Sketchnoting from Recorded Video on an Unfamiliar Topic

These days it’s easy to find learning opportunities online. During the pandemic, I’ve watched many video recordings of presentations and academic lectures on topics that interest me, and I’ve made many sketchnotes. As I discussed in my first post, sketchnotes are an excellent tool to help you absorb and recall content. In this post, I’ll describe my approach to making sketchnotes from recorded presentations, and introduce you to one of the most important tools in my sketchnoting toolbox: the Visual Vocabulary.

In the spirit of the theme of this blog series—nurturing a growth mindset through sketchnotes—I’ve selected a subject that I’d like to know more about:  smartphones. In fact, in the next several posts, I will show you how I have used sketchnotes based on presentation content to learn more about smartphones, which should help you learn right along with me.

I will start by making a simple sketchnote from a talk that requires just a little preparation. In the next post, I will go a step further, showing how to use sketchnotes when researching a topic which prepares you to sketchnote a presentation on a topic that is less familiar. In the fourth post, I will come full circle and use my knowledge to answer a question born of my own curiosity based on an intriguing comment made in the talk in the third post. The answer, of course, will be summarized in a sketchnote.

Preparing to Sketchnote:  Create a Visual Vocabulary

When sketchnoting a talk, it can be helpful to do some preparation in advance. One useful activity, especially if you are not familiar with the topic, is to make a visual vocabulary based on what you know about the topic. In practice, a visual vocabulary is just a collection of labeled doodles based on a theme.

In the context of sketchnoting, there are two types of presentations:  (1) presentations on topics with which you have some familiarity, and (2) presentations on everything else. Developing a visual vocabulary is most important for the second case (which I know from experience, as there are many more presentations out there that fall into category 2!), but it can be very helpful in the first, too.

How do you do make a visual vocabulary? If you’re already familiar with the topic, you start by brainstorming words that you think are relevant to the topic. Write these words on a blank sheet of paper. Then think of a simple doodle that best represents each word. Repeat your doodle for each word.

For those presentations in category (2), and you find yourself unfamiliar with a topic that you want to learn more about, you can consult books, the internet, or any other reference. A quick way to get ideas for doodles of words is to do an image search on the web. Another very useful web-based tool is the icon search tool at You can type a word into the text box on the web page and it will show you many simple icons that represent that word. I use that tool frequently when I’m having difficulty finding a simple way to draw something.

The advantage of creating a visual vocabulary is two-fold. First, it helps you think about the topic of the presentation. This thinking is itself a form of preparation and prepares your brain for what you are about to see, hear, and/or read. Second, when you have a prepared group of icons and/or doodles that you can call upon from memory and draw quickly, you don’t have to think too hard about how to draw it during the talk. This pays off because that reduced cognitive load allows you to focus on the content being delivered.

How I Create & Add to My Visual Vocabulary

Let’s see how it works in practice.

We will watch the TED talk by Cathy Mulzer titled The Incredible Chemistry Powering Your Smartphone. Before doing so, the first step is to create a visual vocabulary based just on the title of the talk. The themes are chemistry and smartphone. I already know quite a bit about a smartphone as a user, but I don’t have in-depth scientific knowledge about the inner workings of a smartphone. Since this is a TED talk and it’s intended for a non-expert audience, I adopted a simple approach and used terms that are synonymous (for me) with chemistry and smartphone technology. What are some words that come to your mind when you think of chemistry and smartphone?

In my 2-minute brainstorm, I came up with 7 words to formulate my visual vocabulary, or “VIZ VOCAB”:  smartphone, wireless, safety glasses, chemist, test tube, beaker & chemical.

visual vocabulatry for smartphones

Note that I have used these terms many times in previous talks, so they were already part of my visual vocabulary. However, the act of brainstorming and drawing these again helped refresh my memory and made it easier for me to recall these doodles during the talk. More importantly, using those doodles during the talk then helps me to recall details and information from the talk because I have mapped those doodles or icons in my brain to the words or concepts that they are meant to represent. Developing this kind of visual vocabulary with elements & icons that you can reuse over and over again helps to create a positive feedback loop of learning and recollection in your brain to then increase the effectiveness of your sketchnotes. (Oh, and doodling these kind of icons is a lot of fun, too!)

Once I made my visual vocabulary, I felt better prepared to watch the talk and draw the sketchnote. I’ve included the presentation below so you can check it out, or you can follow this link to watch it on YouTube.

Sketchnoting the Presentation

When I viewed this talk, I found that it was accessible. However it was clear that the speaker was a chemist, using occasional jargon (e.g., “organic polymer”). The pace of the talk was comfortable for me. Nevertheless I made a rough sketchnote during the presentation first and then drew the final sketchnote shown below in my Sketchnote Ideabook.

The Incredible Chemistry Powering Your Smartphone Sketchnote

Let’s talk about how I made it.

The sketchnote is organized vertically, in the chronological order in which the information was presented, what Mike Rohde would refer to as a “Linear” sketchnote pattern. I set the title apart with a box in the upper left hand corner, composed of a smartphone doodle whose screen has a chemical icon displayed. To me, the main point of her talk is that chemistry has played an enormous role in the development and construction of the smartphone and will continue to do so. Since the speaker characterized chemistry as the Hero of Electronic Communications, I drew a doodle of the chemist as a superhero. Note that I already used three elements of my visual vocabulary in the first couple minutes of the talk:  chemist, smartphone, and test tube. I was happy that I didn’t have to think very hard about drawing these as I was listening and watching the video. I had another chance to use my doodle of the smartphone when the speaker described how chemistry is essential to the display, battery, and adhesion of the phone’s components. For the remainder of the sketchnote, I had to call upon elements of my existing visual vocabulary including a brain, a ray gun, and a bottle of glue. (Yes, I have actually used all of these in previous sketchnotes!) I didn’t have to think too hard about how to draw these during the talk since they were already part of my visual vocabulary.

DETAILS: A Sketchnoting Pitfall to Avoid

One pitfall that I succumbed to often when I first started sketchnoting 6 years ago was to try to record everything. But sketchnotes should represent the big ideas and include only as much detail as you need to support those big ideas. During this talk, I admit that I still felt the urge to record more information rather than what you see in this sketchnote. For example, the speaker described a hoodie-wearing app developer from Silicon Valley in the beginning of the talk. Though it would have been amusing to me to draw a stick figure with a hoodie, it was unnecessary since I drew the chemist superhero, which illustrated the point about the importance of chemistry. I also could have recorded much more detail about lithography’s role in shrinking printed circuit boards. But I liked that the ray gun analogy conveyed the idea succinctly and with a bit of humor. There were numerous analogies presented to make the technical details accessible to the audience (e.g., wires on printed circuit boards analogous to roadways). Yet I didn’t feel that that level of detail was necessary for this specific sketchnote. Though, another benefit of sketchnoting recorded presentations is that I could always go back, rewatch the video, doodle up a sketchnote about some other part of the talk, and deepen my understanding of some other detail of the talk.

In this particular instance, however, I felt that this sketchnote was a good visual summary for me to remember this presentation, and gives me a sense of the role that chemistry plays in the construction of a smartphone. It is a sketchnote that I’ll enjoy viewing again and it helped me understand more about smartphones.

In the next post, I will show you how I learned even more about the smartphone from another TED Ed talk. But in that talk, the details are farther afield from my knowledge and, therefore, I’ll have to do a bit more preparation.

Happy sketchnoting! 

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