Sketchnotes: Building creative confidence, one stick figure at a time

Margot Lieblich
Nov 20, 2019 · 7 min read

This summer I attended UX Strat, a conference in Boulder that brought together people in a variety of product roles to discuss how UX can inform overall business strategy. As a UX researcher, I was thrilled for an opportunity to gather information from various industry professionals.

Rather than opening up a spiral notebook to frantically write down notes or taking out my phone to take pictures of slides, I came prepared with a new tool for absorbing conference material: a 9x12 Canson drawing pad.

However, as you may have noticed, I said my role was a UX researcher, not a designer.

What on earth was I doing with a drawing pad?!?

Benefits of taking sketchnotes

Over the past few years, I’ve been pushing myself to develop the skill of creating “sketchnotes,” which are basically just visual notes. I can’t remember where I first learned about the practice, but I’ve come across countless articles that cite the benefits of capturing sketchnotes.

Research says that people can recall information better when doodling and that hand writing notes helps encourage deeper processing of information than typing. Sketchnotes take these two skills and combines them into one method.

I’ve always leaned more towards abstract art projects in school, so the thought of sketchnoting was initially quite daunting. But, after hearing about the various benefits to sketchnoting and even seeing it in practice while working with the UX Research team at Liberty Mutual, I decided it was a skill worth developing. (If you’re still not convinced of the value, my prior colleagues even went on to publish a research paper on the benefits of incorporating sketchnotes to their work.)

Demystifying Sketchnotes

Flash forward to this past summer at the conference, when I started fielding questions from nearby people on what sketchnoting was and how they might learn.

Me sketchnoting my way through UX Strat

The biggest piece of advice I can give? Just get started. Now.

Easier said than done, right?

The responses I typically get are similar to my own previous misconceptions: “But I’m not an artist” and “I’m not artsy like that.” For some reason, there is this mysterious quality around creating art that you either “have it” or you don’t.

It’s time to dispel the myth that you’re either a natural born artist or completely inept in the visual arts. Sketching, drawing, and I’d even argue all types of art are simply skills that you can practice. Just like getting in shape physically, you don’t become a champion sprinter without running a lot. In fact, drawing is still a physical act that relies on muscle memory, so it’s not surprising that the more you draw, the better you’ll get.

What’s more, sketchnotes can be messy, fun, silly, or whatever you want them to be. There’s no need for technical drafting skills or perfect representation. But if you have similar hesitations as I did around sketching, you might be discouraged by your first attempts. Remind yourself that at this early stage, your taste is more evolved than your physical skills. Get more practice and you’ll see your skills start to close that gap.

My own journey

Here are some of my earliest sketchnotes.

I’m happy I made them, but looking back I can see they often leaned more towards the “note” side of the sketch-to-note spectrum.

As I’ve had more time to practice, I’ve slowly started to work in more visual elements, handle space in different ways, and improve the overall “flow” of the narrative on the page.

Here are a couple recent examples I made at the UX Strat conference. I can even see my improvement as I flip back through the eight sketchnotes I made over the course of the two day event.

And I’m still improving. Looking back at these, I can see I have a long way to go to master the balance of aesthetic and easily digestible information. But I can still reap the benefits of practicing the skill without worrying about having advanced drawing skills. And more than trying to create the ‘perfect’ sketchnote, the experience has taught me about the importance of practice in the creative process.

By demystifying sketchnoting to myself through practice, I’ve been able to build my own confidence in bringing other visual elements into my work. As a UX researcher, it was initially easier for me to convey my ideas in words, and I was trained to think that my role was centered on writing research guides and summary reports. I typically left anything visual to the designers.

After pushing myself to start sketchnoting, I started sketching more often. And while this practice improved my skills, it also helped me become more comfortable with putting my drawings into the world. Sketching started to become a tool I could use to convey my ideas, rather than some magical, unattainable practice. The more I flexed my sketching muscles, the easier it became to sketch a concept in a brainstorm, frame a problem on a whiteboard, or even draw out a quick, messy wireframe.

While I’m still developing my skills and confidence, sketching more often has challenged me to think about my research insights and ideas in new ways.

Some tips to get started

If you’re interested in giving sketchnotes a try, here are some helpful things I’ve learned along the way:

  • Search for example templates of sketchnotes. I wish I had thought of this sooner. One of my biggest challenges has been learning how to organize information on the page, and having a few examples of how to do so has been really helpful.
  • Find sample sketchnote libraries. There are some common tools you can use and adapt to your own style, including arrows, banners, and other icons. Pull up some examples to help you get started, and then integrate your own unique elements based on the content you are sketchnoting.
  • Embrace the stick figure. With sketchnotes, there’s no need to be an advanced artist. You’ll notice in example sketchnote libraries that many people rely on stick figures or other simple icons to represent people. You can add a lot of emotion into head, arm or body positioning on a stick figure without having to stress about drawing a perfectly proportioned person. It’s one of my favorite tricks to add some fun to a few key words.
  • Leave extra space. I’ve had countless examples where I’ve started in the top quarter of a page, only to have the talk end sooner than I expected and leaving the remainder of my page blank. If you leave extra space between each section, you’ll balance the page better, and can always fill them in with decorative elements or extra tidbits of information later.
  • The pen is mightier. This is a tough hurdle, but I think it’s important. By using pen rather than pencil, I acknowledge from the start that it’s not going to be perfect. Rather than giving myself an opportunity to erase and adjust my sketchnotes into oblivion, I make myself use a pen. When something doesn’t turn out as pretty as I wanted, I just let it be and move on to the next section.
  • Practice sketchnoting both live and static materials. I’ve found live sessions to be the most fun to capture in sketchnotes, but it can create a lot of pressure because if you miss something, it’s gone. In addition to sketchnoting for live talks, I occasionally take sketchnotes as a way to summarize articles. Sketchnoting articles allow me to practice new doodles and icons to incorporate without the time pressure.
My sketchnotes for Katie Couric’s Spotlight talk at Inbound 2019

As UX researchers, we so often practice becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable. It’s our job to look at questions and unknowns to find patterns and insights. While sketchnoting seems a far cry from conducting user interviews and assessing usability, the experience of learning this skill has helped me become a better researcher.

By practicing making sketchnotes, I’ve become more comfortable representing information in visual ways and have applied these principles to my work in research. When I gather insights from a user research study, I now experiment with different ways to visually represent the information I heard. And I find that by pushing myself to examine the information from different angles, I have an easier time surfacing patterns and identifying deeper connections across the data.

My very messy whiteboard that I shared with stakeholders

Throughout this process, a lot of what I produce looks very messy (see left image). Luckily, through my experience practicing sketchnotes, I’ve built up a high tolerance for producing messy and imperfect work.

This means I even feel comfortable showing others my work-in-progress whiteboards of emerging patterns and themes, which has helped me get diverse perspectives on the data earlier in the research process. Ultimately, this helps me come to more well rounded conclusions on each project, resulting in more accurate analysis and better suited recommendations.

And all of this, from just learning to draw a few stick figures and speech bubbles.

The HubSpot UX team is hiring. We’d love to meet you.

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