Sketchnotes: Keep Your Journal Handy

January 18, 2012

See the full note for details.

Above: A sketchnote page from Craighton Berman. See below for more details. (Image ©Craighton Berman.)

How you keep a visual journal is a totally individual thing. So often I think people starting to keep a visual journal think that they have to create "illustrations." For me the journal has always been about being a work book and as such it contains a lot of lists and meeting notes.

Imagine my delight when I stubbled upon the work of Craighton Berman, "a Chicago-based designer, creative director, illustrator & idea-shaper."

His thoughts on sketchnotes are sure shaping some fun ideas in my head. You can read about the creation of the Alec Baldwin Glengarry Glen Ross Speech sketchnotes here. You will also learn Berman's approach to this type of note taking—tips on how to organize your page and keep improvising.

You will also want to check out an earlier article he wrote "Sketchnotes of Ezio Manzine at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago."

Berman provides an overview of sketchnotes here.

Berman breaks down the concepts he uses to create these sketchnotes in a way that I think many journal artists might benefit, whether they take sketchnotes or not. I love his emphasis on improvisation and practice—they are two key components of my own journal habit.

I have several friends who already practice a variety of this type of notetaking. It is something that I believe comes naturally to artists, comics artists, designers, and architects. And I know a lot of people in those professions. Perhaps it's something that they get encouraged to do in art school, but I think it is most likely that visual people when faced with a need to sit and listen simply come up with a way to do that in a way that is most enjoyable for them. That happens to be organizing the material visually.

I tend to be a linear note taker. I have always had great mental retention. My notes are filled with vast passages of word-for-word transcription of things that my listening mind found important.

I have to admit that there are parts of sketchnotes as described by Berman that "frighten" me ever so slightly. He writes about letting go of capturing everything—"Don't be a completist."

Part of my reaction to that encouragement is that it goes against the grain of my earlier training to take exact notes for reporting purposes. But the reality is that even so we edit. We maintain a fiction of completeness.

Basically I love the way he is clearly setting out an approach that will be useful for people to access their creativity, stay engaged actively, and process what they hear. I think the more tools we have for that the better.

For me processing happens in two phases—somewhat when I'm notetaking because I take time to note my opinions about something or mark something for further research. Later more processing occurs when I read over my notes. Then I take more notes for more research, and so it goes.

Berman's approach is appealing not only visually to me but from a time management aspect. The processing is all happening right then. You're making decisions on what's important and what isn't. Complete and irrevocable decisions because you are moving on. Sure you may totally miss the point of what the speaker was talking about, but what emerges is the point you latched on to and captured.

I am surrounded by notes and files and masses of paper information that at some point it was my goal to synthesize. It has become increasingly obvious to me that it will not be so. And that is good. While I might love the "whole" of something, life doesn't really allow me time to apply that across the board. And by trying to appreciate the whole we can often miss the gist. So I am all for methods that get me to the gist quicker, because time's slipping by.

Perhaps it is just a new desire to be "lighter."

I think the world works in serendipitous ways. (I'm a Dickensian, I have no choice.) Just as I am thinking how to streamline my focus I come across someone making a pitch for not being a completist in notetaking. It's a push to move forward. It might even be a push towards a character for my 2012 International Fake Journal.

Whatever your current notetaking process I recommend that you read his thoughts on the sketchnotes at the provided links. Think about your own notetaking process and your own journaling process. Berman even provides a helpful suggestion that you practice by listening to TED Talks!

Move forward, even when it feels uncomfortable.

Post-Posting Note Added 1.18.12 at 10:45 a.m.
Readers sending in links in the comment section set me to searching "visual note taking" on Google. I found this wonderful short video by the extremely articulate Tom Wujec from Autodesk. He is flipping through his visual notes from a TED conference. In seconds he captures the different types of speakers and how distillation occurs. Watch it. 

    • Louise
    • January 18, 2012

    Roz, …. Great infromation! Thank you!

    “Mindmapping” seems to be related. A search will bring up many links about it; here is one that gives the basics. I have seen mind maps with many more “illustrations” than what is shown in this link……

    I can relate to the notes, files, and masses of papers situation. Mine seem to clone themselves at night, becoming ever present everywhere in my home and office. I experience the desire to be lighter too and I find that organization helps though at times I feel like Sisyphus when it comes to that endless effort.

    This idea might be helpful, so I’ll pass it along. Years ago, I found an idea for a “house index” that uses the flat Rolodex tray file. The cards in that file are blank so they can be set up in whatever way one finds best. The idea is to create a card for certain items, then write down where they are located so we don’t have to go on an archeological dig in a room or in the entire house looking for something. Or, create a card for a drawer, or a closet, or a cabinet, then write down everything in there and cross reference it with the individual item. I’ve been creating my index slowly and I have found this system very helpful. It relieves some of the duress that goes with trying to keep up with so much all the time because those of us with many interests keep accumulating no matter how we try to grow lighter!

    “Move forward, even when it feels uncomfortable.” …. Just what I needed to hear today. This will be my new mantra.

    • Sheryl C
    • January 18, 2012

    Looks like I’ll have to wait out the anti-piracy blackouts to check out your links and I’m OK with that – I am interested in what he has to say. Thanks for another thought-provoking blog.

  1. Reply

    Sheryl, I didn’t know anything about the anti-piracy blackouts but clicked on a link to see what you mean. Perhaps you can google him and get there another way. It’s really worth getting to.

  2. Reply

    Louise, I’ve not seen mindmapping, so I went to have a look at that. It looks very much like word circles and work maps we used to make when I was a child, and which one written journal author advocate wrote a lot about in the 1980s.

    Thanks for your index file suggestion. My mound of stuff doesn’t have an organizational problem though. I’m an organized kind of gal. (Even my journal is indexed.) There’s just a weight of stuff that really is never going to be addressed because I’m not going to be using much of the already organized stuff. I’ve moved on from it, or have I? That’s the issue facing me. If you begin life with an an encyclopedic bent it catches up with you. Also as I have no children there is no one to leave all this stuff to, journals in particular, but also unsold art, which also has been catalogued.

    Nope, the problem facing me is of a slightly different type.

    I wish you well with your indexing project. I found that indexing my visual journals really helped make them more useful for me.
    You can read about my system here

    I think any indexing system has to be easy to do so it doesn’t become a task of it’s own that is over bearing. And I also believe in “cut offs” which means you just have to start somewhere and go from there, not go back and get everything else. So for me indexing the whole house wouldn’t work with my mindset because I would find that takes me away from my work. Happily the stuff is organized, I just have to decide going forward what it is of all that organized stuff I want to take with me. What of it am I really going to use?

    I’ve even started divesting myself of BOOKS! which is a huge thing for me.

    I am glad you are making progress with your house index. I think something like that would be useful especially if one were to lose one’s memory (which I worry a lot about, esp. after the conk on the head). Then life forces us to be lighter!

  3. Reply

    Lisa, when I click on the link you gave I get a “page not found.” So I’ll have to track that down some other way. (Maybe it’s the black out thing today?)

    I don’t think Berman is claiming to have come up with sketchnotes though. And as to who did it first I can say that as a child (which is a long, long time ago) I sat on the lap of several ad directors who worked for my father and watched them take notes in exactly this fashion.

    This is something that artists have been doing for a long, long time. In fact I think we could make an argument that the paintings at the Lascaux caves are sketchnotes of hunts or even “hunting seminar” sketchnotes, etc.

    I think Berman has done a wonderful job of explaining his process so that other people can try it and adapt it to their own working method.

    I’ll look forward to seeing what Mike has to say on another day, when the link works. Thanks for sending the link.

  4. Reply

    Lisa, I found this link
    to Mikes notetaking approach which is probably one of the places you were reading. THanks for pointing me towards his take on this.

  5. Reply

    Actually Lisa, this link is a better than the other one I found.

    At the end of this post Mike list related posts of other people’s VisNotes (which is what he is calling his paid seminar on this) and if you click on any of the links you get to pictures of people’s visual notetaking. So that’s fun to see what a lot of different people are doing.

  6. Reply

    Lisa, one more link that I found which was so wonderful I had to add an addendum to my post and I’m sending a comment because I don’t know if you’ll look back at the post but I figure you probably will get comments from this post since you made one:
    Tom Wujec flips through his TED conference notebook and discusses processing and notetaking this way. Fantastic. Very short.

  7. Reply

    Sheryl, I just looked at the Berman links you had trouble with. While the screen comes up black with a note about the anti-priacy thing, there is a faint line of type that says click anywhere to continue. If you do that the post is right there.

    So you don’t have to wait at all.
    Hope this helps.

    • AJ
    • January 18, 2012

    Hi Roz!

    Thanks for the post. Most insightful. When I began reading your post, I immediately thought of Mike Rohde as well. Here is the link to his Flickr account.

    Also check out the visual recipes of thinkinginsomniac:

    And the sketchnotes of turnislefthome:

    Again, many thanks!

  8. Reply

    AJ, thanks for the links, I really like these other examples and will take a longer peek.

    • Leslie Schramm
    • January 18, 2012

    I suggest you arrange for the Collected Roz to goto a Museum of contemporary life. I suspect a fair few would love a well documented , well dated , entertaining mass of stuff. Shedding light on your local area for many years. I’ve a friend works in film restoration. The local material they are missing is the 80’s and 90’s as that was recorded on videotape, and that’s starting to fade away. Your journal’s ain’t going to be wiped out by a big magnet. As to working in a linear fashion, so do I. That’s years of working in Science for you. But I’ve noticed my note taking at meetings has been growing arrows and backtrackings as people’s minds focus for shorter periods of time; for which I blame the greater masses of information around; and the greater ease of access to that information. I worry about the passing of my need to remember information to Mr Google, but that’s a discussion for a different day. Have fun planning the Fake Journal

    • Louise
    • January 18, 2012

    There are a number of videos demonstrating visual note taking on You Tube. While I can see incorporating some of these techniques into note taking, some of these examples seem very complex and visually confusing when I enlarge them and study the connections. Maybe a little practice will change my mind.

  9. Reply

    Leslie, I don’t think my journals shed a light on anything local, just a bit of light on my own mind. It would be nice to think they could find a home somewhere but that’s unlikely. It would take a hell of a lot of shelves for more worthy stuff.

  10. Reply

    Louise, I wouldn’t be swayed against it by complex examples you might see. Try it yourself and see if it fits for you. The examples you’re seeing are what fits for THOSE notetakers and therefore they might actually be more complex than what the original speaker had in mind.

    The point really is to see if you can find a way to work that streamlines your notetaking and processing modes. If what you do now works and doesn’t leave you wondering, don’t change it, “If it’s not broke…”

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