In September 2017 I attended Ian Johnson's visual note-taking workshop at DDD East Anglia. For the rest of the day I made sketchnotes, including during Karo Stoltzenburg's talk on exploratory testing for developers (sketch below), and since then I've been doing it on a regular basis.
Karo recently asked whether I'd do a Team Eating (the Linguamatics brown bag lunch thing) on sketchnoting. I did, and this post captures some of what I said.
Beginning sketchnoting, then. There's two sides to that: I still regard myself as a beginner at it, and today I'll give you some encouragement and some tips based on my experience, to begin sketchnoting for yourselves.
I spend an enormous amount of time in situations where I find it helpful to take notes: testing, talking to colleagues about a problem, reading, 1-1 meetings, project meetings, workshops, conferences, and, and, and, and I could go on. I've long been interested in the approaches I've evolved for different situations: how are they similar? why aren't they more similar? what could I change to give me more benefit from them?
In mid-2017, I'd analysed some of my notes from talks I'd attended and pulled out common characteristics like these: whole sentences or at least phrases; quotation marks around actual quotes; questions annotated; stars, boxes, circles for emphasis; arrows to link thoughts; structure diagrams; occasional mind maps; plenty of doodles.
Predominantly though, I knew that I was writing a lot and I wondered whether I might be missing interesting content because I was spending time writing, and whether I might be taking down material I didn't need to. I was aware of sketchnotes but I didn't really know much about how they were created. I did know that the examples I'd seen tended to be pretty, perhaps discouragingly so.
Sketchnote Army says this:
- Sketchnotes are purposeful doodling while listening to something interesting.
- Sketchnotes are as much a method of note taking as they are a form of creative expression.
I find that interesting, but I think I started with a very different slant on them:
- Sketchnotes are a way of forcing me to listen and note-take differently.
The basics that I got at DDD East Anglia helped with that. Ian Johnson has blogged in detail about them so I'll just summarise what I took from him:
- Use a consistent layout.
- Practice neat writing.
- Learn to draw a handful of common icons, e.g. book, tick, cross, etc.
- People add emotional impact ... and stick people are easier to draw than you think.
- Fill in decoration during the "boring bits".
I'd add a few more things, based on my own experience over the last few months:
- Landscape not portrait: I find this so much more natural.
- Any paper and pen will do: don't fetishise the materials, just draw!
- Date, title, person at the top: usually top-right; consistency helps with later reviewing.
- Start drawing in the middle of the page ...with the key concept.
- Work around the page from top right, clockwise: perhaps even mentally divide the page into quadrants and use a quarter of the talk time per quadrant
- Do it in one pass, in the moment: important for me; these pictures are my notes. I'm not going back to make them pretty afterwards.
Here's a few examples, in rough time order:
I think there's an evolution in style here, mostly in terms of trying to get less down on the page in less busy ways. Some other reflections:
- I wait longer before writing something down.
- I look for groups of points.
- If I don’t get the structure right my notes go wrong.
- If the talk is short I am more likely to end up with rubbish.
- I can’t use sketchnotes for meetings, 1-1, etc.
- I am more motivated/find it easier to review a sketchnote than notes.
- I don't yet know whether I generally preserve enough information in sketchnotes.
If you're thinking of starting I'd offer these pieces of advice, again based on my own experience and needs:
- Don’t worry if you can’t draw much very well.
- Get over the feeling of self-consciousness ... by doing it more!
- Don’t worry if you end up with words not pictures.
- Practice. For me, if you want to do something, do it as much as you can so that you
- ... learn how to do it
- ... learn when it applies
- ... learn when it doesn’t apply
- I use internal events like our user conferences, Team Eating, and even staff meetings as practice opportunities.
- Don’t worry when your notes turn out bad: THEY WILL TURN OUT BAD.
Title image: Ebay