The Sketchnote

August 09, 2013 by Paula Petcu

It is visual note taking. It promotes the principles of accelerated learning. It improves retention. It’s a way to make notes fun and memorable. It’s a way to capture the big picture.

Some books can be better understood visually

I recently finished reading Daniel Pink’s book “To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others”. Actually, I must admit that I haven’t read it, but rather listened to the audiobook. It is an informative book full of facts, observations, tips and exercises, and I would say that due to its type of content, it is pretty hard to get the expected effect of the book only by listening to it. The reason I’ve initially chosen the audio version instead of the paper one was that my previous read (eh, listen) was Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead”, which worked absolutely fantastic as an audiobook. Again, a book full of interesting facts, observations and summarisation of recent research, but also a book I feel it has a big focus on moving the listener through the discourse, motivating the listener to “lean in”.

Now, at some point in listening to Daniel Pink’s book, I realised that I need to take notes if I was going to take the book seriously. And so I’ve done; while I was listening, I started to write the main points of the discourse in my cloud-synced favourite notes app. Not much time has passed until I realised that writing these notes on a 3.5 inch display is not so useful for getting the big picture of the main points. That is when I realised that this could work better if I do a map or a drawing of the main points and the concrete recommended actions. Therefore, as I usually tend to do, I verified “previous work”; I checked to see whether there have been other people trying to do the same thing, especially since this is a very well reviewed book.

And thus I was introduced to the sketchnote.

Sketchnote Handbook: Video Intro Sketchnotes pg 1

(Mike Rohde, Excerpted from The Sketchnote Handbook: the illustrated guide to visual notetaking by Mike Rohde. Copyright © 2013. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and Peachpit Press.)

Sketchnotes combine words and pictures. “Sketchnotes are rich visual notes created from a mix of handwriting, drawings, hand-drawn typography, shapes and visual elements like arrows, boxes and lines.” (ref) It includes “doodles and diagrams and text and typography to capture ideas visually” (ref). A hands-on Wired article from January 2013, “Taking Notes to a New Level — The Sketchnote Handbook”, was my first introduction to the brilliant idea and to a recently published book advocating the practice (Mike Rohde’s The Sketchnote Handbook).

Sketchnotes can be used in creating visual summaries of books (and by the way, there is a great sketchnote for Daniel Pink’s book made by Sacha Chua), as a tool for summarizing presentations, conferences and meetings, as well as in giving a personal touch to your slide decks (like for example this presentation), but these are just a few examples and I am sure that in time we can find more use cases for this visual thinking technique. The articles I have read so far about sketchnotes mention that it is a frequently used technique at tech conferences.

From clarity in speech to structure on paper

On top of the things mentioned above, the author of The Sketchnote Handbook says that the sketchnoter does not need to be an artist to create good pieces! However, with practice the sketchnotes will of course be better.

There might be some practice involved in being better at capturing ideas in the notes and making them more visually interesting, but the more important aspect is the structure. We can all draw (yes, we were all kids and drew as a way of expressing ourselves!), and it feels that what is more important here is to use this visual note taking as a way to better capture and understand ideas.

There are also other techniques used in visual thinking, such as concept maps, flow charts, images as metaphors, post-it notes, timelines, word clouds etc, which are used in areas of education, graphics, architecture, business or selling. What I think is outstanding for the sketchnote technique is that it gives the sketchnoter the ability to better focus the attention on the information being transmitted (be it in a presentation, book etc.) as well as having a good source for later reference.

I almost always take notes during conferences and meetings (usually on paper if the meeting is more private and on my tablet if the audience is bigger) but rarely review my meeting or presentation notes! If I come to think about it, I most of the times review my notes only because I am asked to, and it is not a very fun activity. I am therefore very excited about the idea of taking visual notes and its promised benefits.

Supporting tools

There are of course various tools and gadgets that can be used for sketchnotes. The simplest (and cheapest) tools would be the pen and paper, but in the digital world we live in, gadgets such as tablets or tablet PCs could make the process smoother.

I have previously used my tablet for drawing and based on that experience, I am a bit worried about the position of my hand. While drawing, it is more comfortable to support the palm of the hand on a surface, and if I do this on a tablet it would mess up the entire drawing. So therefore I could see why other gadgets could work better for this activity.

I downloaded a free chapter of Mike Rohde’s The Sketchnote Handbook and on one of the first pages I saw written “It’s time to get started. Grab a notebook and a pen. Let’s go take some notes!” So I think that for now, until I familiarize with process of notetaking, I’m going to stick to the pen and paper.

An interesting idea and a trending practice!

I’ll definitely give it a try, and The Sketchnote Handbook is now on top of my reading list!


1. Summer Reading: The Sketchnote Handbook by Mike Rohde
2. Taking Notes to a New Level — The Sketchnote Handbook
3. Sketchnoting 101: How To Create Awesome Visual Notes
4. The Sketchnote Handbook
5. The Sketchnote Handbook: A brilliant new guide to visual note taking

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