Sketchnoting, or something like that…


A couple of people in my team recently asked me to run a session about sketchnoting after I posted my notes from TeaCamp (above).

Which made me think I should order my thoughts and try and make something useful. So this blog will cover why and how I started sketchnoting, what I think the benefits are, and also give some easy tips for getting started. Enjoy! [1]

Why did I start sketchnoting?

Simply, because I never felt like the notes I took were particularly useful.

Pages of transcribed meetings, everything said by every person, line after line after line after line of incoherent scribblings.

Takin’ notes

The way I was taught to take notes in school (and what I thought was expected of me in my early days of working) had become a restrictive habit as I progressed in my career. I felt I was forcing myself.

Did I ever go back to those notes and use them again? No. Would they mean anything to anyone who wasn’t in the room? Also no.

I also realised that by scribbling everything down, I wasn’t actually participating in meetings. As I gained experience I had less time to take notes and kept more information in my head.

But this occasionally pushed me too far in the other direction — remembering things is difficult, so I needed a happy medium.

I started sketchnoting when I attended a General Assembly course because I knew it would be relatively freeing and there would be lots of diverse information to take in. I bought a load of coloured pens and started experimenting with how I recorded information:

Drawings of some of the notes I took at the General Assembly User Experience Design bootcamp.

Also why I got started:

  • It looked cool
  • I wanted to do something creative (but I wasn’t sure what)

What happened next?

I mentioned that I was interested in sketchnoting on Twitter and the lovely Kit leant me The Sketchnote Handbook [2].

You can find (a PDF) of some of the pages here.

The Sketchnote Handbook

I thought more about the key information I would need during a meeting or event, and I started working towards a sort of visual language that meant something to me.

In the beginning this mainly consisted of boxes and arrows, but I also experimented with folding the pages in two so I had two channels for information. Or splitting the page into quadrants, as well as the usual brainstorm type layouts. These are still my go-to.

An example of notes taken through two channels (folding the page in two)

I’ve worked in web design and user experience for a long time so I had got used to drawing interfaces and journey maps. Because of that I didn’t have a huge amount of fear of just “drawing stuff” (however rubbish) which I think helped.

If you feel like you can’t draw, my personal opinion is that drawing is one of the many things that people (wrongly) get turned off of in school. It’s not innate, you don’t need to be gifted, it just needs practice and some people have been practicing for longer than you —so don’t let that put you off.

Anyway, for me, this isn’t about drawing. It’s about experimenting with ways to make information more accessible and understandable (to myself and to others).

I intuitively picked up something called the Visual Alphabet and also just gave myself permission to doodle more.

After a while I no longer felt daunted by a blank page.

Practicing the visual alphabet

I made sure that I bought notebooks with plain pages which meant that I didn’t feel constrained by the lines, this was surprisingly freeing.

I also bought cheaper, plain-paged notebooks which meant that I wasn’t so worried about “wasting” a good notebook.

Soft cover notebooks are the best because they open flat and mean that you’re more inclined to use the left hand page when you’re taking notes. you also have more space to play with layout of information.

I occasionally play a little cognitive trick on myself which is to use the back of my notebook instead of the front. This tricks my brain into ascribing less importance to the act and enables me to just try something out. With varying results!




Different sketchnotes with varying results.

I tend to use bubbles, squares, arrows, speech bubbles and faces. I use lines and dotted lines to break up the space.

And thats basically it. I’m still experimenting!

So, What are the benefits?

I think these fall into two categories: personal benefits (how it helps me) and how it helps others through working in the open.

  1. Personal effectiveness:
  • Taking notes in this way helps me to remember what happened and give me a quick reference to find things again (e.g. “I know I wrote that in a purple pen” or “I know I drew a picture of a robot frog”)
  • I tend to put key details in boxes or a different colour which makes it easier to find them again, e.g. deadlines, costs, people’s email addresses (ABBREVIATIONS to look up later 🙄)

Different information in a box or a different colour
  • I don’t feel like I have to take notes about every single thing, but just the main points. It’s helped me to get better at really listening and engaging with people rather than trying to remember what they’ve said verbatim.

2. Sharing / Working in the open

  • It’s easier to share my notes with my team because I feel like they will be able to read them and grasp key information. In the spirit of agile it means I can photograph my notes and share ideas so that I quickly get feedback on them. Almost like a note-prototype (a nototype?!)[3] [4].
  • I’m often frustrated when I haven’t been able to get to an event and I feel like I’ve missed out. Getting a slide deck, readout or just to hear what was discussed can sometimes take ages. By taking a picture and sharing my notes quickly and publicly I feel like I can include people who couldn’t be there, and they can get a view of the event.
  • Sharing tweets with images gets a much higher engagement than a simple tweet. For me, working with and alongside a movement like One Team Gov being able to share what we are talking and thinking about means that more people can join in that conversation. I believe that this will help the network to grow and help to generate the culture change we would like to see.

A One Team Gov card that says “If you’re tired of waiting for the revolution, start it yourself”

Quick tips, to make it easy to start:

  1. Buy a cheap, plain paged, soft cover notebook which folds open flat, or just fold a couple of sheets of A4 plain paper in half to make a makeshift notebook [4].
  2. Choose two pens in different colours, or a plain pen and a highlighter. Switch between colours whenever the topic changes. Or use one colour for one piece of information (general notes) and another colour for other info or to underline / box out key info (key dates, dependencies, people’s names).
  3. Geek out on pens for a bit.

4. Learn the visual alphabet which is linked here from Scriberia who are great (see below). Don’t be afraid of a blank page, it’s ok to throw it away if it’s no good.

5. Don’t watch any YouTube tutorials on this subject and don’t use an erasable pen (yes they exist). Both will stop you from embracing the imperfection and practicing.

Thanks for reading, please get in touch if you’re interested!


[1] Disclaimer: It’s important to say that I don’t think I’m particularly good at this (I’m ok with that!). I don’t think I’m an amazing artist or that you should copy me. I‘m also not an expert in this and may people have written about similar. This is a personal story, and a journey that I’m on. I can see the benefits of the approach, so I wanted to share that in case you think that it might be useful for you.

[2] …which I have yet to return. This plagues me every day as I don’t want to be that person, but I am totally now that person.

[3] Copyright Sam Villis 2018.

[4] Yes I know this isn’t accessible but I don’t use it in every instance.

[5] Full disclosure: I have a stationary / pens / notebook habit which has, at times, become expensive. If you’re just starting out I definitely recommend you buy cheap notebooks! Flying Tiger are good for this sort of thing.

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