How I prepare for professional digital sketchnoting

Posted: - Modified: | business, drawing

imageCaroline Chapple was curious about how people prepare for sketchnoting events. I focus on digital sketchnoting, and here’s the workflow that allows me to cover a conference while publishing sketchnotes within 5-10 minutes after the end of each talk.

Before the event

  • I confirm the agreement, invoice, copyright, and publishing arrangements. Sometimes I take care of publishing right away, which gives clients the full benefit of working digitally. If the client wants to integrate the images into their branded website, I can also e-mail the high-resolution images to a specified person. I can also CC a specified person when publishing links on Twitter to make it easy for them to retweet the talks. My standard agreement retains copyright, grants clients various rights, and places the work under Creative Commons Attribution license for wider distribution.
  • I confirm the order of the talks and the spelling of speaker names and talk titles. It’s better to get this in written form before the day of the event, as sometimes getting it on the day of the event itself can introduce errors. If speakers are hard to find or confirm on Twitter, I ask about Twitter usernames as well.
  • I confirm event URL and hashtag. Sketchnotes tend to get shared widely, so I like including a short URL where people can find more information. To facilitate conversation during the event itself, I can also include a Twitter hashtag.
  • I collect event and sponsor logos, official speaker photos, and more. One of the advantages of digital sketchnoting is the ease of adding other images. See for an example of  sketchnotes that used event-specific speaker photos for a consistent feel.
  • Collect speaker presentations if possible. This gives me a sense of the presentation flow and key points. It also lets me start thinking about how to
  • Get other background information. My consulting work means I’m familiar with large corporations, technology, and the financial industry. Other interests give me familiarity with entrepreneurship, personal finance, personal development, and so on. I speed-read, so getting through a stack of background information is no problem.

Prepare the sketchnote template

For events with multiple talks, I create a Dropbox folder in order to make sharing easier. If the event has a single talk, I save it in my sketchnotes folder in Dropbox. Here’s how I set up my Autodesk Sketchbook Pro template from the bottom up:

  • Dot grid: A light dot grid to help me write letters in straight lines and consistent sizes.
  • Event information: Name, date, URL, hashtag, etc. Does not vary between talks.
  • Sponsor logos, if any: This makes sponsors extra happy.
  • Talk titles and speaker names, pictures, and Twitter usernames: If there are multiple talks, I use layers instead of separate files to make it easier to switch during the event itself or make any modifications I need to the base layers.

See “How I set up Autodesk Sketchbook Pro for sketchnoting” for more details, including resolutions and brush sizes.

Other setup

Palette colours: If the event or organizer has specific colours, I use those in order to visually brand the images. If not, I use black with yellow highlights and possibly red or blue accents.

  • Filenames: I use Save As to set up all the filenames beforehand so that I can overwrite them during the event instead of retyping them. This is handy when in tablet mode when I don’t have access to my keyboard. My naming convention is YYYYMMDD – Event – # – Title – Speaker.png.
  • Tweets and ClipMate: If I’m in charge of publishing, I prepare the tweets beforehand so that I can tweak them to fit within the character limit. The tweets should include the title, Twitter username of speaker (or name if they’re not on Twitter), collection URL, hashtag, and any CCs I need to include.
  • Clear disk space for recording: As a backup and a potential bonus, I record my screen and the audio. This allows me to fill in the gaps in case something goes wrong, and I can also create speed-drawing videos if things work out. The audio quality isn’t very good, but it’s enough to fill in the gaps or allow me to synchronize in case the organizer publishes an official recording.
  • Shared folder: If a conference includes multiple talks, it’s easier for me to share a Dropbox folder with the organizer than e-mail them all the files and worry about e-mail bounces. In that case, I’ll confirm that they can accept the invite and access the files. (Some company intranets block access to Dropbox.)
  • Visual vocabulary: I dig into my Evernote-based visual library and look at how other people have drawn abstract concepts I’ll probably run into. I also use Google Image Search to look for ideas. I flip through my past sketchnotes to get a sense of what I liked and what I want to improve, too.


I carry a lot of gear. In addition to a fully-charged Lenovo X220 tablet PC, I also carry:

  • an external battery that lets me cover an entire conference day
  • a charger
  • a backup stylus in case I drop mine
  • a cellphone with unlimited Internet to allow me to tether, if the event doesn’t have usable WiFi
  • a backup battery for the cellphone
  • a tablet in case my computer suffers catastrophic failure
  • a notebook and a technical pen in case my computer suffers catastrophic failure and the tablet isn’t as convenient to use
  • business cards or print-outs of sketchnotes, because people always ask me for contact information
  • USB drives (I always carry two in my belt bag, and they’ve come in handy for transferring files)
  • water bottle, energy bars, nuts, dried fruit: Some fast-paced conferences barely have time for bathroom breaks, especially if you’re trying to cover as much as possible. My concentration wavers if I get hungry, so I keep snacks and water handy.

I usually manage to cram all of these into a backpack, although I switch to a rolling suitcase if needed. I usually bike to events, although sometimes I’ll take transit or hitch a ride if the weather is bad or the event is far (or there are lots of hills and other biking annoyances).

When I get to the event

  • I check in with the organizer and find my seat. Because I work digitally, I don’t need easel space or a wall, and I can sit anywhere in the audience. I prefer to sit near the front: more leg room, it’s easier to see speakers’ faces, and you can often get speakers to autograph the sketches. For conferences with short breaks and multiple rooms, I may sit near the back to make it easier to go to the next room. For long events, I look for a spot near a power outlet (sometimes the organizer can arrange this), or I use my extended battery and then recharge it in the staff room during breaks.
  • I get the WiFi information if the event provides it. Uploading is much faster over WiFi compared to my phone, so I use that if it’s available. Most events that offer WiFi require some kind of login. If there’s no WiFi, I set up tethering on my phone.
  • I close other apps. This declutters the recording and reduces the chance of things going wrong.
  • I start the screen recording and any backup audio recording if needed. I use Camtasia Studio to record my screen, and I sometimes record backup audio on my phone or on a voice recorder.
  • If I’m worried about battery power, I turn off WiFi. I use my phone to monitor Twitter during breaks and slow parts, so I don’t need wireless access on my laptop for that.
  • Finally, I convert to tablet mode and switch to the appropriate layers in Autodesk Sketchbook Pro. If the speaker is around, I might start sketching them.

After each talk (~5-10 minutes)

  • I do any last-minute clean-ups. Working digitally means that I can quickly rearrange things if the talk included less information than I expected, or I can work with multiple layers if the talk included more information.
  • I hide the grid layer. Tada! It looks like I just happen to have really neat handwriting.
  • I save the main file. Good to have the layered PSD.
  • I use “Save a copy” to save a PNG, overwriting the file that had already been set up with the talk information.
  • I turn on WiFi and upload the image, if I’m publishing each talk as it comes out. For one talk, I’ll use Windows Live Writer to publish it directly to the company blog. For multiple talks, I’ll upload it using WinSCP to the NexGen Gallery I set up, refresh the gallery, and copy the talk information from the filename. If the organizer wanted per-talk e-mails, I e-mail the file to the organizer.
  • I tweet the link. I use my prepared tweets or write one quickly.

At the end of the event

  • I post the talk collection and tweet the URL if I’m in charge of publishing. This makes it easy for people to see everything.
  • I e-mail the organizer with the details on where to find the files. If they asked for e-mail instead of publishing, I attach the files. If there are a lot of files, I split it over several e-mails or upload the files to Dropbox and send them a note once the files are available. I thank them for the opportunity to be of service. =)
  • If there were a lot of talks, I might put together a PDF or PPT of the slides, following the agenda order. This is another handy bonus.
  • If I didn’t receive payment on the day itself, I schedule a reminder to follow up.
  • I schedule social media follow-ups. These are really useful too: “Missed last week’s ____? Check out these sketchnotes: _____ #hashtag”. The organizers usually monitor the hashtag for a while, so it also nudges them to spread the links to their networks.


So that’s how I can publish sketchnotes a few minutes after the talk itself. Sketchnoting a full-day conference with lots of fast-paced talks can be a real scramble (see my sketchnotes from Lean Startup Day – 33 sessions with hardly any breaks!), but it’s exhilarating. A streamlined workflow makes it easier to focus on capturing and sharing ideas instead of fussing about with tools.

Working digitally means minimal post-processing, faster publishing, better branding and visual coherence with the other event materials… Digital sketchnoting isn’t as immediately impressive as large-scale drawing on a four-foot sheet of paper taped to the wall, but it’s great for getting things out there while the talk is on people’s minds.

I’m keeping my sketchnoting commitments minimal because I have another high-priority project that has an unpredictable schedule, so I’m not currently accepting new jobs. Instead, I’m focusing on creating my own content. Still, this was an awesome workflow, and I hope someone picks it up and improves on it. When I get back into sketchnoting, I’m sure I’ll find it fun and awesome. =) Hope this workflow helps!

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