (Unsworth & Cléirigh, 2009). Two pioneers of visual recordings reference the value of the dual-coding approach graphic recording embodies: “Making ideas visible, using both words and images, means that we are making our very process of thinking visible,” (Marguiles & Valenza, 2010, p. 8).

Cognitive load theory is closely related to dual-coding theory. Illustrating that people can only store a finite amount of information at one time, cognitive load theory is an important principle to consider when teaching or presenting to a group (Sweller, 2011). The theory “suggests that working memory has a maximum capacity of information it can process. If that load is exceeded, learning does not take place,” (IARE and AEL, 2003, p. 5). By using pictures, which the brain can more quickly and easily interpret or use to access memories about information, in concert with describing words, graphic recording can help reduce cognitive load and therefore free more mental resources to learn new material (IARE and AEL, 2003).

Mayer and Moreno (2003) describe nine ways to reduce cognitive load in learning. They state that “meaningful learning involves cognitive processing including building connections between pictorial and verbal representations,” (Mayer & Moreno, 2003, p. 43). Several of the suggestions they made to improve learning and retention of information are reflected in graphic recording. For example, they recommend aligning words near parts of pictures they correspond with and presenting spoken words while simultaneously depicting the message graphically (Mayer & Moreno, 2003). If information is presented proximally and at the same time, Mayer and Moreno conclude that students’ cognitive load will be reduced, freeing them to “devote more cognitive capacity to essential processing,” (Mayer & Moreno, 2003, p. 49< /a>). Horn (1998) also advocates for using a dual-coding approach to facilitate deeper thinking: “Such externalization [visualization of information] gives the mind more stable, albeit interim, data with which to work” (p. 213).

Additionally, their research yielded better results on a problem-solving test from students that learned from “integrated presentations” (pictures and words together) than those who did not (Mayer & Moreno, 2003). “[Research to reduce cognitive load] has contributed to theoretical advances in cognitive science – a well-supported theory of how people learn from words and pictures,” (Mayer & Moreno, 2003). This shows that using a technique like graphic recording to facilitate understanding of complex ideas such as climate change eases the load of the brain and makes divergent thinking and solutions more accessible to the mind.

“Understanding what we see is important. Equally important is being able to produce images to explain what we mean” (Woolsey, Kim, & Curtis, 2004, p. 13). Graphic recording is a perfect example of successfully embodying this principle to enhance communication in groups and among individuals. Climate change is a global challenge and to find a solution it will take a coordinated effort among many groups of people. Horn (1998) suggests that visual language and communication can be useful, because: calls upon visual language and communication

…to cooperatively construct an information mural that displays the multiplicity of aspects of the issue on the table encourages a group of problem solvers to stay focused (literally) on the issue as a whole, rather than on those subsets of a particular problem that each individual will tend to emphasize (p. 205).

Graphic recording is a tool to communicate climate change through art and written words that has potential to transform communication strategies. By integrating an array of ideas in a coherent manner to show the “big picture,” graphic recording shows, literally, new ways to approach climate change communication.

Visual Communication

In addition to these theories that illustrate why graphic recording has potential to simply summarize complex science, work by Wysocki and Lynch (2007), Unsworth and Cléirigh (2009), Tufte (2006) and others (Kostelnick & Roberts, 1998; Kress & Van Leeuwen, 2001) provide further depth into the benefits of using both images and text in communication.

Graphic recording follows what Wysocki and Lynch (2007) refer to as the “logos in the arrangement of elements” to distill information presented into an easily digestible graphic. Climate science is heavy, systemic, and often filled with jargon. Graphics include only the key ideas presented through a “visual hierarchy” that uses color and size to indicate importance and connections between ideas in a format that is easy for the eye to track (Kostelnick & Roberts, 1998; E. R. Tufte, 2006; Wysocki & Lynch, 2007). Suddenly the charts, indescribably large numbers, and processes that raced across the screen in a PowerPoint are crystallized and paired down to be read and understood, even by non-expert audiences (Wysocki & Lynch, 2007). Graphics use carefully selected typefaces, positioning of images and text, and colors to direct a viewer’s eye through the information to help them process and draw connections between ideas that may have been otherwise overlooked.

In the Routledge Handbook of Multimodal Analysis (2009) Unsworth and Cléirigh detail the relationship between images and text as multimodal semiotics to enhance communication. Parallel to the work by Mayer and Moreno (Mayer & Moreno, 2003), Unsworth and Cléirigh (2009) describe the “functional specialization" of text and images to describe scientific textbooks. Their findings show that the use of verbal text often lends itself to linear concepts while images can better describe spatial relationships, and, when used together, these communication mechanisms have greater potential to engage and illustrate complex concepts (Unsworth & Cléirigh, 2009).

Edward Tufte (2006) is a leader in the field of data visualization and effective communication using images and text. He states “Science and art have in common intense seeing, the wide-eyed observing that generates empirical information” (E. R. Tufte, 2006, p. 9). Tufte (2006) places great importance on mapping information to show inherent connections between ideas or things and should incorporate images and text. In his third chapter, many fundamental aspects of graphic recording such as causal arrows and color choice are shown as far back as 1936 (E. R. Tufte, 2006, p. 65). Other tools touted by popular graphic recorders of today such as denoting importance of a concept through size can be traced back to the 1600’s through Tufte’s work (2006, pp. 20–21). Through copious examples of illustrations, photographs and dia grams, Tufte (2006) weaves a historical narrative of information graphics that describes in detail many foundational aspects of graphic recording.


Both quantitative and qualitative data are beneficial and give depth to this study; using a suite of mixed methodology and analysis can expand the scope of research and offset the weaknesses of either approach alone (Driscoll, Appiah-yeboah, Salib, & Rupert, 2007; Hesse-Biber, 2010). Thus, using both approaches has the potential to reach a broader audience and collect more valid data. Climate change is an environmental issue in which humans are inextricably linked. Because of the nature of climate change some researchers encourage mixed methods. “…[T]hese designs could aid ecological and environmental anthropologists in their efforts to overcome lack of public engagement in, or denial of, linkages between human activities and their physical environments” (Schmidt, 2005 as cited by Driscoll et al, 2007).

Data were collected during three climate change World Café workshops hosted in Washington, D.C., Cooper Landing, Alaska, and Seattle, Washington. Additionally, quantitative data were collected during a World Café workshop for the United Nations Environmental Program in Hakone, Japan, and during an undergraduate environmental communication course at a large western US university. Quantitative data was collected using a workshop evaluation (n = 187) and qualitative data was gathered through informal interviews (n = 29) with workshop participants. Because of the anonymity of participants, it is unknown whether the same person responded to both methods of data collection.

The World Café is a process that enables a group “to create generative networks of conversation focused on the questions that are critical to the real work of their community” (Brown et al., 2005, p. 181) and has been used by “thousands of people on six continents” (Brown et al., 2005, p. 181; Holman, Devane, & Cady, 2007).  Because this project focuses on global climate change and each site visit is in a different part of the country, it involves a large group of people from different cultural backgrounds, making the World Café applicable as it is proven to work well in many cultures. According to The Change Handbook (Holman, Devane, & Cady, 2007), this process “evokes the collective intelligence of any group,” (p. 181).

The World Café method is conversation-based. Pleasant lighting, comfortable chairs, many small, circular tables and access to refreshments are aspects that define the Café atmosphere. Each table is covered by a bright tablecloth and paper, which participants can use to draw and write ideas. For the Place-Based CCEP, workshop participants consisted of park and refuge managers, scientists, interpreters, local partners and non-profit organizations, teachers from local schools, and other key stakeholders identified by the parks and refuges in each region. Workshop participants were recruited through invitations sent several months in advance to superintendents and managers of, on average, two parks and two refuges in each region, although only one park and one refuge participated in the Alaska Café, and three parks and two refuges participated in the Puget Sound Café. Participants were mostly Caucasian and middle-aged despite efforts to engage a broad age range at each Café. Workshop sizes ranged from approximately 50-100 participants in each location.

A host plays the role of a traditional facilitator. Hosts explain the format of rounds of conversation where important questions as identified by group leaders are discussed. In this project, the questions were about how to effectively communicate about climate change at national parks and national wildlife refuges including: Who is your priority audience? What do you want them to do about climate change? What climate change stories are most important to tell at this park/refuge? What innovative ways can staff at the park/refuge engage their audiences with climate change science? After each round of conversation, participants move to other tables to share ideas and talk with new people about a new question or delve deeper into the previous question asked.

After each question, ideas are harvested as members of each table share key ideas from their table’s conversation. As ideas were shared, they were graphic recorded for participants to see throughout the workshop leading to discussions among participants examining the different ways to communicate about climate change.

Using graphic recording in concert with the facilitation of the Café Host can help participants understand complex ideas and form visual connections that they might otherwise miss (Agerbeck, 2012; Marguiles & Sibbet, 2007a; Sibbet, 2010). Additionally, the use of pictures by the Graphic Recorder can aid participants that may have a more visual learning style to understand and summarize all the ideas put forth by the group, reflecting the “whole” generated and mirroring the group’s content and process (Agerbeck, 2012; Gardner, 1987; Kelly, 2005). Figure 2 is an example of a graphic recording from the Alaska workshop.

Figure 2. Graphic recording of survey results in the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska by Karina Mullen.

The quantitative data informed an understanding about participants’ reaction to viewing graphic recording during presentations and discussions. Data were collected via a workshop evaluation on both paper and electronic surveys, which were entered by hand and uploaded directly to the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS). The evaluation questionnaire asked three questions on a five-point scale (1= “strongly disagree” and 5 = “strongly agree”): 1) The graphic recording helped me understand the material better; 2) The information portrayed in the graphic recording enhanced my experience today; 3) I enjoyed the graphic recording.

A frequency analysis was run on the data collected to show overall perceptions of the graphic recording, as well as individually within each workshop. Next, the three graphic recording variables were combined into one, “graphic recording perceptions.” A reliability analysis was run on this combined variable to determine the quality of the variables.

The qualitative data collection was initially emergent and led the authors to probe further in a more systematic manner. During the workshops many people expressed interest in learning more about graphic recording. At the end of each workshop, the authors interviewed participants about their thoughts and experiences with the graphic recording. As participants asked questions and commented about the graphics, the authors conducted informal interviews, digitally recorded, to capture the participants’ opinions about the graphic recording.

Interview questions were based on the participant’s interests; however a general outline was followed. Typical questions included: 1) Do you like the graphic recording? Why or why not? 2) Did you learn something because of the graphic you would not have understood otherwise? 3) How did the graphics impact your experience today? These questions led to themes in how the graphic recording portrayed information and evaluating its utility in enhancing the participants’ experience.

We analyzed interview transcripts through open coding and categorizing of emergent themes (Patterson & Williams, 2002). We interpreted the transcripts and made a summary of key generalizations about the effectiveness of the graphic recording experience pertaining to climate science. This hermeneutical approach allowed us to seek relationships among interviews and across sites in order to summarize patterns and draw holistic conclusions (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002; Patterson & Williams, 2002).

The reliability of the findings is based on cross-referencing the responses from informal interviews and the effectiveness scale questions. Results reveal similarities among workshop participants across sites, making this study robust. Additionally, results can be compared with previous literature using anecdotal conclusions about the effectiveness of graphic recording (Agerbeck, 2012; Congleton, 2011; Kelly, 2005; Marguiles & Sibbet, 2007a, 2007b; Marguiles & Valenza, 2010; Roam, 2009; Sibbet, 2008).


This study yields results that support anecdotal reports on the benefits and effectiveness of graphic recording. The research questions guiding this study are:

RQ 1:  Does graphic recording, as a visual communication tool at facilitated meetings, enhance the understanding of complex climate science among members of a non-expert audience?

RQ 2:  If effective at conveying complex climate science, in what ways is graphic recording most helpful for members of a non-expert audience?

Participants were recruited by members of the Place-Based CCEP team to voluntarily complete the electronic workshop evaluation on an iPad. Using the iSurvey App, participants answered primarily quantitative questions about their experience in the workshop, three of which pertained to the graphic recording. Results are summarized in Tables 1 and 2.

A total of 187 anonymous respondents answered these questions. 129 surveys were collected during CCEP World Café workshops, 13 during a United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) World Café meeting graphic facilitated by the author, and 45 from an undergraduate course discussing the role of art in environmental communication. The responses were collected in identical workshop procedures excluding the university and Japan data; in the university setting participants voluntarily answered questions during a class period when they observed graphic recording during a PowerPoint presentation, in Japan participants were asked these questions after a World Café which focused on international environmental governance instead of directly discussing climate change communication. Although these were different situations and locations, we believe the quantitative data provided by respondents can still be used to draw general conclusions about the effectiveness of graphic recording to communicate complex information.

This sample size is not representative and cannot yield statistically representative data; however, these results are preliminary evidence that graphic recording facilitated the majority (69%) of participants understanding of the material presented. Additionally, a majority of participants (79%) agreed that the information portrayed by the graphic recording enhanced their experience and over 85% of participants reported that they enjoyed the graphic recording component of the workshops.

When variables were combined into one, Graphic Recording Perceptions, the Cronbach’s alpha = .95 (very reliable). Additionally, each variable was highly correlated to the others ranging from .821 to .888.


Table 1.
Reliability Analysis of Graphic Recording Variables
Graphic Recording Perceptions Item total correlation M SD
The graphic recording helped me understand the material better. .847 3.99 .911
The information portrayed in the graphic recording enhanced my experience today. .888 4.11 .887
I enjoyed the graphic recording. .821 4.39 .828
Note: Using a five-point scale of 1 = Strongly disagree to 5 = Strongly agree. N = 187. Cronbach's alpha = .95.
SD = Standard deviation
M = mean


Table 2.
Graphic Recording Perceptions by Location
Location   n M SD
Washington D.C.   34 3.96 .811
Alaska   34 4.18 .892
Puget Sound   61 4.20 .744
Japan   13 4.64 .400
Colorado   45 4.01 .875
Totals   187 4.16 .803
Note: Using a five-point scale of 1 = Strongly disagree to 5 = Strongly agree.
SD = Standard deviation
M = mean


Table 3.
Means and Standard Deviations of Responses by Location
  Washington, D.C.   Alaska   Japan   Washington State   Colorado   Totals
Question n M SD   n M SD   n M SD   n M SD   n M SD   M
1 34 3.94 .919   34 4.00 .921   13 4.62 .506   61 3.94 .903   45 3.44 .990   4.01
2   3.88 .946     4.18 .936     4.54 .519     4.11 .819     4.09 .661   4.13
3   4.09 .793     4.35 .950     4.77 .439     4.48 .766     4.51 .973   4.38
Note: Using a five-point scale of 1 = Strongly disagree to 5 = Strongly agree. N = 187.
1 = The graphic recording helped me understand the material better.
2 = The information portrayed in the graphic recording enhanced my experience today.
3 = I enjoyed the graphic recording.
SD = Standard deviation
M = mean

The authors conducted 29 qualitative interviews with workshop participants, who volunteered to be interviewed after the workshop.  Participants were selected through convenience and spontaneous sampling (Curtis, Gesler, Smith, & Washburn, 2000; Peek & Fothergill, 2009); as people were looking at the graphics or talking with the graphic recorder,  they were asked if they would be willing to discuss their thoughts on the graphic recording. If so, they were asked if they would be comfortable if the conversation was digitally recorded. Every workshop participant who was asked to be interviewed agreed and occasionally others around them chimed into the conversation to share their opinion unsolicited. The interview participants may or may not have also answered the quantitative evaluation survey questions which were anonymous and could not be linked to specific individuals. Additionally, inte rviewees were not asked any personal information and were assured they would be anonymous and their individual interviews would not be shared with anyone other than the interviewer.

It is important to note the possible biases from this qualitative research. The interviews were conducted by the lead author of this paper, who was also the graphic recorder for the workshops. It is entirely plausible that the data does not represent a complete picture of the opinions of the workshop participants about graphic recording as people are not likely to discuss negative opinions about something the interviewer created and obviously condones. Additionally, people who were not as engaged by the graphic recording are unlikely to be looking at it or to approach the graphic recorder to learn more about it. This is how the majority of interviewees were recruited for the research, which leaves a less-than-ideal hole in the picture of the workshop participants’ perspectives. However, based on the quantitative data collected from a majority of workshop participants, it is likely that the interview transcripts represent many of the benefits and shortcomings of g raphic recording.

Interview transcripts were analyzed through open and axial coding to determine patterns in the interviews about participants’ thoughts on the graphics. Using an open coding and analysis process, we read the transcripts three times: first for key ideas and themes, second for repeating ideas, and third to search for ideas that were missed in the first two readings. Codes were then categorized into larger themes, such as memory aid, engagement, making connections, better understanding, appealing to different learning styles and enjoyment. Based on these categories conclusions were drawn about when and how graphic recording was helpful to workshop participants.
The participants’ perceived benefits of graphic recording ranged from memory aide to aesthetic beauty. Categories created by the authors through open coding and interpretive analysis include the following themes:

  • Graphics made information from presentations easier to understand
  • The graphics served as a memory aide
  • The graphics helped participants make connections between ideas and events
  • The graphics inspired creativity among workshop participants
  • Graphics appealed to multiple learning styles
  • Graphic recording made the presentations and workshop more engaging
  • The graphics are visually appealing
  • The graphics improved group participation
  • The graphic recording process showed the movement of the group’s ideas

The coding categories and examples of direct quotes from the interview transcripts are outlined in Table 4.


Table 4.
Qualitative data: Direct quotes from responses to 29 informal interviews with workshop participants in Washington, D.C., Alaska and Washington.
Memory Aide
  • I like the synthesis. I like how is this stealing the heart of the conversation and recording it.
  • I would say the most effective piece of this is that you re-visit the presentation…it just doubles the impact.
  • For me, I could take notes but it would never have the understanding that this provides.
  • But just drawing the bar graphs and pie charts it just gives it, it’s just a more dynamic way of presenting the information I think.
  • It seemed like I was watching time-lapse photography.
  • I think it just added a really amazing dimension, a real visual, fun, expressive way of looking at the information instead of just notes, text, so visually you get some impact, it’s interesting, it’s fun.
Visually Appealing
  • And it’s visually attractive, it’s nice to look at. But it also helps to refresh my memory.
  • I mean it paints an amazing picture to me, and I love it!
Improved Group Participation
  • So I think it’s probably something that people tune into but sub-consciously…
  • They got to see the sequence of images statically displayed as well as presented. So they could really explore the information kind of at their own pace.
Inspires Creativity
  • I think it makes me think more creatively in general. Watching someone else be creative makes me want to do the same thing so.
  • But by the end of it we were coming up with ideas and we had sort of honed in on an idea and I sort of circled it and then everything else we were saying that was all kind of interconnecting and linking in… without thinking about it was writing it in a more circular way and drawing the arrows back in which I think was helpful…and I thought that was cool because I never do that.
Multiple Intelligences
  • [My] older [son] is dyslexic … he’s very bright but your spatial, the way you’re laying things out spatially gave me some insight in terms of how he’s thinking, how he’s processing. He isn’t verbal this way and isn’t a confident speller so those parts might be intimidating…but to release…you’re doing something that’s really releasing the thinking.
  • And had I been taught that way, to do this, like in middle school, like when I started really resenting information, because I actually used to put my pencil down and not take notes because I couldn’t pay attention…
  • And I think for kids it just makes it so you don’t have to organize your thoughts the same way everyone else does. You can do something different and it still will make sense to other people too.
Making Connections
  • It’s amazing to me how when you participate in one that’s captured really well you’re leaving some ideas in their mind; you’re leaving it so they can see some of the overarching stuff. It makes such a difference in terms of taking it back and applying it.
  • And I like how you’re capturing the reactions and not just the conversation. You’re really capturing the sparks of moments in which you can feel the audience connecting.
  • But I like that you, you start to clump them together with internal or local communities, then you take like, birders, suddenly it doesn’t seem like such a random comment, you know? It’s really linked in.
Happening Simultaneously with Presentations
  • It’s kind of cool that you’re doing it simultaneously. Initially I was kind of distracted from what was going on then I realized, oh, I can go look at that later and it helps give a little more depth and consistency to that.
  • Like you were working very quickly and encompassing all these heavy ideas into this very…paring it down to the bare bones of the presentation.
  • I feel like it tells a story if anything…like it puts, for me it takes the data and puts it more into ways that, where we see our communities…
  • You know I’ve voted before plenty of times with dots and it’s usually on flip charts with the list. But you actually created a whole flow. And that flow was really fascinating to look at and there was a couple times where the flow went back and somehow you managed to get that.
Graphics Are Not Best for Some People
  • Because looking at it, it could seem disjointed, it doesn’t to me but someone on the outside walking in … how can I make this really accessible for people who didn’t come to this workshop.
  • These mind map things are not the way that I think but I think it’s wonderful.
  • It’s distracting probably because it’s fascinating.

There were also participants who were not as engaged by the graphic recording, showing that using this approach in concert with other, more linear methods may be an optimal way to communicate complex science with a non-expert audience.


The data collected shows that graphic recording is an effective tool for climate change communication. Prior research has shown anecdotally that graphic recording helps groups better remember information, helps show a larger picture of the issue being discussed and builds efficacy and engagement among groups creating a vision or strategic plan (Agerbeck, 2012; Brown et al., 2005; Roam, 2009; Sibbet, 2008, 2010; Trumbo, 1999). The data collected clearly shows that the majority of people exposed to graphic recording in this study felt it improved their overall experience in the meeting (85%), and almost three quarters of the participants found it helped them understand complex topics more easily (69%). Additionally, when the three variables used in the survey were combined into one (Graphic Recording Perceptions), a re liability test yielded a Chronbach’s alpha of .95 (See Table 1). These high percentages show that a broad audience in four states (Alaska, Colorado, Washington D.C. and Washington State) and two countries (the United States and Japan) found graphic recording to be an insightful tool.

The interview analysis reveals that participants felt the graphics helped them with several key components of understanding climate change. These include:

  • remembering information from the entire day;
  • feeling more engaged and involved in the process;
  • understanding and making connections in larger systems; and
  • showing the movement of the group’s ideas in a visually appealing and inspiring way

These findings match the existing literature on graphic recording (Agerbeck, 2012; Brown et al., 2005; Congleton, 2011; Gardner, 1987; Kelly, 2005; Marguiles & Sibbet, 2007a; Roam, 2009; Sibbet, 2008, 2010). Previous publications report similar anecdotal results about the benefits of graphic recording, though no studies have focused on climate change communication.

Using mixed methods, particularly qualitative methods, can lead to biases within the research. As previously stated, there are always biases to account for when conducting qualitative research. In this study, as the artists creating the graphic recordings, we believe that it is a useful and beneficial way to display technical and complex information. This bias could be interpreted in the analysis of our interview questions. Each question asked was slightly different given the nature of informal and emergent interviews. It is possible that as we interviewed people we asked questions in a way that we thought would elicit the answer we wanted to hear, even though we made a conscious effort to ask non-biased, non-leading questions. Additionally, people may have felt like they needed to tell us they enjoyed the graphic recording because the lead author was the artist and they did not want to offend her.

There are several other limitations to this research that must be acknowledged. The quantitative questions were asked using an iPad, which may have resulted in some participants feeling less comfortable with the technology and therefore not wanting to respond to the optional evaluation. Additionally, those not familiar with using an iPad survey may have entered inaccurate data by touching the screen accidentally. The size of the group sampled is another limitation to this research. The researcher was unable to gather 300-400 responses, which would lead to a statistically significant representation of the population. Additional research with a wider-reaching survey could validate the preliminary responses found in this study.

Qualitative limitations to the study include interviews only being conducted for three workshops while survey questions were asked at four workshops and in the environmental communication course. Participants were entirely adult and almost every interview was conducted with a Caucasian native-English speaker, which also limits the study.

Additional research is needed not only to increase the sample size to be statistically significant, but also to observe the effects of graphic recording on long-term memory of the information presented. Ideally, a longitudinal study comparing participants observing graphic recording during a workshop and those without a graphic recorder for their ability to recall information presented both short- and long-term would be conducted.


Though much as been done to better understand learning styles and how to use visuals in communication, gaps still remain in the research. These areas include, but are not limited to, research on adult learning styles and the evaluation of the graphic recording process as an effective learning tool. There is a great deal of research working with children to better understand learning and information retention; however, few formal papers have been documented with adult learning through visuals and text together (Congleton, 2011; Gardner, 1983; Sibbet, 2010). This study works almost exclusively with an adult population to better understand how graphic recording facilitates learning and understanding of complex scientific material, as well as other benefits previously unknown.

Although research on visual communication is broad, there has been no formal evaluation of using a tool such as graphic recording. Anecdotal evidence shows several benefits to using graphics in meetings and workshops (Agerbeck, 2012; Kelly, 2005; Marguiles & Sibbet, 2007a; Sibbet, 2008). However no systematic research has been conducted to see which aspects of graphic recording are found most often to be helpful and if these results are valid. A systematic investigation focused on validity of results as well as patterns from conversations with a diverse set of participants may reveal a more credible and holistic evaluation of the benefits of using graphic recording.

Because this is a relatively new form of visual communication, further research opportunities abound. A larger sample size for quantitative data collection and asking more survey questions that complement the qualitative interviews, such as “The graphic recording helped me remember information throughout the day” or “I feel like my ideas were heard by the group through the graphic recording” would make future studies stronger. Qualitatively, having a person who is perceived as unassociated with the graphic recording implementing the interviews may lead to less biased responses by participants not wishing to offend the graphic recorder with honest replies. Working with other cultures to see if the same principles held true would be beneficial in reiterating the success of the World Café being used in multicultural contexts. More examinations of graphic recording internationally could be examined to see if it is accepted in other cultures a nd also compared with results from the study conducted almost entirely in the United States – only 13 responses were collected in Japan – to see if the same benefits are reported cross-culturally. This area of study would be particularly applicable to climate change communication as tools are needed that reach broad audiences in an effective way. Graphic recording shows promise as one of these innovative tools.

Climate change is an environmental issue that has the potential to affect human beings around the globe for generations to come (IPCC, 2007; Karl & Trenberth, 2003; Maibach et al., 2009; Moser, 2010). Innovative visual communication tools and strategies are needed to convey the depth of this challenge and show people what they can do to contribute to the solution (Davis, Thompson, & Schweizer, 2012; Schweizer et al., 2009). This study illustrates how graphic recording can be used to literally show these things to messengers and the public by making ideas easier to understand, remember and showing how individuals are involved in the larger system. With the potential to visualize big picture perspectives and clarify complex scientific concepts, graphic recording is a tool emerging in the world of com munication that should be well-understood and utilized where it can be most beneficial such as multifaceted, systemic problems like global climate change.


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