On this page:

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

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 Autodesk Sketchbook Pro on a Lenovo X220 tablet PC running Windows 8 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.

Paper

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

http://sachachua.com/blog/p/23368

With a ballpoint pen

http://sachachua.com/blog/p/23429

Tablet PC (Lenovo X220 tablet)

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, then I use Windows Live Writer to put the blog post together.

Zooming takes a little more work than on my tablet because I have to use the little widget to zoom. I spend most of my time zoomed in about halfway, which gives me some context, but still not as much context as I get on paper. I don’t have to zoom in as much as I do on my tablet, because I have more control on the tablet PC when it comes to drawing small text. Erasing is much easier than on the tablet PC, too – I simply flip the stylus around and use the eraser end. Scrolling is okay if I remember to use the right-click panning motion, but I often forget and use the widget as well. Scrolling takes more clicks, too. It imposes a little friction in terms of working with an entire page.

Minor quirks: The digitizer misbehaves near the edges, so I have to avoid them.

I draw most of my tablet PC sketchnotes with the desktop version of Autodesk Sketchbook Pro. It has the best pen-friendly interface of all the drawing programs I’ve tried, although Artrage Studio Pro is pretty cool 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 Sketchnote Pro

Microsoft OneNote 2010

http://sachachua.com/blog/p/21883

Next steps

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

  • reviewing sketchnotearmy.com 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

http://sachachua.com/blog/p/23594

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?

My digital sketchnoting workflow

2013/07/29: Update: Watch the episode or read the transcript!

Mike Rohde’s The Sketchnote Handbook (see my sketchnotes of it) focuses on pen-and-paper sketchnoting. I really enjoy digital sketchnoting, although there’s a bit more of a barrier to entry in terms of hardware. I’ve figured out a pretty sweet workflow for live-publishing conference/event sketchnotes so that you can catch people while they’re looking at the Twitter hashtag. Mike and I will be talking about digital workflows and tips for one of his podcasts, and I wanted to sketch my thoughts/talking points in preparation.

Click on the image for a larger version of the sketchnote.

20121212 My digital sketchnoting workflow

Not specifically mentioned there because it’s more of a blogging setup, but WordPress + NextGen Gallery + Windows Live Writer + Text Templates plugin = great.

Feel free to share this! You can credit it as (c) 2012 Sacha Chua under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Canada licence.

Like this? Check out my other sketchnotes and visual book notes. Want me to sketchnote your event? Know of any interesting tech / business talks coming up? I’d love to hear from you!

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.

Related:

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.”

Working around the limits of digital sketchnoting

“I could never draw on a computer – I like paper too much.” Lots of people shy away from drawing on a tablet or tablet PC because they feel limited by the technology. I like sketchnoting on my tablet PC – I feel like I can do so much more than I can do on paper! =) Here are some of the limitations I’ve come across and how I’ve worked around them.

It’s hard to see the big picture

When I draw on an 8.5×11 or a 9×12 sketchbook – or when people do graphic recording on 4’ rolls of paper – it’s easy to see the big picture. On a tablet PC, I usually work zoomed-in so that I can write and draw neatly, but this means that I don’t get a sense of how everything fits together.

This limitation depends on the tools that you use. I’ve tried using the “Views” feature in ArtRage 4 and the “Navigator” feature in Adobe Illustrator, but neither program was responsive and reliable enough for me to use for sketchnoting. Aside from a tiny thumbnail photo, Autodesk Sketchbook Pro doesn’t have that kind of overall preview (yet?). Instead, I work around this limitation by frequently zooming in and out. The pen-based controls make it easy to do so, although it means that screen recordings are a little “bouncy”.

image

Another way I work around this limitation is to use a grid and pre-set brush sizes to keep sizes consistent. This means that even if I’m zoomed in, I don’t have to worry about accidentally drawing one part much bigger than the other, and the whole image still hangs together.

Since I don’t have a sense of how the page is laid out when I’m zoomed in and working on details, I usually leave plenty of whitespace around each of the sketchnote’s elements. If I need to visually balance the page, I can use the lasso tool to move things around.

Tools take up valuable screen space

Because I don’t see the entire image all at once and the toolboxes reduce how much screen estate I have available, I need to constantly pan or zoom. I get around this by organizing the user interface components in a compact, consistent configuration.

image

Picking the right thing to compare it with helps a lot. If I compare it with the full screen size or an 8.5×11” sheet of paper, I feel like I’m missing out. If I compare it with a pocket-sized notebook, on the other hand… I get about as much space, but a ton more functionality. =)

Autodesk Sketchbook Pro has shortcuts for hiding toolboxes and you can customize a small menu for quick access, but I haven’t used them. When I’m drawing, I want to minimize how much I need to think about drawing, and I want my frequently-used tools to be one click away (not two, not three).

Battery life can be an issue

Although tablets can last almost a full day of drawing, powerful tablet PCs like the one I use can run out of juice pretty quickly. No power, no drawing!

If I’m going to sketchnote a 1-2 hour event, I can usually get by with my regular battery. I switch to low-power mode, turn off wireless, and dim the screen. If I want to upload the sketchnote right after the event, I turn wireless back on just before I’m ready to upload. This usually gets me through.

For longer events or for events where I want to make sure that I don’t run out of power, I bring an external battery. With the external battery, I can get through a day of sketchnoting without needing to look for a power supply. If I’m sketchnoting a conference, I try to scout out power outlets (either in the presentation room or in the staff lounge) so that I can recharge the battery over lunch, just in case.

Tablet PCs are heavy

The power and performance come at a price: my laptop/tablet PC is 1.76kg on its own, and 2.7kg total with the extended battery. Then there’s the charger, a backup sketchbook, a water bottle, some snacks… My bag gets pretty full and heavy!

If I can bike to the event, I usually load up my saddlebags and fasten things securely. If not, I’ll take a padded backpack with chest and waist straps. I might look like I’m going camping, but at least I’m ergonomically sorted out.

You can lose data if the computer crashes or if you make mistakes

… and believe me, this has happened before. I’ve had problems with Microsoft OneNote and Adobe Illustrator on my tablet PC, and with Autodesk Sketchbook Pro on my Android tablet. That’s why I’ve settled on using Autodesk Sketchbook Pro on a tablet PC, which seems to be a much more reliable

I’ve also made silly mistakes like accidentally moving instead of panning, which meant that some of my drawing went “off-screen” and was lost. To guard against this, I use Camtasia Studio to record my screen during important sketchnoting sessions. That way, I can export selected images from my recording, or I can use the audio to help me redo the sketch.

After the event, I back up, back up, and back up. I save sketchnotes to Dropbox, and I back up my computer weekly to an external drive. I also e-mail or publish sketchnotes as soon as I can, so then the event organizer has a copy.

It’s easier to forget about your sketches because you can’t flip through them as easily

One of the nice things about sketchbooks is being able to quickly flip through it and rediscover old sketches. You can lose track of digital sketchnotes on your computer and you don’t have those physical encounters to remind you of them. I get around this by saving my sketchnotes to Evernote (so that they turn up whenever I search my notebooks or Google). I also publish as many as possible on my blog, so that I come across them when reviewing my archive or when other people link to or comment on them.

How do you work around the limitations of the tools that you use? What other limitations are holding you back? Please share comments or links below!

Alex M. Chong (Visual Thinkers Toronto co-organizer) suggested that we share our experiences in overcoming limitations. Here’s my contribution!