In the first book ‘Sketchnote Handbook‘, Mike outlines the foundations skills of sketchnoting, or taking notes via sketches, with a focus on live sketchnoting during conference talks. In the second book ‘Sketchnote Workbook‘, Mike applies the same foundational skills to a number of other areas, for work and pleasure.
I enjoyed doing the sketchnote book summary, but I wanted to go beyond and share seven lessons on sketching and seven ideas for sketchnoting from ‘Sketchnote Handbook‘ and ‘Sketchnote Workbook‘.
Here are seven lessons on becoming better at sketching:
Focus on ideas: Choosing the right ideas, creating connections between them and finding patterns in them are more important than how well you sketch. Use sketching as an aid to create, organize and share ideas with an aim to engage both the left and the right sides of the brain.
Create a structure: Choose the right structure for your sketchnote, depending upon the relationship between your ideas. A linear flow runs left to right and top to bottom and is best for free-flowing list-based ideas. A radial flow organizes ideas into spokes around a central hub. A grid flow slots ideas into a pre-decided grid-based structure.
Learn sketching foundations: Learn the foundational elements of sketching like typography, icons, bullets, dividers, containers, arrows, and speech bubbles. You can combine these elements into more complex figures like diagrams, flow charts and mind maps.
Learn typography variations: Learn how to create variations in the typography by practicing letters in single line, double line, triple line, block, script, serif, sans serif, and 3D, in both uppercase and lowercase. You can use typography to add emphasis, convey a mood, or differentiate between parts of a sketchnote.
Create an icon library: Learn to create icons for everyday objects, ideas and activities, including objects and activities in your home and office, and objects and ideas related to your field. You can use icons to succinctly convey complex ideas without using a large number of words.
Use visual metaphors: Create a library of visual metaphors by “drawing the metaphor literally”. For instance, to depict the “jumping the gun” metaphor, draw a man literally jumping over a gun. You can use visual metaphors to add surprise and humor to your sketchnotes.
Experiment with media: Sketch with a pencil first or directly with a pen, sketch only in black or use multiple colors, paste a photo on your sketchbook and sketch around it, sketch on a notebook or a tablet, or sketch on a notebook and edit on a tablet – the variations are endless. Experiment with multiple styles, mediums and workflows until you find your preferred ones.
Here are seven ideas for how to use sketchnotes:
Create a visual task list: Create a task list using action icons (tasks, events, appointments) and add significance to the tasks using status icons (uncertain, important, urgent). Add important details to your task list by adding diagrams to create a visual Bullet Journal. Creating a visual task list will motivate you to use it more regularly.
Plan with index cards or post-it notes: Brainstorm ideas by drawing them on index cards or post-it notes. Organize them into clusters of related ideas, then prioritize them based on importance and difficulty. Finally, plot them on a flow chart and draw interdependencies. Use this to plan work projects, workshops and book outlines. Drawing out your ideas will help you engage both your visual and verbal brains in planning.
Summarize ideas from books, talks or meetings: Focus on the big ideas, cluster them (perhaps, into groups of three), draw connections between them and find patterns across them. Focus on the ideas that resonate with you personally. Summarizing key ideas visually will help you focus on the most important ideas and the connections between them.
Recap films, TV shows or novels: Draw a cast of characters, capture the key twist and turns in the plot, and note down your most important takeaways. Drawing a story summary will help you see the story arc in new ways.
Capture food or travel experiences: Take photos or notes to capture details for reference, emphasize the highlights of the experience and add personal context and observations. Drawing your experiences will help you personalize them and savor them longer.
Create a visualization board: Draw an image of yourself five years from now in the center and your ideal situation in terms of work, money, health and family (or similar themes) around it. Put it up above your desk and use it for your morning visualization exercise. Drawing your ideal life will help you imagine it more viscerally and motivate you to work towards it.
Learn a language with flash cards: Draw an object or idea on both sides of a flash card and add the English word on one side and, let’s say, the Mandarin word for it on the opposite side. Drawing out the words from a new language will help you remember them more easily.
If you are inspired to start sketchnoting, or to use sketchnotes for these use cases, check out Mike’s website ‘Sketchnote Army‘, which showcases the best sketchnotes submitted by community members.
If you are also developing a daily sketching practice, do share your experiences in the comments below, or give me a shoutout at @gauravonomics on Twitter or Instagram.
Sometimes, we discover books exactly when we need to read them. I feel like I needed to read these books now, when I am beginning to (re)build a daily writing, sketching and blogging habit.
When I was reading these books, I felt like I was reading letters to my present self from my younger self. I spent my late twenties and early thirties living, learning and creating in public, and benefiting from the network effects that Austin talks about. I have been asking myself if these practices are still valid five years later, in a post-blogging, selfie-obsessed world, and Austin’s books reassure me that they are.
Sometimes, you need to throw out old work to make room for new work. Sometimes, you need to take a month, or a year, or five years off to clear your head. Sometimes, you need to go away and grow up, perhaps fail a few times, before you begin again, with newfound humility. The good news is that when you do begin again, you are not really starting over. The lessons you have learned from your old work, and the lessons you have learned while you were away, will seep into and shape your new work.
I took almost five years off from this blog, and deleted 1500+ blog posts I had written over the previous five years. Now that I am writing again, I know that I don’t want to write about things that change constantly (like emerging technologies). Instead, I want to write about things that never change (like human behavior). While I won’t be able to reuse the 1 million+ words I have written before, I will be able to use the lessons I learned through writing them.
Lesson 2. Design an Apprenticeship
You can’t choose who your parents and ancestors are, but you can choose who your teachers are. Create a list of creators who inspire you, immerse yourself in their work, find out who inspired them in turn, and then immerse yourself in the work of those who inspired them. If they are active online, follow them, and follow the people they pay attention to. Going back in time, find patterns in how they built upon each others’ ideas. Then, connect the dots in new ways, and find ways to build upon their ideas, in turn. Go beyond their specific idea, or their specific style, and try to learn their way of thinking, their way of seeing the world, and apply it in your own work. Design a long-distance apprenticeship for yourself, watching them practice their craft, learning from their process and their products and improving upon both. When you share your work, share it as a public fan letter to your heroes, acknowledging their contribution, adding new dimensions to their work and introducing them to your own networks.
Here’s a short list of my own creative heroes: world-builders (George R. R. Martin, J. R. R. Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, Stephen King), culture-mappers (Pico Iyer, Steven Johnson, Malcolm Gladwell) and life-hackers (Alain de Botton, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Timothy Ferris). As I design my own creative apprenticeship to learn from them, I’ll share what I am learning, so that you might learn along with me.
Lesson 3. Contribute to Communities
You don’t only need mentors, you also need peers. Seek out talented people who are asking themselves the same questions as you are, become a member of the communities they belong to, learn from the answers they have found, and share your own answers with them. Build upon each other’s work, introduce each other to your own networks, and help each other grow. Brian Eno calls these communities a ‘Scenius’ (versus lone genius), Seth Godin calls them a ‘Tribe’. Find your communities, join them, nurture them and contribute to them.
Here are some communities I am exploring at the moment: niche publishing, self-publishing, and life-hacking. As I map these communities and identify where their hubs are, I’ll introduce them to you, so that you might get an insider’s view of them.
Lesson 4. Collect Inspiration
You are a sum total of what you are curious and passionate about. You become the things you spend your time and attention on. You are shaped by the books you read, the artifacts you collect and the ideas you follow. Expose yourself to inspiration from a wide variety of sources. If you have multiple unrelated passions, nurture them all. Collect everything that inspires you, every creative work you want to steal, in an ‘swipe file‘ or ‘commonplace book‘, which can be digital or analog. Then, go through your file regularly, try to find patterns, connect previously unconnected dots, and remix your inspirations to create new creative works.
I collect things that inspire me in two places: an Evernote account on all my devices to save web stories, reports, photos and videos, and a Bullet Journal to note down quotes, sketch ideas, list resources, and write (sketchnote) book summaries.
Lesson 5. Become an Amateur
The best way to learn something new is to become an amateur again. When you behave like an amateur, you think of your work as a hobby instead of a profession. You free yourself to have fun, take risks and make mistakes. With a beginner’s mind, you allow ourself to be curious, ask silly questions and seek help from peers and mentors. You switch your focus away from perfecting the final product to the process of learning your craft. You look at criticism as feedback that will help you improve, not as judgement on your talent. When you become an amateur, you open yourself up to possibilities that are closed to the professional and the expert.
I am writing this blog as an amateur. I have hosted it on WordPress.com and used a free starter theme. I am writing about learning how to create a daily writing and sketching practice, instead of digital transformation or social innovation. My daily sketches feature my Persian cat Leela perched on various pieces of furniture in my house, and not sketchnote book reviews. My aim is to develop a daily writing and sketching habit, not to position myself as an expert. So, I focus on creating, instead of asking myself if what I am creating is substantial, or profound, or professional.
Lesson 6. Find Your Voice
You should think of the internet as a self-invention machine, instead of a self-promotion machine. Your website can be much more than a platform to distribute your ideas; it can be an incubator to develop your ideas. You don’t only share in public when you have something to say; you also think aloud in public when you want to find something to say. Thinking aloud in public will help you clarify your thinking, get valuable feedback, make new connections between ideas and find your voice.
I started blogging again partly to find out what I am curious and passionate about at this stage of my life, what life skills I might learn which will add meaning to the second half of my life, and what I might contribute in return to the communities I am learning from.
Lesson 7. Learn in Public
When you learn something in public, you end up becoming a teacher to others who are learning the same thing at the same time. When you wonder about something you are fascinated by, others join you to wonder together. When you share your obsession with something you love, you connect with others who love the same thing. Make a commitment to learning in public and, if your own work is not ready to share yet, begin by sharing your influences.
I am reading books and taking courses on writing, self-publishing, sketching, thinking visually, forming habits and lifehacking, and applying them in my own life. I’ll share my successes and struggles, but I am beginning by writing about my influences: Julia Cameron’s ‘Artist’s Way’, Ryder Carroll’s ‘Bullet Journal’ and Austin Kleon’s ‘Steal Like an Artist‘ and ‘Show Your Work‘.
When you are developing a creative habit, having a routine is more important than having unlimited time or resources. Use your constraints to channel your creativity, perhaps even create artificial constraints. Set ridiculously simple, easily achievable goals that you can consistently hit (Stephen Guise calls them ‘Mini Habits‘), create a chain of daily victories, and make a commitment to not break the chain. Start a daily journaling practice and use your journal to track your habits.
I have set myself a goal to write, sketch or blog daily. Some days, I do all three; other days, I do one or two of the three. For the first month, I have not set myself a goal to reach a daily or weekly word count; even one paragraph is enough, as long as I am writing (or sketching) every day. I am tracking my writing and sketching habits, along with other habits I am trying to develop, in a Bullet Journal.
Lesson 9. Become Findable
You can be found only when you become findable. You become findable when you do work that you love and then share your work. When you share your work, people who are interested in it will find you across geographical boundaries, and share it forward with their own networks. Over time, the network effect will kick in and your connections with likeminds around your work will create serendipitous opportunities that far exceed the benefits of traditional networking over cocktails.
I have experienced the benefits of being a part of global community of likeminds, and the network effects it creates, firsthand, and I am writing again party because I have missed it over the last few years.
Lesson 10. Tell Your (Back)story
Your creative process is as important, and as interesting to your community, as the product you create. Document your workplace, your process, and your work-in-progress product daily. When you finish the day’s work, share a snippet from it, and add context. Equally important is your own backstory; people want to know the person behind the creative product, and even value your product differently based on how they connect with your story. Learn to share your own story and how it has led to your current project, and learn to connect your story to your audiences’ stories.
Here’s my story and here’s what I think your story might be. Of course, all our stories are work-in-progress and I hope we can play a part in moving forward each other’s stories.
Lesson 11. Mix Analog and Digital
Your brain works differently in digital and analog modes, so learn to use both. Perhaps, create an analog workspace with paper, post-it notes, Lego blocks, pencils, pens and markers to think through your ideas, find connections between them, and figure out how they fit together. Then, use a digital workspace with a smartphone, tablet, scanner and laptop to create your work, publish it and share it. Or combine digital and analog in your workflow in different ways, by making part of your work digital and part analog.
I don’t have the space in my tiny apartment to have two workspaces, but I use a similar hybrid creative process. I sketch in my Muji sketchbook, then take a picture from my iPhone and post it on Instagram. Or, I write on my Moleskine notebook with a smart pen and the writing gets synced with my M+ Notes app. I am hoping to develop my sketching in both analog and digital modes, by learning to sketch in charcoal and learning to edit my scanned sketches on my tablet.
In Summary: Begin Again
Let me end this post with the lesson I started with. If you used to have a daily creative practice, if you used to learn in public, if you used to share your work, and you stopped, begin again. I would love to hear your stories of beginning again on Twitter or in the comments below.
The first practice is to rebuild my creative muscle by meditating, journaling and sketching every morning. The second practice is to replenish my creative spirit by creating space and time for my passions every day. The third practice is to reclaim my creative identity by creating and sharing my work every day.
These three powerful daily practices have had a transformative impact on my life, and if you are also a recovering creative, they can also transform your life.
1. Meditate, Journal and Sketch Every Morning to Rebuild Your Creative Muscle
Every morning, I wake up at 5am and follow the same morning ritual. First, I meditate to focus my mind. Then, I journal to empty my mind. Finally, I sketch to make sense of what’s on my mind.
I practice a combination of Pranayama and Vipassana meditation, first paying attention to my breath, then paying attention to the sensations in my body.
I journal and sketch in my Moleskine smart notebook with the Neo2 smart pen. Writing with pen and paper teaches me to trust my hands, and combine words and figures, and the M+ Notes app backs up my daily journal entries and sketches.
My writing desk has become my favorite place in the house. The rug under it has become the favorite perch for my Persian cat Leela.
Within a short time, this simple morning ritual has had a transformative impact on my life.
I am feeling both more connected with my dreams and more rooted in my reality.
Every morning now leads to resolutions small and large and a replenished will to realize these resolutions.
2. Create Space and Time For All Your Passions Every Day to Replenish Your Creative Spirit
I am learning to embrace all my passions, create space and time for them in my house and my life, and build connections between them.
I am reading graphic novels and teaching myself how to sketch using charcoal and color pencils. I am listening to jazz and western classical concerts and learning how to play the piano. I am learning to use my body as a canvas for creative expression, even if that’s sometimes simply an excuse for buying even more sneakers. I now want to start running long distance again, practice writing and speaking Mandarin regularly, and learn how to grow an indoor garden.
I recently redecorated my house to create space for all these passions. My little one bedroom apartment now fits a treadmill, a piano, a writing desk and an art supplies cabinet. Now, it’s not only a house for #LeelaCat and me, but also a creative studio filled with books, music, plants and art.
I have always read a hundred books every year; now I am reading a book every other day. I’m reading books related to my passions that either inspire me to become better or show me how to improve. I start my day at 5am with writing, and finish my day at 11pm with reading, and fit all these passions in the hours in between.
Within a few short months, I have gone from being a minimalist to being a maximalist and my creative spirit feels more alive than ever before.
3. Create and Share Your Work Every Day to Reclaim Your Creative Identity
I am blogging again, after years, as a public commitment to create and share my work every day.
I have always felt that I am meant to write books, many books, fiction and non-fiction. I have written a non-fiction book before on the future of engagement. Since then, I have tried to write the next book a few times. I have bought domain names for these books. I have even designed the book cover for one book. But, I haven’t finished any of these books. My mind is a graveyard of unborn books.
This time, I am telling myself that it is better to write 52 essays in a year, one essay a week, and see if they add up to a non-fiction book. I am telling myself that it’s better to write 52 stories in a year, one story a week, and see if they add up to a novel.
I am telling myself that the only way to reclaim my creative identity is to create and share something small everyday, even if it’s only a photo, sketch, or story about #LeelaCat. I am telling myself that if my inner artist child wants #LeelaCat as his muse, I should indulge his need for fun and whimsy.
My inner artist child is happy these days. For the first time in years, I am writing regularly. Some days, I write as many as 5000 words, between my morning journal pages, my stories and my essays. After years. I am also sketching regularly, and I feel that the writing and the sketching, just like the essays and the stories, are helping each other.
Creative Recovery is a Lifelong Journey
There’s good news and bad news about creative recovery.
The bad news is that creative recovery is not linear. I have good days and bad days, good weeks and bad weeks, good months and bad months. Every few weeks, every few months, every few years, I feel like I have returned to where I started from.
The good news is that creative recovery is not circular either, it’s spiral. With every cycle I go through, I learn more about myself and my inner artist child, and I become better at protecting and nurturing him.
Creative recovery is a lifelong journey, and I am hoping to develop and deepen these three daily creative practices for life.
I am rebuilding my creative muscle by meditating, journaling, and sketching every morning. I am replenishing my creative spirit by creating space and time for all my passions. I am reclaiming my creative identity by creating and sharing my work every day.
I hope you’ll join me on my journey, and share your own successes and struggles. You can sign up below to receive my updates via email, and follow my updates on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.