What I Talk About When I Talk About Sketchnoting

A question often asked “how do I get started with sketchnoting?” with its companion, “oh no, I can’t draw, let alone sketchnote.”

So in response, I decided to do a Murakami-type reflection on sketchnoting.

First, a few sketchnotes; ones I drew at the very beginning, and some from last week:

Looking back, they were busy, still cluttered, snapshots of information I was processing at the time. Shapes, lines, pictures, order, all kinds of failures have changed; style has evolved, too. I hope the pictures speak for themselves: when I meet a blank page for the first time, there is no a plan. And I still don’t. The greatest gift you can give to a creative mind is a blank page and an interesting problem.

Ambiguity with a few known parameters is a helpful starting point: the size of the surface you have available to fill, colours available to you, the topic, and its length. The rest is up to you. And for the next 45 minutes or 8 hours, the opportunity to notice your process, connections, stories, metaphors emerge from the ink of your pen, is yours. The sensation at last is always the best; not final, but at a point where your mind steps out of an intensity of focus to take in what your mind has created. If you start with curiosity, you finish with wonder, before the same thoughts turn into learning notes for the next time.

Starting with clear intentions are like your aesthetic constraints, they set metaphysical parameters which will change the path on which your sketchnote unfolds. However, if your purpose is to restrain yourself to an open mind, allowing the content to speak for itself, it will inform those intentions as you go. Intentions may appear as metaphors or ‘frames’, usually an image or strong emotion, a feeling of a critical mass of energy, which anchors the rest of what is delivered.

Phenomenologically — by experience — this method of processing lends well to introspective thinkers who enjoy the rigour of seeking clarity and meaning, and the beauty of interconnections. This method of exploring deepens the well of learning, and opens scope for expression in a way we can not only enjoy ourselves, but others may, too.

The hardest step is the first few minutes of overanalytical fear. The very act of doing is the first step out of paralysis, facilitating familiarity with empty space, and being curious enough to just see what happens.

Here’s the journey from prep to your first go:

0_Hack Your Perspective

It took more than two decades to discover that I was a visual thinker. This means that I digest information and synthesise better by visualising, which allows me to abstract relationships, draw maps, and choose the story to tell.

Sketchnoting is just that: it’s a human facility we all have which we may use to think in new ways. And it’s fun. Even for those who firmly believe that their brains are not wired that way, the exercise of rearranging information visually is engaging and powerful, unlocking possibilities when you are stuck, or when you are searching for a new idea.

Ultimately, it is a conversation you create between paper and brain, facilitating critical and creative thinking.

(Aside, sketchnoting achieves a different purpose to graphical recording and facilitation — for another time.)

1_Change Your Environment

There’s nothing that turns up creativity than a blank page.

My recommendation is a plain page notebook, one without lines, and a good pen. These are my weapons of choice (see: I Use). Just by removing aesthetic boundaries opens thinking. A blank page is your creative mind’s best friend. And a bold pen that glides completes your starting posse.

External stimulus is not a necessity, but it helps — go to an open space, with high or no ceilings, with enough room stretch your arms out without hitting something. Be close to nature if you can help it, or the top of a building. Or close to a lot of books if love them as much as I do.

2_Choose Your Topic

Find a subject that interests you, preferably something complex, a talk or YouTube video, or a concept in a book. I started with 45 minute talks about philosophy. but now sketchnote any form and type of content I want to learn. Because sketchnoting requires focussed attention, my use of it polarises between interesting subjects or otherwise dull stuff I have to stay alert to. Sketchnotes can make the boring reasonably engaging. It works both ways.

3_Ink to Paper

If you’re nervous, remember: no one is looking unless you want them to, and contrary to popular belief, no one cares; so the best you can do is allow yourself a chance to play and enjoy what comes. I found the advice of using constraints very useful at the start: allow yourself to one shape, write only in capital letters, Even if you end up visualising one concept, it is a choice you made which served you.

Over time and several sheets, feel free to play with and change your technique: how fast, how neat, how abstract, how novel, how detailed, how amusing, how engaging, how communicative, how outrageous do you want to be?

4_Experiment, Experiment, Experiment

Practice as much as you can visualise. Try, fail, hate your work, try again, maybe like it better, observe what you learn from sketchnoting, how you think, the questions you ask yourself, the decisions you make, the problem you are trying to solve. You are at the start of a whole universe of possibilities.

There are more toys available for your lab sessions: different frames, start times (resist writing for the first 5 minutes), metaphors, dots, lines, fonts, colours, no colours, borders, accents, surfaces, canvas size, doodles, letters as shapes.

5_Keeping Tabs

A gentleman called Mathias Jakobsen runs a wonderful Visual Thinking Bootcamp which I had the pleasure of taking last year. Apart from learning a lot while having fun, we used visual thinking for reflection, and it was the first of so many other possibilities it brought to my friends and I. Sign up for his next tour: http://www.thnkclrly.com/bootcamp/

Specific to problem-solving, Dan Roam’s Back of the Napkin is also a great book to get started.

Have fun and tell me how it goes!


Originally published at joyatlarge.com on February 16, 2017.