I recently sat down with Jody Lentz, a 12-years-and-counting graphic facilitator and Nashville resident, to learn about his work and how the profession of drawing for live events has changed over time. Jody has done consulting and worked for Lego, but is now a “free agent,” as he likes to say. I hope your enjoy learning from his expertise!
What do you call yourself and what you do?
I call myself a facilitator. I do visual listening.
Who taught you to draw?
My parents let me do whatever art-wise. My grandmother was a painter who would send me to art class at Cheekwood when I was 8 or 9 years old. I was learning pretty formal techniques for a kid in grade school. I didn’t learn a lot of figure drawing but I did learn a lot of shapes and drawing what you see. Then I got into comic books around 11 or 12. Superheroes were a whole new thing for me, and they were all in the margins in my books. I always got written up in my report card for “does not use free time wisely.”
I was never a big sports guy. I had to do a sport every season in my high school, so I did cheerleading. Rewind it and connect it to today… I was the guy who made all of the big signs. I learned how to letter really big really early and got lots of practice, not knowing that it would lead to what I do today where you have to figure out spacing. It’s remarkable how all of the things in my life connect to what I do now.
When did you start doing what you do?
I started 12 years ago in 2004 in San Francisco at The Grove Consultants
. David Sibbet who is their founder, who is one of the people who can really own the visual practitioner space. I’ve learned a lot since then, but got switched onto the idea of facilitating while I worked for Lego. The idea that you can get a group, go through a process, and at the end you get a result they wanted (often more than they thought they could get to) is really cool. A facilitator creates synergy, which sounds cheesy but it’s really the best word for it.
Ever since then I’ve added different tools in my toolkit, but the visual thing is consistent across everything I do. I take great pride in my penmanship, so my post-it notes always look immaculate.
When you facilitate, what does a gig look like from start to finish?
There are 2 types. A lot of my work is around strategic planning and cultural development. Typically I’m on those kinds of teams for a while, and I use graphic facilitation to do a lot of different things. Clients call me because they want their company to be a better place to work and get employees from point A to point B without killing each other. It’s for strategy and culture.
The other side is people who say “I want that drawing thing.” My favorite type right now is trade shows. You set up in a booth and listen to the client talk to people, and you record it. Anyone the client talks to is going to come back with a friend.” Oh, I talked to this guy and they drew it all out- you’ve got to check it out!” So they come back and show their friend, “Here’s me!” And while they’re looking the client talks to the new friend they brought about their service.
I would call that a transactional gig where I’m only going in as the visual guy. The others I call transformative. The transformative gigs are where I’m with the client for a long time, and we work on this arc of getting from A to B.
A lot of my work comes in by recommendation, some word of mouth. I have yet to get any leads off of social, but it gives people a good thing to go to see the work.
The biggest part is often figuring out the logistics where will I be, what do I need, where do I stay, how long am I there, where’s the hotel, will you feed me, – that’s the biggest challenge. I work it out on the phone usually. What I do I is a lot closer to PR than journalism- presenting an idealized version of their person or talk to the world. I synthesize all of the content that’s presented and get it down to what’s easy to understand. It’s simplified but not oversimplified. The presentation decks are always available at these events, and no one reads them… But they WILL look at the pictures I drew.
What’s your favorite part about transactional and transformative events?
I really love the transformational gigs because they are more rewarding over time because you’re there to help she-herd them, and I get really deep immersion about the content. There’s always a lot to learn. One of the great things about being a facilitator is that it’s an occupation that gets better the more curious you are. I’ve been with some clients long enough that I’ve seen some dramatic changes where they have a culture now that’s way different from before. Now their culture is strong and codified, and other organizations aspire to their level and try to pick off their employees.
The transactional engagements are fun but sometimes harder because there’s a ton of content. A lot of times I need to learn and do a lot ahead of time, like doing the logos and some titles. If you have a template in mind of what might happen beforehand, it looks a lot more magical when you’re live. “Wow, how did he get all of that?” People love to walk out of the session and have a “oh wow” moment when you’re all done and they see the final result. I like that I have no connection to the event other than that I was hired. I always make a lot of friends at these events because I have nothing to lose! We can talk about anything. With longer-term clients you have to keep some things proper and distanced, but with transactional it’s free and easy.
I did a scribe for a guy’s keynote once, and he sent me the slides ahead of time and everything centered around the idea that they were a unicorn, so I centered my whole board around a unicorn, but then he never mentioned the damn unicorn! So now I’m stuck with this board that has a unicorn in it and now I have to explain it to people. So, sometimes having the content ahead of time will come back to bite you, but sometimes it’s really helpful to understand the bigger picture.
There are pros and cons for each; I like a portfolio with both. As long as clients will have me, I’ll have them.
What are the questions you get asked frequently?
A lot of it is “Do your hands hurt?” I always have markers in my hands , and some days it’s like “Yeah, my hands do hurt!” But what else are you going to do? It’s all part of the job.
Another one is “Are you an artist?” That’s a weird question to me because I still have trouble answering yes. To me it’s the idea of art having an aesthetic purpose, and what I do is much more functional. I’d much rather my work tell the story or synthesize the big picture than make it something beautiful. If what I do helps people make sense of what they’ve just seen, heard, or experienced, that’s far more valuable to me than making a face just right or making something the perfect color. It’s great when that happens, but great art is not why I do what I do. As the profession has grown, it now feels much more mainstream and it’s fun to watch the evolution of it. It’s fun to watch the artists in the business now, like you! I see really terrific art that comes off a lot of artists, and I love your work. There’s another part where I look at some of the work coming out today and go “Hmmm, that’s pretty, but you missed the point. You didn’t nail it.” And I’d much rather nail it than make it perfect.
What do you think when people call you an artist?
People tell me I physically cringe. I take pains to describe what I do as facilitation, not as art.
What do you think of people who say they can’t draw?
With those people, I get them to write the word toy. If you break it down the T is the arms and torso, the O is the head, turn the Y upside down and you have a person! It’s a stick figure, but you made it you CAN draw. There are lots of ways to show people how.
A guy named Gordon MacKenzie wrote one of my favorite books of all time called Orbiting the Giant Hair Ball.
He started shoebox greetings at Hallmark cards in Kansas City, and he was also a metal smith. He would do art sessions with kids from all ages at the local schools. With the kindergarteners, he’d ask who was an artist and all the hands shot up. Everyone’s an artist. By 3rd grade, a third raise their hand. By 6th grade they all look around. We train it out of people because it doesn’t have the intrinsic value that learning your times tables and all that nonsense does.
I try to reframe creativity as a broader picture of imagination because everyone has imagination. There’s Descriptive imagination: describing the world around you in an evocative way, Creative imagination: coming up with new stuff, and Challenge imagination: which is all about deconstructing and doing something new.
I always scoff when people say “I’m not creative,” but everyone is creative. Art has an aesthetic you can work on, but there’s room for everyone. Everybody is creative and I try to steer people back to that. When I’m asked to go into a session on creative problem solving, I do a lot of post it notes and teach people how to brainstorm correctly and lead out of that. When you get someone (me) to coach you on creativity, all of a sudden people cop-out and say “Oh, you do it!” That’s a problem because people have given over creativity to whoever seems creative instead of doing it themselves, and we all have it inside of us.
What tools do you use?
I started with The Grove markers called charters that have great, hard nibs, but they aren’t refillable. They make beautiful letters. At this point, I am almost exclusively using Neuland markers. You can tell the people in the crowd who have a bad office supply addiction because they come up to me and say “Ooo! Where’d you get that?” I have that bad office supply addiction, too! I probably have every shape of post it shape they make. I love the little thought bubbles to add on to things. I also geek out over the Neuland box from Germany. It’s sealed with brown paper and red tape that has German on it. I also use Lego in my sessions… I spend a lot of money on Lego- About $3,000 last year!
I work on paper usually, which I buy over at Plaza
, and I use big sign painter rolls of paper. I love to work on a whiteboard when I get a chance- I have some Neuland whiteboard markers but haven’t invested in the whole set. Expo markers are pretty good but you have to watch for when the ink runs out and the nibs go mushy. People say “Come to our office- we have a whiteboard.” And I have to bring my own wipes and pens because they aren’t up to snuff!
A huge breakthrough for me was discovering the black in/orange-handled Neuland marker that’s alcohol based and doesn’t bleed or smear. I can draw outlines first now without worrying about bleed. Neuland also has a brush nib. It takes getting used to, but it’s fun to try.
What’s the biggest difference you’ve seen over the past 12 years from The Grove to new upstarts like me?
In the beginning of this profession, one track came out of The Grove and the other came out of Capgemini, the global consulting firm. And those two tracks have merged into what we call graphic facilitation. They also developed accelerated learning environments (kind of like a leadership lodge).
The art is a lot better now. The knowledge of visual thinking is not as much of a weirdo west coast thinking anymore, which is awesome. People understand the power of image to carry a message through, which is a great thing for the profession.
There’s so many more people doing it now, although I can’t think of anyone else in Nashville besides you, but it’s widespread enough that there is a network of people and places like that that didn’t exist before. I’ve been a longtime member of the National Association of Facilitators
and haven’t really delved into IFVP. (International Forum of Visual Practitioners)
It’s a more widely appreciate profession, and still in high demand. I love what you guys at The Sketch Effect
down in Atlanta are doing by building a business around it, because up until now it’s been pretty much just free agents and sometimes a loose confederation of people who “kind of” know each other.
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