Drawing is not just production of ‘pretty pictures for illiterates’, or even by people who have little formal education.  It is a way of freeing thoughts and clarifying and communicating very complex concepts.

Part of the fun element in GAMEChange empowerment methodologies is the development of visual creativity through drawing and diagrams as a liberating experience. What is required are not fine art paintings, but simple symbolic representations. Individual drawing can be both liberating and confidence-building. Collective drawing can be great fun and very useful in team-building. Within about 10 minutes, left alone with friends to gain confidence, most people will be happily drawing, even if they have never held a pen before or say they cannot draw.

In GAMEChange processes participants create their own pictorial manuals and notes – not only reducing costs, but also making it more likely they will remember and implement what they have learned.

Why Drawing?

Drawing is useful for everyone

Using drawings means that people who cannot read and write, as well as embattled CEOs of global companies and government officials, are able to put their experience and ideas on paper and communicate clearly to each other.

Drawing is:

  • liberating activity: freeing thought from long wordy definitions and clarifying underlying assumptions and differences in understanding of complex concepts like empowerment, gender, wealth creation and leadership. Scientific research has shown that drawing uses a different part of the brain from normal linear thought, and promotes intelligence, creativity and even seems to counter some of the effects of dementia.
  • fun collective activity – bringing people from very different backgrounds together to explore ideas and clarify concepts, identify differences and reach some sort of consensus. The outputs can be extremely attractive murals and meaningful decoration in meeting places and workshops as a form of collective memory or training aid.
  • an effective tool for learning, remembering and inspiring action. For that reason mind mapping and sketch-noting are an important part of modern higher education.
  • a good way of promoting mutual understanding and respect between people with different levels of education – people who cannot read and write are often better at drawing concepts than those with higher levels of education. Drawing also reduces the need for translation in multilingual contexts.
  • a very powerful communication of ideas and images for gender change – it is very difficult for donors and policy makers to dismiss graphic pictures of dreams and also constraints like violence drawn by women and men in poor communities as ‘feminist imperialism’.
But what do the pictures say? Pictorial communication challenges

‘symbols may be context-specific’ or specific to particular individuals

‘ the medium may not be the message’ : Many of the drawings and role plays are very immediate and expressive – including drawings by people who never held a pen before. But the drawing style and content may be by local availability of particular media (pencils/ biros/ markers, lined/blank/coloured paper, role play props). The participatory workshops are also very time-constrained where the aim is empowerment of participants, not ‘effective’ design. This means that the visual outputs may not do full justice to the messages and meanings they represent.

‘Just pretty pictures by illiterates’: Visual outputs are rarely in a form that is easily communicated to people who were not participating in the process. A lot of the impact of the community-level imagery is lost because lack of visual literacy by people with formal education – ie those in power – mean they often miss the deeper meanings and sophisticated analysis behind the drawings.

Facilitation techniques

The aim is not ‘correct pictures’ but sophisticated analysis of complex issues and identification of realisable change strategies.

Introducing Drawing

Key principles

  • Drawings can be done individually, in groups, or in plenary.
  • EVERYONE does their own drawing. NO ONE SHOULD EVER HOLD THE PEN OR MARKER FOR ANYONE ELSE. Even if asked.
  • Everyone is encouraged to try their best to think and communicate their thoughts in a drawing – anyone can do that. Start with concrete things, they try more complex concepts later.
  • The Facilitator never holds a pen. For plenaries pens are placed on a chair at the front. Participants come up in turn. The facilitator just askes questions from the back.

The facilitators should stress that in every place where GAMEChange methodologies have been tried, even people who have never held a pen before, are soon able to draw. It is just a question of having an image in your head, opening the pen and making marks on the paper. Adapt the following to peoples’ needs and progress and whether exercises are individual, group or in plenary – encourage where people need it but do not lecture. Make sure everyone is engaged and has ‘fun with a serious purpose’.

In many contexts encouraging people to draw is no problem – particularly where people cannot read and write and/or do some sort of handicrafts.

In some contexts however, people may never have even held a pen and may completely lack confidence. In this case people should sit in small groups with other people who also lack confidence. Experience has shown that if participants are reluctant to draw at first, the best thing the facilitator can do is to go completely away for 5-10 minutes and focus on more confident participants. When left to themselves with no ‘teacher’ looking critically over their shoulder, within about 10-20 minutes everyone in the group should be happily drawing, sharing and laughing at their efforts. (See videos from India above)

People with higher levels of formal education and literacy may also have difficulty, and also lack motivation. Drawing and visual communication uses different parts of the brain from writing. The education system often discourages drawing as soon as people can read, and focuses on linear thinking. So the visual parts of the brain have often become weak and they may have difficulty at first. They may think drawing is only for children or ‘illiterates’ and feel embarrassed.

Visual communication and graphic design is now an essential new skill to learn in the modern digital age with Facebook and Tiktok. It is used in boardrooms of global companies, and modern systems of education. Diagramming and drawing are more efficient ways of understanding concepts, communicating what is really in someone’s head. More information can be put on a page. And people who do not speak the same language can often communicate. Once people get used to it they find it fun. And once they have reactivated the drawing part of the brain, they can decide when it is more efficient and useful to draw, and when to write.

Starting with a vision

This methodology starts with visions.

Step 1: Draw a large circle in the middle of the page – right to the edges. Enjoy the movement of your arm and hand.

Step 2: On the outside of the circle put short lines, like the rays of the sun.

The first circle will be quite large and peoples’ hand may shake. Reassure them that this is quite normal and reassure them that this always happens. Many other people have gone through this stage, but if they relax and persevere with drawing it will become much easier, and then it is even a short step to doing numbers and eventually learning to write. Many people have also done that.

Developing the first symbols to put in the circle.

Explain that now they have drawn circles and lines. That is drawing. They can no longer say they cannot draw. The rest is thinking and practice over time.

Now people can start to put symbols for different aspects of their vision inside the circle. Every other drawing is just made of different types of lines – short, long, straight, squiggly, curved. And circle shapes – round, squashed, like clouds, heads, bodies. But you need to think about why you are using that type of line. So that it is clear that a person is a child and not your mother-in-law, a cow and not a chicken. So that you will remember later what your drawing meant, and others may also understand even without your explanation.

You can draw how you like. Make other people laugh. And you can always change your drawing, adding things, crossing out. Above all, have fun.

Reinforcing drawing skills: Drawing Charades

Once people are having fun, gained confidence and no longer embarrassed (usually after an hour) the focus shifts to making drawings more meaningful and deep in analysis. For example initially a pig may just be a circle, but it needs four legs, it also needs a curly tail so we know it’s a pig and not a goat, it also needs something to show whether it is a local or exotic pig, male or female, fat or thin etc.

But this should be done mostly as part of more advanced participatory group diagram activities. GAMEChange methodologies all use participatory diagram activities for exchanging experience, action ideas and also quantification of opinions, achievements, opportunities, challenges and changes.

These generally start by asking everyone to think of a thing/concept relevant to the topic and draw this on a piece of paper. One person is then selected to present their drawing. They hold it up and other participants are given one question each to guess what the drawing means. At the end participants then give some suggestions on how the drawing could be made clearer. After a few such exercises, this process can be speeded up, and people will do this automatically.

The facilitator can probe a little – particularly for more advanced exercises or people who think drawing is not important. But this should be done in a supportive way to encourage people to add clarity to their drawings. Maintaining confidence and motivation is the most important. And no one should ever be embarrassed, just encouraged to think deeply – it is the think and analysis that is important not the art.

Documentation from drawings

Documentation of the visual outputs from workshops, trainings and peer exchanges are mostly through photographs and video – this can be done on a mobile phone by staff, or people from the community. With peoples’ permission, these can also be shared for networking through social network platforms. They are also part of the champion certification process.


All trainings and workshops should aim to develop the analysis and planning skills of all participants. This means having a reliable feedback from everyone to see who is running ahead, and who may be having some difficulty. The best way of doing this is to take photographs of each participant with their drawing, then comparing the complexity of the analysis on the drawing, as well as whether the basic diagram steps have been followed.

If some drawings look problematic, then people can be asked (in a supportive manner, stressing that tasks are not easy – no criticism) what they meant by their drawing. Often this will make absolute sense in terms of their analysis and planning, even if they did not follow exactly instructions. But asking them to explain also enable the facilitator to identify any real misunderstandings and discuss why and how they can be addressed.

Documenting Change

Drawings are also the basis for monitoring and assessing empowerment changes. Specific guidance depends on the tool and purpose of the documentation. Any information, photographs and video should only be shared with the person’s permission. People’s drawings should also be accredited wherever possible and if they wish – though that is not always possible in a participatory process where drawings are shared, and the time constraints of large workshops.

Group diagrams should be photographed with and without written post-it notes where relevant. Ideally plenaries are videoed so that qualitative information can be added later.

In all instances any sensitive information should be made anonymous. And participants’ respect for privacy of their analysis respected.