Sunday, July 22, 2018

Beginning Sketchnoting

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.

Tanmay Vora
Yikes! I doubted that I could get to that standard even with lots of concentration, patience, and spare paper let alone live in real time while listening to a talk. But did I have to? I mean, what are sketchnotes anyway?

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.

I've been trying this out for just under a year and I still regard myself as an absolute beginner. Will you join me?
Title image: Ebay


  1. Thanks, again, James, for this post. I am going to give it a try. I also shared them with my two boys (age 14 and soon to be 11). They are both sketchers so I am hoping that they will take a liking to this and help stay focus during these long, long hours on the computer for school.

  2. A challenge for me is to start at the right place. Starting in the middle of the page is often not the right thing to do when a talk is more of a journey than a top down discussion. Some talks are bits of techniques that go in the tool box. Enjoying trying this.

    1. Yep. I practiced through January this year with a bunch of different talks and found I wanted to start in the middle less often than I used to: Top Draw.