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Art: Chairman of the Whiteboard

By James Johnson

Mike “Muddy” Schlegel is a smart guy.

As he was growing up, his intelligence led him to learning about things others might have considered to be too complex or even dull. He received his Masters in Watershed Science specializing in collaborative watershed planning from Colorado State University.

The downside of being such a smart guy is the difficulty one finds in communicating ideas to strangers who have little interest in the science of watersheds or any other potentially complex subject.

It was in facing this challenge that Schlegel discovered his true calling, a career he never knew existed, but somehow he found himself “drawn” to. Excuse the pun.

In the fall of 2013, Schlegel took part in a class on “visual thinking,” the idea of using visual stimuli, like say, a whiteboard and a dry erase marker, to communicate ideas, tell stories and organize thoughts.

For Schlegel, the class was a revelation. “I thrived in that class. That class was a light bulb
moment. I realized I had always been a visual thinker and never realized that was a thing. I came away from that course with permission to draw.”

Since that day, Schlegel hasn’t put down his marker. “Our brain recognizes images faster than it recognizes words,” Schlegel said. “I began to put it to use in my own life, so when I would write a list I would draw a little icon beside items on the list. Just scanning what was on that list, the icons would pop right out.”

 Schlegel has found the act of visual thinking to be incredibly helpful in his work as program manager for water resources at Triangle J Council of Governments, based in Raleigh,

and for other organizations.

Suddenly meetings were more than just words and note taking, they were interactive experiences.

While Schlegel doesn’t consider himself a great artist, he did find that by visually representing ideas, he could grab the attention of his listeners in a way words alone couldn’t. Schlegel found himself having more fun and having more creative thoughts by just putting pen to paper. As he used these techniques of using simple icons or graphics with groups, meetings came alive. “People were leaning in and getting engaged,” he said.

Seeing the value of visual thinking in a business setting, Schlegel set out to learn more about the practice.

In 2015, he took part in two online courses. The first was a course called the Verbal to Visual Classroom with Doug Neill, and the second was a course through the Doodle Institute where Schlegel became a certified graphic recorder. “Really quick, ‘graphic recording’ is when you are listening to a conversation and you are capturing the highlights in a visual way,” Schlegel said. “And ‘graphic facilitation’ is when you are guiding the room and collecting everyone’s ideas in a visual way.”

Diane Bleck, the woman who started The Doodle Institute and who has been working with companies large and small for 20 years, became Schlegel’s mentor.

A year after gaining his certification, Schlegel says he was contacted by Bleck, who asked him to come on as a co-instructor for the institute. It was through Bleck’s example Schlegel decided he wanted to fully invest himself in his new passion. As of January, Schlegel is working full-time as founder of the Whiteboard Academy.

On the homepage of his website, it reads, “We’re visual thinkers, and we believe hand-drawn sketches can unlock innovation and help you focus on what matters,” and Schlegel is available for “virtual coaching, online courses, workshops, visual note taking, graphic facilitation and infographics.”

Through the Whiteboard Academy, Schlegel hopes to help businesses and organizations learn how to put visual thinking to work for them. “There are two kinds of people, visual spatial and logical sequential. In traditional educational programs, our schools teach to a specific kind of person. The logical sequential individual has been favored over the visual spacial. As people go through school, we basically teach them logical sequential ways of thinking. But drawing is a thinking tool. Drawing can be seen as a verb and as a noun,” Schlegel said. “This is about
ideas and not art. I mean, I am a colorblind lefty, and I draw in front of people for a living.”

Denise Bruce, Environmental Outreach Manager at Sustainable Sandhills, hired Schlegel in 2016 to help attendees at the UNC Clean Technology Summit and the Sandhills Clean Energy Summit Community Vision make sense of the scientific facts and figures within the presentations. “Working with Mike is like having a videographer with a pen, that’s the best way I can describe it.”

At the Community Vision event, Bruce was in charge of taking pictures of Schlegel throughout the presentation as he drew. “I was listening to the people talk and watching him draw and he was making this entire world. His illustrations were beautiful, and even though it was very info heavy, was still very digestible. He’s extremely good at what
he does.”

Schlegel, unlike many visual recorders, is unusually comfortable with public speaking. He isn’t certain where his confidence comes from, but he feels it can be summed up with a story from his life.

Schlegel is the father to three daughters. They are the reason he earned the nickname “Muddy,” as “Muddy Waters” was determined to be his Indian Princess name. On his 40th birthday, Schlegel said, he reached out to his three daughters for life advice.

“They say, ‘You aren’t good at everything,’” Schlegel said. “And I’m like, ‘Wait a minute girls, that is just hurtful.’ And my middle daughter said, "Don’t worry, you are awesome at some things.’ Then my oldest daughter says, ‘Just be yourself and you’ll be fine.’I guess I gave up on perfect, in favor of awesome. Screw perfect. That gave me a lot of the confidence I needed to share visual ideas in front of all of these people.”