Category Archives: drawing

Doodle Thursday: Going through BrainDoodles’ lessons

Jason John Wells told me about braindoodles.net in a comment on my Google Helpouts update (it’s funny how these interests cross), so I checked it out. It’s a site with basic sketchnoting tutorials geared towards high school students, but apparently it gets the five-year-old kid seal of approval too. And this thirty-year-old! =)

Here’s what I drew while listening to the first two lessons:

2013-11-29 BrainDoodles lesson 1 and 2

Intimidated by the idea of drawing? Thomas Michaud breaks it down into building blocks and shows some easy-to-follow examples. I love the sketchy feel of the website, and will probably work on incorporating even more hand-drawn elements into mine.

Check out BrainDoodles.net!

Update: Developing thoughts further

I’ve been drawing my thoughts for years, on and off. I found some sketchbooks with old mindmaps and explorations. Still, writing was the main way I thought through things, and I made good progress in learning how to outline so that I could think about progressively larger topics. In September, I re-started the habit of drawing through my thoughts – and posting them, thanks to a sheet-fed scanner that made sharing easy.

I tend to draw one thought per page and write about one thought per blog post. I also tend to draw way more than I publish each day. I wondered if I could combine the drawings and the words to “chunk” what I was thinking about into larger topics, so that a blog post could logically group together several sketches. With a mindmap to help me keep track of the sketches (acting basically like an outline, but with icons, easy folding, and quick navigation), I could keep an eye on topics that had accumulated several sketches. Once I’d fleshed out the topic a little, I could write it up as a blog post, include the images, and replace those notes with a link. Working well!

How to think in bigger chunks

2013-09-25 How to think in bigger chunks

I had tried collecting text snippets in the past, but I tended to lose them in my archive. Because the drawings were compact, easy to review, and easy to track in my map, I found it more fun to go over them compared to the text. Unlike the partial thoughts I’d saved in my text archives before, most of the drawings were enough on their own: an answer to a question, a reflection on an idea. It was easy to remember enough context to turn them into a blog post.

So that’s the bottom-up approach: think about several ideas, and then put them together. I was curious if this new approach would also help me with the top-down approach, which is to take an idea and then go into the details.

Developing thoughts further

2013-09-25 Developing thoughts further

I was reading a student-oriented book about writing that reminded me of the idea of developing thoughts. The author wrote that short essays usually meant that the thoughts weren’t developed enough – that the student could go into more detail or explore the implications of the topic. I made a list of some ways that I could develop a thought further. I had thought about this in a text-centric way, but now that I’ve been drawing a lot more, I can see how exploring the details in drawings has been helping me develop thoughts.

Fitting multiple thoughts on a page

2013-10-21 Fitting multiple thoughts on a page

Drawing one thought per page requires a lot of paper, and I have a steadily growing stack of sketchbook sheets piling up on my shelf. Although I’ve scanned the sketches using my ScanSnap, I keep the paper around for extra flipping-through fun. I briefly considered trying to fit more thoughts onto a page, but I think the one-thought-per-page system works well for me. It also makes the images easier to include in blog posts like this.

Wrap-up

I feel like I can think about topics that are 3-4 times as large as I could before, especially if I spread them out over time. I’m looking forward to getting even better at organizing these, sharing them, and planning the next steps. I like the way drawings help me quickly pick up the thread of my thoughts again, and how the map helps me plan where to go next. So far so good!

If you’ve been struggling with developing thoughts over a period of time, try drawing them. You might find that it’s easier to mentally chunk topics that way. Check out my one-page guide for getting started with visual notetaking, and go through these other resources for sketchnote beginners. Good luck!

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!