What Exactly Do I Do?

Ah, the million dollar question. What do I do? Where do I fit?

To date, 2009 has been an interesting ride for any number of reasons, not the least of which has been everything employment related – so I thought, as the summer draws to a close and everyone starts getting back to work I thought it would be a good time to post some of my thinking on just what it is I do.

VizThink is still very much alive and kicking but as you may or may not know I’ve only been half-time there since February. We’re in the process of evolving the business model and exploring ways to fund a community while still making it open and accessible for all. It’s been a great learning experience so far and am thrilled our backers have been open to keeping things running, even if only on a skeleton crew, while we try and make it work.

Of course, “half-time” means I’m looking for contract work to help top things up every month and contract work means being able to clearly explain what you do to people. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to define just what it is I do and, more importantly, what it is I want to do but this is easier said than done. Anyone who knows my background knows it’s pretty varied – I’ve started a few companies, built communities and done a whole pile of freelance consulting (discovery, needs analysis, design & specification mainly) for companies big and small. Needless to say, I haven’t found a silo yet that really defines me.  I’m an entrepreneur at heart and understand the inner workings of companies (both services and product-based) but my passion lies in the shorter term projects where I can have a meaningful impact in specific ways (compared to building a company out over years).

Asking Myself “What Do I Do?”

I spent much of the early part of the year taking inventory of what it is I’ve done, what I liked doing (and what I hated doing) and have been trying to figure out what to make of it. As I said, I like to mix things up and change is always good – working on a variety of projects on different topics is what really interests me. I get fired up learning about new processes, businesses and topics and being able to apply my acquired experiences and skills to help solve people’s problems.

As I’ve sat back and processed my experiences, interests and skills the same themes come up consistently: Ideas, Visuals & Facilitation.


I often describe myself as the “what if?” guy. I’m always looking at things, wondering if they can be improved – when I get the chance to someone who knows the inner workings of something will invariably ask “What if … ?” or “Have you thought about … ?” – I like to prod around, dig into how something works and try to find more efficient or useful ways for that ‘thing’ to function. It can be a device, a site, an application or a business model, it doesn’t make a difference to me. I love being a sounding board and kicking around ideas with people so ping me if you want to grab a coffee/drink sometime – I can’t promise they’re all good ideas, but it should be a interesting, if not useful, conversation.


The Integrated Content LifecycleI’m not an artist, at least not in the fine arts sense of the word. I love photography and take thousands of pictures a year. I doodle, sketch and chart stuff out constantly. Visuals are at the root of just about everything I do – whether it’s as simple as tabling data in a visually appealing way, flow-charting a process or as complex as designing a PowerPoint presentation or detailed information graphic. I’ve done this as long as I can remember, but only in the past few years has the term Visual Thinking really emerged as a widely recognized descriptor for this practice.


VizThinkToronto6-0744.jpgA couple of years ago I would never have described anything I do as “facilitation” but the truth is I’ve been doing it since I started my first company. The consulting process, especially in the early discovery and needs analysis phases,  is all about successful facilitation. In the early years it was mostly ad hoc and improvised, “unconscious facilitation” if you will, but over the past year or so I’ve been working to brush up my formal facilitation skills, through courses and practice,  and have designed and run numerous sessions since VizThink Toronto 1 in early 2007.

So What Does This All Mean?

When push comes to shove, what do I tell people I do? What’s my title on a business card? What silo do I fit in? (ugh)

This is an impossibly hard question, and from talking to many people I know, I’m not the only one struggling with these days – there’s a lot of us who just don’t fit in the normal hierarchy of the business world. We can be inserted in seemingly random places but function perfectly well in any of them – we’re like swiss army knives, lots of functions – we do a few things really really well and have the skill or at least general knowledge of a lot of other areas. In an emergency we can help fill those roles, and in other cases we can simply serve as the body of the knife, holding together all of the other components that go into your projects. It’s a hard thing to explain, so I’ve tried to condense my pitch to a few key areas…

The Elevator Pitch

Here’s my first stab at my elevator pitch:

I help organizations discover, refine and share their stories enabling them to communicate with their audience in the most effective way possible in order to achieve their goals.”

My “Silos”

So where to position me? I’ve begun referring to myself as a “Facilitator and Information Designer”. Both very broad silos, and deliberately so.

Here’s just some of the ways these skills can be applied:

Facilitator Information Designer
  • Ideation/Brainstorming Sessions
  • Needs Analysis
  • Discovery
  • Strategic Planning
  • Business Model Development
  • Innovation Facilitation
  • Decision Making
  • Story Development
  • Team Building
  • Dispute Resolution
  • Presentation Design
  • Story / Presentation Development
  • Information Architecture
  • Data Visualization
  • Process Illustration
  • Info-graphic Design
  • Document Design

I’m Looking for Contracts

If you have, or hear of, any opportunities that you think I could help with please get in touch – I’d love to chat about what you’re thinking and give you my honest opinion if it’s something I can help with.

Recent Work Examples

For reference here’s a few examples of some recent work I’ve done:

Feedback Appreciated

Wow, if you’ve gotten all the way to here – thank you! Next time we meet I owe you a coffee/beer.

As you can imagine, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post – am I off the mark? Did I miss something? Do you think I’d be good at something else?

If so, please leave a comment below, tweet me via @ryancoleman or drop me an email ryan (at) ryancoleman (.) ca

Photo credits: ohadwedb @ Flickr, eleaf @ Flickr, ifindkarma @ Flickr

Interviewed for VizThink Issue of “Associations Now”

A few months ago myself, Sunni Brown (VizThink Austin) and Mike Rohde (VizThink Milwaukee) were interviewed for an article on visual thinking called “Are you a visual thinker?“. It ran in Associations Now Magazine, a publication of the American Society of Association Executives & The Center for for Association Leadership. At the time I thought it would just be a little piece in one of the back pages of the magazine but it turns out they had bigger plans and ran it as the cover story.

In fact, they went the extra step further and hired Mike Rohde to design the cover and provide illustrations for the article. The end result was a fantastic looking piece that exposed the idea of visual thinking to a whole new audience. Mike did a great write-up over on his blog about his process in creating the illustrations which is worth a read.

Of course if you truly want to learn from the masters, both Sunni & Mike (along with Austin Kleon) recently recorded a, very well received, VizThinkU workshop with VizThink called Visual Note-taking 101 where they share their secrets and advice for producing excellent visual notes.

I have to admit too that I was pretty stoked to get my first block quote in an article. Having it hand drawn by someone I’d call a friend makes it that much sweeter.

Overall the article turned out far better than I ever imagined – be sure to give it a read, as well as Mike’s blog post & the VizThinkU session. Thanks to Associations Now and especially Mark Athitakis, who penned the article.

– Ryan

All Photos by Mike Rohde, Rohdesign.com

HoHOTo: A Recap

A couple of weeks ago we held the follow up to December’s hugely successful HoHoTo event which raised $25,000 for the Daily Bread Foodbank here in Toronto.

Held on August 18th, wright in the thick of a hot & sticky week here in Toronto, almost 500 people from Toronto’s technology, marketing, social media & visual thinking communities came out to support the party at the Wetbar & Suite 106 clubs (they’re two different floors of the same building).

While the summer kept our goals a little more modest – we’re pleased to have been able to raise over $10,500 as of the night of the event (a final tally is in the works) and as an added bonus we raised another few hundred dollars with a twitter auction of unclaimed raffle prizes. You can find photos from the evening on Flickr in the #hohoto pool.

The reality is, at this time of year, every penny counts. Like December, the middle of the summer is another spot where the foodbank sees fundraisers and donations drop off sharply. We’re pleased and proud to be able to pull together events in these “quiet” times that help give them an unexpected boost when they need it most.

Thanks to everyone in the community who came out and supported the event! If all goes well we’ll see you in December again.

– Ryan