Transcript of my chat with Mike Rohde (The Sketchnote Podcast) on digital sketchnoting

I talked to Mike Rohde about digital sketchnoting and my workflow. You can watch the podcast and check out other episodes!

Slightly edited for clarity

[00:01] Mike Rohde: Hey. this is Mike Rohde for the Sketchnote podcast. Today we have Sacha Chua, but before we get started I’d like to say that this episode of the podcast is sponsored by my son Landon, who is very cute and two months old. But now back to the program.

This is Sacha Chua, she lives in Toronto, Ontario, and she uses something interesting that I wanted to explore because this is something I have talked about before – using a digital setup to do sketch notes.

I do my sketch notes in analog form. I use a notebook and a pen and I’ve played around with the iPad but I found it still challenging. I haven’t found figured out the right stuff for me, like the way to do it right, because I’ve been focused on this book. But Sacha has an advanced system that she uses. She uses a tablet PC and I wanted to bring her on the podcast to talk a little bit about her setup and how she uses it and how it works for her. So welcome Sacha, thank you for coming.

[00:53] Sacha Chua: Of course. I’d be happy to help people learn more.

[00:56] Mike Rohde: Great, so why don’t you start by explaining what the basic tools are that you use to do your digital setup? And then we can get into the benefits of those and maybe some of the things that make it different from paper.

[01:10] Sacha Chua: So when a lot of people think about digital sketchnoting–actually when people think about sketchnoting, they think pen and paper. And when they think about digital sketch noting, they might think of a tablet, like an iPad or an Android tablet. But if you start working with a tablet PC for digital sketchnoting–and I’ll show you that in a bit–you can take advantage of a lot more power: applications that work together, you have the processing power, and there are all sorts of interesting tools and workflows that you can use.

[01:35] Mike Rohde: Cool, very good. Well, why don’t you tell us about the tools you use, specifically, and the tablet PC and the styluses and software that you like to use for your setup.

[01:45] Sacha Chua: Alright, I use Lenovo X 220 tablet PC. I’ll zoom a little bit down to show you this. So this converts into a tablet by simply swiveling the screen and then you can either have it automatically rotate the screen for you or you can rotate it into your preferred orientation. Then I use Autodesk SketchBook Pro to draw on the screen itself. So as you can see I have that straight on there and in a short while I’ll switch over to sharing my screen so you can see that screen directly. So I use a Lenovo X220 tablet PC–they are fantastic—and I use Autodesk SketchBook Pro as the main drawing program. Then for publishing I’ll use Dropbox, Twitter, and WordPress for getting the sketch notes out there.

[02:33] Mike Rohde: Pretty cool. Now the stylus I see in your hand, I assume that came with the Lenovo?

[02:37] Sacha Chua: Yes, in fact it slots into a space for it, right in the case. And they have put in an alarm, so if you are walking off without your stylus, you actually get this little icon showing up on your screen.

[02:54] Mike Rohde: Oh, the proximity alarm. That is very cool.

[02:57] Sacha Chua: Yeah, and you can actually use pen and touch to interact with your screen. Because I do so many sketches notes, I’ve set it up to only recognize the pen. As you can see, even if I touch it, I can use my palm, it doesn’t trigger. If I use the pen, then things happen.

[03:14] Mike Rohde: So now Sacha has gone ahead and switched over to screen view so we can actually see her how she works and she can explain a little more of her process. So go ahead, Sacha.

[03:21] Sacha Chua: Okay, so you’re asking about whether I zoom in. I really like Autodesk SketchBook Pro because it has such a pen-based interface. I can zoom in and scroll around fairly easily–not as easily as you can with a multi-touch display, but easily enough so I can go in here, write a few things more eligibly, and then I can zoom out and see how that fits into the whole space or move things around as needed.

[03:56] Mike Rohde: I think I have seen Dave Gray do this work and I assume if you felt you needed to center under those two columns you could easily grab it and move it over, if you like, so that is one of the advantages to that software.

[04:10] Sacha Chua: Absolutely, and that makes me totally spoiled when it comes to working digitally. You know that challenge when sometimes speakers have too much content or too little content and you are scrambling for space in your sketchnote… When you are working on a computer, it’s easy to lasso an item, move it around and make space. For example, if it turns out that people didn’t give as much content as you expected, you can move things around and it looks like an excellent use of white space.

[04:43] Mike Rohde: Wonderful. Now in the middle of that drawing I see you got your work flow. Can you zoom that up and maybe take us through your work flow?

[04:49] Sacha Chua: Sure. So I do a lot of sketchnotes of books and presentations, and as I mentioned, I do most of that in Autodesk SketchBook Pro. A couple of things make it much easier for me to get this out very quickly: I usually work with a drawing template. Let me show you what that looks like with it. I say Add image, I pick one of my templates (for example, "grid and credits") and what that does is it allows me to add a very faint grid that I can draw on. Sometimes I leave this grid in, sometimes I take it out, but it means I don’t have to worry about my lines wandering elsewhere. I do all this drawing in Autodesk SketchBook Pro with lots of layers, and then if I want to include any logos or pictures, I can draw that into Sketchbook directly. If I want to trace the logo, I can use Artrage Studio Pro which automatically picks up the colors as I am drawing on something. It’s much easier to color match without having to pick up those little colors in multicolor logos.

[05:46] Mike Rohde: So it looks like down there you also have Camtasia running as well.

[05:48] Sacha Chua: Yes I do. So I’ve sketched it out in Autodesk Sketch Book Pro. If I think I am going to want to put together a speed drawing video, I’ll use Camtasia Studio to record this in the background, like I am doing now. When I am done with the image, I’ll save it in Dropbox. This automatically synchronizes the file with my phone, and then I can use my phone or my computer to post that to Twitter. If I’m sketchnoting a conference with lots and lots of talks, I don’t want to be switching back and forth between Autodesk SketchBook Pro and Dropbox and Twitter and my blog and all those other things. I can use my phone to tweet the links immediately and then I can save the laptop for drawing.

[06:38] Mike Rohde: Gotcha. So you sort of offload some of those tasks to other devices and then keep the devices focused for the things they are really good at.

[06:47] Sacha Chua: Right. And that means I don’t have to be switching back and forth between applications, so if people are saying interesting things, I can keep drawing. I usually post recap blog posts. If it is just one talk, then I’ll blog it right away. If it’s a conference, I’ll wait until the end of the conference to post a blog post with thumbnails and links to the full size images, so people can share this with other people later on. In addition to posting it to my blog, I also upload my sketchnotes in Evernote, so then it is much easier to search through my notes.

[07:23] Mike Rohde: Great. So tell me a little bit about this: I’ve been exploring every now and then and I have been thinking of going back because of some of the new features. Do you tag your work? Can Evernote scan your sketch notes since you have really beautiful handwriting? Can it scan the sketch notes to pick up words or do you have to manually enter that meta-information?

[07:44] Sacha Chua: This is amazing. It can actually understand most of what I write and then I help it a little bit with some key words. So for example, you can see how I can put most of the sketch notes into this "Sketchnotes by Sacha Chua" notebook, which I have actually shared publicly so anyone can find this notebook and subscribe to it. If I search in here… Say, for example, I’m looking for “visual library” which you mentioned in your book. So "visual library"–you can see how it is looking inside the image and it it’s highlighting where it sees those words. Here are my sketch notes, you can see here how "visual library" [shows up] even inside all caps – a small box has been found and highlighted. In addition to being able to search text, I also occasionally fill in some more information so that I can easily find the visual metaphors that I use. For example, in this digital sketchnoting workflow, I’ve also added some words that I might not have written down or might not easily be recognized by Evernote. You can see here how I’ve got this keyword for magnifying glass, and that allows me to find all the sketch notes where I have drawn a magnifying glass in case I feel like challenging myself to use different visual metaphors.

[09:06] Mike Rohde: That is interesting. That is really fascinating.

[09:09] Sacha Chua: It is amazing. I strongly recommend checking Evernote. You can set it up so that it will import all the files into a folder. I set up a shortcut so after I publish the sketchnote using Dropbox, I can just right click on the file and have that be imported to my Evernote.

[09:25] Mike Rohde: Wow. I notice you have got a little spot in the lower left, some of the caveats of using this system. What are some of those at a high level?

[09:31] Sacha Chua: Well, let me switch to those so we can zoom in on that. A lot of times people get hung up on the expense. Certainly, if you already have a computer, buying a new tablet PC can be a significant cost. Because this is my main computer, I find that it is pretty much worth the investment. I’ve upgraded it with lots of memory and lots of hard disk space so I can use it for all the things that I do.

Apple tends not to believe in tablet computers that have pens in them. I really don’t know why, but if you want to work with a Lenovo X220 tablet PC like I do, then it probably means getting yourself set up on Microsoft Windows, because that is where most of the applications are. That can take a little bit of a learning curve for people.

The weight of this is a bit of a concern as well. I can’t remember the exact weight, but because I have the tablet as well as an extended battery pack, I can go for an entire conference without having to worry about plugging into a power outlet. But this also means I carry a fairly heavy backpack for these things.

And let’s mention battery life: if you don’t get an extended battery pack, your battery life will be much shorter than a regular tablet. But if you do get the extended battery, which I consider to be well worth it, then at least you don’t have to fight so much over a power outlet at conferences.

[10:58] Mike Rohde: Interesting. And I know I mentioned Dave Gray uses this tablet PC. I think a couple of years back we did a conference: I was up in front and he got to draw on his PC. I actually kind of liked the screen and it felt a lot like pencil and paper to me, oddly enough. I don’t know, but he might have had a different brand but it was the same thing. And I thought, "This is kind of interesting." I haven’t explored that yet because I have other machines I have already invested in and it wouldn’t be an investment for me, but I’m really curious about it. I think people are thinking about it and it is a really interesting option that you should consider.

[11: 31] Sacha Chua: It is actually very smooth and I prefer it over drawing on paper or a tablet. On paper, it is sometimes scratchy and your lines don’t go where you want them to go. The texture is nice, but I’ve found that when I’m drawing on a tablet PC, my lines look a lot more confident because they are digital and because I am not relying on friction and all those other things. A tablet is a much more consistent experience for me.

[12:01] Mike Rohde: This is really fascinating. I love that you have done that. I am really excited to be sharing this with people, because I think a lot of people still use paper. Thank you for being on the show. What we are going to do is include some links to all these references so people can check you out, they can read your blog, they can look at this image more closely and see your sketch notes and we will share that with people. Thank you so much for coming on, Sacha.

[12: 28] Sacha Chua: My pleasure. You know, digital drawing has been the key thing. It has made it much more fun for me and I think it would be lovely if more people gave it a try.

[12:36] Mike Rohde: Great. And maybe, as a way to end this show, can you verbally give us some places where people can find you: Twitter, blog and so forth?

[12:45] Sacha Chua: You can find me at Twitter as @sachac . You can check out my sketch notes and other things I have posted at my blog. You don’t have to remember my name for that one, you can go directly to livinganawesomelife.com. Which it is.

[13:06] Mike Rohde: I can see that you are passionate about it and I just loved talking with you today. Thank you for taking the time and hope you get lots of interest from people that are curious and asking questions. Thank you.

[13:15] Sacha Chua: My pleasure. Have fun.

[13:16] Mike Rohde: Okay. Thanks a lot.

[13:19] Mike Rohde: And that wraps up this episode of The Sketchnote Handbook Podcast. We are going to do more stuff like this and bring other people and see how their workflows work, so tune in for the next episodes as they come out. Thanks.

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