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Sketchnotes 101: The Basics of Visual Note-taking

Welcome to the second article in the the new Core77 "Sketchnotes Channel" ( where we'll be exploring the application of visual thinking tools in the worlds of design and creative thinking.

So you say you're ready to start sketchnoting. Maybe you're not much of a sketcher but you take a lot of notes, and are interested in making them more meaningful and interesting, but you're afraid your drawings are too crude. For you, it's important to stress that sketchnotesalthough they are inherently a visual mediumdo not require drawing ability of any kind. Essentially they're about transforming ideas into visual communication; structuring thoughts and giving hierarchy to concepts can be completed with strictly text and a few lines.

Maybe you're perpetually drawing and want to try and make your notes more useful and engaging but you are afraid of imposing structure to your normally freeform way of sketching. For you it's important to consider that sketchnotes can be as linear or abstract as your personality (or the presentation) dictates. Some content is best sketchnoted by listening closely and attempting to accurately synthesize and structure the thoughts. Usually these presentations have a very logical progression that may already be based in some sort of structure, so they lend them selves nicely to this style of sketchnoting. More narrative-based storytelling may be best sketchnoted by casually doodling along with the content and letting the content inspire your visuals. Story-based presentations may be best represented by capturing the overall experiences through quotes and illustrations of the anecdotes, and not necessarily imposing rigid structure.

In the end, it's up to you. As I mentioned in my previous article, sketchnoting is equal parts public, personal, and practiceso it's more fruitful to explore a new style and challenge yourself to record ideas in new ways, than to worry about the end result's overall effectiveness or aesthetic. Sketchbooks should be sketchy. So let's get tactical. How should you go about approaching sketchnotes? What do you need to get started? First you need the right tools for the job. And by "right tools" I mean, "any sketchbook and pen combination that makes you happy." Preferences for media and marking-tool probably span back to the days of the caveman; there's no right answers.

My recommendation is to use an non-ruled notebook that feels big enough to draw in while it's in your lap, yet small enough that you're willing to bring it everywhere you go. For markmaking, start with a single black pen and once you feel you can move fast enough, add a color to the mix.

Once you have your kit assembled, you'll need to think about the location you'll be sketchnoting. In a lecture scenario, make sure you're near a secondary light source: in many conference halls they dim the lights, which is great for people with glowing screens, but rough for those using paper & pen.

Before the presentation begins, you may choose to plan a little bit and get the page set up. Take this time to look up the person's name and title, and get it on the page spelled right and in a little more "designed" manner (typography, a cartooned portrait, etc.), while you have the time. Also worth noting is the time allotted for the lecture. If it's an hour, you can mentally subdivide your sketchbook spread into 4 quarters, and pace your drawing if you want to keep the lecture contained. (In this case, I'll be sketchnoting Alec Baldwin's motivational speech from Glengarry Glen Ross.)

Once the lecture begins you'll want to begin your "circular breathing" of listening, synthesizing, and visualizing. It's important that you're able to take in what's being said while

recording it, and not just stick your head down in your sketchbook. One of the most important assets is your "mental cache": the spot in your brain where you can store temporary ideas. With practice, you'll be able to store multiple quotes, thoughts, or ideas in a queue while you're sketchnoting. This "mental cache" also allows you to listen to multiple points and synthesize them down to what's importantbefore writing anything.

Inside of your sketchbook, you'll use a few key elements build your sketchnotes: Text - Recording the verbal is quick, direct, and clear and is usually your primary sketchnoting tool. Capture the meaningful quotes and key points, and avoid trying to summarize everything. Typographic treatments can be used to give emphasis to major ideas, and can add interest to large blocks of text. Avoid making lists or outlines and use the spatial properties of the page to your advantage by "chunking" information. Some ways to force yourself to work spatially might be starting in the middle and working outwards or working in columns for a panel discussion. Containers - Simply enclosing words in shapes brings emphasis and structure to an otherwise wild page. Some of the more common containers include (but are not limited to): quote bubbles, boxes, circles and thought clouds. Connectors - Connect ideas and pieces of stories with arrows and lines. A basic chain of thoughts can scintillate around the page and still be clear if they are linked with a simple set of connectors.

Frameworks - Some presenters will have a very obvious structure to their presentation, but often times the insights may benefit from your own synthesis into an understandable underlying structure or model. Common frameworks include 22s, Venn diagrams, and continuums. Icons - Don't forget to put the "sketch" in sketchnotes. Strive to create "icons" for objects & concepts: distill reality into a simple drawing that represents the idea as simply as possible and move on. Shading - Adding some simple shading can add dimensionality and contrast to your notes. Techniques like hatching can be done with your primary pen, so they can be integrated very quickly. Fills with a light grey marker can also be extremely quick, however you will have to put your primary pen down while shading, and risk potentially missing content. Color - When sketchnoting for the first time, I would recommend waiting on color until you feel you can fit it in your workflow, yet still keep up with the content. Once you feel confident you can continue to listen and use your "mental queue" to keep up with the content, you might be able to integrate some color from markers or pencil. I would recommend coloring minimally to differentiate and distinguish information, and if there's time later, come back to color in the "icons" or type. Limiting yourself to a 2-3 color palette will also help keep the color in service of clarity, with aesthetics coming second.

With those basic elements, you'll be ready to go. A few final points to keep in mind:

Think improvisation, not perfection. Sketchnoting isn't illustration--it's contentdriven doodling. If you mess up a line, draw over it again. If you misspell a word, scratch it out. Just like improv, being in the moment is more important than refined output. Don't be a completist. Let stuff slip by if it doesn't interest you. Put your 2 in. They're your perspective on a topic, so feel free to add your own commentary to the page. Inject your personality into the pages. Do you draw misproportioned people, have shaky lines, and quirky handwriting? Cool, so do I. Run with it.

Ok, so maybe you're not headed to a conference or lecture any time soon. Are there ways to practice in the mean time? The answer, of course, lies on the interwebs. Sources for online lectures abound, but the giant in the space is the TED Talks archives. A personal favorite that I use for first time sketchnoters is Gever Tully's "5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do". From the title, you already have an idea that there will be 5 basic sections, but as in real life, you'll need to be on your toes for any improvisation on the part of the presenter. Dig into those TED archives and queue up those movies people always forward to you, but you never get around to watching. Now that you're armed with the basics of sketchnoting, there's no reason not to pull out the sketchbookeven in the next work meeting you're sitting inand start visualizing the conversation in real time. You'll be amazed at the results.