The sketchnote revolution

by Bill Keaggy 19 Dec 2011 Blog Post, Visual Thinking

I’ve got an idea for a new year’s resolution: Join the sketchnote revolution.

Sketchnotes are a visual form of note-taking that can include drawings, various lettering sizes and styles, color, icons, arrows, boxes and more — whatever works for you. I’d say that sketchnoting is officially a movement — maybe you’ve seen some from SXSWi or other conferences. And the best part? You don’t have to be a creative genius to do it. It’s called Sketchnoting, not Art School.

But these sketchnotes are pretty great. Clockwise from top-left: Visual notes by Linda Saukko-Rauta, Jessica Esch, Eva-Lotta Lamm, Austin Kleon, Mike Rodhe, and Alexis Finch.

We all go to conferences. We all take lots of notes. And too many of them get filed away and forgotten. They’re rarely shared and they’re hardly ever something that seems desirable to read. In fact, most notes are even more boring than the bullet-pointed presentations they’re recording.

Enter sketchnotes. They help make work and learning fun again. Below is one of mine from SXSW 2011 (see, it’s just letters, notes, sketches, scribbles and scratches in my own sloppy style — anybody can do it).

SXSW 2011 - Design Across Disciplines

Seriously, anybody can do it.

Benefits of Sketchnotes

  • By writing and drawing key concepts you can make a better connection with the content as opposed to just typing out someone’s words.
  • Non-linear note-taking lets you arrange things in ways that make sense to you and allows you to go back embellish and enhance key points.
  • Simply by doing it more, you become better at drawing and less self-conscious about it.
  • People actually are interested in reading notes like this — they get passed around. They become social.

Rough notesIn my view there are two ways to do sketchnotes.

  1. Draw live
  2. Draw live and later

Most that you see are drawn live. I have a lot of respect (and envy) for those people who can capture facts, ideas and images live and in the moment — and do it beautifully. But that can be hard. My process is a mix of the two ways. Sometimes I capture as much as I can in a rough, abbreviated form (see right) then go back through and create a new output that 1.) Solidifies the learning for me through editing and re-exposure (this is a great airplane activity, btw); 2.) Ensures “understandability” for others viewing the notes — and for myself in the future.

Other times I draw everything live. That said, often I draw out a framework ahead of time so that the speaker’s name, the event, date, title of talk, etc are already written down or made visually interesting. That way you don’t need to capture that stuff in the moment. For example, at The Economist‘s Media Convergence Conference in 2009 I had to be completely done with visual notes for several sessions so they could be shown during the closing remarks. For a panel called The Social Media Phenomenon (see below), I inked all the important details and people beforehand. While they were talking I took rough sketchnotes and fit the key ideas into the quote box areas as needed. To me, it’s like having a running start. Another trick is to take notes on individual sticky notes (Post-Its) then arrange the best content into a final sketchnote like I did with the Trendsetting panel at the same Economist conference (they’re even color-coded by speaker).

05 Media Convergence viznotes - Social media

03 Media Convergence viznotes - Trendsetting

I know others take different approaches — usually sketching everything then and there — but this works well for me. Try it a few times, experiment, and figure out what works for you.

Tips for Sketchnotes

  • Draw! First and foremost. Sprinkle your words with rough illustrations and diagrams — you can always expand on your scribbles later. Nothing needs to be perfect. Important: Always carry a small notebook — something with unlined pages or a grid. Or try sketchnoting on your iPad or tablet.
  • Edit. No need to capture everything that’s said word for word — just paraphrase the idea in a way that resonates with you. But do use quote marks or some indicator when you write down a direct quote.
  • Chunk. Use separators and boxes, avoid too much linearity — edit live, as if you are writing a tweet and are aware of your space limitations.
  • Work. By that I mean work on your buffer — get used to listening to one thing while drawing the last thing you heard. It’s difficult at first but keep trying and you’ll be surprised at the mental cache you can develop. It’s just exercise for your brain.
  • Rest. If something you’re strenuously trying to capture goes down a rabbit hole or gets boring, don’t feel bad abandoning your note-taking for the moment — you’ll be rested for when things get interesting again.
  • Practice. Sketchnote TED talks or radio stories, conversations, meetings, movies, and songs. That way you’ll figure out your own secrets and shortcuts. Also, if you work in a certain field and things, themes, and theories tend to appear over and over again, try to get used to drawing them. For example, a real estate agent should to be able to draw decent houses, trees, furniture, family pets, etc at a moment’s notice. That way you don’t waste valuable sketching time by concepting in your head.

I’d bet that you could attend the most boring meeting in the history of business, but by taking sketchnotes you could make it fun. Now I suggest you head over to Sketchnote Army and Doodle Revolution (yes, the title of this post was lovingly nicked from Sunni Brown’s Doodle Revolution site) to see examples from around the world. If you have some sketchnotes of your own please link to them in the comments section.

And of you’ve never sketchnoted, try it.

Join the revolution.

This is an updated version of a post from XPLANE’s xBlog.

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  • Annie

    Great post! Have you seen Sunni Brown’s TED talk on doodling: ?

    • Bill Keaggy

      Yes, she’s great!

  • Timothy J. Reynolds

    Awesome article. Meetings were made for doodles:

  • Sanjay Shetty

    Hey Bill,

    Found your site, via the

    Here you go you can find some vizualizations I’ve done.

    Really hope to see your comments on my visuals :-) all feedback is more than welcome.


    Sanjay Shetty

  • Doug Cuthbertson

    I have just recently heard of sketchnotes, through, and wondered how people could sketch such nice stuff in a live situation. Thank you for the great tips. I have to go practice now!

  • Mark Brewer (@brewerma)

    Thank you for writing this post. Most interesting.

  • Lynne Cazaly

    Yay for sketchnotes!!! Here are some i did last night… on the Ipad using Brushes app.
    May more people join the revolution!

  • Bill Keaggy

    Yay indeed. This is great — thanks for sharing! Keep ‘em coming, everyone!

  • Letty

    This will be one of the new products of FlyingBeeDesign. Finally happy again during events!