How to Learn the Fundamentals of Sketching and Sketchnoting

I am developing a daily sketching practice and reading a number of books on sketching, doodling and visual thinking. Mike Rohde‘s ‘Sketchnote Handbook‘ and ‘Sketchnote Workbook‘ have been two of my favorites so far.

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.

Here is my own six-page sketchnote book summary of ‘Sketchnote Handbook‘ and ‘Sketchnote Workbook‘:

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.