Category Archives: drawing

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How to cheat when animating sketches

I’ve been working on some animations for my consulting engagement. My new “green-screen” workflow involves Camtasia Studio’s Replace a Color feature, a large secondary motor, and the Cintiq 12 WX (although any USB tablet will probably do fine). It works really well! I re-rendered my 4-minute video because I wanted to use the WAV export as the audio instead of the MP3 export – better audio quality.

My old workflow (Artrage Studio Pro script recording and then some text manipulation to get it to save frames) ran about 4 hours per audio minute. This one’s at about two hours per audio minute, and it could take even less of my time if I could delegate the editing and synchronization to someone else. (Not for this one because of the contract, but maybe next time!)

Here are some other ways to cheat when animating sketches. Click on the image for a larger version.

2013-11-08 How to cheat when animating sketches

No samples, sorry, but maybe I’ll plan my own animations after this consulting project is finished.

In the meantime, here’s a quick glimpse of how to use Remove a Color in Camtasia Studio:

It’s okay to draw simple visual notes

Other people’s sketchnotes can be intimidating. People draw so well! They use colours! They have creative layouts!

If you were waiting for permission to start, if you were waiting for permission to draw simple notes, here it is: It’s okay.

I don’t focus on the artistic aspect when I draw my notes. Sure, I’ll deliberately practise techniques and work on expanding my visual vocabulary from time to time, but I want to spend more time learning than worrying about drawing.

2013-11-14 What do I focus on when drawing visual notes

So instead of thinking about composition and creativity, I focus on the kinds of things that make it easy for me to draw what I’m learning and to get back to them afterwards.

  • Ease: I cut out anything that gets in the way of thinking. This is why I tend to add colour after I draw (if at all), I don’t add fancy flourishes, and I usually publish first drafts instead of endlessly refining my drawing or layout.
  • Readability: I want to be able to speed-read my sketchnotes, and I want other people to find them readable as well. So I try to write clearly, horizontally, and in block letters, avoiding script or hard-to-read lettering.
  • Detail: I write more detailed notes than many sketchnoters do. I want my notes to save me from having to reread the book or re-watch the presentation unless I want an exact quote or list. I also want the notes to share all the key points even with people who haven’t seen or heard the source material.  I figure we can always make a summary later on, but it’s hard to go the other way around.
  • Search: I also optimize for long-term search and storage. I keep my handwriting neat and easy for computers to read. I invest time in updating filenames, adding tags, and publishing my notes in various places and backing them up. I want my notes to be available for the long term and for as many people as possible.
  • Action/change: When I take notes for myself, I want to make it easier to do something about what I learn. What will I do or change based on the thought I’m exploring, the book I’m reading, the presentation I’m listening to? That way, I’m not just passively recording information, I’m using it to make stuff happen.

I take a utilitarian approach to sketchnotes. That said, it’s also fun to relax my brain and doodle a little, like this:

2013-11-12 People-drawing practice

If you’re worried about not being able to figure out a sketch the first time around, shading it in hides many attempts to figure things out. ;)

Handwriting

image“You’ve got great handwriting,” people say. “I have really bad handwriting, so I can’t share my notes, but your handwriting looks wonderful.”

My hand-writing would look at home in kindergarten. This is the way I fill out government forms or write anything that must be read reasonably well or else Stuff Could Happen. I ditch the script that my grade school teachers taught me (slanted guidelines under a pad of paper, a callus on the wrong finger) and print print print.

I can’t speed-read my cursive. On bad days, I can’t even slowly read it. So I’ve stopped. I use cursive to sign my name (and it’s not even a fancy signature) and to dash off quick notes, but that’s it. I use print for anything I want to remember. It helps that the computer can read it too.

Maybe people feel bad about their handwriting because people get sloppy when they’re trying to write quickly, or when they’re tired. I know I find it harder to write clearly if I’m in a rush. That’s one of the reasons why I slow down or break it up with drawings. Doodles let me stretch after writing lots of letters.

I also tend to write big letters, because oddly enough it feels less tiring than writing small letters. I write slowly, much more slowly than I can type. It only looks like I’m quick because I manage to capture the key points of a presentation while the speaker’s talking. But it’s not about writing everything down, and besides, that wouldn’t fit anyway on the page anyway. I learned from reading tons of business books that most ideas come surrounded by lots of fluff.

Here’s another idea: maybe people make handwriting too much a part of their identity. Maybe print feels less sophisticated than script, which is why people don’t use it as much. I don’t need my handwriting to be a clue to my personality. I don’t need it to say that I’m smart or stylish, or that I survived the supervision of my grade school teachers.

Maybe people stick with one style instead of experimenting, because they don’t want to look wishy-washy. My handwriting isn’t my handwriting. It’s just a way I write. It changes over time.

It’s funny how much your handwriting isn’t even about you but about the tools you use. Some of my friends have really neat handwriting. They print in these incredibly even, confident, lined-up letters. I fake evenness and confidence with a computer. Or with a technical pen or gel pen, if I have to write on paper. Everything looks better in smooth black ink. Everything looks fancier with a fountain pen. I wondered about how they managed to write so neatly. I asked them about it, and they told me they noticed the same thing with pens. The pen you use affects how you write.

What happens if you forget about being embarrassed about your handwriting, and just write? What happens if you play with the way you write?

Mapping what I’m learning

I want to learn about more than I can fit into my working memory, so I need to take notes and I need to relate those notes to each other. My sketches, blog posts, and Evernote entries are great for remembering things, but I also want to see overviews so that I don’t miss the forest for the trees. This is where mapping comes in. Mapping is about organizing topics so that I can see the relationships, find the gaps, and keep moving forward.

Mapping what you know

For example, I mapped out what I wanted to learn about learning, and I frequently refer to it while planning my next steps. 2013_10_09_17_05_50_005

I also have a few other maps at lower levels of detail. For example, this is a rough map of topics related to taking notes:

Note-taking techniques

Mapping helps me look ahead, and it also gives me a framework for connecting what I learn to what I’ve learned before.

One way to practise mapping is by mapping what you know. This helps you review your notes, identify any gaps, see how far you’ve come, and connect ideas (and discover interesting relationships you might not have come across before). Your maps can also help other people learn.

To map what you know, you can start from the bottom level (detailed notes answering specific questions) and work your way up to overviews. Alternatively, you can start from the top (an outline) and then work your way down to the specifics. Combining these strategies can help you get around mental blocks.2013_10_14_23_12_00_003

I’ve been working on mapping what I know. I’m still trying to find a good set of tools to help me do this. Instead of getting intimidated by the task, I’ve decided I’m going to start in the middle, mapping out things I recently learned and things that I’m learning next. Once I get the hang of doing that, I can start adding older entries like my blog posts.

I haven’t quite found the perfect tool yet. Evernote is great for personal notes, but even though it has public notebooks (see my sketchbook and my sketchnotes), people aren’t used to following or discussing new notes there. Flickr is good for exposure and a little discussion, but it’s not as easy to search or back up. Neither tool is good for overall non-linear organization.2013_10_15_21_39_36_004

Most note-taking systems focus on indexes for paper notes, either with straightforward tables of contents or mindmaps that refer to pages by IDs. Evernote and OneNote have been around for a long time, so I’ll probably be able to find people who have thought about how to organize lots of information using those systems. In the meantime, I’ve been experimenting with using mindmaps to organize hyperlinks and next actions. I’m testing Mindjet MindManager, Xmind, and Freeplane. So far, I like Freeplane the most because:

  • the GTD add-in lets me quickly get a list of next actions
  • customizable keyboard shortcuts let me tweak the interface
  • filtering lets me focus on a selected branch
  • and hey, it’s free and open source

image

To make this, I added each item in my current public and private sketchbooks to my map, creating nodes when necessary. I don’t have a lot of topics in my sketchbook yet, but if I find myself with more than twenty or so items in a single category, it’s probably time to split that. I’ve split the categories in my blog index a few times, and I’m long overdue for splitting some of the others. It’s much easier to reorganize things in a map instead of editing each item, although I should come up with some kind of bulk interface so that I can update the categorizations.

The arrows are hyperlinks to either my blog posts or my Evernote entries (using evernote:// URLs from Copy Note Shortcut). I included private notes as well, so the map works only for me. Sorry! In the future, I’d love to make a version of this that omits private URLs and information. Freeplane supports lots of export formats, so maybe I’ll be able to process XML or HTML and make something that’ll help people browse too.

I’d like to get to the point of having a smooth workflow for drawing, scanning, publishing, organizing, browsing through, and following up on these thoughts. Do you know of anyone who’s doing something similar to this? This kind of visual thinking isn’t quite like the visual recording that most sketchnoters do. There are plenty of mindmaps at Biggerplate, but they look more like templates rather than thoughts-in-progress.

Reaching further back, parts of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks are online, and Prof. Carlo Pedretti’s introduction to the Codex Arundel has some notes on the structure: unnumbered loose sheets, usually one page per thought. That’s encouraging, although it doesn’t tell me much about overall structure. Part of Galileo Galilei’s notebooks are online, too. He numbered his pages and usually left plenty of whitespace. There are plenty of examples of note-takers throughout history, but it’s hard to find ones explicitly talking about how they map the connections between ideas. How to Read a Book briefly mentions building a syntopicon, so I checked out the resulting volume (A Syntopicon: An Index to The Great Ideas). It’s a huge project, but it didn’t give me a lot of clues about the process of building such a thing. More recently, there’s How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think, which described the process of making and updating a global subject map of contents. Books on study skills also talk about how to condense a lesson into successively smaller cheat sheets until you can fit everything onto one page (or an index card, or whatever the teacher permits), and that’s somewhat related to the kind of summarization and overview I want to do.

On the non-graphical front, I’ve also had fun making a huge outline of blog posts I want to write (and therefore things I want to learn about). Org Mode outlines work better than Freeplane maps for large amounts of text or fine-grained detail, so I’ll probably switch over to outlines when I’m drafting the post and then update the map with the hyperlink to the post when I’m done. It’s all tied together.

Anyway, here we are. I think the sketches and maps I’m making are promising, and I’m looking forward to digging deeper. If you happen to have put a lot of thought into a similar system, I’d love to hear from you!

How I organize and publish my sketches

In a recent blog post, Mel Chua wrote: “I’m still trying to figure out how to best store/catalogue my (growing) collection of sketches so it’s easy for people to access it.” So, here’s how I handle mine!

How I organize and publish my sketches

I have three types of sketches:

  • A1. Public: Sketches I can publish (and usually that I want to write about someday)
  • A2. Public, blogged: Sketches I have written about
  • B. Private sketches to help me think

My goals are to:

  • Support my writing: Blogging, naturally.
  • Search my sketches: Evernote’s fantastic for this, since I can have my public and private sketches in one place
  • Make my sketches publicly searchable: Evernote shared folders are great for that; Flickr and my blog are useful too. I often use Evernote to give someone a keyword search or tag search through my sketchnotes, sketchbook, or visual vocabulary. (Evernote users can join these notebooks and get updates automatically!)
  • Publish most of my sketches: Blogging can take me a while, so I try to get public sketches out there as soon as possible so that they don’t get lost. Flickr and Evernote help.
  • Flip through my sketches: Great for doing reviews and triggering memories. =) Can’t beat paging through local files manually or in a slideshow.
  • Organize my sketches by topic: Evernote, Flickr, and my blog let me tag things with keywords, while a mindmap lets me give my sketches more structure.
  • Share sketches widely: My blog and Twitter seem to be the best ways to do this, although Flickr is useful too.
  • Open sketches for discussion: My blog is the best place for that, although Flickr and Twitter are handy as well.
  • Update my sketches: Whether I’m colouring things in or checking off boxes, I want an easy way to get to a sketch and update it in Evernote and Flickr. If I’ve blogged about it, I’m okay with the blog post having the archived version of the image.
  • Archive my sketches: I want to back up digital copies in several places so that I can recreate my collection if needed. Blogging, Flickr, Dropbox/file backups, PDF collections…

Stuff I’ve tried that didn’t work out so well:

  • Referring to external services in my blog posts: Flickr? The Gallery2 instance I installed? Problematic if code changes, services go down, accounts are discontinued, or (in one annoying case) my self-hosted Gallery2 gets compromised. Disk space is cheap, so I just re-publish images using WordPress’ upload mechanisms (most blogging tools handle this automatically).
  • Picking just one way to publish stuff: Flickr is better for volume and some discussion, Evernote is better for search, my blog is better for sharing and long-term search. Since no tool has everything I need, I’ll just have to put up with the hassle of replicating information.
  • Just using automatic organization: For the last few years, I relied on Dropbox folders and Evernote items. Dropbox folders are fine for organizing by date and Evernote’s great for tags, but I want manual organization as well – organizing things by topics and subtopics, tracking things in progress, and so on. That’s why I’m experimenting with mindmaps now.

Stuff I’m working on next:

  • Monthly and quarterly PDF packages of my sketches, organized by date or topic: for ease of printing and review
  • Letting people know about available resources (my Flickr stream or Evernote notebooks) so that they can search/discuss/subscribe

See my drawing workflow for other notes about my process. Hope this helps!

Integrating visual outlining into my writing process

I’ve been working on a habit of drawing daily. It turns out to be a useful tool for exploring thoughts. I start with a question or an idea, and draw or write in the process of thinking about it. Since my blog posts usually deal with one thought at a time too, the drawings become good starting points for blog posts: I draw, and then I flesh it out with words. (Like this post!)

2013_10_09_17_05_50_001

Before I started drawing my thoughts, I worked with a huge text-based outline of things I wanted to write. The outline was really handy for sketching out an idea or jotting down my thoughts before I got distracted by research or other things. It was also great for tweaking the logical flow of a blog post or how it fit into a possible blog post series before I actually sat down to write paragraphs.

Both drawings and text outlines have their advantages. How can I better integrate drawing into the process of writing or blogging?

When: Drawing works well for me as a low-energy activity late at night, when I’ve already put my computer away or I don’t want to be tempted into staying up late staring at a screen. My hands get tired if I draw for a long time, though. Writing works well for me during the day, because I can write faster and I can reorganize things quickly. That suggests that I should draw as a way of preparing my thoughts in the evening, sleep on it, and then flesh ideas out by writing during the day.

Level of detail: Text-based outlines are good for my overall outline because I can work with lots of unrelated topics. Drawing is good for high-level maps of a single topic (like this one for learning) because I can keep the drawing in front of me as I explore. Drawing is also good at the level of a single thought or question, but I can’t draw to the same level of detail that I can capture in a text outline. If I’m planning a large topic, then, I might:

  • use text for the overall outline,
  • draw a map of topics to explore,
  • copy the map into my outline and drill down until I get to the level of individual questions or ideas,
  • draw the idea as a way to explore it,
  • then outline further details, especially if I’m planning a series of posts

I’m also curious about using more flexible mindmappers like Freeplane to do some of my mapping on the computer. I prefer Org Mode text outlines over straightforward mindmaps like Freemind because they have essentially the same structure but I’m more comfortable with text manipulation in Org, but Freeplane’s floating nodes might be interesting to play with.

I wonder who else out there uses sketchnotes, mindmaps, or drawings as part of their writing process. Do you use them, or have you come across other writers who do? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!