What kind of a job is ‘sketchnoting’? And why is it important to use visuals while learning?
ATD23 News spoke with Rothstein in an exclusive Q&A.
You had an interesting start in New York City. What kind of street performing did you do?
I was a “Human Jukebox,” where I stood in a colorful homemade structure (made from a refrigerator box), and people put in a quarter to see me perform a song on a recorder, complete with costume changes!
How did you parlay that into becoming a copywriter?
I was recruited from Brown University by Young & Rubicam, which was one of the top Madison Avenue ad agencies at the time. They had a prestigious copywriter training program that accepted six people a year. I'm pretty sure they felt my being able to survive on the streets of New York set me up well for a career in the advertising business.
Plus, I showed them a portfolio of pretend ads. Being able to draw allowed me to both write and visualize them.
I resisted as long as I could! My parents worried I'd be the clichéd “starving artist!” But I've always used visuals and drawing to express ideas and stories. I have found in my work with companies of all sizes, especially those dealing with complex technology or innovation concepts, it is way more telegraphic and relatable than words alone. Hand-drawn visuals are the most human things we create, and it's a great way to connect people.
What kind of visual work do you specialize in?
I've been a cartoonist since I was very little, back in the day when I worshipped Charles Schulz, [the creator of Charlie Brown].
I don't think of it as “art” as much as an economical, disarming way to tell a story people can enjoy together. I'm not an “artist” so much as a storyteller, ideator, and facilitator of other people’s ideas.
A cartoon is a great way to open a conversation, particularly around topics like DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] that have become charged these days. Humor gives people a different perspective from which they can be more resourceful and creative in finding solutions to problems, or at least not taking them so seriously.
I tried sending cartoons to The New Yorker decades ago when I lived in New York. It was, and still is, incredibly competitive, and the repeated rejection was depressing, so I sort of gave up.
Then about five years ago, I met a cartoonist at San Diego Comic-Con who encouraged me to try again. I met the editor on a trip to NYC, and to my shock, she bought something on my second visit.
So, I say it took me 30 years and two weeks to get into The New Yorker. I've had a modest but meaningful number published since then, and a couple have been licensed on products. I'm living proof you really can be what you wanted to be growing up!
Is there a specific accomplishment you’re most proud of? Why?
I'm very proud to have led visual thinking workshops for ATD; inside companies like Bayer, Rheem, and Merck; and at conferences like Adobe 99U and the Back End of Innovation.
I've watched people who started off thinking they couldn’t draw a stick figure express complex stories and ideas once we unlock the visual vocabulary we all have access to. They love it! And they use it in their work. I like to think that being able to draw their ideas helps them contribute, collaborate, and communicate more.
I love being able to use visuals to cut through the noise and distractions we are all surrounded by. That's why it's important to teach it too. People are visual creatures, as we see with the popularity of Instagram and TikTok. Our brains were designed for visual information. In order to compete, we must communicate visually. And for some reason, hand drawings grab the most attention, even in this digital age. People are mesmerized by it! That's why I'm now doing animated hand-drawn explainer videos for my clients to help them translate complex ideas and tell stories that stick.
What can ATD23 attendees expect from your sketches?
I'm hoping to capture the most important nuggets from our keynotes and as many other speakers as I can in a way that will be fun, fast, and easy for attendees to understand and remember. The Curve of Forgetting shows that we lose 50 percent of new information within an hour, 70 percent of that information within 24 hours, and a full 90 percent of what we learn after six days, per Growth Engineering. Given the investment everyone makes in putting on and attending an event like ATD23, that's tragic. Having visual notes to refer to is a way to amplify and extend the value of what we are learning here, so instead of losing it, we get to keep it and hopefully use it.