In a downtown conference room, Mike Petitto scribbled furiously on a wall-size board of card stock as five panelists talked about blockchain technology.
A curious audience watched the artist draw the sprawling conversation as it unfolded, using thick markers to render an interconnected group of thought bubbles, information boxes, and cartoon drawings.
Forget PowerPoint. Meet the hottest new addition to the business meeting: the illustrator.
A novel trade known as “graphic facilitation” harnesses the most analog of skills to enhance presentations, panel discussions, and conferences with a live-drawn visual display.
Cory Bolotsky, who organized the blockchain event for the venture firm Underscore VC, said the live illustration brought a sense of edginess and creativity to the confab.
“People [told us] that was really cool and engaging,” he said.
The illustrations, he said, also helped his organization identify connections between the rapid-fire ideas that bounced around the room that day.
Bolotsky said he decided to hire a crew of illustrators because Underscore wanted to make sure that the blockchain gathering didn’t come off as a run-of-the-mill conference.
“We don’t want someone onstage just talking at you. We want conversations to be engaging, and educational, and interactive,” he said.
Underscore turned to Collective Next, a Leather District consulting firm that has built a robust graphic facilitation trade over the last several years.
The company’s leaders say live illustration can make meetings, from major extravaganzas to small office gatherings, both more interactive and more efficient.
“Acknowledging somebody’s voice allows them to feel heard,” said Matthew Saiia, the company’s chief executive. “We’ve all been in a room where that individual is saying the same thing over and over again. Part of it is because they’re not sure that they were heard.”
The startup accelerator MassChallenge used graphic facilitation to overcome language barriers in a discussion about international business. An illustrator helped Got History?, a local advocacy group, think more visually, leading the group to a plan to use maps and phone applications to promote Boston’s cultural heritage.
Often illustrators serve as an active conversational catalyst, helping to guide conversations about design, products, and organizational change.
At a recent board meeting for the nonprofit Girls Rock Campaign Boston, graphic facilitators helped the group decide how to go about selecting new members.
The board members split into small groups to discuss the attributes they were seeking. When they came back together, Collective Next creative director Erin King used a whiteboard to sketch common themes: accounting experience (represented by dollar signs and calculator keys), for instance, and a “passion and commitment to the mission” (small hearts).
Graphic facilitation traces its origins back more than a half-century, to a postwar period in which organizations were trying to foster more democratic decision-making, but it remained a niche activity for years, according to Philip Bakelaar, a consultant who teaches graphic facilitation at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
By the 1990s, he said, there were only a few dozen people actively involved in the trade. Now, the International Forum of Visual Practitioners, a trade group, counts about 350 members. There are another 500 or so graphic facilitators in Europe, he said.
Bakelaar sees the growth as a product of “the idea that our past answers are inadequate to deal with future problems, so we need creative processes that can draw new unknown solutions out of a group of people.”
It’s also a way for companies to signal that they are innovative, no small thing in a tight labor market in which companies are competing for scarce talent.
“We’ve got a millennial workforce that is much more visual,” said Ian R. Cross, director of the Center for Marketing Technology at Bentley University. “It’s less interested and comfortable with long, wordy strategy documents, and it’s much more interested in connecting graphically, connecting with pictures, short sentences, emojis.”
Collective Next and other companies have also begun to offer live illustration remotely, using an Internet connection to make services available for meetings in far-flung locations.
Graphic facilitation isn’t cheap. Collective Next’s event services start at a few thousand dollars and can range into the hundreds of thousands for projects that can span weeks, or even months.
The business has created a remarkably lucrative new market for the skills of creative types. Saiia said a freelance artist can make between $60,000 and $80,000 per year.
Nathaniel Bellows, a Boston-born artist and writer now based in New York, said graphic facilitation jobs have helped support his pursuits as a musician, novelist, and poet.
But he earns every dollar. He said the job involves intense exertion, both physically and mentally.
“It’s extremely exhausting to do it, because you’re standing there for hours at times, and you’re in this zone of being extremely perceptive and aware of what’s happening,” he said.
Tricia Walker, a Collective Next staffer, said it is also hard to render emotional discussions. She recalled working with a group of senior housing residents who spoke about missing hot meals, and struggling to get around without assistance.
“I had tears streaming down my cheeks, and I had to stop and pause,” Walker said. She said in that situation, she decided to focus on the words, not the pictures. “I just couldn’t give a visual to that without making it more excruciating, I thought.”
Walker, who trains Collective Next’s team of graphic facilitators, said she advises artists to wear professional clothes that provide enough freedom of movement to accommodate hours of stretching, crouching, and leaning. Comfortable shoes are essential, she says: no heels.
Graphic facilitators carry white-out tape — there’s no shame in erasing something if the conversation takes an unexpected turn — and many use markers that can be refilled and are comfortable enough to hold for a long time.
On a recent afternoon in Kendall Square, Walker and King had the rare treat of being able to sit as they worked for hours on a public graphic project.
The task here was slightly different from the more typical conference gig. Abcam, a United Kingdom firm hoping to raise its profile in the center of Cambridge’s biotech world, hired Collective Next to create an artistic representation of the results of a live survey.
Green-shirted Abcam representatives stopped passing scientists in the outdoor plaza next to the outbound Red Line stop and asked what motivated their research, then brought the responses to the illustrators, who tried to represent each one on a hexagonal placard.
One woman had gone into medicine to find a cure for liver cancer. Walker had an idea of what she wanted to draw, but some difficulty remembering the exact shape of a liver. She was able to come up with a sketch of a body, showing the liver highlighted in red, thanks to a quick lookup on her phone.
Sarah Dolny, the Abcam events manager for the event, said the company hopes to build a permanent display using about 100 of the illustrations — one she hopes will represent the company’s esteem for its clients and colleagues.
“We wanted it to be something that people can actually experience and see, and walk around,” she said. “Words are really powerful, but we wanted to be able to bring it to life in a creative, unexpected way.”