INC-4: Global Cartoons for a Global problem

Welcome to INC-4 Ottowa

Global Cartoons for a Global Problem

Goodness knows we need one: a global treaty on plastics. But Big Oil with its stranglehold on the stuff of life is lurking with unlimited lobbying resources. Their playbook is one learned from Big Tobacco and Big Sugar: delay, distract, derail

Last week, I was covering the fourth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-4) for the BreakFreeFromPlastic community as they met in Ottawa, Canada, to develop a legally-binding global treaty on plastics.  It’s always a bit weird covering a conference when you’re not physically present. The beginnings of my best cartoons (in my humble opinion at least…) often emerge from an insignificant bit of detail in a conversation. A throwaway comment. A metaphor leaned into. The beginning of a story. So instead I have to rely on having eyes and ears in the ground and a whatsapp group for creative members of the community to throw things into Bryan’s cartoon ideas melting pot. It would be impossible without my contact – she’s actually at the conference, able to corral the troops and filter out the noise, preventing ideas from getting over-thought and overcomplicated.

One of the initial moosy ideas for INC4...

I sketch up ideas in black & white – so as not to be distracted by colour. It means that I prioritise contrast over colour – which is important as there are some parts of the message that really need to pop. 

When you’re creating a cartoon, you’re inside it. It becomes very hard to see it objectively as someone else would with fresh eyes. It’s similar with humour. Once you know the joke, it’s different second time around. So it’s easy to go from being initially tickled by an idea to binning it within the space of half an hour. So the process is this:

1. Catch the idea

2. Sketch it up

3. Move on (before you kill it…)

Time Machine
So much time was wasted revisiting the treaty scope. Kicking the process into the long grass is a tactic as old as time…
Its a marine litter problem INC4
This cartoon was originally drawn 5 years ago, but it is still as appropriate today… 🙁 It was remixed and reused following “Plastic isn't the problem” comments from the Exxon CEO leading up the negotiations.
Co-opting concerns
Was this idea too edgy? Possibly…
Ha Ha Hadditives
Have you ever thought about the presence of toxic additives in plastic products? No, me neither.
Bioplastic is the future! Oh now hang on a mo…

When it comes to Plastic Pollution, I’ve learned so much from the people I’ve had the privilege to work with. Not so long ago, I was completely oblivious to so much of the plastic world around me. My own ignorance, curiosity and learning form a key part of the cartoons I create.

Micro and Nanoplastics
There were several interventions to avoid the inclusion of Microplastics and Nanoplastics - and the metaphor of “shedding a little skin” is actually a direct quote from one of the delegates…
Ineos - you make me sick

Making a cartoon work for a global audience is far from straightforward. However, you’ll know when an idea has resonated when the request comes to facilitate the translation of the cartoon into another language. This in itself can be problematic – and it comes with two main pitfalls. 

Firstly, other languages can obviously use a different number of words to say a phrase. Especially if an idiom is used. For example – “You’re pulling my leg” in Finnish becomes “You’re pulling me by the nose”, in German “You are taking me unto your arm”, and in Russian “You’re hanging noodles from my ears”.  In a cartoon the speech bubbles form an integral part of the artwork, and they evolve as the artwork evolves. Suddenly having to change their shape or size to accommodate a few extra words can cause a real design headache.


The whole nine yards
A visual idiom that probably won’t translate…

Secondly, writing is much slower and proofing is much more difficult. A missing accent or misspelt word is so easy to do, and might remain unspotted to the very last. This adds time to the to-ing and fro-ing of finalising the artwork. I’ve toyed with the idea of making remixable cartoons using the fabulous Remixer Machine. I’ve already created a few comic fonts of my own hand, so giving participants the ability to remix a cartoon with different words is very possible. Hopefully I can have a prototype of the remixable cartoon built for INC-5 – watch this space!


The bridge to busan
The final leg of the treaty process will take place in Busan, South Korea at the end of November.

Documentary Cartooning

Aligned Values and Behaviours

Documentary Cartooning

At a recent two-day gathering where I was busily trying to capture insight in cartoon form, a man came up to me and said – “I’ve figured out what you’re doing – you’re documentary cartooning!”. On reflection, he was quite correct. I’m trying to lean into conversations as they arise and when a visual idea presents itself, I grab it with both hands and let it come to life on my page – documented for others to derive meaning from long after the event has taken place.

For the last few years I have been experimenting with different ways of capturing and documenting live conversation as it unfolds. There are a few different techniques. 

The Conversation Landscape

One way to capture the richness of a group’s thoughts or reflections is to live draw the session as it unfolds. The drawing above represents a 60min reflective session where a group of 25 people had previously split up into small groups to think about shared values and behaviours and write their responses on postcards to help with feeding back to the main group. There was a bit of overlap between groups, so as a point was made, it was grouped with others and group’s audible response gave an indication of resonance. 

Output: Gives the feeling of having collaboratively created something meaningful. After the event it’s a great aide-mémoir for those who were part of the conversation, as technically the conversation has been mapped.

Struggle Bus

Nuggets of Insight

When people get together and share in conversation, nuggets of insight appear amidst their words. Metaphors, humour and storytelling all provide clues as to what the insight could look like as a visual expression. 

The “Struggle Bus” example below is a good example of an off-the-cuff comment that resonated with a room full of social entrepreneurs. It tells a story of how hard it can be to get a social project off the ground – but that we can still get there. And it helps to know that there are others on the bus too! Interestingly, as a visual, there is plenty of productive ambiguity in the cartoon. Am I ready to get on the bus? Maybe if I sit beside the right person, they can help me? Different people will add different meaning.

Output: As individual cartoons, these digital assets can have impact long after the event, and inspire people who weren’t there. They can be a useful hook for a blog post and on social media, and can be made available to the participants to use under a Creative Commons licence.  

Thanks SO much again – your thinkery captured the nuance and metaphor of our dialogue as always, and it’s made the follow-up communications a pleasure to do <3

Bex Trevelyan

Platform Places

alt23 sketchnote - Anne-Marie Scott

Keynote Sketchnote

A keynote sketchnote is a visual landscape created live while tuning into a person deliver a presentation, usually at a conference. The example above was created during a keynote by Anne-Marie Scott at the ALT conference.

To me, a keynote feels like a journey. There’s usually a defined theme which flows through the presentation. Some pitfalls and highlights. An opening gambit and a measured conclusion. Often there are visual clues provided by the speaker in the way of slides. The challenge here is to be playful with all of the above, and see if it all can be balanced on a single page.

Output: This form of illustration can be a great way of sharing the “gist” of what someone just spoke about to the wider group who might be connected to the event but weren’t able to attend. 

25 Years of EdTech

25 Years of EdTech - Cover

25 Years of EdTech

Martin Weller, Professor at the UK’s Open University, got in touch regarding the aesthetic for a book he was earnestly applying the finishing touches to – 25 Years of EdTech.

Of course, as Martin knows, the Visual Thinkery process means that together we’ll create 10 book covers, as well as anything else we pick up along the way. This includes even suggesting alternative titles for the book (which is outrageous, when you think about it) but even this creates a different lens to get an alternative glimpse through.  

Interestingly, the first idea was the one that eventually stuck:

25 Years of EdTech - X-ray Goggles


But there are a few others that I think deserve an honourable mention. I was tickled by the idea of a relationship between parent and child (but I want to go this way!

25 Years of EdTech - Ed & Tech


And it’s not long before I’m drawing robots. (And then the world of assessment will be miiiiiiiine!)

25 Years of EdTech - The scaling up of Edtech


I like “The Web Years” as it reminds me of the common biographical strapline (the wonder years, the wilderness years…) and suggests that there has always been some sort of technology in Education, but only recently has it involved the web. Here we go again, here we go go go to the temple of consumption… (apologies – you probably didn’t need reminded of that song…)

25 Years of EdTech - The Web Years


ISDN – Now that will change everything…

25 Years of EdTech - Dodgy Connection


We’re never far from someone taxonomising all the things. But not me – I’m more of an alchemist…

25 Years of EdTech - Alchemist's Handbook


In reflection, there were small elements from a number of these ideas that made their way into the final cover. Some consciously, and others less so.

Now Remix this…

As part of the promotion of the book, AU Press asked if would be possible to create a remixable front cover. So I (Bryan) set about separating the visual elements so that they could be remixed using the Fabulous Remixer Machine. Hair highlights, skin tone, background – but maybe more importantly the text on the glasses and the strapline at the bottom. Have a go!

25 Years of EdTech - Remixer

And Finally…

Quite often ideas appear as mini-stories in 3-panelled comic strip format. A couple of these made it into the book. I don’t think it matters what the content relates to, there is always a place for visual humour… 

25 Years of EdTech - Year Zero

BFFP – Gloves and Masks

BFFP - Gloves and Masks - Glove Head

BreakFreeFromPlastic – Masks and Gloves

I’ve seen them on the streets around where I live. Discarded surgical masks that no-one will touch. Encouraging others to see the impact this has on our environment is no easy task. 

As always with the Visual Thinkery process, we met as a group to have a facilitated conversation about the issues at large.


BFFP - Gloves and Masks - Surgical Gloves


I (Bryan) try to catch as many visual ideas as possible. At the outset it’s hard to know what will resonate with the process participants or the audience. Going wide, and creating at least 10 ideas allows us to test and measure what resonates, in order to then improve or combine ideas further.

I want a better future

What is the motivation behind the making/buying of a reusable mask. Self preservation probably for most, but what about a sense of hope for the people we share community with?

BFFP - Gloves and Masks - I want a better future

Sit back and prepare for takeoff…

A strong idea to emerge from the conversation was the aesthetic of Airline Safety Instructions. As a metaphor, it’s very recognisable: “Place over nose + mouth and breathe normally” with lots of opportunity for adding a degree of humour…

BFFP - Gloves and Masks - Safety Instructions

Often there is a requirement for multiple translations of the same visual ideas. Also, splitting into engaging chunks for social media campaign engagement.

BFFP - Gloves and Masks - Safety Instructions

Look mom, no words…

If there’s a way to talk in pictures without using any words, it’s also worth pursuing.   

BFFP - Gloves and Masks - Happy Planet

And Finally

The idea of a “wave” of plastic came directly from the conversation, so by creating a custom brush, we did just that. Find out more about BreakFreeFromPlastic’s Mask and Glove campaign.


BFFP - Gloves and Masks - Wave of Masks

Open University – Open Degree Programme

OU Degree Programme

Open University Degree Programme

I have to confess, I didn’t know much about the Open Degree Programme from the Open University, until Martin Weller asked if we could help capture the visual essence of it to help get others up to speed. 

At its inception, 50 years ago, the Open University in the UK only offered an open programme. Think of the broadest collection of modules that could be put together to form a degree course. Think of each person, charting their own course. Of course, this appeals to me (Bryan) greatly – following the path of greatest interests, rather than my own academic journey which seemed much more like the path of least resistance…


OU Open Degree - Path of greatest interest


As usual, we had an open facilitated conversation lasting about 90mins with the team, which was recorded so as to go back through the conversation to hunt for visual clues, chiefly metaphors and humour.


Undertaking a degree programme requires bravery, but being able to follow your interests requires even more.


OU Open Degree - Brave Learners

Paths of Greatest Interest

During our conversation, one of the team mentioned the “tree of possibilities” when considering all of the possible paths through an Open degree course.

OU Open Degree - Path of greatest interest - tree

The Rebel Degree

Another phrase that was used in our conversation to describe the people who favoured a more flexible degree structure was the “Rebel”…   

OU Open Degree - Rebel Degree

And Finally

It’s always helpful to listen out for an off-the-cuff comment that resonates with the others on the video call…

OU Open Degree - The clue is in the title
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