Two Alabama Extension community forestry agents have been promoting doodling in the workplace lately, but they're not ashamed of that fact.
The two believe passionately that all this doodling could help them and other community foresters reinvent the way they reach their clients in the future.
Research has demonstrated that urban tree plantings not only enhance the beauty of cities and towns, softening the visual starkness of concrete sidewalks, curbs and highway overpasses, but also confer immense economic benefits. Cities and towns that value trees the most tend to be the healthiest and most economically vibrant communities.
That's the story the two Alabama Cooperative Extension System urban forestry agents, Beau Brodbeck and Jack Rowe, have been striving to drive home to people of all ages.
The problem is that the only people who seem getting this message are people aged 50 and older.
"We've been working our way around the state beating our heads against the wall to find new ways to reach younger audiences," Brodbeck recalls.
"If you type 'community forestry' into a search engine you're going to get bombarded with thousands of items offering the same types of discussion about the topic," he says. "We were determined to come up with something a little fresher and more compelling."
More often than not this has involved a struggle to reinvent old Powerpoint presentations to provide more creative spark. Then, Rowe stumbled upon what he perceived as a radically new approach known as lecture doodles.
A growing number of communicators perceive these doodles as radically new ways to render messages more disruptive — more distinguishable from the tens of thousands of related messages. As Brodbeck and Rowe have learned through experience, this is a major challenge in what has become, thanks to the advent of the Internet, an increasingly crowded information landscape.
Doodles combine a creative mix of conversational narrative and highly skilled illustration — doodling, in a manner of speaking — that is carried out at breakneck speed to convey concepts, many of which are highly abstract or complex and that often prove intractably hard to communicate through other media.
"These doodles struck me from the start as being highly engaging and creative," Rowe recalls. "I found myself sitting and listening to all these learned professors and scholars talk about topics in which I otherwise wouldn't have been the least interested."
Even better, Rowe perceived them as a way to reach younger audiences.
He and Brodbeck envisioned a doodle that essentially made the case for community forestry, namely, the myriad of ways that trees benefitted communities of all sizes.
With Brodbeck's encouragement, Rowe paid a visit to Auburn University to run the idea past Bruce Dupree, Alabama Extension's illustrator and art director, and Mario Lightfoote, Extension's video producer and director.
Little did these two visual experts know at the time how far this experience would expand their conceptual and professional horizons.
"At first, the whole idea struck me a lot like taking a long road trip without GPS or a road map," recalls Dupree, an illustrator with 30-plus years of experience in illustration as well as teaching illustration at the university level. "We didn't know where we would end up, but we were still sort of vaguely excited about the whole thing."
The same goes for Lightfoote, who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of video and digital videography and editing but whose career, until now, at least, has been devoted almost exclusively to real-time video production.
"We knew all along that the biggest challenge would be shooting the drawing in real time and then compressing it so that it fit the narration perfectly," Lightfoote says. "Anytime you compress something into smaller amounts of time, you're talking about a big technical challenge."
Aside from his experience, Lightfoote also had another formidable arrow in his quiver: powerful software — Apple Final Cut Pro —on a Mac, with ample amounts of storage and rendering memory.
The two mustered plenty of patience as they worked their way through this new process.
Dupree's illustrating, Lightfoote's shooting and post-production editing, and Brodbeck's and Rowe's scripting all added up to about 50 hours of labor.
Rowe also provided the narration.
The end result is a presentation titled "Why Trees," which the four collaborators believe is the nation's first Cooperative Extension-originated lecture doodle.
Looking back, all agree that the biggest challenge with planning, shooting and editing a lecture doodle is ensuring that the illustrations are time-compressed to fit the narration — no mean feat, although the end product tends to make it all look easy.
All four concede that the effort has already paid off immensely. Only two days after it was posted on the Alabama Extension YouTube channel, the doodle generated more than 500 views.
One of Rowe's old mentors, a University of Kentucky horticulture professor, is already encouraging to two community foresters to retool it to an international audience.
Rowe and Brodbeck also have conceived ideas for two other doodles.
This initial success already has the four Extension professionals talking about expanding the conceptual boundaries of the doodle, such as a hybridized approach in which doodles could be drawn off of conventionally shot video to provide viewers with deeper instructional context.
"We essentially dropped this video on Bruce and Mario's doorstep, but they've been greats sports about it and true professionals.
"We're looking forward to a long, productive partnership," Rowe says.