By Jenn Schiffer

July 29, 2022

Sketchnoting, layering and making connections: A Q&A with design researcher Elvia Vasconcelos

Have you ever been scrolling along the web and you see something that not only jumps out at you, but makes you realize you have to spend more time investigating this new discovery? That’s how we felt when we discovered Elvia Vasconcelos’ work on Glitch. She has created individual worlds of discovery through taking non-digital objects like sketchnote drawings, pottery, embroidery, and collage and sharing them with Glitch apps, in a way that combines the feelings of being in an art gallery or studio, or having a deep conversation with a trusted friend. It’s hard to articulate the richness of her work, so we reached out to Elvia and she agreed to an interview with Director of Community, Jenn Schiffer.

**Jenn: So I think to get started, I just want to know who you are and what is your daily discipline or job? What’s your story? **

Elvia: I’m always super interested in hearing about the work that I do, how does it land with people? How does it resonate, and also what connections people make. And I’m particularly interested in your experience because if you have this overview of the things that people are experimenting with in Glitch, I’m sure that you will see patterns or trends emerging, like how people are using this platform to work through their practices. That’s my personal curiosity. But I’ll tell you a little bit about who I am.

So my name is Elvia. I am a design researcher, which can mean nothing, but currently I’m doing a PhD at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Department of Industrial Design. And my research is about collaborative methods in design research. Practically I’m interested in how people do things together. Before I started my PhD, I worked for eleven years in the UK as a user researcher, and I specialized in digital government services. My role was essentially to work with the teams that were creating digital services, like a website where you could fill in your taxes or apply for a passport, renew your things. And my role was to bring civil society into these processes. I acted as a bridge. So my research is about how you bring people into structures, processes, and I’m specifically interested in the politics involved. So—who gets to participate in what way, and what kind of power/configurations exist in these places?

The sketchnotes come in…and specifically, I think through Glitch. The way I’ve been using Glitch is to work through my research questions. I really struggle with writing and articulating myself with text or words, and language in general..and so it’s much easier to kind of draw things out and be like,“ Okay, I’m interested in this, this and that. And the connections are this.” I find it easier to have, almost like maps.

A visual essay created by Elvia incorporating illustrations, handwriting, markdown, embroidery, and ceramics to explore behaviors around food.

And Glitch, for me, has allowed me to create…I’ve been calling them online essays, but it’s these complex maps of things that combine the sketches with text and links and stuff. It’s been really great to really use it as a surface to unpack things and see what comes out.

That’s really cool. I think the thing that caught my eye, the one I saw originally was where you were recreating your sketchnotes with embroidery and ceramic. The first thing I saw was a ceramic. I was like, “Oh, this is really cool.” But that’s further ahead of the process. So I want to think back to sketchnotes in general, what brought you into that world? You talked a bit about what purpose sketchnotes have served in your work. Have you been creating them awhile, or is this something in your recent PhD work that you’re exploring?

Essentially they are visual notes that combine simple drawings with text and they are different from drawing or illustration because they are mostly about doing something live and they’re very much working processes. I started doing sketchnoting in 2011, I think—so eleven years ago. And because sketchnoting has a kind of root in the UX industry, so you can see lots of people doing graphic recording in conferences. And so the reason I started sketchnoting was because at the time I had finished a master’s degree in Digital Arts and I was trying to get a job as a user researcher. In London there’s associations and conferences and events every single day. And one of the events that I started going to was the User Experience Professional Association, it’s a volunteer-run association and they do these monthly events. Everyone can come and there’s always someone sharing their skills. And after going to a few of those sessions, I thought, I really want to get involved. But I didn’t feel confident to have a voice, for example, on Twitter. I just felt I wanted to do something, but I felt really shy. So I reached out to the volunteer person and I was like, “Okay, here’s my portfolio. How can I help?” And they were like, “Well, you can sketch the event.” I was like, “Sure, I’ll do that”. And I walked out of the meeting and I had to Google what sketchnoting was because I had no clue.

Then I just started. Every month I went to their events and I started doing the sketches. At first it took me a long time, and then I started going to all the events I could find and sketchnoting everything: podcasts, lectures, online, and for, I would say, a good three years, I sketchnoted like every week. Then I started doing live conferences and becoming more confident, like sharing it on Twitter and stuff. Then I started slowly doing it a bit more professionally and doing it at work. So sketchnoting the meetings that I was in, and then I started using it as a tool with the teams that I was working with. Then I started doing it live on big walls and it built up more in a kind of commercial sense.

I created some courses, so I trained people as well. But then at some point, and this was at the same time as my own practice, I was feeling quite dissatisfied with the commercial world of user experience and of design in general. So I started looking at critical design, social design, and trying to figure out how I could create the practice or another model of a practice for me. The sketchnotes kind of became a tool for me to articulate my work and figure out where the edges of things were and how to communicate.

And now in my PhD, in my research, I’m actually part of what I’m doing. So together with looking at collaborative methods and co-design and the politics of participation, I am also doing that through sketching. And so proposing sketching or sketches is a visual research tool and specifically I’m looking at establishing it as a surface for exchange. A conversation interface in long term processes.

You mentioned that you’re interested in the politics of participation, like who gets to be involved in what way and who doesn’t. And it’s interesting how your story of sketchnotes starts with you seeking a way to participate and that working out well. That kind of interaction and permission to create and collaborate really resonates with me, personally—AND I think the Glitch team and Fastly overall, when we think about designing and building products that enable creation on the web. So it’s really serendipitous and really cool that your work has ended up on Glitch and so my question is, how did you find out about Glitch?

A few months ago, I was part of this course called Digital Love Languages, organized by the School for Poetic Computation. The course was amazing. And I signed up because it’s quite interesting that you point out that in the beginning, my journey was about wanting to participate and wanting to have a voice. And actually a lot of the stuff or one specific thing that I’m investigating about sketchnoting is this question of voice. Who holds the pen? And what kind of our configurations are obscured in the sketches, like the places where these things were taking place anyway?

But the School for Poetic Computation, it’s related because the premise of the course was like “What would our digital tools look like if they were designed by the people that love us?” So if my mom was creating the tools for us. The whole course was  ten weeks about subverting all these notions around digital languages, and that included the tools. They talked us through basic programming languages. But a lot of tools were introduced to us, and one of them was Glitch.

I don’t know if it was halfway through the course, but I remember when I started using it that I was like, “Okay, I’m going to stay up all night. I’m going to create ten pages. This is amazing. Why has nobody told me about this? And I live here.” I was so excited because it’s like, so easy. And I’ve tried. My portfolio website is on Cargo Collective. My blog is on WordPress. Then I have pages. I have stuff all over the place, but none of the platforms ever seem to stick. And with Glitch—I’m still struggling to stop—I have ten online essays now, and I’m still like, “Okay, I’m going to create the next one, next one.” But then I’m like, “Okay, wait, how are you going to connect all of these things?” But yeah, that’s kind of how I got into Glitch. As soon as I started, it opened a lot of paths for me. So it was amazing.

**It’s great to hear. And I think seeing work like yours on Glitch kind of unlocks ideas in our head. We’re always constantly surprised in a good way of what people are bringing to the platform because we have developers who are building stuff for work and stuff like your work is really surprising and joyful. That’s what we really like. And also the aesthetic of your sketchnote apps on Glitch are really cool looking. So that’s also another kind of surprising thing, the way that you lay out everything, it’s almost like poetry in the process, which is really neat. Another thing I saw you mentioned: your work explores sketchnotes as a conversation in one of your projects. And I’m wondering if there are other situations that you found through your work where sketchnotes are a great tool that maybe the rest of us who aren’t necessarily in the user research space could use. Where would sketchnotes be useful? **

Sketchnotes or sketching can be useful in a number of different ways. So there’s a lot of people using it, or I’ve seen it being used, and I’ve used it in my own workshop as a kind of a reflective tool. Something for yourself, something that you can use to articulate your thoughts in a different way.

And the reason why people tell me that this works for them is because you are not forced, when you sit down and you have a piece of paper and you’re trying to first just put the stuff on the table, and then you’re like, “Okay, what came out? And what do these things say together?“ The way that you are articulating your thoughts is different than if you were speaking or writing about it. So things come up that you look at and you’re like, “Ah this is interesting.” Or in group settings, sometimes you try to explain something to someone. But if you grab a pen and paper and then you put it on paper, then suddenly the other person is like, “Ah, I see what you mean.” It gives something that you can point at, and because it makes things tangible and concrete, they can also be manipulated. Because you can point at it, you can challenge it, you can add something to it, you can add layers, and you can also see how something has evolved. If you do several iterations of something, you have almost like these snapshots, a set that shows, “Okay, first I brought this, then I added that thing…” And there are different ways of doing that.

🌝 *Cake is layered. *🌚 *Life is layered: An online essay created by Elvia dissecting ideas around questioning, citations, and layers. *

So I think this is not only applicable if you work in the digital industry or as a UX researcher. It’s really about figuring out if using a visual tool, in this case, you know, pen and paper would help you in working through whatever it is that you’re working through. And I don’t know if that’s applicable to the work that you do, but yeah, I find it really interesting as well, this crossover between fields. That’s how I started doing stuff in fabric and in ceramics. But also it’s the same thing when I start working in digital. So working with Glitch for me, was like using digital material and how that intersects with the sketchnotes. I really like the in between things.

Yeah, because it continues the process, and I think I enjoy the process, more so than the output sometimes, of the art and even work that I’m creating. And I think—I wonder beyond Embroidery and Ceramic, your using Glitch to document your sketchnotes work at this really unique and fascinating meta level where your Glitch profile and even your individual projects are like sketchnotes of your sketchnotes about sketchnotes! Beyond all that stuff and different mediums, what else are you exploring with regards to creating or using sketchnotes? What’s next?

The articulations in Glitch are actually bringing to life what I’m exploring because I’m looking at annotations within sketchnoting and layering. So the mechanism of layering things. For example, if you use transparent paper, like architect paper, you can add layers of things. Or, if you use two types of pens specifically around authorship. If I’m drawing now with blue, I can say “Blue is my voice and then red is Jenn’s voice.” And then I can go back to it at another time and add a green, which is thoughts that I had afterwards or connections that I saw. So I’m looking at layering, annotations and authorship, really kind of issues around agency and voice. And with Glitch, I’ve done a few experiments with hiding layers of information that are hidden.

One of the examples and a person I follow a lot is Mindy Seu. They have these websites and one of them was around images, and the content was inside the HTML markup. So I did a few experiments where I was using alt text and I thought, “What would a website look like if it was designed, instead of being designed for people that can read text, if it was designed for people that use screen readers first and not second?” And so if you don’t use the screen reader, you only see the images, but the real content is in the alt text, so it can only be accessible through a screen reader. And so I guess, together with authorship and layering and annotations, I’m thinking of how you think through making switched modes and roles so that you kind of challenge the way things are being constructed…through making it clear that things are being constructed prioritizing certain ways of working, certain bodies, certain types of knowledge. And I’m always looking for what’s absent or what’s excluded. Again, going back to voice, it’s like who’s present, but most importantly, who’s absent or whose voice is suppressed?

Yeah, you call out specifically paying attention to authorship and absence, voice and agency, inclusion, exclusion. So you’re researching a lot but basically focusing on systems and process, not necessarily just the output. I think that’s really important, especially, as a software creator, we’re all kind of living in this world where we have to deal with the fact that a lot of people were not thinking about voice, agency, inclusion, authorship, absence. And now we have this output and we’re like, how did we get here? And through your work, I’m wondering what are some ways, or some advice you might have for software creators, including those of us at Glitch, where we can actively pay attention to those themes? Have you seen prior art that’s good, or is it just all examples of what not to do?

An example that came straight to mind is the work of a scholar called Flavia Dzodan. I watched one of their talks, and it was about the genealogy of big data. And I sketched it out as well because there was so much I needed to get my head around. Essentially, what they did was draw a line from the first ever census in the 17th century all the way to the data sets that are being used in big data. And the argument that they created is that the way that humans have been classified as the categories that were created in the beginning have unfolded in time in these structures to categorize people and create hierarchy between them. And they have been used by governments to structure the way that we work. So they’re the backbone of the technologies that we use. For me, as a creator, but also as a consumer, in terms of the digital technologies that I use and the platforms that I use, I appreciate very much this effort of making these things visible. So the implications of the tools that we use in the sense of everything that is in the background that supports me being able to create a Glitch page just like that. But there are consequences for people and for the planet. And so this is all quite abstract, but I’m not looking for answers and solutions. I think there’s a lot of work that can be done about making these things more visible and explicit, even if they’re problematic.

So in terms of the Glitch community, it’s like what are the problematic constructions behind the technology that is needed for this platform? Are there ways of working through it? I guess as a community, I think personally what draws my attention, but I also appreciate that it’s quite a difficult and tricky area to go to.

Thank you so much! This has all been really awesome and I’m really excited about your work. And I know you have a bit more of your PhD to go, so I want to know what is next? And besides Glitch, where can people find your work?

In terms of what’s next, I am continuing to create Glitch pages, and I think I’m going to continue because it’s really opened up a lot of pathways for me. I’m keen to see if there’s a way of playing more with the digital materials that Glitch offers and I guess that’s HTML markup or the elements, but also seeing if there’s a conversation that can be had with the paper sketches. And I’m not entirely sure what that means, but I’ve been thinking of inbetween technologies like scanners, not photography, but scanners. So I’m trying to see if there’s a way of exploring the materialities of things in between before it gets to Glitch and paper. So what are all of these things and seeing what comes up.

In terms of where people can find my stuff, I’m on Instagram. I have two accounts, of course, because why not? And one of them is like, the historical Sketchnotes are awesome. I didn’t think too much of the label when I created it, and that is more my basic commercial sketchnoting. And then I created a new one, which is called Materia. I created it because I wanted an account that could make a comment about the other accounts, almost like a different layer of commentary.

*Thanks to Elvia for chatting with us about how Glitch has enabled her to visualize her research in new and exciting ways. If you build or see an app on Glitch that you want us to feature, we’d love to know! Email [email protected] or tweet @glitch*!