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Art of the doodle

I always felt guilty doodling in class. My professors would look in my direction and I’d pretend I was scribbling longhand notes.  But in truth, I’d drifted off, drawing unusual plumbing systems that snaked around the edges of my page.  In my math class, numbers would swarm like insects, climbing in holes on one side of the page to emerge from another one the other side.  In my English lit, main characters from my assignments would be contorted around one another, bent into some Vedic position.

If only I had  The Sketchbook Handbook in those days.  This is Mike Rohde’s new book on visual note-taking during lectures or presentations.

The Sketchbook Handbook

Sketchnotes are drawings that you sketch freehand as you listen to a lecture or talk.  They are ways to draw concepts and ideas with objects and figures.

The whole point of sketchnoting is not to capture the details of the speakers as they spewed forth.  Rather, the purpose (as Mike describes it) is to set your mind free and stumble onto new ideas.  With pen and paper in hand, you were no longer a mere tape recorder, a regurgitater of information, but rather an artesian spring, gushing forth with new and fresh perspectives.

It was a new way to approach listening and I was rearing to go.

What is a Sketchnote?

The best way to describe sketchnotes is to show you samples.  At first glance, they look like cartoons.  A flow of characters or objects, with headlines and text, arrows and lines adding some order to the composite.  Each sketchnote tells a story.  Since they were drawn during a talk or lecture, they were anchored in the topic at hand.  But this was just the jumping off point.  The sketchnoter captured the speaker with a series of images that would flow top to bottom, right to left.  Or they may grow out of the bottom of the page, or be built like adobe homes with large blocks of images, cemented with patches of text.

By Binaebi Akah, Alexis Finch and Austin Kleon

Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like An Artist, describes his sketchnoting as “… a way of interpreting what I’m hearing the speaker saying, as opposed to accurately portraying what they’re saying. For me, I’m not interested in accuracy; I’m interested in what I think. Drawing, for me, is always thinking on the page.”

Bill Keaggy (author of 50 Sad Chairs) is enthusiast:  ” I enjoy sketchnoting. I think it helps you pay attention during a conference or meeting, and I think it helps others appreciate your experience after the conference or meeting when you share your sketchnotes. What’s really cool is that the more you do it, the better you get. That’s a fact. I doubt that our handwriting improves when taking traditional notes and I even doubt that our basic ability to take notes improves when you’re just writing everything down in linear fashion. But I do think that you get better at listening, drawing, visualizing, synthesising, and summarizing when you use the sketchnote approach… they’re a way to make any almost meeting more fun.”

Looking at a sketchnote may be confusing at first. Sketchnotes have a unique style, a visual language.  They are typically done in real-time during a lecture or talk.  The result, a sketchnote, fills the page with a visual language of symbols, handwritten text, arrows and lines.  The Handbook focuses on how to use a Moleskin notebook and a pen to take notes during lectures or talks.  But the techniques can also be used on your mobile device (such as an iPad).

The whole process of visualizing a talk on paper acts a springboard for new ideas and perspectives.   The over-reaching theme is how a subject can resonate with its audience and be translated into a new set of ideas–and a whole new media.  The lecture is transformed into a visual representation.

This in itself is a marvel to watch. Mike has assembled the Sketchnote Handbook Video with over ninety (90) minutes of lessons on how to draw these notes in real-time.  When you watch Mike draw sketchnotes during a talk, you can understand how it’s done.  The key is mastering your own visual language and letting yourself to relax so the notes pour out of your pen.

Some of the key points that The Handbook makes are:

Be organized!

Not only does Mike recommend arriving early at the talk, but he has a number of simple steps that can help organizing your sketches as well.  In addition to having your materials (a pen and Moleskin notebook for Mike), he finds the right spot to sit, learns more about the talk at hand and begins to get organized on his page.

Pick an approach

There are two approaches described in the Handbook:  real-time and two-stage.  Real-time is where you sketch what the speaker was talking about immediately and do not revise it later.  This is of course perfect for the pen and paper, since it is difficult to cover up mistakes or rearrange your notes later. When you are finished, you are finished.

The two-stage was where your real-time notes were just the underpinning.  The Handbook suggests doing this in pencil when you are using paper. Then after the lecture, you can go back and draw in your lines in pen. But when you are using a mobile device, it is easy to revise later.

Pick a structure

In much the same way other visual maps have a structure to their arrangement of sketches on the page, Mike suggests a number of basic ways to arrange your notes.  The important part of the structure is recognizing that you will be taking notes real-time.  And although you can revise the layout as you go along, having a basic structure in mind makes all the difference. You don’t have to stick to the structure throughout the talk, but at least you are organized when you start out.

Resonate with  the big ideas

Most traditional notes focus on the details of the lecture.  But sketchnoting has a goal to capture the larger picture, the themes and major ideas that run through the lecture.   As Mike describes, the goal of a sketchnote “is to forgo the details and instead listen for the big ideas that resonate, converting those ideas into visual notes that include both words and pictures” (p. 13).  This is a different way of listening.  When you try this approach, it is very relaxing and you find that your notes move freely from the topic being discussed to new ideas.  These are related to the topic but are interesting side roads or perspectives on the lecturer.

This theme is reiterated in the book (and also the video) with Jon Mueller‘s lecture on “Rethinking the Medium.”  Both in the Handbook and also in the companion Sketchnote Handbook Video, Mike demonstrates drawing sketchnotes while listening to Jon’s lecture. Jon discusses how rhythms and beats from the band on stage reverberate with the audience. In much the same way, a lecture resonates with a sketchnoter and produces a new set of ideas.

Jon later told me: “Seeing how [Mike] visualized my words actually made me think more about how I could have improved the talk – how I could have clarified or explained certain things to allow better or easier pictures or symbols for a sketchnoter to produce. So, the process can be a benefit for both speakers and audience members.”

Be a little crazy!

Boy I was glad to hear this.  Mike amplified this when we chatted about sketchnotes:  “The best tip I can give is to use crazy concepts to capture metaphors. Don’t be afraid to be silly or funny, because I think those do well to capture the feeling of the idea.”  See more of our conversation here.

Ideas had feelings?  This is how we connect to an idea.  If it’s a dry subject, we get bored or we don’t own it.  But when we feel something about it, suddenly we get it.  Mike had given me a nudge.  It was time for me to dive into sketchnoting.

The Sketchnote Handbook is an excellent resource on visual language and presents a unique way to take notes, focusing on the big picture and resonating with the speaker in new ways.  The accompanying Sketchnote Handbook Video shows sketchnoting in action.

Both are available directly from the publisher Peachpit, or through Amazon.com.




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