Why Templates are Awesome and How to Use Them

visual journey

A question I get a lot, especially during my Graphic Recording 101 workshop is when and how to use a template. A template helps organize information in a visual way.

First off I want to quickly address something. In my opinion, a mind map is a template. Sometimes when I tell people what I do they shout: Ohh! You do mind mapping. Well, yes and no. As a graphic recorder I sometimes (actually rarely) use a mind map. I see mind mapping as a template - a tool with a specific use to be able to explore and connect information in a specific, strategic way. I like mind mapping, but I haven't found very many situations where a mind map is the best template for group conversation.

There are many reasons why you would want to use a template I’ll outline a few of them here. I'll mainly be referring to group conversations/discussions.

ONE. Relieve anxiety

When people are faced with a large, blank piece of paper, dread can come up. Have you ever been in a situation like this and people are scrambling to ‘nominate’ the scribe and you just hope that it’s not you. I’m likely in the minority, because of course as a visual thinker I don’t mind at all! Most folks though can get paralyzed but a large blank sheet of paper, not knowing where to start, how large to write or what to draw (or draw at all).

By having a template it can help ease some of the anxiety to make marks.

TWO. Stay on Task

We like structure. Most of the time in these types of sessions have a time constraint and folks need to capture their conversations in a clear concise way. Having a template can help move the conversation along but allotting a certain amount of space per question or topic.

Templates can help people focus on their conversation and by having a certain area to fill in the team works together to fill that space because they know how much space they have!

Templates create the framework that shows the boundaries of the conversation.

When Should I create a template?

If you are running a session like a world cafe, drawing out the template ahead of time is a great idea. Entering the room and placing the templates on the table ahead of time can make you feel more prepared and ready to support the group. It also gives the people at the table the understanding of what’s coming up and show them there will be structure. If you are asking questions and you don’t know what they are yet going into the day, that’s ok! Create your template knowing there will be, for example, four questions and leave space to write the question. When you do know what your questions will be, you can do two things to then fill in the template.  The first is to write them on sticky notes and place them around before you begin. The second would be to write the question on your flipchart before you start and ask each person to write down the question. The second suggestion can save you some time!

When you are planning your template there are a few things to consider:

  1. What is the end goal with this template. What will you be doing with this information?
  2. What size am I going to use?
  3. How much space do I need to allocate to each question or idea
  4. Who is going to use this template and how
  5. How will I be walking people through this template? How are they going to use it.
Let's break down the template...

Anchor image

Consider having an anchor image to hold and tie everything together. Is the template one large image that then can be broken down into pieces? Can your participants visually see the process they are making using the image or it’s representative of what they are trying to achieve?

Explain the Template 

Before you begin the day or the specific part of the day where people will be using the template explain how to use it! Take five minutes to walk through the process of the template and give people context on how to use it. Just because you put a template at the table doesn’t mean people know how to actually use it. Give people permission to use it how they wish to allow them to contribute to their best. Are you encouraging doodles on your template? Can you tell them what the end result with the template will before you start so they understand the goal in mind?

Anchor image: Our Journey. 

People start at the bottom of the template and as they complete it now they have reached the bright shining sun in the distance! Success!

Note: A put a 'key takeaway' in the sun. Adding in elements like this are optional. Do you want each group to come away with one (or more) action items? Here's a place where they can summarize their main ideas. Get creative! There's lots of ways to incorporate ideas like this within your template.

Title and date. 

What is the title of the session or meeting. Adding the date can help after the event, especially if you are photographing them. Consider even putting the location of the meeting as well!


In this example I used sign posts and have them numbered so you can see what the direction of the questions or information is flowing.

Show Flow

Notice that I numbered each sign post so that we understand the flow of the conversation/questions.

White Space

You may or may not want to leave a lot of white space around your template. Test different ones out in different situations and see what works best for you. White space allows of additional comments or fun doodles to be captured in among the information.


Going back to the ‘what size am I going to use’ thing to consider. Check the markers or pens that you will be giving people. Are they too big or small for the paper they are using. Can they fill in the space properly with the size of marker. Choose dark markers so that the writing can be easily read from a distance. Thinking of your event after it’s finished, dark colour also allows for them to be photographed easier.

When I’m graphic recording I very rarely use a template. Sometimes I’ll go in with a general plan of what the chart could look like (especially if I have a sense of the agenda).

If you need some help on how to draw some simple icons feel free to check out my Draw with me quick draw video series on YouTube. You can find the signpost doodle here!

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