The Art of Sketchnoting

Published:  June 29, 2011
The Art of Sketchnoting

The days of frantically scribbling lines of barely legible notes at conferences are diminishing. Sketchnoting is gaining popularity not only as a cool way to takes notes, but also as a bit of an art form.

Leaning against a wall at the back of a User Experience (UX) conference mid-2009, I noticed a few people were drawing quirky pictures next to typographically crafted words on their notepads as they listened to speakers. The previous day’s workshop on sketchnoting by Sydney-based UX and graphic designer Matt Balara had obviously made an impact.

Inspired by US sketchnoting ‘king’, Mike Rohde, Balara got into sketchnoting at the 2009 South by Southwest (SXSW) conference. “I took notes at a few conferences, but rarely remembered what I’d written, whereas Mike Rohde’s sketchnotes, for talks I hadn’t even seen, stuck in my head. It was no surprise to read a suggestion in a recent applied cognitive psychology study that doodling while listening improves retention, contradicting the conventional wisdom that doodlers are ignoring what they hear,” he says.

SXSW Interactive 2010. Image courtesy of Mike Rohde.

SXSW Interactive 2010. Image courtesy of Mike Rohde.

I ask Rohde how he coined the term ‘sketchnoting’ as we now know it. “In 2007, I decided to simplify my note-taking by bringing only a pocket Moleskine sketchbook and a gel pen to a presentation,” he explains. “But, more importantly, I would focus my mind on the big ideas that resonated with me, and aim to capture those ideas in visual form – using typography, drawings, shapes and text. At Adaptive Path’s UX Intensive conference, in April 2007 in Chicago, I captured my first intentional sketchnotes and had a great time in the process!

“Even more fascinating were the comments from attendees, speakers and even those who had not attended the event – they all said my sketchnotes captured the event in a way that was fun to read and made them feel like they were there. That’s when I firstrealised I was on to something big.”

Rohde has since taken his sketchnotes to another level, having collaborated with the founders of 37signals, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, on the illustrations for the book Rework, a series of short, inspiring essays debunking myths in business. “We worked together through sketches and final illustrations, brainstorming ideas with Jason until all 88 illustrations were approved and delivered to the publisher for printing. The book has been very well-received and is now a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller.”

Curious to know if anyone else has championed a similar form to sketchnoting, I ask Rohde to cite any examples. “I think annotated drawings as notes have been around for a long time. Leonardo da Vinci used this type of note taking for his inventions, and I’m sure others have used it too.”

One gets the impression looking at some of the sketchnotes on the web, that the standouts are created by people who have studied drawing. Balara was a prolific painter in high school before going on to study painting and sculpture, while Rohde trained as a graphic designer. So what advice is there for people who want to create impressive sketchnotes, but believe they can’t draw?

Some nice dramatic type. Image courtesy of Matt Balara.

PGP (Pretty Good Portrait) of David Sless. Image courtesy of Matt Balara.

“Using the sketchnoting approach at your next event is a good way to give it a go. Everyone has a different approach, so play around with what’s most fun for you,” Rohde says. “For me, typography is important, so you’ll see a heavy emphasis on type. You don’t even need a fancy Moleskine notebook – simply use a sheet of paper or a notebook with whatever pen you like, and listen for the broader ideas that mean something to you. Forget about catching every detail and instead focus on the theme and wider ideas, capturing details that are meaningful in that context. Most importantly, have fun!”

Meanwhile, Balara has been busy holding sketching workshops for designers who think they can’t sketch. “I got the workshop idea last year at the Information Architecture Summit in Memphis when I was having a beer with a bunch of user experience designers, and my mate Dan Willis pulled out his mind-blowing sketchbook. All of these remarkable, smart, highly experienced designers said, ‘Wow, I wish I could do that, but I can’t draw.’ Ever since then I’ve made it a bit of a mission to prove to these people that they can draw, at least well enough to get their ideas out and communicate them. Everyone should stop saying ‘I can’t draw’ and instead say ‘I don’t draw’. It’s pretty easy to change ‘don’t’ into ‘do’, but ‘can’t’ is immutable.

“It’s important to distinguish between art and sketching as a process to develop and communicate ideas quickly and easily,” he continues. “Not everyone can be an artist, but anyone can draw an idea for an interface with only a little training. I recommend reading some books, get a good pen and a sketchbook, and make yourself draw regularly, no matter how ugly it is at first.”

So once you’ve given sketchnoting a go, and overcome the fear of onlookers thinking you’re a distracted doodler, how do you synchronise what you’re hearing with what you’re drawing? “First of all, you have to turn off distractions. That means no Twitter or Facebook updates. Put your laptop to sleep and focus on what’s being presented,” Rohde suggests. “Next, invest yourself in what’s being presented, really focusing deeply on the ideas and connecting with the speaker, so that everything else around falls away. Listening is a technique that gets better with practice, so you have to just do it.

SXSW Interactive 2010. Image courtesy of Mike Rohde.

SXSW Interactive 2009. Image courtesy of Mike Rohde.

Alaska Sketchnotes. Image courtesy of Mike Rohde.

“It’s funny, but for me I actually hear less when I’m sketchnoting than when I’m not,” adds Balara. “I’ll walk out of a talk and think, ‘Hmm, I’ll have to look through my notes later and see what that was about.’ When you’re in normal listening mode you’re concentrating on the talk, thinking about what’s said, making links between the talk and your own experience, judging the speaker and content as good, bad or indifferent, and so on. When I’m sketchnoting I’m listening for a very specific purpose – to figure out what to write and sketch. I often feel like the talk is just flowing through me onto the paper. If I start thinking about what I’m hearing, the sketching slows or stops. On the other hand, if I start getting lost in my sketches I stop listening and miss things. It’s a real dance between open listening and concentrated sketching. My tip is to be more open than usual when listening – hear everything, but judge and process it less. The essence of the talk will rise to the surface and when you notice it, sketch like mad.”

With the release of the iPad it’s easy to be concerned that the pen and paper could come under attack from an invasion of digital applications. “The ones I know are SketchBook Pro by Autodesk and Adobe Ideas, both of which are available for iPhone and iPad,” Balara says. “Having played with both a little, I’d say Sketchbook Pro on the iPad warrants a closer look as it’s very responsive, has all the options I’d need and it creates quite nice, soft lines. The best example of iPad sketchnoting I know of is Craighton Berman’s charming sketchnotes from Milan Design Week for Core 77, using SketchBook Pro.”

While on the subject of pen and paper versus computers, Balara comments. “If you start a design on the computer, or even with too fine a pen, you get caught up in details that aren’t relevant or helpful at the start of a project. Sketching with a lo-fi, fat Sharpie frees you up to think in broad strokes and get the important stuff down. You can obsess over details later.

Computers are very left-brained creatures. They enforce a step-by-step process and require lots of little decisions. I think that computers actually hinder creativity and thinking if you don’t have a plan. By contrast, a piece of paper and a Sharpie encourage flow, and ideas just appear. That said, once rapid iteration begins on a project it’s best to translate your sketches into digital form.”

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards
The Back of the Napkin
by Dan Roam
Understanding Comics
by Scott McCloud

From desktop magazine.

Thumbnail image: SXSW Interactive 2009. Image courtesy of Mike Rohde.

5 Responses

  1. linh

    very nice article

  2. Geraldine

    Sketchnoting! A name for everything and everything has a name.

  3. Fun way to remember notes and interesting way to express stuff.

  4. Paul

    A great article thanks for sharing … now wheres that Moleskine and sharpie!

  5. Saweeeeet. Do you know if Michael allows reuse of some of the sketches? Would love to use one in an upcoming newsletter.

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