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Sketchnotes: Changing The Way You See Your Thoughts

Denise Francis

Recently, I got the opportunity to do a lightning talk (quick presentation on something I know and want to share with others), at and amUX morning meetup that took place at The Switchyards Downtown Club here in Atlanta, Georgia! I’d like to share here, what I shared there!

Currently, I’m a Sr. Product Designer at Salesforce, but I’m also a sketch note artist… even though it wasn't until recently that I even defined myself as such, because I’ve pretty much been one since I was a kid. Bottom line, I prefer to communicate visually.

Simply put, Sketchnotes, or visual note taking is the act of adding visual sketched elements to your notes in order to visually communicate something. (That’s my definition for it, I’m sure there’s some sort of official definition out there on Google, but I’m just going to go with this).

For years and years I’ve kept tons of sketchbooks. I just realized at an early age that sketching and visualizing things are the best methods to processing my thoughts. I tried bullet journaling but each successful page always ended up boiling down to a visual way of keeping notes vs. scheduling and just making lists. I could only stay engaged when I was sketching for a purpose rather than for the sake of keeping an active bullet journal.

I also began to share them with others as often as I could, especially on Instagram. My content usually focuses on displaying how I choose to curate my most creative lifestyle choices, while still remaining relatable, so of course sketchnotes gets included in that. The funny thing is I never really expected other people to care, because as much as people say this, I truly post content for me, for my memories. I started to realize I was getting great engagement from it which naturally made me want to really deep dive into it. It wasn't until then that I began to understand that other people really enjoyed and saw value in my way of visually thinking, so I began to incorporate it into my daily job habits.

Incorporating it into the jobs I do for a living has been extremely fruitful. Not only have I been able to help visually tell stories to support ideas, pitches, and presentations, but I also began to book sessions to sketch live on a big screen (via my iPad Pro and Apple Pencil) for lectures and conferences.

Whether it was from sharing online, at work, or simply someone looking over my shoulder in a coffee shop, I started to get more and more questions like “HOW do you know how to do that?” And “Can you teach me?” Or “You should show other people how to do this”

So I began doing research in order to figure out how one teaches someone else something they’ve been doing all of their like like visual note taking and I found a guru. I knew that I must mention the person who made this whole “sketchnotes” thing, into a real thing. Of course many people have been taking sketchnotes for a long time, but Mike Rohde was the person who coined the term. He’s the one who first decided to analyze it and share his thoughts into books so that it could be a teachable thing, while also breaking down essential elements of the craft.

This began my spiral down the rabbit hole into the wonderland of sketchnotes. Naturally, I went online to see what everyone else was doing, lol … Luckily there is a huge, amazing visual note-taking community out there and I learned so much just by browsing.

One of the things I really wanted to discover is WHY it makes me feel so good. Visual note taking has amazing benefits.

Now, how would I convey these benefits to others? Would I end up just preaching to the crowd? This led me to attempt to define the 2 types of visual note takers, who don’t take visual notes yet. The first type is the self doubter. The self doubter has already determined that the cannot do it. They’d like to be able to, but they can’t. The second type is the avoider. The avoider, has already decided that they will never take visual notes, because it’s irritating, and takes too much time, and they simply can’t be bothered. The good news is that the avoider can simply keep avoiding. They can move on with their lives because that can do whatever they want, lol. There’s also good news for the self doubter. Visual note taking is easier that they thought and they can start at any time!

Most people immediately think “Well, I can’t sketch” or “That’s too hard and complicated” which could just be a translation for “I’m absolutely sure I DON’T want to be able to do that, but I like looking at it.” However, for those that WOULD like to be able to do it but still feel that way, you’re in luck … IT’S SIMPLY JUST NOT TRUE.

First, you CAN sketch, everyone can, that’s the bottom line. Just remember that sketching isn’t about being an artist, it’s about conveying ideas visually, so it can be as simple or as complicated as you decide. Once you adjust your philosophy about sketching, you tend not to scare yourself out of trying.

There are many myths that people tend to believe when they have yet to try to add visual elements to their note taking (usually they already have, and just haven’t realized it yet). It’s easy to avoid the negative thoughts about sketchnotes by simply replacing them with positive thoughts.

So here’s the philosophy, or mine anyway: Everything you see is composed of some form of a line and a circle. As you choose to improve your sketching skills, you’re just choosing to modify and add to those lines and circles. This can mean embracing arcs and curves, and broken lines etc. However, it is still composed of lines and circles.

For example, let’s look at a tree. If you are trying to sketch an idea referencing a tree you can choose to draw a simple line and circle and people will understand what you are trying to show, because it’s more about the idea than the detail of the sketch. As you add to your skill set you can begin to give details about this tree to enrich your idea. The tree has a branch. The tree has a branch with a tire swing. The tree has a branch with a tire swing and a hole in its trunk etc.

You may be thinking, “I can’t make sketches look good. “ If you are absolutely married to this idea then you just don’t want to be a sketch note taker. And that’s perfectly ok. But, if you’d like to move out of that thought process, then here are some tips for you.

Here are a few layouts to begin with, however, don’t forget that the possibilities are endless and you can later create your own layouts.

Some layouts are simply that, a bullet like system of jotting down thoughts. Others walk through telling a story, some map and categorize ideas, then there are lists, trackers, plans, and schedules (those you tend to see more in a bullet journal). The types are endless, and you can mix and mash together all types of styles.

Adding to your bulleted thoughts is the next step. If you’re ready for the next steps you can add ONE, SOME, OR ALL of these simple elements to your notes. Containers, Dividers, Bullets, and Icons. These along with color and line weight will most definitely transform your sketch notes.

It’s usually easier to get started with the most typical style: Jotting down thoughts. Usually this is some sort of bulleted style of processing thoughts. So, how can we elevate it to the very next minimal level WITH OUT DRAWING? Line weight and color.

So what if you do consider yourself to be somewhat of a sketcher but you’d like to take things to the next level. You can add lettering, shadows and more detail into your iconography. You can start by taking your containers, dividers, bullets and icons to the next level by adding detail and making them into more creative elements. You could also even do a quick sketch of the person presenting if its a meeting or a live session so that you’ll remember who spoke to you (and even include their contact information if you’d like to reach out. Tip: If you want to get better at taking sketch notes, you can snap pictures of the things you definitely don’t want to miss and sketch it later, or later as the presenter is speaking.

Now, you can really allow your personality to shine. These are your thoughts, they can be for sharing or keeping private. Remember this should be fun, so it can be whatever you want it to be. Defining your personal style can be rewarding, but it takes practice. Sometimes, it makes sense to practice elements you’d frequently use in your notes so that you have a rich vocabulary of elements to pull from.

As you progress. you will learn something new about your style of sketchnote taking every time. Personally, I’ve learned that writing in all caps makes the notes easier to read later, especially if the notes are for someone else. I recently discovered that I prefer to use an iPad for sketching verses the millions of notebooks I can carrying around. Digital sketching allows for correcting mistakes easier, and you can find lots of existing templates online. However, you don’t NEED an iPad to take sketch notes, all you need are pens and pencils and paper. I also have found that I have begun to inject my opinion into the things that I sketch making them most memorable to myself and others.

Don’t forget to practice! This is a chart I’ve created for myself in my iPad. I use it to practice quick sketches of icons that could be used during sketchnote taking.

It also just keeps my mind quick and fresh for live sketching situations, and helps establish and strengthen my sketching style.

I’ve even applied a creative approach to creating a vocabulary for drop caps that I may use in my work.

Here are some examples of some of the notes I’m most proud of from the last few weeks!

I’ll leave you with some resources, and hope you enjoyed this soap box!