Scribe of the Times

19 May 2015

Author: Nicole Richards

Photography: Illustrations provided by Gavin Blake. Image by Natalie Hunfalvay.

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Gavin Blake’s work as a graphic facilitator has graced the screens of TED and TEDx conferences across the globe and his services are sought by some of the world’s most recognisable companies. It’s all in a day’s work for the man who can’t stop drawing.
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If you’ve watched a TED or TEDx talk, chances are you’ve seen Gavin Blake’s work. He’s a scribe with “around 30” TEDx Events under his belt. A dedicated drawer. A talented visual interpreter who turns volumes of spoken content into engaging illustrations. 

Graphic note-taking is a quintessential part of the TED experience that demands a diverse skill set. In the TED blog post, A field guide to TED graphic notes, Becky Chung explains graphic note-takers “listen to a talk, synthesising everything a speaker is saying, breaking down everything into phrases and drawings, linking ideas and statements, and adding aesthetic details and colours.

“All of this is done in real time, with little to no briefing beforehand,” Chung continues. “It requires more than a good eye or artistic talent; you need an excellent ear practised in active listening. An arsenal of visual vocabulary doesn’t hurt either.”

Blake has all these attributes and more. The energy that springs from the pages of his graphic notes is immediately evident in a conversation with him, during which he jumps nimbly from one theme to another, pausing to add humour or marvel at the good fortune that brought him to this point in his career. 

During his five-year association with TED, Blake has scribed the Dalai Lama, Bono (“it was far out”) and Bill Gates (“a couple of times”). His work has featured at TEDActive in Palm Springs, TEDx events in Sydney, Dubai, Auckland, Dar es Salaam and more.

“Scribing at TED and TEDx events requires super experience,” Blake explains. “It’s a live show and you’ve got to pump out as much content as you possibly can in 18 minutes and there are just so many nuggets that can get dropped in a talk.”

Preparing to scribe his sixth TEDxSydney this week, one of the highest attended TED events in the world, Blake says the sophistication of graphic facilitation has come a long way. 

“I remember the first TEDxSydney in 2010 where I scribed in the foyer of the venue. I only had one whiteboard, so it was a case of drawing on one side then rubbing it off and flipping it over to the other side!” he chuckles. 

The formula for successful graphic facilitation, Blake says, is quite simple. “Ninety-eight per cent of what I do is listening,” he explains. “When I’m scribing I’m just really aware of what I’m doing; I’m listening to the content through a lens that facilitates scribing.”

While others might regard Blake’s ability to translate the spoken word into a pithy set of instant graphics with awe, he’s not one to get caught up in the acclaim. “I don’t think it’s amazing, it’s just what I do,” he says.

The global TEDx stage is a long way from Blake’s earliest forays in drawing, which started when he tried emulating his father’s work in architecture. “From the age of about four, I’d been following my dad around building sites,” Blake says. “I ended up working as an architectural draughtsman with one of Australia’s biggest architectural firms but soon realised that, to get to a point where you can be creative in architecture, you need to take a long path and you can be creative only within very tight boundaries. I didn’t have the discipline to be that patient so on the spur of the moment I decided to go to art school, where I felt very much at home.”

After dropping out of an advanced diploma in fine arts, Blake headed to England where he spent time “bumming around doing odd jobs” before his professional destiny beckoned. His then-girlfriend (now wife) was working for professional services firm Ernst & Young when she came home one day with the news that the firm was looking for people who had a background in architecture and could draw. Blake’s career trajectory was set. 

“My life is just full of these beautiful little chances,” he says with another laugh. 

Blake moved on to work at the then Ernst & Young ASE: Accelerated Solutions Environment. He expanded his skills by “pretty much copying the guys working in the ASE.”

Though he says his early graphic facilitation efforts were "pretty ordinary", Blake built his skills before landing back in Sydney 10 years ago where he worked with a facilitator who urged him to sell his skills to external clients. Gavin’s own business, Fever Picture, was the result. 

“I was really lucky to get some big-time high-end clients very quickly,” Blake says. “Seemingly I’ve been in the right place at the right time and been introduced to the right people, though I do tend to push myself on people a lot too. That’s what happened with TEDxSydney back in 2010 – I called them up and it went from there.”

Blake’s work at TEDx events is unpaid (the events are mostly run by volunteers), but the exposure has brought premium clients from across the globe to his door. 
Armed with a simple black marker, Blake makes a point of ensuring his graphics are “content-rich, rather than just a pretty drawing,” and believes the appeal of graphic facilitation lies in its ability to enhance content and aid learning.

“Most of us are visual learners,” he says, “and I’ve heard many times that my graphic has helped people remember the key points of entire TED and TEDx talks. It seems to provide higher engagement than written content and I think it probably increases intake and recall of content. It has quite a life on social media too.” 

Corporate clients have also seen tremendous value in the power of graphic communication. 

“They know that you can’t communicate well when you’re boring people with chevrons and smiley faces on a page,” says Blake. “When clients engage us to do animation work, they get a cool video that’s in sync with a voiceover from the CEO or GM. It can be in 7,000 locations at once, all saying the same thing – you can’t mistake the content.”

From his base in Bungendore, near Canberra, and through extensive travel, Blake has forged lasting relationships with clients within and beyond Australian shores. At home he’s worked with clients such as Google, Unilever and PwC, alongside state and federal government departments. Overseas he’s worked with Spark (a telecom company from New Zealand), Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology and has a major confectionary-industry client in Singapore.

“I think Australia’s proximity to Asia has played a big role,” he says of increasing interest from international clients. “Asia has been hugely important to me commercially.” 

His work in Singapore opened the doors to further work with the company around the globe. He’s traveled to Moscow, St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Beijing, London and Paris, and worked from Australia for arms of the business located as far away as Helsinki in Finland.

Known for his fast turn-around of illustrations, use of colour and level of detail, Blake’s work is making his name across the world, but his plans for the future still revolve around a simple black marker. “I don’t think I’ll ever put down the pen – I love what I do,” he says emphatically. “I mean, I get paid to draw! How crazy is that!?”


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