User Experience Insights
Sketch Notes – Doodle Your Way to Better Communication
Who didn’t scribble on all surfaces as a child? A sun in the corner of the paper, a house, a car or just some random squiggly lines. While these drawings may seem like a distraction, research has shown that doodling is effective for flow, concentration, and memorizing information. But the transition to school often brings out insecurities in our drawing abilities as pictures are graded by teachers and we lose faith in our own drawing abilities. The good news is that you can reclaim this lost habit and you without being an artist. How? With sketchnoting – a form of notetaking that combines writing and drawing. Sketch notes help us to process more quickly what we hear, structure and deeply understand information, and help us to memorize it. That is why they have become a super useful tool in everyday business life to effectively visualize thoughts, meetings, talks, or presentations.
Definition: What is a sketch note? What is sketchnoting?
Sketchnoting means recording your thoughts by creating visual notes. A sketch note is a mixture of handwriting and visual elements like drawings, shapes, arrows, boxes, and lines. Adding visualization to traditional handwritten notes fosters understanding and creativity.
However, the term “sketch note” is often used for any kind of visualization or mixed with other trendy topics like graphic recording, illustration, doodling, and so on.
A bit of science: why your brain loves visualization & sketch notes
In addition, other scientific research supports the benefits of sketchnoting. Allan Pavio discovered in 1971 that visual and verbal information are processed differently along distinct channels and stored separately in our memory. However, if two different representations of the same information are provided, both visual and verbal, a link is created. The information is encoded and stored twice; this is known as the “Dual Coding Theory”. When stored twice, the information is more firmly anchored and can be recalled more quickly. Therefore, adding visuals to your simple text notes can boost your learning and help you retain information over time.
The idea of visuals boosting learning is also support by the “Picture Superiority Effect”. It refers to the observation that people can recall more information if it is presented using visuals than when it’s shown using plain text. People are only likely to remember 10% of what they read or hear three days later. However, when you add visuals to the same information, they’ll remember 65% of it.
Everybody knows the saying that “a picture speaks a thousand words”. This is not just an old cliché! If you are still not convinced, just try it yourself:
6 reasons why you should start sketchnoting right away
Keep your brain active and engaged
If you are just watching and listening to a presentation, you only engage your sense of sight and hearing. This can become monotonous, and you might get tired or distracted very easily which increases the temptation and likelihood of multitasking. In the end, only very little of what has been presented will stick. But if you are taking visual notes, you are keeping your brain busy with listening, seeing, processing information, filtering what is important or not and graphically noting down information. This turns passive listening into active listening and improves your focus!
Encourage better understanding
Sketchnotes are a useful tool to structure and information, leading to deeper understanding. Handwritten text notes can be long and confusing, and you may not be retaining much of what you wrote down. But when you are sketchnoting, you are synthesizing the information, making choices about what is really relevant, and in which order it makes sense. Creating a sketch note can help you to depict complex information in an easy way and thus fosters better comprehension of the content.
Boost your memory retention
If you combine your handwritten notes with visual elements, the information is encoded and stored twice (Dual Coding Theory). The brain not only remembers the information more quickly and accurately, but it also stays in memory for a longer period. And be honest: how often did you re-read your written notes from meetings or presentations? Probably not very often. Since we instinctively respond to images, we are more likely to look at sketchnotes than text-based notes, which in itself helps make information stick.
Sharpen your focus
A sketch note is limited by the space of the available canvas and the time that you have to create it, especially when you are sketchnoting real time. Because of these constraints, you simply cannot write everything down. Instead, you have to focus on the pieces of information that you consider to be most important. In addition, all the content is available on one single page which makes your notes more compact and easier to review the whole idea, workshop, or meeting at a glance.
Stimulate your creativity
Sketching content motivates innovation and creative thinking, by making it concise and easy to understand. When content visualized, it is easier to identify patterns in it, such as connections between two or more facts. And if you believe Steve Jobs, connecting things is creative! Did you know that he started all his presentations on paper? It’s true: Sketching out rough ideas helped him to organize his thoughts, collaborate with colleagues, and structure the story he wanted to tell.
Sketchnoting is fun!
Enhancing your traditional text notes with visual elements is so much more fun 😊
The purpose of sketchnotes: where to use visual notetaking
Sketch notes allow you to enhance your written notes with drawings to remember content more easily.
Therefore, they have become increasingly popular in the context of documenting conferences and talks, but there are many more opportunities to use visual note taking. You can use sketchnotes as visual documentation of meetings or events, presentations (or preparation for presentations), blog posts (like this one 😉), on flipcharts, private notes, any kind of process sketches, discussions, or book summaries. Especially when you are new to sketchnoting, it might be overwhelming to sketchnote in real time and keep up with the flow of presentation or video. Do not worry! Instead of drawing notes live, you can also create a sketch note in review. In that case I recommend identifying the key messages and writing them down while you are listening, leaving some space around the text. In a second step, after the presentation or video has finished, you can add drawings and other visual elements like boxes, lines, and arrows without time pressure.
The potential of sketchnotes in business
Visualization becomes increasingly important in today’s business world. A picture really can tell a thousand words and sketching is very important in this ever-changing and dynamic work environment. In the “new normal”, constant alignment and conversations are key. However, if we only talk, we run the risk of creating less clarity and understanding. Sketch notes can be a great way to turn thoughts and ideas into communication because they create an additional layer of understanding. This increases the clarity of your message. Furthermore, sketch notes enable you to visualize your thought process and break down complex problems into simple drawings, making connections and patterns visible. In addition, the visual notes empower teamwork as individuals can share their drawings with one another, talk about why and how they represent ideas, and build on the ideas of others. This fosters collaboration and boosts innovation. Use sketchnoting to make your communication more efficient, for example in meetings, workshops, agile events, and coaching!
Addressing the elephant in the room: it does not take drawing talent to create sketch notes!
Sketchnoting has zero to do with artistic ability. The basic requirement is to be able to hold a pen and draw a line. You can do that? Great! You are perfectly qualified for creating visual notes! It is important to understand and accept that sketch notes do not require special drawing skills. They are much more a tool than art. Start with simple shapes and symbols instead of detailed pictures – the fewer lines, the better. If you want to draw a house, ask yourself which lines or shapes are needed to communicate “house”? Follow the kiss principle: keep it super simple. And again, this is not about creating art but creating visuals that are easier to recall than just words alone and make it easier to communicate with others. In addition, you will get better as you go. With every sketch note that you create, your visual library of drawings, symbols and shapes will grow and you will learn “standards” for certain terms or concepts. Just dare to take the first step. The more you do it, the better you will get!
The visual alphabet: simple drawing elements to get started
The visual alphabet is a very handy tool. Just like a written alphabet, you can consider the elements building blocks to form meaning to be communicated.
If you can re-create these forms, you can draw! With the help of these basic shapes, you can easily draw objects and faces. To do this, you break them down into their individual visual parts. Afterwards, you build them up again using the visual alphabet. Have a look at the following examples and give it a try!
If you want to get started with the very basics of sketching, I can recommend the openSAP course Be Visual! Sketching Basic for IT Business. From basic shapes and handwriting to creating storyboards and screen sketches – this course will teach you useful techniques that you can apply in your daily business life.
Material Guide: What you need for sketchnoting
Sketchnoting is a bit like running, you do not need much to get started. There is no need for special tools to create a sketch note, traditional pen and paper are fine to begin with. And we already learned that drawing talent is not required 😉 It might be useful to have pens in different sizes and maybe also some colors to highlight elements of your sketchnote – but that is it. Resist the temptation to buy expensive pen sets or lots of high-quality notebooks in the beginning. Over time you will develop preferences and find out what you need. The same is true for books. Resist the urge to read an armful of books on sketchnoting and visualization – it will not help you to get better. Instead, jump in and get started. Practice makes perfect. And at some later point in time, you might search for some inspiration in books.
Visualizing in digital age: apps for creating sketch notes
The practice of sketchnoting can easily be adapted to the digital world. For this, I recommend stylus and a tablet (most smartphones are just too small). I myself use a big iPad Pro and the Apple Pen. It gives me great opportunities to work digitally. And digital sketching definitely has some advantages: you can zoom in and out, move things around, and copy & paste elements. If you forgot something, you could add it later at any point in time. In addition, it is very easy to share your sketchnotes when they are already in a digital format. There are lots of apps available that can be used to create visual notes. Here are my three favorites:
- Paper by WeTransfer (formerly: Paper53): the basic version is free. The app is designed to improve your drawing skills and lets you produce passable sketches even if you cannot draw a straight line.
- GoodNotes: the first 3 notebooks are free. This app is especially good for handwriting and thanks to handwriting recognition and OCR technology, all your notes are searchable. You can also create simple sketches.
- Procreate: with costs. I love Procreate. It is essentially a digital art studio that you can take anywhere with endless features, e.g., over 200 brushes, any color that you want, and layers to build up even complex sketches. It definitely opens up a whole new world of creativity, but you might need some time to get into it.
If you have a tablet, try them out. Otherwise just get started with the basics: pen & paper.
The process of sketchnoting step by step
The process of live sketchnoting is much like an hourglass. The upper bulb represents the preparation. Here you usually have a good amount of time to get ready. Then there is the narrow neck, the live situation, in which you are listening, processing, and writing down information under time pressure. And lastly, the lower bulb stands for the rework where you have enough time to review your notes again and revise the content. Let’s examine the phases in more detail:
Decide whether you want to use pen & paper or your tablet get ready. Even before the talk starts, you can write down the title and the name of the presenter. Maybe you can also think of a suitable symbol or even draw an easy portrait of the presenter. You might want to top it off by drawing a box around the headline.
During: Gathering, processing, and writing down information
Actively listen to the presenter and look out for any visual cues that might contain some of the key information, such as slides. Do not try to write down everything. Instead, filter by asking yourself: what is most important for me? What would I like to remember? Think of yourself as the curator of the content and only write down the most important information. If the presenter pauses or repeats some of the same content that you’ve already written down, you might use the time to start adding visual elements.
Continue visualizing with easy symbols and structure the content by adding lines, arrows, and boxes. You might also want to add some color to highlight important pieces of information. If you want to go crazy, you could even use a light-colored pen or highlighter to draw some shadows for added depth.
PRO TIP: To put the finishing touches on your sketchnote, draw a frame around it. This will make a big difference – believe me 😉
Sketch notes combine handwritten notes with visual elements and speak directly to our brain. They are a super useful tool for the ones who create them – the skechnoters – as they allow the creator to crystallize the most relevant points from a lot of information and quickly put them into a form that helps memories stick. But they are also powerful for those who attended the talk but only view the sketchnotes afterward, because they present the content in an engaging way that is easy to understand.
In my daily business life as innovation manager, I need to communicate ideas and abstract concepts a lot. This is why sketchnoting has become very useful for me, not only to exchange and engage with colleagues but also customers. Especially in a virtual environment where we cannot collaborate on a whiteboard, sharing my iPad screen and creating visual notes on-the-fly has become a new and surprisingly vital communication channel that I wouldn’t want to give up. In onsite workshops, my sketching skills help me to create storyboards that communicate ideas and visualize and an experience from start to finish. Both sketchnoting and storyboarding create opportunities to share ideas with other people to discuss, refine, and iterate on them. And this is how they can grow. If you are interested in how storyboarding can help you to make your ideas tangible, check out my storyboarding blog post.
To learn more about the work of an innovation manager, I recommend reading the Digital Innovation Manager blogpost. If you are interested in technology foresight and exploration as well as thought leadership, follow our digital innovation blog to stay up to date.
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