At Crowley, meeting rooms become drawing boards for ideas


Meeting illustrations as done by graphic recorders from Annandale-based Crowley & Co. The company charges daily rates of $1,800 to $2,700 for this service. (Courtesy of Crowley)

Deirdre Crowley has corporate meetings down to an art.

Crowley, who illustrates company round tables and brainstorming sessions in real time, has helped executives at some of the country’s largest institutions — Google, Columbia University, the U.S. Army — make sense of big ideas.

“If you can visualize a super-fast painter working at an easel, that’s what it’s like,” said Missy Moss, general manager of Nike Sports Centers, who hired Crowley to illustrate a round table in March. “She has the ability to read the room and follow all of the conversations that are going on.”

This is how it works: Crowley arrives with rolls of 4-foot-tall butcher paper, markers and a portable wall that she uses as a drawing surface. She sets up shop toward the front of the room, where she can map ideas as they’re being discussed.

By the time the meeting is over, Crowley is on to the final touches, adding colorful headings and highlighting recurring themes.

“Usually I’ll be facilitating a conversation and drawing it out, captioning it and mapping it at the same time,” she said. “But it’s more about strategy and vision than it is about art.”

Crowley, 48, founded Annandale-based Crowley & Co. in 2005. Since then, she has assembled a group of about 20 graphic recorders who travel around the world to illustrate meetings.

Daily rates generally range from $1,800 to $2,700, depending on the artist’s experience, Crowley said.

“It’s a formula that I think works very well — it adds some flair and creates a very active atmosphere,” Moss said. “People are very visual so it’s really about thinking beyond just words to tell a story.”

Crowley began working as a graphic facilitator in the 1990s, but says she decided to start her own company when she began making more money through freelance assignments than she did at her nonprofit day job. Today, the company is growing 10 percent every year. Crowley expects $450,000 in revenue in 2013.

“It’s a pretty niche industry, as you can imagine,” Crowley said. “But in the last five years business has been growing leaps and bounds.”

At Deloitte, the practice has been so well-received that the company has begun hiring Crowley to teach its consultants the basics of graphic recording. About 50 employees have been trained to date.

“It’s become a valuable new skill within the firm,” said Bill Eggers, director of public service research at Deloitte’s Washington offices.

Although most of Crowley’s assignments revolve around graphic recording, she also helps conference organizers pinpoint key ideas and create meeting agendas. In addition, she says she spends a fair amount of time learning industry lingo and catching up on important issues ahead of meetings.

Before a recent trip to the Massachusettes Institute of Technology, for example, Crowley says she brushed up on basic economics principles for a session about the commercialization of biomedical research.

“I don’t try to become an expert, but knowing the vernacular helps,” she said. “I may not be able to explain it to you, but I can capture it.”

Crowley has created a short-hand of sorts using certain icons and images to convey common ideas. A capital building may connote government relations, while a globe might represent marketing and distribution.

“It sounds silly, but if you’re showing connections, getting good at drawing arrows goes a long way,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be much more complicated than that.”

Depending on the organization, final sketches are displayed in conference rooms (as is the case at Nike), scanned and published in reports (like at Deloitte) or presented to Congress (as with the Department of Homeland Security).

“It’s very effective at capturing conversations because you can see everything in one place,” Eggers said. “But even more than that, if done well, it provokes new ideas.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section.
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