Sketchnoting: Finding a balance of details and diagrams, and calibrating your writing to time

Cheryl Lowry wrote about something many sketchnoters struggle with: running out of sketchnoting room during a talk. It got me thinking about the style I lean towards in my notes, and how I deal with too much or too little content.

My sketchnoting style is more information-dense and more linear/column-based than many other sketchnote styles I’ve seen. You can compare my recent sketchnotes with the ones on Sketchnote Army or the Flickr Sketchnotes pool to get a sense of how they’re different. I take information-dense sketchnotes because I want to remember and I don’t trust my memory. If I want to create a summary later on, I can do that from my sketchnotes, but it’s difficult to go the other way around. I’ve learned not to trust that events will have video, that I’ll have the patience to sit through a recording, or that slides will make sense after a quick flip-through. My notes are all I can rely on if I want to make sure that the time I spend listening to a talk doesn’t just evaporate into forgetfulness. =) So even if my hand cramps a little after sketchnoting a full-day conference with few breaks (hooray for quick finger exercises and stretches), it’s worth it because I come away with much more and I can remember a lot.

I paraphrase a lot because I want to make ideas more concise, particularly when it comes to Q&A sessions where people haven’t rehearsed what they want to say.

I’ve thought about writing less and drawing more, but I’m actually pretty happy with where I am. Summarization comes afterwards, when I know what’s important to me. Most presentations do very little sign-posting of what they’re going to cover and how important each part is, and even the ones that do can sometimes go on interesting tangens. When I’m sketchnoting a presentation, I don’t want to prematurely lock into the structure or metaphor I think the speaker has (even if they say they’re going to talk about 7 things, for example). That takes me out of the moment and makes me second-guess myself when the speaker says something interesting that doesn’t fit into the pattern I want to draw. A column-based layout may feel less creative, but it frees me up to listen.

I might go back and move things around a little during the gaps in the talk, but I generally don’t go back and reorganize everything. I want to publish things as quickly as possible. My target is to publish the sketchnotes within 10 minutes after the talk ends, and I usually do. It’s a great way to delight people over social media.

I write simple letters on a plain white background. My images and text tend to be separated by whitespace so that I can move things around as needed. I draw uncomplicated figures. I generally use one or two accent colours and maybe a lighter shade for highlighting or depth. Again, I’m optimizing for speed and attention. I’ve thought about going back and revising some of my sketchnotes to be more visually engaging, but then there’s so much new material that would be interesting to draw instead. Besides, I don’t want to give people the impression that that kind of detail or layout is what they’ll get from me when live sketchnoting. I really like being done with a sketchnote shortly after a talk. This also means I don’t have to worry too much about following up and I don’t have to juggle multiple ongoing projects. I do occasionally revise sketches and help people turn them into proper illustrations for reuse, but that would definitely be a paid gig. =)

I draw over a light dot grid, and that helps me fill a page at a more consistent rate. I know that if there’s an hour-long talk, I can draw letters at my normal size. If it’s a short non-interactive talk like an Ignite presentation or a TED talk, I might put several talks on one page, or I might increase the size and be a little looser with the layout. As I listen, I adjust my writing depending on the rate that people are speaking. If they speak slowly or they repeat themselves a lot, I’ll draw more images. If they speak quickly, I’ll try to capture as much as I can, and then go back and add highlights and some icons afterwards. Because I work digitally, I can remove the grid before publishing the image. (See How I set up Autodesk Sketchbook Pro for sketchnoting)

Working digitally makes it easy for me to compensate for different talk densities. If a speaker ended up saying less than I expected, I can rearrange the text and images around to look more balanced or I can crop the image at the appropriate point. If a speaker says more, it’s easy to add another layer and save a separate image. Autodesk Sketchbook Pro isn’t a vector program, so enlarging things doesn’t work particularly well, but I can move around or reduce parts of my image if I need to squeeze in some more information.

Other sketchnoters have great tips, too. Some people write down just the first few letters of a word or phrase, and then go back and fill the rest when there’s time. The Bikablo books encourage you to practise drawing key icons the same way each time, so that you can quickly sketch the first couple of strokes to remind you of what to draw. The Sketchnote Handbook talks about using your audio memory to hold on to thoughts as you draw. These tips work for me, too, and I’m getting the hang of using them. Hope they work for you too!

One of the interesting things about sketchnoting is that now I have a better sense of how much space there is in most presentations and conversations. It’s like seeing key words light up and thinking, “Oh, I want to capture that,” and also seeing the gaps where you can write or draw. You develop a sense of how much you can squeeze into each gap. If you find that you’re picking up more keywords than you have the time to capture, you can increase your thresholds for interestingness or reduce the complexity of your capture.

You can develop this sense of timing by practising with talks of specific lengths. For example, if you go to a lot of 1-hour talks, you’ll get a sense of how much people typically cover in an hour. Every so often, it’s good to practise with something that’s really information-dense: a well-written nonfiction book, an intermediate- or advanced-level talk. Like the way you can improve your speed-reading performance by occasionally reading at a rate faster than you can comprehend, it’s good to scramble in sketchnoting from time to time.

Hope that helps!

Cheryl Lowry: “Drawing is easy. Thinking is hard.”

  • pat

    Bello!!!! muy útil gracias Pat