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  • Building my visual vocabulary: Breaking down other people’s sketchnotes into component parts
  • Semi-custom messages with text expanders

Building my visual vocabulary: Breaking down other people’s sketchnotes into component parts

I want to draw more expressively. Some easy ways to improve my visual vocabulary are to look at how other people draw things and practise drawing with those styles. I started by redrawing the images onto index cards, but it was a hassle to keep the index cards sorted. Besides, I wasn’t looking forward to the error-prone process of scanning all the index cards in and making them available on my phone or computer. I didn’t want to fuss about with splitting my screen and trying to draw in a small section, or browsing through pages on my tablet while redrawing things on my tablet PC. I wanted a quick and easy way to build a visual glossary in preparation for drawing things myself.

Skitch turned out to be a great way to quickly capture small sections from other people’s sketchnotes and add them to Evernote. Ctrl-% captures a screenshot. That requires too much hand gymnastics and popped up a dialog, so I used AutoHotkey to map my F5 function key to ^`%{Space}. This meant that I could hit a single key to capture the screenshot and send the previous one to Evernote, so I could keep one hand on the mouse and one hand on the keyboard. It was relaxing work, and so easy that I got a little carried away. I captured some 800 images before I sat down and started classifying them.

I wanted to label each image with a keyword that I could use to find it. Another Autohotkey shortcut mapping F6 to !nv{Enter}{Esc}{Tab}^a made it much easier to move the note to my Visual Library notebook and select the next note for editing. I settled into the rhythm of typing in keywords and pressing F6, and after a couple of hours, I’d classified all the images I’d captured so far. I spent a little time merging similar concepts for easier review, ending up with 575 entries in my visual library.

Some things I learned along the way:

  • Many sketchnotes have just a handful of images. Some feel very graphical anyway because of lettering flourishes and creative layouts. My style actually involves more mini-images than many of the ones I’ve seen, but I don’t develop them to the level of detail in some people’s sketchnotes.
  • A good portrait goes a long way. I should practise drawing people.
  • Simple shading has a nice effect. A light gray tone or a subtle shadow colour can really add depth.

There are still plenty of other sketchnotes to harvest drawings from, so I can alternate harvesting images with practising drawing them.

Links: Skitch, Evernote, Autohotkey, the Sketchnote Index

Semi-custom messages with text expanders

The growing popularity of Google Helpouts mean that I often respond to requests from people who want to learn more about taking notes and learning more effectively. I want to make sure that people who book Helpouts with me (for the virtual equivalent of hot chocolate and a muffin!) think about specific questions, check for technical issues, and are otherwise prepared for the 15-minute conversation. That way, we can both get the most of the time.

Since I find myself sending people messages that are similar but not identical to others I’ve sent, I use text expanders instead of autoresponders to save myself time. My favourite automation program is AutoHotkey, which is rather geekily configured through plain text files. (Want a cleaner interface? Try Lifehacker’s recommendations for Windows or Mac). I’ve defined a few hotstrings that expand to welcome messages for my different Helpouts, nudges about technical issues, and so on.

If you find yourself typing or copying and pasting a lot of text frequently, consider using a text expander. Typing a pre-defined shortcut is easier than finding a specific item in your snippets file, and you might even be able to do all sorts of other things with the tool. For example, I’ve used AutoHotkey to set a keyboard shortcut for copying something from a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet row, switching to another application, pasting it in, reformatting it, and then moving on to the next row. Lots of good stuff. See my Autohotkey blog posts for more examples.

Be lazy and automate! =)