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
  • http://twitter.com/kaleemux Kaleem

    Ryan, your post is a timely one.

    I have been having this same conversation with an increasing number of people over the last year. Many are in formal roles that do not match their activities and skills, and many more have left corporate life to start new consultancies or hang up their own shingle.

    The “defining yourself” issue is one that affects entire areas of endeavour. Lately I’ve seen the resurgence of the definition debate in user experience, information architecture, interaction design and related fields, colloquially known as DTDT. This causes much hand-wringing and consternation, especially for individuals who are struggling to make clear the skill and value that they bring to business, employers, and clients.

    Expressing complex ideas in a simple phrase that answers the question, “What do you do?” is not an easy task. Expressing complexity in a clear or simple manner never is.

    As always, I’m glad help refine and discuss this further the next time you’re in the city.

    You’re definitely on the right track.

  • http://www.looktouchfeel.com rick

    hey ryan, i was wondering what the answer to this question was so thanks for posting and i love your break down. I think there is some stuff we could work on together…some kind of transatlantic commonwealth collaboration! Lets talk…ive no idea what it will be but lets see. Rick

  • http://ryancoleman.ca ryancoleman

    @Kaleem – thx :) will definitely take you up on that next time we’re downtown @ the same time…

    @Rick for sure… we’re well overdue for a chat :)

  • http://@clickryan Ryan also ;)


    I find myself asking this question all the time, if not being asked by someone who says so your in IT! yikes eh! – Lately I’ve had to do this in a two part series…
    (1) Internal: For me – what is it I enjoy and I’m good at – stay away from the things I don’t excel in nor enjoy ;( think of this as a vision board for myLIFE and
    (2) External: For everyone else – If its not the safe story for a friend, family member then its the – you have to be ON Ryan – elevator pitch so that the listener GETS IT! – don’t lose them, don’t talk down with tech’words – allow your passion to show thru in how you position your skillset and service along with a genuine smile. I tend to try to find out about the person I’m speaking to and see how I can help them, add value to their space and engage them in an Authentic conversation.

    Here’s a link to your friend Nancy Duarte > http://blog.duarte.com/2008/07/the-worlds-shortest-presentation/
    As Nancy touches upon in the post above, consider you audience > So depending on where I am.. The story of what I do will include in context something that touches upon the meeting / event / people I’m mixing it up with. Essentially, extending on one’s storytelling skills 1-v-1 or to a larger audience.
    You could also bring in some Personal Branding positioning / philosophy.
    I think under the circumstances of your vast’skillset, your Elevator pitch is great, and the silo’s work nicely!

    I’m also interested in trying to find / provide / Innovate the next best thing to a in person elevator pitch / who I am and what I do communication via online methods?
    What is the magic’sauce to this I wonder, whats your take on this Ryan (LinkedIN, google profile perhaps?)

    Funny Visual for you – I’m actually in the 3rd pic you used in this post – holding onto the side of the whiteboard grey’shirt trying to make sense of our sticky’Grid…lol

    anyhoo. Next time I’m in your hood I’ll take you out for a drink for allowing me to think about this post and ponder on ‘Personal Branding’ and Who am I and What do I really do?


  • http://www.visualmapper.org/ Wallace Tait

    Hi Ryan,
    Your blog/site is excellent; and the fact you've taken the time to define yourself is both inspiring and motivational. I like your approach so much, I would like to emulate it.

    I see you as a change agent who facilitates a shift of perception associated with personal, academic and business success.

    I wish you much success and prosperity.

  • http://www.visualmapper.org/ Wallace Tait

    Hi Ryan,
    Your blog/site is excellent; and the fact you've taken the time to define yourself is both inspiring and motivational. I like your approach so much, I would like to emulate it.

    I see you as a change agent who facilitates a shift of perception associated with personal, academic and business success.

    I wish you much success and prosperity.