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21. March 2011

I do my two favorite things for a living: drawing and thinking.

Interview with Brandy Agerbeck, Chicago

Brandy Agerbeck was born in Heidelberg - at this time her dad is a member of the American army. However she didn't stay for a long time in Germany - still a little child her parents moved back to the US. Today she is living in an apartment in Chicago together with her tomcat Gunther and is one of the well-known Graphic Facilitator in her country. On her way there she passed an art studies - but she always emphasizes that the work of a Visual Facilitators has nothing in common with art. Brandy is focusing on art either way - it seems her day has more than 24 hours. She is drawing, designing textiles, sewing,.....

Picture for subject I do my two favorite things for a living: drawing and thinking.
Picture for subject I do my two favorite things for a living: drawing and thinking.
Picture for subject I do my two favorite things for a living: drawing and thinking.
Picture for subject I do my two favorite things for a living: drawing and thinking.
Picture for subject I do my two favorite things for a living: drawing and thinking.

Guido Neuland:
Brandy, to what extent is your creative talent inherited?

Brandy Agerbeck:
Great question. I was raised in a household where we all could draw, create a beautiful salad or arrange flowers. Color, composition, aesthetics were important. Both parents worked with their hands; my Mom was a hairdresser, my Dad a mechanic. I learn with my hands, kinestetically. Creativity, art, craft was definitely nurtured.
Naturally, I feel I'm "hard-wired" to think spatially, synthesize, draw ideas out in an organized way. All those visual talents wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without a lifetime of drawing practice. Practice makes progress.

Guido Neuland:
Have you always made your living by working as Graphic Facilitator or did you work in another field before?

Brandy Agerbeck:
While more visual practitioners come to this work mid-career, I fell into it right out of college. Thankfully I already had good listening skills at age 22. My friend and colleague John Ward says folks don't learn to listen until their thirties.

Before I was a graphic facilitator, I was studying printmaking and making etchings at a tiny, little liberal arts college in the middle of cornfields, Grinnell College.

Like you said, I do clearly separate art and graphic facilitation. I use my skills and experience in both. Art is about personal expression. Graphic facilitation serves my clients. Both involve drawing, in different ways, to different ends.

Guido Neuland:
When did you decide to work as Graphic Facilitator? What was your first job - do you still remember?

Brandy Agerbeck:
It all started with a college friend’s hunch. Kathy Clemons worked at Ernst & Young's ASE (Accelerated Solutions Environment). EY used a process developed by MG Taylor to run three day change management workshops. They needed contractors to work with the consultants. Kathy had a gut reaction, "Brandy, you need to work here."

It was 1996. The middle of the consulting boom and the start of the dot com boom. They were building a network of contractors. Peter Durand (Alphachimp) was the first, I soon followed. In my initial interview, my interviewer pointed to someone drawing at a giant dry erase wall in front of people saying, "You're going to do that in 20 minutes." I was game. I didn’t so much decide to do this work, as was given a perfect opportunity at the right time.

I contracted with EY for three years. I worked a six day contract once a month, giving me time to make art. At the same time, I was learning MG Taylor's fantastic process serving Ernst & Young's big, corporate clients. Importantly, I learned that this work can serve any industry. Many folks new to the work believe, "Oh, only non-profits understand this work," or "Such and such company doesn’t get it." Sure, certain company cultures or specific leaders may not be receptive, but I work with all industries, all sectors, ginourmous and teeny tiny.

Guido Neuland:
On your website loosetooth.com you say you are happy to have such a marvelous job (graphic facilitator). What do you like about that job, what makes it special for you? How do you explain that to a person who is not familiar with that matter?

Brandy Agerbeck:
As a teenager I had one of those wonderfully arrogant teenage thoughts, "I want to get paid to be me." I am incredibly fortunate that I do. Graphic facilitation is a perfect fit with my aptitudes and skills. I do my two favorite things for a living: drawing and thinking.

The work itself is very intense. My hands, eyes, ears and brain are all dialed up to 11. I'm wrung out like a washcloth at the end of the day. And it's so gratifying. I love serving my clients, contributing my specific skills so they can have more productive, powerful meetings. I love the transparency of my work. People see exactly what I’m doing for them. Making their conversations tangible, clearly recorded on paper allows them to see their work from a new perspective.

How do I explain it? It took about seven years of doing the work to start to explain it well. Now I say I’ve got a strange, great job; I am a graphic facilitator. When a group of people are having a strategy session, I'm drawing at a big piece of paper at the front of the room, mapping their conversation. I'm helping them see their work take shape.

Graphic facilitation makes perfect sense once you experience it. Once it's your meeting being mapped. In words, I can only explain the context and the better uses of it. After that a potential client needs to take the leap to hire me to really see and experience the value.

Guido Neuland:
What was your favorite job so far - or does every job has something special for you?

Brandy Agerbeck:
Definitely the latter. Certain jobs stand out for being in a sexy locale or clients with a great rapport or company culture, but all in all the work is really gratifying and positive.

I'm not an early bird, so when I'm waking up early to set up at 7:00 am, I'm grumbling and fumbling around. Once the project kicks in, I feel the energy of the group. Clients respond to seeing their conversation in front of them and I think, "Man, what a great job."


Guido Neuland:
Are you accepting every lead - or are you one of the lucky persons that have the great opportunity to choose their jobs? Under what circumstances would you reject an order?

Brandy Agerbeck:
In January of 2010, despite economic conditions, my business felt like it ascended to a new level of a video game and I was showered in gold coins. Nearly fifteen years in, I am now enjoying a maturity in my practice. I've got a handful of great facilitators I collaborate with repeatedly, along with a comfortable amount of leads with new clients.

I've always been willing to say no to clients. Sometimes I see their event’s agenda and my skills aren’t a good fit. More often, it's budget. I don’t negotiate on my rate. Whenever I have, I've been treated like a bargain. That feels lousy.

For ages, my site has had a very long, client-focused Frequently Asked Questions page. A colleague recently said, "Well, your FAQ page isn't exactly rude, it's, uh..." I answered, "Direct." I make it clear that I only work with signed contracts, only work with a deposits, etc. No doubt that initial officiousness turns some clients off. Happily, the leads who do contact me have often read those FAQ's. They are ready to work together. Nine times out of ten my clients are informed, respectful, eager to work with me. Any service provider would be thrilled with that and I think the information and tone of my site sets us up for a great working relationship.



Guido Neuland:
Your latest project is called drawing switch - turn the switch and start drawing.
What exactly is hiding behind the "drawing switch"?

Brandy Agerbeck:
I'm so glad you asked! It launched early 2011 and is still taking shape.
In your first question, I do say that I think I had the right "wiring" to draw. Since I draw in front of people for a living, I hear many drawing horror stories. People tell me specific instances of when they were told they couldn’t draw. They remember the grade, the teacher or parent, what they were drawing wrong. They stopped drawing. The drawing switch was flipped off.
This break my heart.

I want to help flip their drawing switches back on! Drawing is a great thinking tool, a great way to work out your ideas. When we are told or tell ourselves we can't draw, we lose that tool. I hope the site will open people up to drawing, the wide variety of reasons to draw, ways of drawing.

Sure, I get paid big bucks to draw in front of people for a living. I love it. But drawing can be entirely personal and private. And it can be fast and messy. Drawing is a fantastic process, a wonderful practice. Sadly, most people get intimidated by the product and feel it's not accessible to them. With TheDrawingSwitch.com I want to give people permission, access, options to restart a drawing practice. To reclaim drawing as a tool for themselves.

Guido Neuland:
Why are you challenging the visitors on your website to draw a zebra for your flocks?

Brandy Agerbeck:
Too often we think drawing is only successful if we draw something representationally. I.e. To draw a zebra that looks like a zebra. That's only one narrow part of drawing. And even within that objective, there's a gajillion ways to draw a zebra. With the zebra herd, we see that every single drawing is a successful zebra. You look at each and think "zebra."


Guido Neuland:
Why a zebra?

Brandy Agerbeck:
It started arbitrarily. Summing up the stories people tell me, "In grade X, Ms. Y told you you couldn't draw a Z." Z = Zebra.

Zebras became a perfect mascot. First, folks find horses/zebras tough to draw. I do. Conversely, any vaguely horse shaped animal with stripes reads as a zebra. Therefore, it's pretty easy to successfully draw a zebra. Third, it fits that they are striped, lined, black and white like drawn lines on a page. Next, I learned that each one has unique stripes, like our fingerprints. Every zebra is unique like every drawing of one. And the pièce de résistance was when a good friend told me the collective noun for zebras was a zeal. A zeal of zebras! There's nothing better than that.



Guido Neuland:
For some time already people can watch your tutorial videos at youtube. As one can see you are working with Neuland markers, what I am very pleased about. What do you value most about our items?

Brandy Agerbeck:
I am a huge fan of Neuland markers, and I love it when people ask me about them through the videos and on events.

The number one value to me is that they are non-toxic. The second reason I switched to them is that they are refillable. Being an artist, you'd think I'd first say the fantastic color range and the giant BigOne nibs. Also great qualities.

During four college years of printmaking with acids and solvents, I learned the importance of health and safety in art materials. I am thrilled your markers are safe both for me and the earth.

The BigOne markers are perfect for making giant drawings in front of big groups of people. I love the smaller chisel tips for details. I would really love a world where ALL flipcharts were drawn with BigOne’s, making meetings more legible and more colorful!

I first found the Bikablos after I was well into my practice, but would highly recommend them to any beginner. I chose to learn German in high school because I loved all the giant words built out of roots. You, Holger and Martin have done the visual equivalent. The iconography is robust. Each icon is both simple and expressive.

If I were to build the essential Neuland Beginner’s Kit it’d be a set of 12 chisel tips, a set of 12 BigOnes and the two Bikablos.

Guido Neuland:
In winter last year you took a well-deserved break and used this time to travel by ship along the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel. When you stopped in Köln we could spent a day at home of Martin Haussmann together with Holger Scholz and Karina and have a pleasant and relaxing conversation. But actually the reason of your trip was another. What inspired you to visit Europe at this time of the year? What is your personal résumé?

Brandy Agerbeck:
It started with the great convergence of time, money and a passport! Professionally, 2010 was a fantastic year. The trip was my own Year End Bonus. Working solo, it's easy to forget to celebrate successes. There's always the next goal, the next video, the next next to think about.

I add personal travel time to my business trips whenever I can. Travel gives me new experiences, perspectives, the best thinking space. This trip was unique, it was a pleasure trip. Our one fantastic day talking shop with you, Martin, Holger and Karina was also a pleasure!

I was most anticipating a side trip to Heidelberg. As you mentioned, I was born there, moving when I was four months old. I'd never been back. It's a beautiful place. I really loved looking at the town covered in snow from Heidelberg castle, as the church bells were tolled. I kept thinking, "What a lovely place to be from."

Happily, the heavier snows didn't affect my trip. I got to see a corner of The Black Forest blanketed in snow. It felt magical and I wish I could have had all my friends in my pocket to see its beauty.

 

Guido Neuland:
Thank you very much for this interview Brandy. Are you intending to be at the IFVP conference in October? I would be pleased to see you there again.

Brandy Agerbeck:
You’re so welcome, Guido. Thank you for asking. I love doing my work and talking about my work. Yes, I'm registered for Aloha 2011! I am thrilled for the tropical location and I hope we get a great group of new attendees from the Pacific Rim. I look forward to more great conversation and generative ideas with you.

 

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