Sketchnoting Tools and Techniques

An Interview with Tobey Busch

Oct 18, 2018 · 7 min read

Tobey Busch: I am a native New Yorker — Lets Go Rangers!, living in DC for the last eight years. I have a Masters in Public Health (MPH) and work in international development and global health. I am currently employed as a Senior Technical Advisor in the Global Health Bureau of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), hired through the Global Health Fellows II Program of the Public Health Institute.

My work centers on helping developing countries to sustainably strengthen their pharmaceutical systems. We ensure sustainable access to and the appropriate use of safe, effective, quality-assured and affordable essential medicines, and medicines-related pharmaceutical services.

My first exposure to Graphic Recording was several years ago during a work conference. There was a graphic recorder at the front of the room during the plenary session. I had never seen this before and couldn’t take my eyes off of it — I wanted to jump up and participate. I’ve always considered myself as creative and find coloring and creative outlets meditative (my husband calls me “crafty”). Immediately after seeing this, I needed to learn more.

I sought out local MeetUp groups and dove in. These groups allowed me to engage with other visual practitioners at all levels and start to hone my craft. Ever since then, my iPad has become another limb, traveling with me to meetings, conferences, discussions, etc.

We hear a lot about different types of visual note-taking methods. What are Graphic Recording and Sketchnoting? What are you accomplishing with them for yourself and others?

“Sketchnoting” and “Graphic Recording” are sometimes used interchangeably. Both practices involve capturing the content and insights of a meeting (workshop, brainstorming session, plenary, etc.) in graphic form. We create visual summaries using words, colors, and pictures.

Sketchnotes are typically not visible to the group until the end of the event, while graphic recordings are usually done on large pieces of paper that are shared as they are being drawn.

We all know the old TRUE adage “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Research shows that visuals:

  • Stick in long-term memory
  • Transmit messages faster
  • Improve comprehension and learning
  • Trigger emotions, and cause a faster and stronger reaction than words
  • Motivate learners
  • Stimulate imagination and promote innovation and creativity
  • Organize and communicate complex ideas

At USAID, my sketchnotes are used as “minutes” that people actually “read.” We are all busy people living in a world that communicates in less than 300 characters. Pictures, colors, and key facts present information in a quick, digestible way that transcends language and culture.

What are your favorite tools for visual note-taking, both analog and digital, and why?

I started graphic recording with a black sharpie and paper that I pulled out of the recycling bin at work. As I became more involved in Sketchnoting and Graphic Recording (and more willing to invest financially), I invested in better markers, more colors, and more tools. Neuland markers are a great investment — they are expensive, but are refillable and made specifically for graphic recording. Neuland has a lot of products that can be used for sketchnotes and graphic recording.

Several years ago, my husband (a total techie) got me an iPad to facilitate my drawing. It took a while to get adjusted to the pen and various applications, but at this point I don’t think I could go back. I treasure the Undo button!

I use various apps and have tried out almost all available on the iPad. At this point, I mainly use Concepts for my work on my iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil. For me, through practice (the most important!), I have found Concepts to be the best fit for several reasons:

  • Layering. I have become comfortable moving between the layers and believe they add to the neatness of the drawings — the automatic tool-based layering allows me to use color to highlight, without cluttering or confusing the message.
  • Endless brushes and the captivating color wheel. The variation makes it easy to highlight important messages and create titles and headings. My go-to brushes are the Fixed Width pen — I use this for all the black outlines and text, and the Filled Stroke tool — it saves a lot of time when filling in the outlines. I’m working on becoming more comfortable with the Airbrush and Watercolor brushes.
  • Importing and saving Objects, or in my case, images that share a main idea. I tend to use the same images over and over — being able to save a drawing and import it into a sketch straight from the Object Library saves time, and it’s still my own drawing.

Right now, I use Concepts primarily for Sketchnotes. My sense is that the use of technology — including projected digital drawing (as it is usually done with paper and markers) — is becoming more common in Graphic Recording. It’s easy enough for me to connect my iPad to a projector, but I haven’t had the opportunity to really explore this yet.

What are your go-to techniques for illustrating ideas during a session? Do you have any tips you could share?

  • Metaphors, metaphors, metaphors! One idea = one image.
  • Saving objects in the Object Library. I used to save only the images I found myself using over and over. As I became more comfortable with Concepts and its abilities, I began saving a lot more images. Being able to pop them into a drawing so easily saves a lot of time during a session!
  • PRACTICE! For beginners, I recommend doodling and practicing in meetings, while watching TV, while on the bus, etc… ANY time you can!

When Sketchnoting at work, I’m generally familiar with the technical jargon and have a lot of institutional knowledge and context, as well as images saved up. This means I don’t need a lot of prep beforehand.

However, for Graphic Recording or Sketchnoting outside of work, I need to plan in advance, including reviewing agendas, presentation drafts, and prepping with meeting organizers.

What are your preferred ways to share your work with others afterwards?

During smaller meetings or workshops, I show others what I have done directly on my iPad. Very often, people will begin watching what I am doing over my shoulder and want updates throughout the session(s). I was recently at a Technical Briefing Seminar at the World Health Organization (WHO) and a few of the other participants asked to use my drawings to debrief their colleagues on the meeting sessions.

Because Concepts allows me to easily export (including email) images in multiple formats, I can send organizers drawings as soon as they are done, and they can be projected or shared with participants immediately. This can easily become a prompt or visual aid for facilitators that need to do “wrap ups” or summarize information at the end of the day.

To share my work online, I use the common means of communication — Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. My supportive colleagues have dedicated a wall to posting my drawings, and often I see a printout of one of my Sketchnotes in cubicles throughout the Global Health Bureau at USAID. Word of mouth is still extremely powerful, as well.


Tobey Busch is a public health professional with a love for anything creative. Her full-time position is Senior Technical Advisor for Pharmaceutical Management in the Global Health Bureau of USAID — she is employed through the Global Health Fellows II Program of the Public Health Institute. She loves graphic recording and the opportunity to use the other side of her brain. You can find more about Sketchnoting and her work at www.digisketcher.com.

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Interview by Erica Christensen — Director of Community at TopHatch

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