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”.

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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.

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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!

Sketchnote Lessons: Quick Lettering

This entry is part 1 of 11 in the series Sketchnote Lessons

Here are some examples of different lettering styles that you can try. Some of them (like Chisel or Reverse) may be easier to do digitally than on paper. Click on the image to view or download a larger version, and have fun practicising. Enjoy!

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I write in print instead of cursive because this is easier to read. Computers seem to be better at understanding printed letters instead of cursive. (I use Evernote to search my notes.) For emphasis, I sometimes use Multiple (draw the same letter twice), or Bold if I can anticipate the need to switch pens.

Got any favourite quick lettering techniques? I’d love to see them! Post links below, or e-mail me at [email protected] .

Sketchnote Lessons: Banners and ribbons

This entry is part 6 of 11 in the series Sketchnote Lessons

Banners and ribbons are a quick way to emphasize parts of your drawing. Instead of drawing the banner and then trying to fit the text into it, try drawing the text first and then drawing the banner around it. Here’s a step-by-step example.

1. Draw the text with plenty of space around it

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2. Draw a box around the text.

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3. Add two small triangles below the box.

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4. Draw horizontal lines extending beyond the triangle, and another set of lines the same distance from the top of the box.

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5. Add a ribbon edge if you want, or use a straight line.

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Want to get fancy? Add some shading, add more folds, and so on.

Here are some examples that you can practise with:

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Check out Kevin Dulle’s tutorial for other ways to emphasize things with shadows. Enjoy!

Sketchnote Lessons: Drawing Emotions

This entry is part 8 of 11 in the series Sketchnote Lessons

Want to make your drawings more interesting? Add emotions! Drawings of emotions can communicate so much more than words describing emotions, and they do so in an immediate, visceral way. For example, consider the list of words below, and the faces beneath them.

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Even if you don’t think you’re an artist, you can draw basic emotions easily. Simple combinations of eyebrows and mouths say a lot. You can show different degrees of emotions by emphasizing parts.

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You can combine emotions, too. For example, angry eyebrows + happy smile = evil overlord plotting to conquer the world. >=)

Play around, and you’ll find even more emotions that you can express with small changes to the face. For inspiration, you can look at smileys and emoticons.

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Icons and symbols let you be even more expressive. You can pick these up from comics and smileys.

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Emotions aren’t just expressed with the face. Posture can communicate emotions powerfully too. Explore the physicality of emotions by looking at how actors show feelings, or by imagining yourself feeling those emotions.

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You can also show emotions in how people relate to each other.

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Metaphors are fun to play with, too.

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Learning how to draw emotions isn’t just useful for sketchnoting. You can draw emotions in order to understand other people better. Mindmaps or empathy maps can help. You can draw your own emotions, too. When I’m faced with a difficult situation or a confusing tangle of emotions, I try to break down the different emotions I feel and the reasons why I feel that way. When you understand why you’re happy and sad and worried and excited all at the same time, it’s easier to move forward.

Want to learn more about drawing emotions? The best resource I’ve found so far is the Bikablo Emotions book, which has a lot of full-body emotions. Here’s a sample of the drawings I made based on part of the Bikablo Emotions book. (There are even more emotions in the book – check it out!)

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Children’s books are a good source of emotions. I remember loving the Mr. Men and Little Miss series when I was growing up, and I look forward to discovering other wonderful illustrations as I go through the library’s collections. =)

Comics are another great way to learn more about expressing emotions, from the concise forms of newspaper strips to more elaborate drawings in comic books.

And then there’s learning about all these emotions in the first place, because it helps to be able to recognize the emotion and give it a name. Wikipedia has a few good pages: Contrasting and categorization of emotions, Emotion classification. HUMAINE proposes a classification of 48 emotions (see Wikipedia for an easier-to-read list) The Center for Nonviolent Communication lists 259 emotions in their feelings inventory.

I’m thinking of going through those lists and practising drawing all these different emotions. Want to join me? I’ll post stuff here once in a while, and I’d love it if you sent me links to your drawings!

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.”

Reflections on sketchnoting TEDxOCADU

I sketchnoted TEDxOCADU live, and my new workflow is working out well. I’ve been moving more of my sketchnotes over to experivis.com – do folks still want to see them here? Might be handy. Anyway, I like reflecting on what worked well and what I can do even better, so this blog is still the best place for that.

For TEDxOCADU, here were my experiments:

Set up all the layers and saved them as placeholder PNGs beforehand so that I didn’t have to type in filenames or look up speaker names.

  • Sketched during the dress rehearsal, and reused many of my images during the actual conference: great for knowing where people are going, although I still stuck with fairly regular layout.
  • Used Dropbox to get the Twitter links, copied the URLs, and set up my list of hashtagged and linked tweets using ClipMate: great for tweeting things on the fly with just my laptop
  • Set up a gallery page for updating throughout the day
  • Set up a bit.ly link to track clicks for my gallery page
  • Double-checked WiFi access: so much better than tethering through my phone
  • Followed up with social media / web person in case they needed help getting the images up on the official site
  • Eventually remembered to set up Google Analytics on experivis.com – added this to the checklist of things to do when spinning up a website…

Here are some things I can tweak next:

  • Add more images to my ClipMate library
  • Have a smoother delegation workflow so that I can get my sketchnotes typed in
  • Figure out how to integrate text into the gallery view; maybe project-sketchnote relationship?
  • More graphics! More! More!
  • Don’t forget to have Archivist or some other Twitter archiver running in the background
  • Consider Tweetreach or some other Twitter analytics report?
  • Set up tracking links for each image, too, or always send people to the gallery page