5 Reasons You Need to Draw People in Your Visual Thinking

photo of Brandy Agerbeck with halo of markers around her head

by Brandy Agerbeck 

Bring life to your sketchnotes, mind maps, flipcharts, and big graphic recording charts. 

Anyone who learns visual thinking with me knows that I deemphasize iconography. In fact, in the 422 pages of The Idea Shapers, 5% talks address pictorial images.


Because that 5% triggers the big, red I CAN’T DRAW button.

White electrical box with two large round buttons. On the left a red button labeled

I am here to help you confidently push the green I CAN DRAW button.

I teach all sorts of drawing that is not iconography. The other 95% of visual thinking that is writing and drawing lines, shapes, symbols. Making choices about color and size. The mountains of meaning can made independent of drawing icons.


But when you are building your image-drawing skills, the question is:

What are the very first icons you should learn?


Faces and figures.


Here are 5 reasons why:

1 | You are not a brain in a jar.  You are a whole human being.

Abstract thinking and spatial reasoning can stroke our intellectual self. Pattern seeking and making connections on the page tickles the brain.

Believe me, this is my happy place. Nothing better than a smarty party.

On the left a line drawing of a brain in a jar with a X through it. It is labeled Brain Bias. VERSUS. On the right a line drawing of a person with the label Whole Body

And… I am whole person. You are a whole person.

We are intellectual and emotional and logical and intuitive.

While the left brain versus right brain concept is widespread, it is not actually the ways our brains or bodies function.

We can’t be cleaved in half like firewood.

Drawing people help us remember that we are whole humans.

Whole humans full of ideas and thoughts and feelings.

Even the most basic representation of smiley faces and stick people brings life to our drawings. Zero shame in the stickman game. Any face or figure represents you in your physical form.

2 | See yourself among your thoughts, feelings and ideas.

When I feel overwhelmed, I often characterize the thoughts and feelings and ideas as a swarm in my head. Other times it feels like a heavy weight I am carrying.

When I pour all of that onto paper, I can now place myself side-by-side all of that information. 

I feel immediate relief getting it all out.

But I also have the opportunity to draw out where I am in relationship to the information.

Here I am in the center: 

A sketchbook page with a cartoon icon of Brandy in the center and visual notes branching out. A large question mark over her head.

Other times I may be looking back and reflecting. Or I could place myself far away from long-term goals.

Having a representation of myself on the page helps me not lapse back into being a brain in a jar.

This connects to one of my key reasons that I will always choose paper and pen over digital tools.

Physical drawings help me be more in my body.

When I am more in my body, I can better tune into physical cues when I am drawing.


  • Am I feeling tense?
  • Is there pain? Where?
  • Do I feel the goosebumps of a new insight?
Icon of The Postage Stamp, from The Idea Shapers book

The Postage Stamp
Working small to condense your thinking

This was an explicit exercise in "EveryAnn in Headache Land" in The Idea Shapers, pages 301 to 306.

As an example of The Postage Stamp at work, Ann used a pocket-sized notebook to track her chronic headaches. Each instance, she drew herself as a “star person.” She would add text, scribbles, symbols to her mini-me to capture the physical symptoms. As these accumulated, she picked up on patterns that led to discovering her headache triggers.

An animated GIF flipping through pages of a pocket notebook. On each page is a

3 | Simple faces can capture emotions,  ranging from  gut reactions to complex feelings.

While I am always trumpeting the signal for messy, temporary, process-focused drawings, there is a palpable shift when we commit any expression of emotion to paper, whiteboard, sticky note.

This aspect of visual thinking can feel extra vulnerable. Could even be dangerous.

Getting our fears, joys, conflicts, hesitations outside of ourselves and onto a new surface is mighty powerful.

You can shift your perspective. See that inner life in a new way.

It can lead to “shit just got real” moments. 

An icon of a fearful face in purple

Know what that is?

That is information.

The initial emotions are information.

The reaction to seeing it on the page is information.

New insights may come up as words and faces and bodies and all these emotion-mapping tools take shape in your drawing. Also information.

These emotions can be fleeting.

An icon of an angry face repeated 5 times. Shaded to look like it has faded in and then out to imply a fleeting emotion

  Or could persist. 

A row of the same angry face icon to connote ongoing anger

Yep, you guessed it, more information.

This information need not be shameful. Or judged.

An icon of a face looking judgemental, with a big red X crossing it out

All of this is exceedingly useful information.

Making these kinds of drawings let us make sense of our emotions.

Giving ourselves space to place them down.

Take a look.

Get a little distance.

Even if only arm's length. 

Clarity in 5 Easy Faces

Years ago, I was meeting up with a friend to talk business. She was holding onto the old gotta-pay-the-bills freelance skills as she was creating a new business.  was trying to hold onto freelancing in one skillset as she was also building an entirely new business.

She was understandable overwhelmed. 

Seeing her trying to juggle all these possibilities at once, I called a time out.

We had good ol’ 3”x3” sticky notes on hand. I suggested she put one thing-she-could-get-paid-for per sticky note.

She wrote out a few dozen stickies. She immediate began grouping them in logical columns. 

Already she was feeling more ease.

I said, “Now I want to you to put your gut reaction in the lower right hand corner of each of these sticky notes. Rapid-fire. Trust your gut. You have 5 choices.”

A row of five bright yellow square sticky notes. Each one has a small, simple face in the lower right corner. From left to right: a very happy face, a smiling face, a neutral face, a frowning face, and a very unhappy face

I drew out beaming smiley face, and smile, and “meh” face with a horizontal line as the mouth, and frowning face and an extra unhappy face.

In less than two minutes, every sticky note had a face.

I noticed a couple she hesitated on. That’s information.

After placing the last face on the last sticky note’s corner, she stepped back.

Already, her shoulders were more relaxed. More information.

She turned towards me and said, “Now it’s clear. I’ve got to let go of the old stuff. It is stuff I can do, but it is holding me back.”

On that weekday afternoon, in that public library study room, visibly noting her gut reactions made her complicated work feelings clear. 

4 | Your audience and clients need to see themselves.

 Any time you are supporting other people with your visual thinking skills, there is massive power in being seen.

You are helping the people you serve see themselves among their own thoughts, feelings and ideas.

As my graphic facilitation work evolved, figures became larger and more common. It began as I saw how my clients were having conversations like a collection of brains each in their own jar.

Not at all surprising. Very often our work selves are a fraction of our whole selves. At work, and definitely in the strategy meetings I visually support, we are shining our intellectual light.

We are rewarded for our ideas.

Our problem solving.

And these days, the pinnacle is being innovative. An amorphous goal to strive for.

A portion of a graphic facilitation chart. The word talent is in the center in bright block letters. Behind the wrod, there are two figures facing each other. Surrounding them are notes about attracting, training, and retaining employees

Graphic facilitation of a human resources strategy meeting, 2011. 

As far as bringing our emotional selves to work, safety and acceptance varies widely by organizational culture. At best, empathy, listening skills, and emotional expression are valued. At worst, any emotion is verboten as too touchy-feely or uncomfortable.

I began to add large figures on the charts I scribed to represent:

  • The people in the room, so they could see themselves.
    ex. You as a leader in the organization.
  • Their coworkers when they were talking organizational change.
    ex. Your colleagues who will be part of the plan you are creating.
  • Their audience, customer, patient, student – the people they were there to serve or sell to.
    ex. The voice of the customer.

Once I started, I never stopped. Large figures became part of my visual vocabulary. 

5 | Use a large figure to shape your thinking.

Here's some "varsity level" visual thinking. But it is oh-so-learnable and will be a big part of Meaningful Mascots on November 12.

When I made larger and larger figures for my graphic facilitation clients, I made new spaces to put ideas. 

Now I could label the arm of a leader pointing towards the shared goal. 

During one of umpteen speakers on neuroscience, I could add a nice squishy brain where it belonged. 

I could add a wristwatch to a figure as the group talked about timing. 

A section of a page from The Idea Shapers book. Brandy's cartoon person, Ico, is drawn in thick yellow line. Around him is lots of added symbols, like a heart over his heart, his brain drawn in, a speech bubble

My giant everyman, Ico, could hold as much or as little information as reflected by my clients' conversations. 

When I wrote The Idea Shapers, I paused before adding this technique. Using a central figure or two as "scaffolding" to add ideas to. 

Attaching points to my Ico was part of my secret sauce. 

Definitely a big part of what makes my work look very Brandy. 

After deliberation, I felt it was too important of a tool to leave out of the book. And I added 368 to 376 to The Integrator's chapter. 

As I say in the book, and will repeat here. I am all for teaching how to use an "everyman" character to organize your thinking. Just hands off my guy, Ico. 

I'd love to be introduced to your mascot. 

Icon of The Integrator, from The Idea Shapers book

The Integrator
Synthesizing your ideas into a cohesive image

There are 5 fantastic reasons WHY you should include faces and figures to your visual thinking.

You may be thinking, "Sure, Brandy, but HOW do I do that?"

That is precisely what I teach you in Meaningful Mascots on November 12. In this virtual deep dive day, you will learn:

✅ Incredibly simple facial expressions to capture a range of emotions. Yes, far beyond the very useful five faces in reason #3.

I even ship you my brand new Faces Deck in your workshop kit!

✅ To develop your own “everyperson” or mascot that gives you a go-to figure to draw.

Not only does this free up mental energy, it can also become a central part of your style.

✅ My secret sauce of how I use human figures to make my drawings more integrated.


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