Photo by Marc Thiele

An Opportunity to Play: An Interview with Sketchnoting Author Eva-Lotta Lamm

Sketching can be an opportunity to explore language and form just as much as type design. It was a pleasure to speak to sketchnoting author Eva-Lotta about her process of sketching, how it helps convey meaning, and the role of lettering in communication. A fantastic conversation, for sure.


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TypeThursday: Eva, thanks for being here.

Eva-Lotta Lamm: It’s nice to be here.

TT: Well, cool. How about you start by introducing yourself.

E-LL: Alright. My name is Eva-Lotta Lamm. I’m a designer. I originally studied graphic design but then focused more and more on digital stuff. Over the last 15 years I’ve been working on web sites, software and apps, doing mainly information architecture, user-experience design, and some visual design. I’m not very interested in job titles. I try to make things that work well and look good. Let’s put it like that.

TT: I know an area of focus for you is sketchnoting, is that correct?

I’ve been sketching and doodling basically all my life. I’ve always loved pen and paper.

Eva’s beginning in Sketchnoting.

E-LL: Yeah, that is actually something that developed by the side — as many nice things do, they start as side projects. I’ve been sketching and doodling basically all my life. I’ve always loved pen and paper. During my studies at art school, sketching was a big part because it was still one of the schools where you have the traditional basic education like drawing and photography and typography and all these kind of manual skills.

When I started going to web conferences — I think the first web conference I went to was in 2006 — I took notes that were a mixture of visual elements and written notes — because I like doodling and because making spatial relationships between elements on the page helps me to process and remember what the speaker is saying. And thenI discovered some notes by a guy called Mike Rohde on the Internet. He coined the term sketchnoting. His notes looked very similar to my own notes and he called them sketchnotes. So I was like, “Oh! There seems to be a name for this. It seems to be a thing. So probably what I’m doing is sketchnoting.” From there on, I started putting more awareness into the fact that I’m actually mixing visuals and words in my notes and started experimenting how I can make my notes more engaging. That’s how I got into sketchnoting.

By summarizing things in pictures, keywords and short statements, my notes actually become very useable to refer back to and they are fun to look at again…

Sketchnoting to Process Information

TT: You said it makes your notes more engaging for you. Is that one of the things that matters the most about sketchnoting?

E-LL: Well, I have a really rubbish memory. I can’t remember stuff for longer than three days. It’s like, “Oh, there was this amazing talk by this amazing guy. I forgot what he talked about but it was really interesting.” That’s me without notes. So I need to take notes to anchor stuff in my head and to be able to go back to it. But when I only create written notes, I have to re-read everything (which I never do). It’s not an overview. By summarizing things in pictures, keywords and short statements, my notes actually become very useable to refer back to and they are fun to look at again, because they are not just a boring transcript but an interesting visual overview of a 45-minute talk on one page.

You can actually show all this meta-relationship between content that was originally presented in a linear form.

TT: It gives you a more holistic remembrance of the whole event, right? It’s not this linear A-to-B-to-C, correct?

E-LL: Yes. That’s another aspect. By sketching stuff in a two-dimensional space, there’s the possibility to show which things are related by putting them next to each other, by connecting them with arrows or by putting them into the same frame. You can highlight things. You can make things bigger. You can make things smaller. You can show which things are more important than others, which things belong together, which things don’t belong together. You can actually show all this meta-relationship between content that was originally presented in a linear form. And that helps to understand the relationships, which most of the time are the most important thing to understand. It’s not only the individual facts, but how they hang together and what their relationship is. And I feel that diagramming in a visual way really helps to make the relationships understandable by making them visible.

It helps me to think something through and really understand a topic when I see it mapped out in front of me. That’s because the world is not as clear cut and neatly ordered.

TT: That’s super cool. In type design, that’s the whole point. It’s all about relationships. How parts relate to one another and how they interconnect. You’re thinking the same thing in this seemingly very different industry or practice.

E-LL: When somebody presents a talk they already linearized the content for the audience. It’s less of a problem to take notes in a linear way if you wanted to, because it’s already presented in a linear order. When sketching becomes really powerful is when I want to clarify my own thoughts. I use sketchnotes for thinking about a topic as well. For example when I start out a new project or I am putting together a new conference talk. There are lots of different pieces of information to process and to make sense of. When I try to write everything down in a linear text, I almost always have the feeling that whatever I want to explain, there’s always something else that I need to explain before it. And if I try to reverse the order, there’s still something else that I need to explain before that. Like an unsolvable endless knot.

That’s why I like sketching the content out in a diagram where things can coexist next to each other on the same level, where you can see them at the same time. You can focus on one aspect but have a reference to the other things nearby. It helps me to think something through and really understand a topic when I see it mapped out in front of me. That’s because the world is not as clear cut and neatly ordered. Not everything can be expressed in a linear way. Things are complex, they are not always hierarchical and they can coexist on the same level and at the same time. Sometimes they seem like an endless circle and you don’t know where to start. In those cases sketching helps me to break through this conundrum and express thoughts and ideas in a multi-dimensional way instead of forcing them into an artificial order.

[Lettering] offers a perfect combination between systematic rigor and aesthetic exploration.

Lettering in Sketchnoting

TT: I notice a very strong proclivity towards lettering. Visualizing the writing itself, the language, the words. What are your thoughts about that?

E-LL: Well, first of all, I love letters. They offer a perfect combination between systematic rigor and aesthetic exploration. And language and words play a big role in sketchnoting. It’s not about shifting everything to images, but to use both images and words together combining the strength of each. We process images and words in a different way. Images are very direct. The sketch of an apple looks almost like the real apple. I understand it just by seeing it. I don’t have to translate it. With language, the meaning is removed one step from the artifact. The word ‘apple’ has no direct relationship with the object itself. I need to know the code. If I say ‘Apfel’ in German and you don’t understand German, then you’re screwed. Words are less immediately understandable than images, but words give us the possibility to speak about more abstract concepts. We can add lot of detail and precision easily. We can talk about the past and the future. Images and words work very well together because they have these different properties. We process images on a different level than we process words. And science has shown that we can process them at the same time and still understand both. Two different pieces of information on two different channels generating one meaning.

We process images on a different level than we process words.… Two different pieces of information on two different channels generating one meaning.

And then words can turn into a drawing as well — the lettering on the page. By turning them into a physical expression, there is an additional opportunity to play. There’s the meaning of the word itself and then you can give extra context by writing them out in a different way. You can make the word very big or very bold because it’s important — maybe the title of the talk or the main topic. You can make the words smaller and a little bit more discreet because they’re just a side note explaining a bigger concept. You can write words in all caps or you can write them in a nice cursive, in an almost calligraphic way, which gives them a different feel. The words themselves hold the content, but the way I write them, adds my own interpretation: this is important to me, this is not so important, this is a side note, this is only a thought and this is a hard fact. The way I letter the words is my interpretation of the value and importance of the content itself.

TT: It gives you a vocabulary of expression on top of the content.

E-LL: The lettering offers a meta level on top of the content itself. Sometimes it’s very functional. Most of the time, the style of lettering is used to establish visual hierarchy, because this is one of the most important things when I take notes. I want to structure the content so that the most important points are easily visible at one glance. My main thought is: “How can I use lettering and different styles of lettering to structure the content and give it visual hierarchy?” But then there are moments when I start to have fun with it. When I know I’m on top of the visual hierarchy, I can have fun with and experiment with different lettering styles, adding my own interpretation, humour, style or just visual pleasure.

TT: This has been a fantastic conversation. Eva-Lotta, thanks so much for being here.


Want to learn more about Sketchnoting? Pick up a Sketchnotes book by Eva or see where she’ll be speaking next on her website. Use the Promo code DOUBLEYAY and get 20% off the pdf versions.

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