“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 8.5x11 or a 9x12 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”.
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.
Picking the right thing to compare it with helps a lot. If I compare it with the full screen size or an 8.5x11” 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!
Along with Patricia Kambitsch and Alex M. Chong, I co-organize the Visual Thinkers Toronto Show & Tell. It’s a small gathering of graphic recorders, sketchnoters, mindmappers, doodlers, illustrators, artists, students, and so on, and we meet on the last Tuesday evening of every month at OCAD University (100 McCaul Street). We’ve had six meetups so far, and we’ve been thinking about how to make the meetups even better.
The goals for the meetup redesign are:
Here’s the agenda from a past meetup:
|7:00pm||Welcome and brief introductions. There’s usually a visual question posted on a nearby wall or bulletin board. For example, one time, participants were asked to map where they were on a “visual thinking” map. Another time, people drew things related to weather.|
|Overview of the Visual Thinkers Toronto meetup|
|7:10||Presentation and Q&A|
|7:30||Open space show&tell: people volunteer topics they would like to discuss, and then the group splits up into smaller groups. People have paper and markers so that they can take notes. People are free to shift from group to group. For example, someone once brought three editions of a cookbook spanning different decades in design. Other people have brought delightfully-illustrated shopping bags, inspiring books, and so on.|
|8:10||Open space round 2|
|8:45||Report back from open space, final remarks|
|9:00||Pub night (often at Sin and Redemption)|
The current approach is good. The open space is great for a multiplicity of topics. Still, there are a few challenges we’d like to address. It can be difficult to find a speaker – sometimes there’s a last-minute scramble. It would be great to get participants to be more actively involved both during and after the meetup, too.
This is what we’d like to try as the new agenda structure:
|7:00pm||Welcome, brief introductions, plus “Share Your Work”. Before the meetup, people can upload things they’d like to share to the Flickr pool or e-mail it to me at [email protected]. I’ll compile the images into a presentation that will loop as people come in and settle down. As before, there’ll be a visual question posted on a nearby wall or bulletin board too.|
|Overview of the Visual Thinkers Toronto meetup|
|7:10||Technique presentation and Q&A: In addition to accepting volunteers, we might also brainstorm some topics of general interest and then ask people to present on them (or present them ourselves). |
Group doodle: There’ll be a wide roll of paper and markers or pastels so that people can doodle during the presentation. This has actually been part of all the meetups, but it might be good to explicitly encourage people to get down there and draw things. (And it helps people remember!)
|7:40||In focus: Brave souls share something they’ve worked on, optionally for feedback and suggestions. |
|8:30||Recap of the open space|
|8:40||Harvest: We review the group doodle and the open space, and people talk about what they’re planning to take away from the meetup.|
|8:55||Visual Thinking Exercise: We set a group exercise that people can do at home. For example, for emotions, it could be “Draw different emotions and share them with the group in the ‘Share Your Work’ section. For example, you can start with joy, sadness, trust, disgust, fear, anger, surprise, anticipation. Play with more!”|
Meetup communication plan example:
July 16 (-2 weeks): Meetup announcement, call for speakers and in-focus, and submission instructions for “Share Your Work”
Here are some theme ideas:
It would be interesting to do a survey so that we can learn more about people's interests, prioritize topics, and see what other ideas we can draw out from people. =) Maybe after a couple of months with the new meetup structure, or if I have the mental bandwidth to do a survey?
I’ll keep you posted on how this meetup redesign works out!
(Curious about Visual Thinkers Toronto and want to join us at one of these meetups? Sign up at VisualThink.org!)