If I showed you this image, what would you say it is? Like it or not, you’d be hard pushed to find someone that doesn’t recognise it is as visual symbol for a (possibly male) human being.
Symbols like this have been used since prehistoric times. Engrained in our subconscious.
Stick figures serve a purpose, especially in my work as a sketchnoter. When I’m visually recording an event in real time, it’s imperative that I’m able to simplify images so that I can draw them as quickly as possible.
I’ve spent hours and hours learning to reduce my lines down to the bare minimum so that I can focus on what people are saying, rather than wasting time on drawing something photographically.
Surely a stickman is a perfect for what I do? A circle and four lines and I’ve got myself a person. Sure, I can play around with it to make it look a bit more stylish, or to add movement, but other than that it’s fit for purpose…right?
Wrong. I’m doubting the generic stick person.
For those of you who don’t know my story, before I became a full-time sketchnoter I had a relatively high-profile role in the charity sector. I was the CEO of a national umbrella body that frequently required me to speak at conferences, chat to politicians and go on the radio or tellybox. I built up thousands of followers on social media. I had a platform.
I wanted to use this privilege to shine a light on other talented people who were doing great things but didn’t have the same platform that I was being given, often because they were female or from marginalised communities. I got it wrong…a lot…but it was important to me that I tried.
I ended up quitting my job in an unplanned way after my Chair of Trustees told me to stop talking about antiracism in public; I’d become too vocal on the topic and she felt it was distracting from the charity’s strategy.
Thankfully the world has moved on a little since then. Diversity, equity and inclusion are increasingly recognised as something that can’t be ignored; they need to be embedded into everything we do.
GENERIC SYMBOLS DON’T ALWAYS WORK
People with platforms are starting to realise that solely employing white men to symbolise and/or represent human beings is not okay. In the UK, we’re seeing a shift in those who’re being given a platform:
· Sainsbury’s hired black actors for their Christmas advert,
· the final of Strictly involved two men dancing together and a deaf woman,
· the BBC have employed a children’s presenter with Down’s syndrome.
· Ant and Dec have collaborated with RuPaul and the Drag Race UK champions.
Thankfully, the list goes on.
So, what’s this got to do with stick people?
When I started Sketchnotes UK I get paid to do something I love and do unpaid activism in my spare time. I thought I’d be giving up my platform completely. Yet the more I draw, the more I see that, whilst my platform has changed, it still exists. I’m drawing different platforms every day.
A couple of years ago I’d happily use a stick man as a generic symbol for anybody and everybody. Yet if you show a child this simple image and ask them what it is, what would they say? A man? A person? Daddy? They’re unlikely to tell you it’s a woman.
Most young children in the UK learn to draw women like this.
They take the time to draw an extra line for a skirt and often add longer hair. Sure, this is still a massive stereotype but at least it’s an attempt to show that a male figure may not be sufficient to represent the entire human race… and I’m not a child; I’m a professional illustrator. It is my duty to ensure that I am not enforcing stereotypes and that my platform is as representational and inclusive as possible.
So… will I still use a traditional stick person? Of course…but I’m going to make much more of an effort to make sure that they’re not the only character in my human signifiers portfolio.