How do you learn something new? I asked myself this question several years ago when I was having difficulty learning some things at the research laboratory where I work. While attending some technical seminars, I would take notes and record the information that was discussed. However, I found that I would not absorb that information as readily as I liked. I knew there must be a way to improve my understanding of the material and retain that information longer. Also, I realized that I would never look at my notes after a seminar—partly because they were messy, but also because they did not aptly summarize the information I was there to record. What’s the sense in taking notes if I’m not going to look at them again? Thinking that there might be a better way - a way to help me learn new things and better retain that knowledge - I searched on the internet for different methods that might help me improve my notetaking.
In so doing, I stumbled across visual notes or, sketchnotes as Mike Rohde calls them. Rohde defines sketchnotes as rich visual notes created from a mix of and writing, drawings, hand-drawn typography, shapes, and visual elements like arrows, boxes, and lines. With a brief glance at one of Rohde’s sketchnotes, I found two things.
First, I enjoyed looking at them… a lot. These weren’t like my notes at all. Mine were made up of messy script, and consistently boring in appearance. But these sketchnotes...they were something different altogether! They had simple drawings, lines and arrows, boxes around text, and large lettering for major topics. The drawings were not particularly artistic - just some stick figures and other quick doodles. However, the combination of all of these simple elements made them visually attractive.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, I understood the main message of the content being summarized in the sketchnote very quickly. I could see the main message. Sketchnotes are similar to billboards and other glance media - when they are prepared properly, you can understand the message very quickly.
From the description above, it may sound a lot like an infographic, but sketchnotes are different. Like sketchnotes, an infographic is a visual summary of content. But the difference is in the audience for each of these summaries. An infographic has a broad audience, whereas a sketchnote has an audience of one: you. Sketchnotes are developed by you, based on your understanding of the content, and they are most meaningful to you. However, when you see others’ sketchnotes, often you’ll see that they can be useful summaries for you, too. This is common for sketchnote topics in which you share a similar understanding of the material. It is not, however, a requirement for a sketchnote that others understand it. To make a long story short, sketchnotes are for you, first and foremost.
These two aspects of sketchnotes - that they are visually compelling and easy to understand (for you) quickly - are a fantastic combination and made me want to learn how to to make them. I taught myself from Mike Rohde’s book, The Sketchnote Handbook. I read it quickly but returned to it repeatedly. I wanted to make sketchnotes for all the talks that I attended so that I could have a set of references that I could look at again and again.
The beauty of sketchnote-taking is that each of the individual skills necessary to produce a sketchnote are straightforward and simple to describe: watching, listening, synthesizing & summarizing, and doodling & writing. The challenge comes when you try to combine those skills and use them simultaneously, which is a requirement for producing the most useful sketchnotes. As a result, to become proficient at sketchnoting you need to practice.
What does a sketchnote look like?
In the figure below, you can see an example of a sketchnote that I drew based on content from The Sketchnote Army Podcast in which Mike Rohde interviewed James Saretta. I drew this in the Los Angeles airport waiting for a flight to Melbourne where I would meet James in person.
We will take a detailed look into sketchnotes like the one above in subsequent posts. But for now, we will ease into sketchnoting with a simple exercise that I present to attendees at my sketchnote workshops. I call it the index card sketchnote. In this exercise, you have several constraints.
- You cannot write or draw anything while you consume the content (in this case you watch a TED talk). Your only job is to pay attention.
- At the end of the talk, you think of one doodle and one phrase that summarizes the entire talk.
- Draw/write those both on an index card.
For most attendees, this is their very first sketchnote. It's small; it’s visual; it’s an excellent way to practice listening for the big idea, and it’s a great way to practice doodling something simple. In fact, it can seem like less pressure to come up with one doodle rather than multiple. It is also something that you can glance at quickly in the future and recall what that talk was about.
Time to Sketchnote!
I’d like you to give it a try. Below you'll find a short, fun talk by Greg Gage called "How to Control Someone Else’s Arm with your Brain." Before you watch it, grab yourself an index card (or a piece of paper) and a pen, but put them to the side until after you watch the video.
Watch it, but don’t write anything and don’t draw anything while you’re done. Wait until the end, and then think of one phrase and one doodle that captures the essence of the talk. Then take your index card (or paper) and your pen, and put your phrase & doodle down on the card.
Finished? Ok, take a look at your index card sketchnote. What was the main message that you got out of the talk? How did you you represent the content visually? What did you write? Now ask yourself, “if I looked at this in one week, four weeks, 1 year, would I remember what the talk was about?”
If the answer is yes—and this is testable—then your sketchnote is right. Though some may say that there is no right or wrong way to make a sketchnote, I believe that you CAN say that you made a correct sketchnote if it passes the test I just described.
Just for fun, I am including my index card sketchnote for this TED talk below. I should note that I did not use an index card for this exercise. Instead, I drew this sketchnote in my sketchbook (the Sketchnote Ideabook). Though I make quite a few digital sketchnotes on a tablet, I like to keep my hand-drawn sketchnotes in sketchbooks.
You can see that I kept my sketchnote simple. Following the rules, I used one phrase and a single doodle to describe the content of the talk. I liked that the title described the content well, so I used the title for my phrase. The sketchnote is not very sophisticated but it gets the job done. Ok, maybe the drawing of the brain on the character on the left is a bit more complicated. But the figures are “block” figures rather than stick figures. Replacing a stick torso with a block is a simple way to spruce up characters in your sketchnotes. Let’s take a closer look to see how some of these simple elements convey a more complex idea.
The drawing is just two characters connected with a couple wires to a box with a graph denoting the brain’s signal going from one person to another. Arrows are drawn on the wires to show the direction of the brain signal. I used some simple lines above and below the figures’ hands to denote motion. I also used bold lettering to emphasize certain words in my one phrase.
The stick figures—or block figures—help to your sketchnotes “character”! They can help you imagine yourself doing that action.
To add some emphasis to the words, I used thick letters. Double line letters are easy to learn and quick to draw after you’ve practiced. The figure below shows that it’s a quick, two-step process. First you write the word, then you add the outline.
Overall, I’m pretty happy with my index card sketchnote. It is visual and concise. I can glance at this quickly and I’m reminded of the main idea of the talk. I think it can be an enduring visual reminder for me.
If you’ve never seen sketchnotes before this, you can find many more examples of all types of content and styles in the large and very active group of sketchnoters on social media. You can find many of them on Twitter and Instagram, but you’ll find a great introduction to members of the community on the Sketchnote Army website. I appreciate the sketchnote community not just because I learn from others when they share their own sketchnote tips and tricks. I love the fact that every member of the community that I know has a growth mindset. Look at the topics of their sketchnotes and you’ll find a group always trying to learn more and improve themselves. Their willingness to share ideas is evidence that they know they are in good company. I encourage you to check out this community.
Interested in learning more about sketchnotes and how to make them? Check out Mike Rohde’s Sketchnote Handbook or Sketchnote Workbook, or head over to the Sketchnote Army website. And stay tuned here for more posts on sketchnoting. I have more blog posts coming every week, where I plan to give you some tips and tricks on making sketchnotes and also show you how I use sketchnotes to learn new things.