The icon library: My favorite analogue tool
With the growing use of agile practices and design thinking, there is also a growing awareness of the importance of working visually. If you are an inexperienced drawer, this is can be a major barrier for starting with sketch noting, visual facilitation and graphic recording. In this article, I recommend establishing an icon library to document your learning and growth as a visual practitioner.
An icon library is my repository of the icons and symbols that I have used. I have it so that I can reuse icons by simply looking them up. And yes, it is in an analogue format. In fact, it is a notebook with each page divided into six squares and room for a name for the icon.
The icon library is my box of LEGO bricks. They are the building blocks, that I use when creating visual content. To work efficiently, it helps to actually think if it as a box of LEGO bricks. Meaning, when drawing I have what is available in my icon library. I can use color, size, and the relation to other elements in the visualization to convey meaning. I can also combine icons and thereby create new ones. In that respect, I can use it as a constraint that forces me to think more creatively. While building with LEGOs you usually do not have the option to just go out and get new bricks. You use what is available.
The senior LEGO designer Søren Dyrhøj advices to copy other people´s LEGO models with the bricks you have available. Because when you copy, you are practicing the skills you need to create something original. The same goes for visualizations. When you get started, do not worry about coming up with something unique. Look around you and use what you see; imagery used by your company and established modeling techniques, and do not be ashamed to look icons up online.
When I am not under pressure to deliver, I do take the time to come up with new icons and symbols while creating visualizations. I try to always have the discipline to add them to my icon library then. When I start working with new subject matters or domains, I always make sure to invest some time in coming up with icons and metaphors that I can use for visual content. Also, when I start engaging with a new group of end users, I create an icon for that user. Usually, 70-100% of the drawings I use, are from my icon library. The LEGO metaphor is also one that I have used several times before in different contexts. It is suitable for topics concerning IT architecture consisting of “building blocks”, and for illustrating collaboratively creating a product. Another reason why I like it is because it also refers to my cultural heritage as a Dane (LEGO is a Danish design icon that we are very proud of).
Sooner or later, it is highly recommended to learn from a professional visual practitioner. There are many options for training available, and several books on the topic. This will familiarize you with a visual alphabet, which will take your skills to the next level and enable you to create original content. I personally recommend the book “UZMO – Thinking with your pen” by Martin Haussmann, who is one of the pioneers in graphic facilitation. His bikablo concept is very useful and easy to learn.
Working visually in analogue formats can be a truly liberating experience because you are completely free of the constraints built into digital tools. It can also improve the way you process and present information when you get rid of the abstraction level of the keyboard, and thereby have a closer connection with your content. With the right approach established – e.g. having an icon library – you can work just as efficiently as when using digital tools.