Visual Thinking & Sketching

May 20 · 7 min read

Its value and how it helps you communicate more effectively in meetings or workshops

The Fear is Real

Ever ask a child to draw you a picture? It’s so easy right?! No inhibitions — just drawing what’s in their mind and capturing it the best way they know how (stick figures and all). Over time we seem to lose confidence in our ability to visually express ourselves. Unless you go to art school where you have courses dedicated to drawing, most people are taught to express themselves through the written word and this is what continues to be reinforced time and time again. We rely on our best friend “the internet” to help us visualise our ideas when needed in presentation decks, but rarely do we consider the option of sketching or illustrating our point with a pen or marker.

Having been to art school, I can tell you even I was terrified to draw in front of people at the beginning. There’s a lot of pressure to get it right, to draw something people can correctly interpret.

So, for those that can resonate let me explain why it’s a good idea to test the water with visual thinking and sketching.

What is it and why should we try it?

Visual thinking and sketching is a skill, which should be used to organise your thoughts and express them in a visual way. It’s a way to simplify messages and express complex information in a concise and meaningful way. It also leverages the tools you have at your disposal to externalise information to be shared and discussed.

There are two ways to think about visual note-taking:

  1. You have a point or story you’re trying to get across and an idea of a way to illustrate it. This means you’d likely have some time ahead of a meeting to create a cheat sheet illustration or get access to the room ahead of time so you can get the foundational pieces drawn up; then complete the rest of the story as you’re telling it. This takes the pressure off of having to draw in real time, which can be a bit of a hurdle to getting started. It also helps you get in a little practice before doing it in front of an audience. I often use this approach when I’m trying to tell a story that I frequently tell like “what does our company do?” or “what’s or typical approach to a project?”. These are stories I’d often tell, which means it’s good to have a go-to way of illustrating or sketching the story.
  2. The second approach is where you’re trying capture the key points of a meeting in real time as they’re being spoken. This means listening carefully to the essence of what’s being said, pulling out key messages or themes, and documenting them in a way that both captures the message as well as validates your understanding of what’s been said. This is a great way to make sure everyone is talking about the same thing. Often times conversations can go in circles and you “feel” like everyone’s in alignment but it’s not until it’s written down after the meeting that you realise that what you thought everyone was aligned on is actually not a single idea but actually very different things.

Drawing and discussing in real time also helps everyone to have a more fruitful conversation and allows you to literally change the illustration to be representative of the core idea and get you closer to the truth/shared understanding.

It’s pretty simple to get started. Most conference rooms and office spaces have access to whiteboards these days and a whiteboard and whiteboard markers are really all you need to get started with this technique.

There are a number of benefits to trying it out:

  1. Demonstrate you’re engaged and listening to your peers. If you’re leading a meeting and trying to collect feedback on an idea or collect input on a strategic direction you’d like to pursue, getting your own and your team’s thoughts visualised can be very powerful in that it not only captures learnings but provides clarity within your working group or team.
  2. Align shared understanding. It solidifies understanding of what’s being said and prompts interesting questions when someone’s understanding is different from your own or the capture of it isn’t clear or as intended.
  3. Change the meeting status quo. There is a flavour of the “impress” factor whether it’s clients or colleagues you’re working with. Often visualising thoughts and notes is an unexpected delight to those participating in a meeting where everything is traditionally done on laptops and presentation screens. This is often seen as a welcome change to interactions as usual.
  4. Remember the most important moments. When a meeting is half way through, such a visualisation can help you remember key points mentioned at the beginning and allows you to get an overview of what was discussed. Perhaps there is an idea that was really important that you’ve lost track of or you can use the visual capture as an opportunity to see themes or gaps in what was covered. There’s a principle of “where it is, is what it is” and by tapping into it, we’re able to better remember key information based on where it was located in the room. This helps us to connect the existing dots, make new connections, or expose ourselves to something that may be missing from the conversation altogether.

Getting Started

It’s pretty easy to get started. Here are a few tips to get started:

Learn the basics

Get comfortable with drawing basic shapes, writing clear lettering, illustrating actions with simple arrows, and coming up with a simple toolkit of shapes to help you communicate concepts or ideas. Most things can often be broken down into a few key combinations of shapes; the key is to know your go-to ways of representing repeatable themes so visual note-taking is less stressful and time consuming. For example, think of your preferred way to draw a person. Then use this as your go-to person representation when you need to capture a person as part of your illustration.

Pairing this combination of basic shapes together can be quite effective to get points across as well as keeping it entertaining for yourself as you’re leading the group.

Think 2D and add a third dimension when comfortable

Start simple — stick figure, squares, triangle, rectangle simple. Get comfortable with the basics and then move to adding more complex layers. Make sure you’ve made note of the key points. The 3D embellishments will come later as you develop, refine, and hone your skills over time.

Practice in private, then in public

I still don’t always get it right. For example, today I drew a rubbish bag that looked like a pineapple, but practice makes perfect. A few colleagues of mine are working to refine this skill and took the time to practice at home, hone their visual language and then once confident began testing the waters in front of others. This is a great way to practice, but also test it out with a small audience of people you’re comfortable with before going in front of the CEO.

Distil conversations to their essence or key takeaway
Reflect on what’s been said and identify the key point the person wants to get across or the key insight you learned and don’t want to lose track of moving forward. Are there key stats that are could drive any future business decisions? Is there something that stands out as a key issue that needs to be solved? Who are the key stakeholders involved? How can we capture the details of a solution more clearly? All of these questions can drive at the essence of what we know or what actions we want to take.

Summarise the highlights

One of the key benefits of visualising information is shared group understanding. To make sure you’ve captured and understood something correctly, it’s useful to summarise your understanding to the group as you’re listening and after you’ve captured the main points. This will confirm your understandings are correct and that you haven’t missed anything. Use the imagery you’ve made to your benefit and encourage the team to help refine it as a group to make it right.

In my role as the Design Lead for Europe in the IBM Garage, I use this technique with my colleagues and clients to communicate more effectively all the time. It’s a powerful tool that we use across Garage locations in our various geographies with great effectiveness so I’d greatly encourage you to give it a shot and try it out in your next meeting or workshop.

Continued Reading

Here are some books I find useful and inspirational that can help you get started as you build your illustration toolkit.

  1. How to draw almost every day — Kamo
  2. The doodle revolution — Sunni Brown
  3. Hand lettering: An interactive guide to the art of drawing letters — Megan Wells
  4. Graphic recording — Anna Lena Schiller
  5. Blah Blah Blah What to do when words don’t work — Dan Roam
  6. Visual note-taking for educators — Wendi Pillars

> Learn more about how you can co-create with the IBM Garage.

IBM Garage

Startup speed at enterprise scale.


Written by


I’m the Design Lead for Europe & Middle East at the IBM Cloud Garage, who thrives in the intersection of strategy, user experience design, and design research.

IBM Garage

Startup speed at enterprise scale.