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Mobo Sketchnotes

Mobo Sketchnotes:  sketching notes on a phone or tablet

After reading Mike Rohde’s “The Sketchnote Handbook,” I wanted to try drawing my own sketchnote on a mobile device.  Instead of a Moleskine notebook, I felt a mobile phone or tablet would be a perfect.  A sketchnote is a visual map of a lecture or talk in real-time.  I’d already enjoyed drawing personal roadmaps and other visual maps on my mobile devices, but a sketchnote was slightly different.

Sketchnotes are real-time!  They have a unique style and are typically done with pen and paper.  At the talk, the sketchnoter brings out his Moleskin notebook and begins drawing while the lecture is being given.

I wanted to do the same thing, except on a mobile device. Not all sketchnoters feel comfortable with mobile devices, such as iPads, Android tablets, Surface or smartphones.  Binaebi Akah (co-author of Sketchnote Field Notes) says “sketchnotes, like any sort of artistic expression, rely on the artist and the materials. I use pen and paper because I have the most control with those materials.”

The techniques and approach described in the Handbook are easily translated onto a sketching app on a phone.

Use a multi-state approach

The Handbook describes two basic approaches to sketchnoting:  real-time and two-stage.  Real-time is done at the time the lecture is given and is final.  When you are finished, you are finished.

The two-stage was where your real-time notes were just the underpinning to be refined later.  This is perfect for a mobile device.  In fact, why stop at two-stage?  With digital ink, you can have multi-stage notes where you can revise your notes over a number of reviews.  I’m a revisionist at heart, so the multi-stage approach made sense to me.  As soon as you were happy with the sketchnote, you simply saved it to your phone and uploaded it to the Cloud.

Since your phone is generally right in your pocket or purse, it is always available for sketchnotes.
Most sketchnoters use pen and paper.  Usually it’s simply the feel and the experience of paper and pen:

  • Boon Yew Chew says ” I think it’s quite hard to do sketchnotes on mobile devices, unless you are okay with large scribbles and general lack of fine control. Don’t let that stop you, though. I’ve done a few sketchnotes using the Paper app, which I absolutely love.”
  • Timothy Reynolds sums it up by saying “I’m a Moleskine + pen only kind of sketchnoter. I’ve tried several times on my iPad but there’s a strange disconnect. I can’t enjoy it the same when digital.”

So, maybe getting used to the digital media is a bit of an obstacle.  The advantages of having your notes handy on your phone and searchable wherever you were made this new media a natural choice.

Find the right stylus

The key in my mind to using mobile media for sketchnotes is finding the right stylus.

For my first sketchnote, I chose the Samsang Note II smartphone.  I’d like to try other devices later.  The main reason is that it has a built-in pressure-sensitive stylus.  Yes, a stylus where the thickness of the line or fuzziness of the color will change with the pressure you apply to the screen.  This makes a big difference.  It means the lines that you make on the screen very closely resemble those made by a pen.  The act of using the stylus also feels very natural.  What is more impressive is its array of lines, shades, colors, backgrounds and templates.  If you want to draw your headline in blue and the body of the note in black, it is a simple click away.  If you want a fuzzy edge, you just select it.

For my first sketchnote, I would use a lecture by Steve Coll on his latest book, Private Empire.

There was a YouTube of this and it made for a great first experience.  As the Handbook recommended I arrived early at the YouTube site and looked around.  I perused the summary of the talk and saw a photo of Steve Coll on the page.  Just knowing the major points of the lecture is key.  It helps to plan how much of your screen to use for each point, how to organize the different subjects and facts and generally the type of symbols and connectors that you will use.

However, the problem with the small screen was that I couldn’t load up all of your notes on a single page.  So, I resigned myself to using thinner lines and planned to place them on separate pages.  I’d use the multi-stage approach and merge them later.    But even in this smaller format, it was important to have a basic structure.     I began using skyscraper approach, but shifted later to a radial when there were a number of facts and topics being talked about in the Q & A.

My title page

To begin, I drew a picture of Steve Coll.  It was not even a close resemblance, but hey, you don’t need to be an artist to sketchnote.  He’d won two Pulitzer prizes which I represented with stars.  I picked this up from the notes that accompanied Steve Coll’s talk.

Then I started up my Youtube.

There was an introduction which I didn’t listen to much. Instead, I spent time on my title page.  I found there was a lag between what went down on the page and what the speaker was saying.  Even in Mike’s video (#9), the speaker is saying one thing and Mike is drawing something else.  This was something I’d have to get used to.  Taking visual notes real-time can be very confusing the first time.  Because you want to jot down every little fact as a sketch.  But, as The Handbook warns, sketchnoting isn’t about capturing every detail, but rather the BIG IDEAS of the lecture. Capturing the major themes is what sketchnoting is about.

Coll talked about his inspiration (a book entitled The Prize) which I dutifully drew in.  I might want to look at this book later after his talk.

You’ll notice color in my sketchnote.  This was actually done later.  I could have switched to color during the talk, but I really wanted to fill in the different symbols.  I felt I’d have more time later.  Plus I could firm up some of my lines.

But I like taking the notes and I tried my best to use symbols wherever possible.

Exxon Valdez


Suddenly Steve was talking about the Exxon Valdez, and I was still tidying up my title page.  I quickly had to move to the next page.  Now, in a Moleskin, I’d have to flip to a new page, but with my phone, I just created a new page.   Steve was already talking about the ship’s captain as I got situated on my new page.  I did a quick sketch of the tanker and the top and started at the left to draw the key points:  the date, the ship’s captain, and the iceberg.   I listened to the story of how the captain came on board around 9 PM and that they had this shipping highway.  Although I didn’t draw these points, I remembered them.  That’s pretty amazing, so I can see how the mere sketching can trigger the details.

I also switched to a vertical structure.  This happened rather naturally, since the Valdez was the main theme and took up the top part of my screen.  Each item that Steve talked about had its own column and I just let the stylus flow from top to bottom.

Steve then used the Valdez as a stepping off point to introduce EM’s CEO Lee Raymond.  I knew I had to switch to a new page. So, I simply created a new page on my device.


Lee Raymond and Exxon-Mobile

Lee Raymond was a brusque man who enjoyed fighting corporate battles and bouncing on his opponents at every turn.  He used the Valdez to initiate an automation plan, to reduce risk at every junction.  Plus, EM’s jobs were cut from 186,000 to 100,000.

The Coast Guard who had given permission for the maneuver around the iceberg, did NOT have radars, mostly due to cost costing.  They still don’t.  I drew this.  Finally Steve talked more about EM , their profits and standing.


This note was a bit mixed up.  I thought the entire page would be about Lee Raymond, but it turned out that it went by quickly.  So, it also has images of the coast guard and ExxonMobile’s logo.  I had to insert a “More” tag at the bottom because Steve was talking more about EM.

The Round Up

The talk was winding down and Steve began to summarize how the corporate culture.  It was risk averse, yet they were being forced into unstable countries where the oil was.  This was a real contradiction.  But it was in these countries where they could use their technologies to assist the governments there in extracting the petroleum.

This seemed to be the real theme of the talk, and by extension, the book.  My problem was how to represent the concept of risk. I ended up showing a guy stepping off of a tall staircase.  OK, maybe not the best, but for me it worked.  EM would always focus on oil and natural gas, Steve said.  And were the largest producers of natural gas in the U.S., due to their purchase of the largest natural gas production company.

The company had tremendous profits, some $40 billion a year.  Steve described it as “a corporate state within an American state.”  I didn’t sketch this quote, mainly because I was busy drawing.  But I remembered it, which is again one of the strengths of visualizing.

Uploading my notes

The nice part of doing everything on an iPad was the fact that I could upload it to the Cloud and tweak it on my computer.  Of course, if I was at an actual event, I could do this over a Wi-Fi network, or over the phone.

The Cloud is basically offline storage, available through a number of vendors such as Microsoft, Amazon, Dropbox, Evernote, SugarSync and Apple.  Usually the first 2 to 5 GB are free.

I took my first draft of sketchnotes and uploaded it to my Dropbox.  Then I pulled them up in Photoshop.  This was my second phase.  I added a layer underneath each sketch and chose random colors to highlight the key elements of the each note.  There were some mistakes, but I could simply erase them and redraw as I needed to.  My sketchnotes have a different style than Mike’s or many of the other Sketchnoters.  But as the Handbook coaches, each one of us has their own visual language.  I also combined different screens on my phone into single pages.  I liked this since it was closer to the sketchnote style I’d seen.


The most useful part of having visual notes is my ability to call them up at will and review them.  When drawings sit in a Moleskin notebook, you can’t do this.  But when you go through your sketchnotes, you can tag them with one or more keywords.  By this I mean, I can add words like “Steve Coll” or “Exxon” or “Oil” to my sketchnotes.  Then when I need the notes, I can simply bring up all of your notes related to each of these tags.  After all, one of the most important parts of taking notes is having them at your beck and call.

Evernote for example has this ability to tag your notes.  I could take my final sketchnotes and just store them into an Evernote note.  Or, I could put them into my Dropbox and do a normal search.


I also created endnotes.  These are text notes that can be searched when I need to, and they contain some of the details I wanted to keep.  Now, this may be sacrilegious for most sketchnoters because the headlines and notes are all hand-drawn. But an “endnote” page is very useful for the details.  For example a quote that I liked, and the key points that Steve made could be easily typed in.

Later I could search my notes for key phrases, for example “Valdez,” and be able to find my way back to these sketchnotes.


I finally linked the notes back to the YouTube video in case I wanted to view it again.  Also, to some pages on Amazon when it was time to buy the book.  The endnote page could have linked embedded with each note, so that a specific sketchnote could be easily brought to the screen.

Doing sketchnotes on a smartphone was easy.  The tagging, typing and linking took all of five minutes, and was good review for me.  This may not have the same feel or be the same experience as using paper and pen, but I found it to be an excellent way to take notes and visualize the talk in real-time.

For more information on drawing Sketchnotes, refer to Mike Rohde’s book The Sketchbook Handbook.

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