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Laurel Thoennes @ Quality Digest


In All Your Note-Taking, How Much Do You Remember?

There’s a better way to end this muda

Published: Thursday, August 16, 2018 - 12:03

Does this sound familiar? The keynote speaker is talking a mile a minute as you scramble to take notes on her every word. Your hand cramps, and then it’s over. Speaker bows to a standing ovation while you sit perturbed, knowing you missed some things. But angst arrives as you look over your notes and realize you can’t read your handwriting!

It’s easy to blurt, “That’s the last time I do that!” only to find yourself at another seminar scribbling notes in much the same fashion. End the muda with visual note-taking, aka sketchnotes, coined by designer Mike Rohde.

In this article are tips and further advice from several pundits known in visual note-taking circles. I will express what some may call “the voice of reason,” aka the devil’s advocate.

“Sketchnotes are about listening and drawing, capturing meaningful ideas, not how well you draw,” says Mike Rohde,  author of The Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking (Peachpit Press, 2013).

“The sketchnoter is focused, singularly engaged in what’s being said, and is fully engaging their mind to shape something from that content on the blank page in front of them,” says Craighton Berman, the artist who created graphic notes for TEDx Midwest in Sketchnotes 101. “Instead of recording what’s being said verbatim, good sketchnotes capture the meaningful bits as text and drawings.”

“Be as present as possible, keep the current of visualizing and iterating going, and don’t worry about things falling through the cracks,” says Australian graphic facilitator Gavin Blake.

Whoa, whoa, whoa!  You’re supposed to draw and listen at the same time?


“This form of rapid visualization forces you to listen to the lecture, synthesize what’s being expressed, and visualize a composition that captures the idea—all in real time,” says Berman.  “A musicians’ ‘circular breathing’ for the Moleskine crowd.”

Anyone who has tried circular breathing knows that it takes practice—lots of practice.

“Better sketchnotes use composition and hierarchy to give structure the content, and bring clarity to the overall narrative of the lecture,” says Berman.

“Sketchnotes can do more than just visualize talks you hear—they are a tool to help you see your way through problems, no matter how rough your sketches are,” notes Rohde.

“You need to turn all other voices off,” advises Sunni Brown, author of  “The Miseducation of the Doodle” (A List Apart, Jan. 25, 2011), and co-author of the book Gamestorming (O’Reilly Media, 2010). “Focus externally. Turn off your ego.”

Now wait just a gol-dern minute. This sounds like way too much work. Let technology wield that pencil.

All right, but while I’m sharpening pencils, here’s an article on that note.

“Students who use laptops can take notes in a fairly mindless, rote fashion, with little analysis or synthesis by the brain,” writes Cindy May in “A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop” (Scientific American, June 3, 2014). “This kind of shallow transcription fails to promote a meaningful understanding or application of the information.... Even when technology allows us to do more in less time, it does not always foster learning. Learning involves more than the receipt and the regurgitation of information.”

Friendly reminder

“It’s important that you’re able to take in what’s being said while recording it, and not just stick your head down in your sketchbook,” says Berman. “With practice, you’ll be able to store multiple quotes, thoughts, or ideas in a queue while you’re sketchnoting. This ’mental cache’ also allows you to listen to multiple points and synthesize them down to what’s important—before writing anything.

Encouraging words

Berman adds:

Think improvisation, not perfection. Sketchnoting isn’t illustration—it’s content-driven doodling. If you mess up a line, draw over it again. If you misspell a word, scratch it out. Just like improv, being in the moment is more important than refined output.
Don’t be a completist. Let stuff slip by if it doesn’t interest you.
Put your 2¢ in. They’re your perspective on a topic, so feel free to add your own commentary to the page.
Inject your personality into the pages. Do you draw misproportioned people, have shaky lines, and quirky handwriting? Cool, so do I. Run with it.

Whether you lean toward the "get me through this” mindset, or your brain keeps babbling, “More, more, more,” visual note-taking exercises mental muscles you didn’t even know you had.

“I’m sore!”

Yeah, but it’s a good sore.

Here are examples of sketchnotes showing various amounts of text and images. Click on the examples for larger images.


“A Quick Beginner’s Guide to Drawing” by Ralph Ammer: A written tutorial with animated GIFs on six simple drawing techniques

Video: “An Introduction to Sketchnoting” by Andre Anderson: In this 10-min video Anderson explains to a group of students how sketchnoting helps him listen, comprehend, and remember more.

“The Concepts Sketchnoting Toolbox” by Erica Christensen: A sketchnoting approach with concepts for iPad and Apple Pencil

Pencil Me In: The Business Drawing Book for People Who Can't Draw, by Christina R. Wodtke (Christina Wodtke, 2017)

“On practice: My personal learning curve” by Eva-Lotta Lamm: A three-part series on practice. Posted April 17, 2016.

“The Miseducation of the Doodle,” by Sunni Brown (A List Apart, Jan. 25, 2011)

Sketchnote Army: website with podcasts, blog, newsletter and more


About The Author

Laurel Thoennes @ Quality Digest’s picture

Laurel Thoennes @ Quality Digest

Laurel Thoennes is an editor at Quality Digest. She has worked in the media industry for 33 years at newspapers, magazines, and UC Davis—the past 25 years with Quality Digest.



There wasn't s single sketch in your article.


This is a common problem in quality improvement, everyone is used to writing essays, not telling stories with charts, graphs and diagrams.