The pen is mightier than the laptop
Ditch the computer and break out the paper for more effective, interesting, and visually stimulating note-taking
It was in fourth grade that I started a journal.
A benign, elementary-school love fiasco spurred an emotional outpouring of feelings within my fourth-grade self, where I found solace in the well-structured lined notebook with Sanrio characters on the plastic cover.
Throughout that year, I continued to return to this notebook — chronicling my elementary crush (I referred to him using the code word ‘mittens’), capturing slumber parties, birthday gift inventory, and tweenie confrontations with my parents. These were the roots of a ritual that are firmly planted within me today — both personally and professionally.
For many designers, the first medium they ever interacted with, was in fact, paper. Whether it was sprawling neon Crayola on printer paper, or acrylic finger painting in preschool, these were the foundations for the pursuit of design.
For a very long time, design existed primarily in the realm of print. But the last 20 years there has been a significant metamorphosis — the decline of print and the advent of digital. What used to be a painstaking labor of love has been commodified into pre-fabricated pixel perfection.
Encouraging Handwritten Forms in a Digital World
Across the workforce, laptops have become lighter, thinner, and ubiquitous (and don’t get me wrong, I love my MacBook!). With widely available tools such as Evernote, OneNote, Google Docs, etc. — note-taking has gone digital, and many people don’t see the value in old-fashioned analog. However, the value of note-taking lives in an intangible world, and I recognize the importance when I look back at my notebook. Longhand notes force selectivity, because writing does objectively take longer than typing. The extra processing of the material is extremely beneficial and forces content that really resonates. Being able to take a complex, sometimes very boring, conversation and distill it down into a one-page artifact is a skill in itself. Also, having an artifact that isn’t buried within a nesting doll of folders on a laptop is a great thing to show off. A page of notes, a quick sketch or a design concept is something that can be immediately externalized.
Taking visually appealing notes can be daunting, but in reality, they are actually simple techniques that anyone can do!
There are six main components to taking notes:
1. Typography — different styles of text
2. Layout — organization of the page
3. Containers — things that hold text within them
4. Lines / Arrows — connection points
5. Sketches — little illustrations that supplement the content
6. Shading — depth and emphasis
Typography is comprised of five simple fonts, and they’re all things that the hand may already know:
Change in fonts add visual interest. Different fonts — such as all caps, double rises, cursive and more — emphasize various aspects. It’s up to the writer to decide how to categorize fonts.
A blank page can be a bit intimidating, as it’s a completely blank canvas. There are six various ways to lay out a page:
In different contexts, notes demand their own layouts. If it’s a lecture or presentation environment, free form organization is a good option. A good place to start is in the middle, with a quick sketch of the speaker to help develop a narrative around them. For daily notes during a meeting or stand up, grid or modular are more efficient.
One emphasis of layout is the importance of white space. White space is perfectly OK. Sometimes people are self-conscious about white space, but it allows room for breathing. Also, during a lull in meetings, that white space is the perfect canvas for a doodle.
Containers are the things that hold text and serve as a great way to segment different topics so that all the words don’t bleed into each other on the pages. Containers create hierarchy and make for scannable information after the fact. Some effective containers are:
Lines & Arrows
Lines can do two things: separate things and/or connect ideas. If there’s a point towards the end of a conversation that relates back to something in the beginning, a line is a great way of connecting these. Arrows provide emphasis and create direction on a page. Lines and arrows are fantastic tools for creating a narrative of a topic.
Now the most difficult and intimidating aspect of note-taking can be the actual sketches. There are an infinite number of sketches possible, but it’s more of a personal icon set — a standard set of doodles that are memorized in the fingertips. A good set to have under the belt are:
People / Faces — these mainly comprise of ovals, semicircles and star people. Just draw in the head, and then fill in the body with a multipoint star.
Transportation — cars, boats, bicycles, a road or path. These are a great way of demonstrating the progression of where something is going.
Charts and graphs — a great way of conveying data. Line graphs, bar graphs and pie charts are just comprised of different shapes formatted in a certain way.
Technology — since many designers work digitally, it’s beneficial to be able to do a quick sketch of a mobile phone, laptop or a desktop.
Nature elements — things such as trees, water, roots, the sun, and mountains are a great way to make concepts more abstract and digestible
Sketches should be conveyed through simple line drawing. This isn’t impressionism or hyper realism, it’s just a high level representation of a concept. It’s time to get back to those roots of fingerprinting and doodling from elementary school. For those self-conscious about this, it’s OK to leave white space and go back to fill in the sketch when there’s more time.
The last element that is applied to all techniques is shading. Shading can be done with simple cross hatching and light highlighting of key elements with a gray marker. Shading helps add some depth and visual interest to pages.
An important thing to remember when taking note, is that it’s a visual synthesis. A lot of people may feel that it’s difficult to transcribe content and text into visual images, but humans do so every day when they speak through metaphor. People pitch things such as “blue-sky thinking,” “north star vision,” “roadmap,” “personas,” and “teams” — these all take something concrete, and make it more abstract with visual imagery. Try to listen carefully in a future meeting, and start brainstorming on how information could be conveyed in a visual way.
I hope that this primer inspires many out there to go out and start visually note-taking. From about petty fourth grade squabbles to professional note-taking now, the elementary-school me would be pretty damn proud.
Good luck out there!