Category Archives: drawing

Sketchnote workflow

I like sketching notes of books and presentations. It forces me to squeeze the information onto one page, and the notes are easy to share and review.

I prefer to draw on a computer because I can use colour, erase what I’ve written, and move items around. I draw on a Lenovo X220 tablet because I like having a full computer as my tablet. My favourite drawing application for this is Autodesk Sketchbook Pro, which has the best pen-based controls I’ve come across so far. When I don’t have my laptop, I draw on paper and scan it in. I’ve been thinking about getting a tablet, but I’m holding off on it until I pass certain thresholds that I’ve set.

After I draw my notes and clean them up a little, I save them to a directory on my hard disk. I save a lower-resolution version to another directory, where it automatically gets imported into Evernote and synchronized with Dropbox. Evernote lets me search my handwriting, and it’s good for looking up individual items. With Dropbox, I can use Foldersync Lite to synchronize my sketchnotes folder to my phone’s SD card, where I can use Gallery to browse my sketches. The sketches are readable on my phone’s screen, and I can zoom in for details.

Windows Live Writer makes it easy to include the image in a blog post. It automatically scales the image to my preferred dimensions, and I can set it to link to a higher-resolution version of the image. After I publish it, I announce it on Twitter as well.

When I come across elements I like in other people’s sketchnotes, I take a small screenshot and I add them to a Microsoft Onenote notebook for sketchnote inspiration. I collect colour combinations, visual metaphors, title treatments, lettering examples, and so on. It’s easy to flip through the notebook and search for specific keywords.

I’m working on getting even better at sketchnotes. For me, this means:

  • using more colours whether I’m drawing on my computer or on paper: I can try banning black from my visual vocabulary for a while
  • drawing more quick icons to illustrate my notes, even if they’re literal
  • drawing more visual metaphors so that I can get beyond the first idea
  • experimenting with more layouts
  • collecting sketchnote elements from other artists and keeping them in a notebook for inspiration

It’s easy to get started with sketchnotes. The key things for me were:

  • Give yourself permission to draw badly. Stick figures? Wonky shapes? Sure!
  • Leave yourself plenty of whitespace so that you can come back and draw. Write on different parts of the page, not just one side.
  • Write less by focusing on the important concepts. Draw more during the “filler” time, or add drawings after you’ve written your notes.
  • Have fun!

Discovery: I like making sketched animations

So I spent Monday figuring out how to create three simple narrated one-minute sketch animations. My clients loved the videos, so this evening I finished three more in the course of about two and a half hours. I’d already written the script and thought about the storyboard. Today was just about recording the narration, cleaning it up, drafting the sketch, tracing over it with Artrage Studio Pro, processing the Artrage script file with Emacs, and synchronizing the images with audio using Windows Movie Maker. 45-60 minutes per finished video minute is pretty workable. :)

No public samples yet, but I’m delighted to have a good workflow, and I’m looking forward to putting together some personal animations after this. It’ll be fun!

Level up. :)

Thinking about a visual process library

I had a good conversation with Craig Flynn and Ian Garmaise over bowls of ramen at Kenzo. We talked about visual communication and business practices. Craig has been doing a lot of consulting and training based on Toyota management practices, and he’s interested in helping people improve their visual communication skills.

One of the tools Craig mentioned was the feedback or suggestion sheet – a single sheet of paper that describes how things currently are, how they can be improved, and other notes. The company might compile hundreds or of these sheets. A decision-maker would then review them, spending about ten seconds each to classify the suggestion as relevant, irrelevant, something to do right away, something to investigate later, and so on.

Craig talked about how his descriptions were more complicated and less elegant than the ones that his mentor made, and how he was learning to make his descriptions clearer and more visual.

Ten seconds is an interesting limit. My sketchnotes let me review meetups and books quickly (see my Evernote notebook or the slideshow on my blog). I can apply Craig’s idea to that process library I’ve been thinking of building for a while.

Process - Process review

Might be an excellent way to practice!

Paper, Tablet, and Tablet PC: Comparing tools for sketchnoting

Update 2016-02-02: Updated to reflect Linux + Krita workflow.
Update 2014-02-22: Updated to reflect current ScanSnap workflow and link to resources for sketchnoting with Autodesk Sketchbook Pro.

tl;dr summary: I use Krita on Ubuntu Linux on a Lenovo X220 tablet PC to do my sketchnotes. I also scan in sketches that I do on paper.

Here’s a quick comparison of how and what I draw on paper, tablet, and my Lenovo X220 tablet PC, and what works out better when.


Lightweight, large-scale, and no worries about battery life or device drivers – hard to argue with paper’s advantages. I don’t have to worry about digitization errors when I’m writing small text, and I don’t have to swipe or scroll in order to see the rest of my drawing. I can see everything in context.

On paper, though, I can’t erase ink or move images around as quickly as I can on the tablet or tablet PC. Since I don’t have layers, I can’t change my mind about colours. I often end up smearing ink, too. I have a hard time finding pens that will give me a consistent fine line.

Scanning introduces several additional steps. I’ve had the best experience with 8.5×11” loose sheets of paper in a stiff folder (or on top of another firm surface), because they’re easy to draw on and scan. I carefully tear the pages out so that I can pass them through my ScanSnap sheet-fed scanner.

Ballpoint pens are too rough and uneven. I prefer 0.4mm technical pens or gel pens like the Pilot Hi-Tec C4. I’d love to find a super-fine inexpensive fountain pen. For colour, the markers I have are a bit dark. Coloured technical pens are fun. Highlighting can be iffy, so I usually do that on the computer instead.

With gel pens

2014-02-09 How do I want to manage my learn-share pipeline

2014-02-09 How do I want to manage my learn-share pipeline

With coloured markers

With a ballpoint pen

Tablet PC (Lenovo X220 tablet) – preferred

I like drawing on my tablet screen with a stylus. It’s quick, it’s responsive, and it lets me erase, colour, or move things until I’m happy with how the drawing looks. I can work with as many layers as I want, and I can hide or reorder them easily. I can add background grids or reference images, then make them disappear when I’m ready to publish. Posting the sketchnotes to my blog is easy, too. I export the files to my Dropbox folders, and then I post things to WordPress.

On Microsoft Windows, I like using Autodesk Sketchbook Pro. On Linux, I like using the Krita app. Autodesk Sketchbook Pro has a very pen-friendly interface, but Krita is pretty okay too.

Autodesk Sketchbook Pro

I used to use Microsoft OneNote 2010 for drawing sketchnotes, but after several annoying incidents where it messed up my drawing by moving brushstrokes around, I gave up on it. Also, the infinitely scrolling page was great for input but not so much for output – hard to include in blog posts or print out in a coherent way.

See these resources for sketchnoting with Autodesk Sketchbook Pro

Microsoft OneNote 2010

Next steps

I’m working on getting better at drawing sketchnotes by:

  • reviewing and other sites for inspiration, and practising the techniques I like
  • drawing notes for the meetups that I go to and some of the books I want to remember
  • sketching my plans and ideas
  • building a collection of grids and templates
  • experimenting with more colours, lettering styles, and layouts

Hope these notes are useful, and that you’ll also have fun drawing!

Tablet (Asus Infinity TF700, Autodesk Sketchbook Pro for Android)
In terms of portability, the tablet is a good compromise between paper and the tablet PC. It’s lighter and has more battery life than my tablet PC, while still giving me the digital advantages of drawing in pixels. The TF700 has more screen resolution than my laptop, even, and it’s handy for reviewing and searching my sketchnotes using Evernote as well as drawing them with Autodesk Sketchbook Pro.

I’ve tried several drawing apps, but only Autodesk Sketchbook Pro seems up to the challenge of handling several layers on a high-resolution display. Even with that, though, I think I can only add five layers before things get wonky. I’ve mysteriously lost parts of drawings because of partial autosave recoveries, which is a pain, and the app doesn’t have a Lasso tool for moving parts of a layer around. I really should invest some time into making custom grids that exactly fit my resolution, too. Certainly more innovation needed in this area.

The Nomad Brush stylus seems to make my drawing applications lag quite a bit, so I’ve found myself doing most of my drawing with my finger. It’s easier to do other gestures as well, such as swiping to scroll or pinching to zoom in. Drawing on the tablet is more tiring than drawing on my tablet PC because I have to make sure my palm doesn’t touch the device and because I’m using an imprecise pointer with more friction, but it’s okay for an hour or so of recording. I spend much of my drawing time zoomed in so that I can draw text, so I don’t have the whole-drawing context that I get with paper. It’s much easier to zoom and pan with the tablet than with the tablet PC, though. Not having a lasso or cropping tool, I sometimes end up with too little or too much whitespace. I could edit the images on my laptop afterwards, but I rarely get around to it.

I’m still getting the hang of the workflow. Twitpic appears to be the best way to post sketchnotes to Twitter because it will keep the full-resolution image. I’ve set up Postie for WordPress so that I can e-mail the PNG to my blog and have it posted as a thumbnail that links to the full-resolution image, although I haven’t fully automated it yet. I still prefer Windows Live Writer on the tablet PC for writing blog posts that combine images, text, and links, but Postie will do in a pinch. Evernote is fantastic for searching and looking up sketchnotes. It doesn’t have a slideshow view, though, so I also save the files in Dropbox and use either Perfect Viewer or Gallery to flip through my sketches in quick succession.

I take my tablet instead of my tablet PC to meetups now. The tablet is easier to slip into my bike bag, and I can use it to support conversation. The tablet PC is heftier and much harder to use while mingling.

Autodesk Sketchbook Pro for Android

I think my handwriting’s a little looser and coarser on the Android. Less control, less familiarity… Still, it’s legible, and that’s mainly what I’m going for.

Thanks to Noorul for the nudge to write about this.

Capturing my sketchnotes with Camtasia Studio Pro; organizing the digital workflow

People often want to sit beside me to see how I’m drawing my sketchnotes, so I thought I’d record one session and put together a short video. Here’s how I drew yesterday’s sketchnote. In this video, I zoomed in so that you’re not distracted by all the other controls I have open. =)

Most of the sketchnote artists I know work on paper – sketchbooks, large sheets of paper, whatever. A few use iPads or Android tablets. Few people use tablet PCs, possibly because most designers like using Macs and Apple’s not keen on the tablet PC / stylus combination. I love how I can use my Lenovo X220 Tablet PC to sketchnote, and I want to share what I’ve been learning along the way.

Working on the computer, it’s easy to:

  • colour-match logos
  • paste in pictures and templates
  • draw over a light grid for alignment and spacing
  • move things around, erase things, resize things
  • draw without worrying about blurring or smudging
  • export to different resolutions
  • publish immediately after an event, which is great for following up and for catching the wave of interest on Twitter and blogs
  • capture my sketchnoting process and turn it into a speed-drawing video

I use Autodesk Sketchbook Pro. If I want to record my sketches while I’m doing them, I turn on Camtasia Studio as well. I used to use ArtRage for drawing and animation, and I’ve produced 1-minute animated sketchnotes using that, but it’s not as responsive and pen-friendly as Autodesk Sketchbook Pro is.

Working on a tablet PC is so different from working on paper or on a digitizing tablet like those small Wacom ones. On paper, you can use your peripheral vision to keep the big picture in mind as you’re working on some detail. With digital sketchnoting, I zoom in so that I can draw legible letters, so I don’t have that sense of space – but I can work at various zoom levels using very similar motions, so I can be more consistent. The ability to sketchnote an event in person without needing a special table or access to a power outlet allows me to put the spotlight on all sorts of events, while a digital workflow lets me publish things right away and spread the ideas even further.

Some organizational tips if you’re heading down this path as well:

Invest the time in developing your templates. I’ve been experimenting with different aspect ratios. Lately, I’ve been using a 7.5”x10” template at 300dpi, which means that I can print my sketchnotes on letter-sized paper, and they still look decent at 11×17”. I also have templates for a square grid and for credits so that I don’t spend time lining up my name, Twitter handle, and URL just so.

Save the colours and your favourite brushes to your palette. Make it easy to switch between colours by adding them to your palette. Experiment with the right brush widths too, and save those.

Pay attention to how you name your files and save your images. Exporting files with descriptive names saves me lots of time when it comes to filing and searching them afterwards. I sketchnoted more than a hundred 1-hour talks last year, and I often find myself using Evernote to dig up a specific sketch.

Lots of people tell me they’d love to learn how to do things like this. I want to help people improve their visual communication skills. What kinds of questions do you need answered? What would help you get started?