On Scribing

Here is the working introduction of my manuscript On Scribing: A Social Art of the 21st Century, which I’m aiming to publish (self, or other) by September 2017. Feedback welcome, as a comment to this post, or to contact@kelvybird.com. Thanks!



Each of our gestures, scribed on a wall or enacted in daily life, matters to the preservation and evolution of our species.

When we see clearly, in an informed open-minded way, we can make choices that involve and positively impact entire systems, small and large alike. That might mean taking five minutes to call a friend to say “Hi…” establishing connection. It might mean taking a stand in your company to reduce polluting the ocean, influencing coral reefs and thus the entire global food chain.

To make positive choices, we must first open our eyes and see.

In 1933, Josef Albers arrived at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina knowing few English words, enough to convey his purpose for teaching: “To open eyes.”[1] In some ways, this book is an homage to Albers, who opened countless eyes through his decades-long exploration with color and his dedication to teaching.

My own inquiry into the relatedness of things began in earnest when reading and applying Albers’s seminal book Interaction of Color during a university class called “Color, Form & Space.” Professor Norman Daly challenged us: “Prove color is not independent.” By investigating various hues and values side by side and placed upon one another, my eyes and mind were widely opened by the very same grey appearing purple against yellow, then green against red.

As a painter, I started to attune to the relationships of color and objects everywhere. Beige against indigo: a moth, pinned against a screen, in darkness, seeking light. The inquiry extended to non-material things, too. Ideas side-by-side… how to represent those juxtapositions? People side-by-side… how to convey the vibrational field?

Then, in 1995, I met Matt and Gail Taylor and was introduced to scribing as a facilitative role in collaborative processes. In one DesignShop™[2] – an immersive experience where stakeholders come together to scan information, focus around options, and act on solutions in cycles of rapid iteration and rotating teamwork – every concept, view, hunch was drawn up on rolling dry erase walls and made visible to the whole group.

Through the placement of these large walls side-by-side, each containing unique ideas, suddenly I saw a format that extended my study of color into visual thinking.

I saw a way to represent multiple ideas from multiple people in one place, stimulating group insight. It was like walking into a cathedral full of mosaic, where each piece of colored glass, though unique, loses itself in the vastness of the overall creation. The full array of these dry erase walls seemed like a passage to a new kind of human interaction.

Wait! But what is scribing?!

To scribe is to visually represent ideas while people talk, while people can see the drawing, to establish relation within content that aids with insight and decision-making. It’s essentially a language with “tight integration of words and visual elements”[3] that facilitates group learning.

Known to have taken root in the Bay Area of California in the early 1970’s[4] – scribing is a practice that makes the unknown manifest through pictures, maps, diagrams, and models. It’s a kind of performance art, translating the concepts and energy of gathered individuals onto a wall, while they watch and engage by offering inputs. Whether tracking presentations, meetings, dialogues, or systems – scribing effectively provides guidance.

Scribes serve as artistic aids in human navigation and shared seeing.

Scribes represent information, in as neutral a way as possible, to craft living artifacts. We draw, then document the work digitally, then let go of the tangible pieces by handing off paper and boards to clients, and even wipe down dry erase and chalkboard surfaces immediately after a group stops talking.

The process is fleeting. The final images end up on people’s smartphones, in documents, reprinted as posters for conference rooms, in reports, in library displays, and as handouts for those not in the room during the actual making of the piece. But the physical artifact is a mere echo of the primary value, which is in-the-moment collective sourcing and reflection.

Scribing is an inherently participatory art form.

Historically, two-dimensional art making has been a private, sheltered creative act. Scribing, though, is an exposed, witnessed, feedback-dependent activity. It gives shape to conditions in an organic way, in rhythm with what is wanting to be voiced and seen.

I listen. I draw. You see. You speak. I listen I draw you see you speak. You see I listen you speak I draw. You speak I draw we see we listen. (That’s how it feels.) It’s fluid.

Scribing is brought to life, by and for, the social field in which it’s created.

Wassily Kandinsky viewed art as a liberating device, bringing the inner life alive through pure line, shape, and color.[5] Going beyond an abstract 2-dimensional plane and with increased freeing potential, scribing activates the social field, the unseen territory of human interaction.

When I work at a wall with a participant audience at my back, the engagement is with both their content and energy. By generating an immediately visible reference point, the content and energy are fueled within a new reflective context.

A reinforcing loop occurs between what is offered through the words and the images, thus expands the container for interaction and insight – and, through synthesized imagery, can reconnect people with a sense of wholeness.

This art is of the whole.

It only has life because a communal desire to make sense exists. Someone, or a team, has decided to bring in a scribe to help people see what it is they are talking about.

What comes to form through the hand of the scribe is what’s meant to come through, no more no less. What lands on a surface – no matter how thought through – is as far as a system can go at a given time. It reflects a slice of time.

Sailors cut through fog at the speed they hear the gonging buoys. Chiropractors adjust a neck within the limits of the vertebral mobility. We can only move as fast as conditions allow, within a range of readiness; scribes track that movement.

Scribing is a visual practice unique in our age, a distinct art form of the 21st century, functioning in the moment, across boundaries, and as a social seeing device.

Because of its interactive and co-creative nature, scribing presents a way for a body of people to arrive at collective awareness. It offers a return to a sacred way of being together, where our spirit of humanity rises over any individual agenda. The assemblage of the parts – like colors, like mosaic tiles, like walls hosting ideas side-by side, like bodies in a room talking and listening – transcends the current known reality.

Of course this is an aspirational view, and it’s not meant in any way to undervalue the approach of using graphics to mirror group content in a literal or metaphoric way. There is great value in having a tree drawn as the word tree is spoken; this lands the territory in a clear and precise way for people.

My view is intended as an additional approach in the practice, one that can bridge the current popular styles of graphic recording and facilitation to a practice with potentially deeper and wider social impact.

Society is in desperate need of seeing.

I write this book only to aid in that advance. We are a species edging towards extinction if we do not address our behaviors to turn around global trends – including climate warming, inequality, and perpetuated violence, among others.

Maybe this kind of urgency for survival has been felt perennially throughout history, during other cycles of destruction/contraction that humankind has faced (i.e.; the Bubonic Plague, the Holocaust…)[6] But certainly this is a unique time in history if we do not together address our human and planet-destructive actions.

With the aid of seeing, we can more clearly choose and chart our trajectory. Our views become shared, solvable in a very different manner than if we exist within individual bubbles of perspective.

It is a time to orient with a long view. It is a time to touch the positive potential in ourselves and those around us, without apology, with determination.

It is a time, with open eyes, to see clearly and act.

Today’s great challenges call us to (re)arrange our interior dimensions to more adequately meet current, outer realities.

Working from the inside out, then, by unpacking my own experience from the past 30 or so years, I serve up visual practice as one lens to aid with this larger shift.

I write for those who seek to see with fresh eyes.

This book is definitely aimed at the development of current and future scribes, to expand the possibility and impact of what we do.

It is for a broader audience, too, for those whose “pens” take shape as kitchen utensils, gardening rakes, community leagues, city planning, national policy-making – you name it.

It’s a book for anyone who cares about how we exist together as humans, for anyone wanting to explore their interior functioning, who seeks to approach the world anew.

[1] Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933–1957, Oct 2015 – Jan 2016 exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston MA.

[2] Paul Roberts. “Group Genius”. Fast Company. 1997.

[3] Robert E. Horn. “Visual Language and Converging Technologies in the Next 10-15 Years (and Beyond)” 2001.

[4] David Sibbet. “A Graphic Facilitation Retrospective” 2001.

[5] Wassily Kandinsky. Concerning the Spiritual in Art (The Art of Spiritual Harmony). 1914, Dover Publications, 1977.

[6] Tobias Stone. “History tells us what may happen next with Brexit & Trump” 2016.

For anyone who made it this far… here is a bonus: The ToC and end chapter that more fully maps out my Model of Practice. Enjoy.


  1. Emma says:

    Thank you for sharing your work in progress, it is looking rather wonderful and I feel excited and grateful that you are articulating what you feel is needed now to support regenerative change, in all its shapes and forms.

  2. Bryan Coffman says:

    This section reads like a well/composed piece of music greets the ear. The individual passages build on one another without being too linear. I am a fan of the numerous sub-section headers. In an age of ever-more fragmented attention, readers unfortunately need more guideposts to assist comprehension. Like Alexander’s books, one might read the sub-headings alone for a quick pass through the material. They afford the opportunity for a more non-linear approach to the work. As one other commenter noted, it would be good if at least some sections of the book were illustrated. As an example, a chapter could be illustrated one sub-topic at a time using a visual build. This would mimic the dance between drawing and content over time that you describe. Attempting the entire book in this fashion might be too much.

    Looking forward to reading the finished work.

  3. Allie Middleton says:

    Hi Kelvy, thanks for ‘being the seeing’, informing the emerging ground of this new participatory social art form.

    Fun to witness your shaping of the collective awareness in all the u.labs and listen and see and then move with all the insights dancing together.

    Your synthesis and simultaneous approaches to positive enactment helps co-initiate ‘the new zone’ we are living into with a bit more scaffolding and safety.

    Will look forward to a map and some application stories.

    thank you for co-evolving the sacred conversation of our times

    xo Allie

  4. michelle jackson says:

    I’m wondering what this book would look like if its content was scribed style or made in a graphic novela style. If you are reaching visual artists, this might be an interesting way to engage that community.

  5. Thank you Kelvy, How refreshing to read your words! And it’s all there (all the right words), and having enjoyed your beautiful scribing in the U.Lab, I can only congratulate you, and would like to hereby place my advance order for your book!

    On another, more profound note, I have during the past 18 months been organizing community based screening events of documentary films, seeking to find the space, and/or co-create the space for meaningful dialogues and an opening up of awareness. The initiative is called “CineConCiencia” (in Palma de Mallorca, Spain); it’s a play on words: “conscious film” and “film with science”.

    Just about a month ago, realizing what I believe is the unused potential of art in this dialogue, I started another initiative here called “ArteConCiencia” and reading your blog above my whole being went into some altered state. I think you nailed it!

    Can’t wait to see the book, and learn more about scribing! Any plans on a Spanish translation?


    Warm regards,


    P.S. We also offer a workshop using the Theory U toolbox, we call it “Prototyping for Sustainability” (Prototipando para la sostenibilidad). 🙂

  6. heather Lawrence says:

    Dear Kelvy,
    thankyou so much for sharing this inroduction to your coming book! As I watch you scribe in each of the ULab sessions I have tried to imagine how you alchemically capture the whole… and the micro.. or what is begining to emerge.. it is a joy to watch and see the finished result and hear you explain a little of what you heard..like a conduit for the creater whole. Your writing here also gave me hope, because when i try to “draw” squiggles!! or consider trying in our coaching circle, I seem unable to find ways to express what I hear or want to express… it seems too big.. and complex! It is enough to try to listen!..Now, reading your words I am reminded, that it is my listening and where I place my attention that matters too.
    Can I add to your words, “Society is in desperate need of seeing” and “Society is in desperate need of new ways to listen” I think I am still practicing both of these capacities as a part of your “broader audience”. these words were so welcome to me and give me confidence to say, “I am a future scribe as I use my “pen” in the kitchen and garden, with my family and friends and more and more in the world” I seek to see and listen to the longings of people and what is wanting to emerge at this time. Deep gratitude Kelvy, for contributng to my growing courage and adding to the rich tapestry of co-creation at the PI and beyond, wherever you share your gifts.