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The Run-up to IFVP from One Person’s Viewpoint

By Susan Kelly

Reggae singer, Ziggy Marley once said, “Don’t know your past, don’t know your future.” So, I’m contributing a few slices of the past from my perspective. My view spans from 1979 to the present. I want to focus on the origins of IFVP, but first, there are a few things to know about the field leading up to IFVP. (I’m mostly not including names because I know I will forget someone.)

Before my time, circa late 60’s into the 70’s, there was a group of innovative people who saw the need to have a bigger system view. They were working on mapping out complex information and needed a way see the parts and the whole simultaneously. So they got out a roll of paper they happened to have and some pens and worked on the wall. They figured out how to organize information to assist in analysis and reflection and meaning making. This essentially was the genesis of many of our ways of working today.

I personally learned about large scale, up front capture of information and ideas while working at a foundation. This was around 1979. I came around the corner into our conference room where I saw two people working on a huge piece of paper on the wall capturing community input about the best use of a recently acquired endowment fund. My jaw dropped.

I was totally excited by the size, the color, the visuals, and the spontaneity and creativity of the moment and, in the process, that everything was being documented in this special way. I didn’t realize at the time that I was looking at an innovation in visual thinking and collaboration that would have many ripples going forward in my personal life and the world of group work. I just intuitively connected. I knew at that moment that I would be doing similar work for the rest of my life. I didn’t know how, but I knew I would. So I decided to start with a training.


In 1980, the first training for graphic recording as “a thing” (as far as most of us who were interested knew) was at Group Graphics (which later became Grove Consultants). I took the first two-day session that was offered. After a few years of struggling with the decision, I finally left the foundation to go into business for myself as a Graphic Recorder. This was in 1984. 

It was hard to find work because the field was relatively new and we didn’t know how to help people see the value of what we were doing. (We didn’t even know ourselves what it was at this point.) So we often depended on facilitators or organizational development consultants to bring us in.

The field was growing, but we were still a loose collection of individual colleagues who kept in touch and often passed work on to each other if we were already scheduled.

As the field evolved, so I evolved.

I was fortunate to have a couple of top-notch consultants who used my services on a regular basis. Through our partnering, I began to learn and understand how what we were doing was more than just capturing people’s ideas in words and visuals. I began to realize we were also facilitating in our way.

This really showed up over the years in the language we used to describe ourselves. Starting in the 70’s, we called what we did Graphic Recording, and we called ourselves Graphic Recorders. A lot of people feel comfortable with this title still.

There was a lot of discussion about this title over the years, though. Was it really reflecting what we were doing? Didn’t it miss the idea that we were co-facilitators in a meeting room when we worked along side a facilitator/consultant who, in all probability at that time, had brought us in? 

As a field, we started recognizing that, indeed, we were facilitating, too, but ours was a quiet, visual way that, nonetheless, was facilitating in its own right.

So, when people began to see the value of what we did, we began to step out and expand our horizons. The cultural reality finally morphed the language to more accurately reflect our work and a great many of us used the title Graphic Facilitators (while still retaining the title Graphic Recorder).

Going back to my early organizational development teachers:

I also learned how the graphics can be a partner in organizational development efforts over a period of time in myriad ways. This is worthy of a lot more discussion.

I also learned that most graphics are connected to process. It may be in a meeting setting, helping people move through steps to a desired end in organized, structured ways or as free flowing conversation, like people visioning or imagining. Or it may be developing information graphics where you need to learn into information that will allow you to depict clarity and essence in a single visual.

I also learned that it’s more than the skills of art or the word; it includes insightfulness, paying attention, tracking, focusing, holding the space for people to participate and interact, reflecting, listening, caring, and being present.


For many of us, there was lots of travel. Inside and outside the U.S. Our way of working was being used all over the world. We were stretched thin because there were not many of us (that we knew of). We shared work. We didn’t feel a sense of competition. 

Here, I am going to use a name:  Leslie Salmon Zhu has to be given credit for being the most persistent voice of anyone for advocating for the need to form a formal non-profit organization (which finally ended up as IFVP). I have to admit that I pushed back, not wanting to get involved in the details of creating and running an organization, not that I was the only voice in the conversation. As it turned out, fortunately for IFVP’s sake, for years, Leslie continued to spearhead the pursuit of the goal :). 

Meanwhile, though, we decided to get together and organize a conference. We thought: “Let’s just start with this and see where we go.” Among all of us, we only knew about 30 graphic recorders. Most of them lived in the Bay Area in Northern California. We had to send hand written invites because quite a number were not yet on email and we didn’t know which ones were and which ones weren’t. Can you imagine today!

We had our first conference in 1996. There were 4 men and 11 women. We had a lot of conversation and talk about the future. It ended up to be a fun, provocative and exciting event. So we decided to do it again the next year in a new location, still in the Bay Area. Several people from the first conference volunteered to put on the conference the following year. (This is actually how all the conferences came to be for the next many years – all volunteer.)

I think it was about Conference #3 that the name International Forum of Visual Practitioners came about. It happened in my dining room when the design team met to develop plans for the conference. For the record, this was at least 3 or 4 years before IFVP was formally solidified as an organization with a board and a tax status. 

I happened to be hosting that particular planning session where, among other things, we were designing an agenda, deciding how to represent the field, and, what to call ourselves in our upcoming announcements. I remember that we were feeling expansive that day and, after much interactive and fun discussion, we settled on  International Forum of Visual Practitioners (IFVP), and it stuck.


It was 2002 that IFVP was officially born. I was on the founding board. Many people, and some in particular, contributed a lot of time and a huge amount of effort to making this a solid organization. It was really exciting and fun and worth it, and, at the same time, it was really hard, but IFVP got off the ground and here we are today.

Obviously the conferences fell under the IFVP umbrella and we are now in the 23rd or so year of annual sessions that have been held all over the U.S. and the world!

So many things have happened between 2001 and today. What I have written is a run up to the birth of IFVP from my viewpoint. There are a 1,000 more stories that I didn’t mention and that others have that contributed to our evolution before and after 2001. I’d love to hear from others to fill in the tapestry.

I’d like to offer a few words about our future:

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I’m providing this picture to show that we Visual Practitioners have a lot of colors on our palettes. Sometimes we learn about these areas as by-products of recording, and sometimes we bring these experiences to our recording.

Look at all the areas we can and do participate in. Look at all the areas of experience we can draw from individually and from others, where we can apply our own style of magic.

That’s why it is so significant to keep connected as a community. The most rewarding and inspirational times for me are when I can connect with kindred spirits and share stories and insights and experiences.

This graphics world has a lot of room under its tent but, in my opinion, what we all have in common is our love of humanity and our appreciation and respect for people’s voices and expressions. 

Our name International Forum of Visual Practitioners and our activities, reflect our global footprint and our desire to be a forum, a place of coming together.

We can use our unlimited creative potential for the good of mankind. We need it now. We need to understand and help others understand the bigger picture of our world inside and outside the conference room. Because of the nature of our work, we are exquisitely poised to help people develop community, find consensus or common ground, and work together in ways that are effective, efficient and personally satisfying and motivating.

If you want to contact me for any reason, get in touch at