Seeing and Recording the World of Compassion

It’s no secret that the notion of a world governed by a Charter for Compassion is somewhat heady. How does one even go about franchising such an idea around the globe to a populace used to 30-second news sound bytes or 140 character analysis?  Take a look at the image above – there in a very digestible form is what compassion is and what it isn’t. As Karen Armstrong says, we all have compassion within us -- in our brains -- we just need to be able to bring it to the forefront through thought and practice.


Avril Orloff, a graphic facilitator, is the person responsible for that flash of clarity. She joins groups discussing everything from marine science to well, a charter for compassion and interprets their discussions with a perfect mix of images and words. Orloff came to her craft through art studies; others arrive though organizational fields. The result is what Orloff calls, "drawing out your best ideas".


The reason this approach works so well in academic and business settings, where ideas flow free and fast, is that the majority of people are visual learners and visual thinkers. Orloff notes when you’re asked to picture a tree – you don’t picture T*R*E*E... Much of our explanatory language is visual she notes, “Do you get the big picture?” and “Are we on the same page?” or "Is it just in one ear and other the other with you?" 



Avril Orloff interprets as she goes, and oft times, her drawings move the discussion forward.  She pulls information from the discussion. Rather than pushing her images on to the discussion, she flows with it. This approach says, Orloff, lets participants really feel heard – that her work is honoring their words and their ideas. 


Sometimes the graphic facilitation process can come up with new visual metaphors. Orloff describes one such experience:

One time I had a leadership session and I started to draw a leader – a figure leading with a flag and a bunch of people following and I stopped in my tracks and said – "wait is this what we think of as a leader today?" I opened it up to the group and asked what in the 21st century is a leader? We had a really interesting conversation about what does a leader look like – drawing and drawing until we came to an image we all agreed on. That image was more of a cloudlike, windlike figure blowing from behind – filing people’s sails.

Maybe, we can reframe how we think of things by using different pictures, says Orloff. This might well be a practice that would serve something as complex, as well as both concrete and ephemeral, as the Charter for Compassion.


When Orloff enthusiastically agreed to take on a facilitation task for Simon Fraser Univeristy, she knew it would be brainy, but she hoped it would also be inspiring. Her rendering of the events included  feats of listening and creating for a day-long “symposium [that] gathered together scholars, researchers, and practitioners working in the domain of compassion and related moral (and many will say, spiritual) consciousness and action. In a world that is mired in escalating conflict, violence, and destruction, compassion as a prophylactic consciousness is urgently needed. Inspired and supported by Karen Armstrong’s work in compassion, this symposium conducts a sustained meditation on the phenomenon of compassion and an inquiry into conditions, preconditions, challenges and barriers to compassion becoming manifest.” In other words, compassion needs to be broken down visually.

No small task: But here is how Orloff rendered a discussion of what role world religions seem to play in modern discourse -- and what role they should play according to the gathered minds: Orloff often situates images next to each other to illustrate a complex point -- like the role of faith in modern geopolotics.


The organizers had no small hopes for the outcome of the day: They planned “to educate people to be compassionate - hence our title, 'Working Compassion'.” What can colleagues in different disciplines and professional fields tell us about their findings and cutting-edge inquiries concerning this apparently very complex phenomenon? By bringing together colleagues into dialogue, under the inspiration and guidance of Karen Armstrong, our symposium sought and continues to seek to break new ground in the intersection of compassion research, practice, and education." Understanding is the first step. Real success is measured by what happens once a participant leaves the symposium.


When asked how long graphic recording has been around practicitoners like usually point to the cave drawing of 1000s of years ago. We started with paintings, added words, and then added images back in again with illustration. Its easy to argue that the combination fo the two is the most effective communication tool.

To view the complete graphics in detail, download:

Part I: Karen Armstrong

Part II: Afternoon panel discussion

To find out more about graphic visualization, visit:

International Forum of Visual Practitioners

Graphic notes from TED 2012

Sketchnote Army

Many thanks to Avril Orloff for her stunning work.