Talia Lancaster talks with Belinda Knol about drawing on the power of sketchnoting to create beautiful pictures that really are worth a thousand words.
Talia is a Scrum Master and Agile Consultant at IQ Business with a passion for visual thinking and sketchnoting. She runs a popular blog called “Sketching Scrum Master” which shares knowledge through sketchnotes.
Let’s start with the question everyone’s asking – what is sketchnoting and, more specifically, what does the term sketchnoting mean to you?
Sketchnoting is essentially the process of taking graphical notes (using both pictures and text). It helps both the author and the reader to understand and retain information better. Many business analysts will have heard of “rich pictures”, “info doodling” or “visual note-taking”, which are very similar.
I always found myself taking lots of notes, and doodling, in meetings or presentations. At first I was concerned that these would be perceived as wasting time, but then I realised that they helped me interpret, understand and retain information better. I went beyond doodling randomly, to learning how to harnesses the power of imagery to take meaningful notes for myself.
How did you get started with sketchnoting?
I attended a conference a year or two ago, and found myself taking lots of notes. People peeked over my shoulder and asked me to share my notes with them – so I shared them and got great feedback. I was then introduced to the concept of “sketchnoting” by a BA colleague of mine, Angie Doyle, who encouraged me to pursue it.
Do you have a background in art or drawing?
At school I took art, but what I’ve found is that you don’t need to be an artist to do this: anyone can do it.
It’s about ideas, information and getting a point across …
with as few lines as possible – using basic shapes and elements to capture concepts.
A lot of people might be intimidated by the idea of sketchnoting and feel overwhelmed about where to start. What would your advice be to them?
My advice is to pick up a pen and start. It doesn’t matter if it’s not a beautiful piece of art, as long as it makes sense to you. There are also basic elements that you can work on, such as containers (bubbles to contain and organise your information), arrows, lines, people (it’s all right to draw stick people) and you can experiment with different typography.
Is there anything that you struggle to draw?
Yes! There are many things which I find challenging to draw. It’s tough when you are drawing live and you want to draw something awesome, but there is a delay between your thinking and your drawing. In those situations, I sometimes Google an icon (to learn something new) or I just try it out.
If it’s not perfect, that’s okay! As long as I know the point I was trying to get across. Then I’ll just label it with what I intended it to be and move on. It’s not about perfection. Those imperfect images are often funny memories to look back on and trigger your thinking.
Do you have a set of “go-to” icons or shapes that you find yourself using more than others?
Yes, I definitely have some go-to images. I’ve built up a core set of imagery, and I build on these as well – it’s like learning a new language. I find that certain icons are extremely useful, such as light bulbs (which can represent thinking, or innovation), boxes and speech bubbles.
A lot of it is your own interpretation of the content and what it means to you.
You will find quick images that work well which you can re-use in the future.
Are there any learning resources that you would recommend?
Sketchnoting is quite a big trend internationally and there are lots of resources available. There are quite a few books out there. Two examples are “The Sketchnoters Handbook” by Mike Rohde, and “The Doodle Revolution” by Sunni Brown (she also has a great TED Talk). There are also many online resources if you search for sketchnoting.
Why do you think that sketchnoting is becoming so popular?
Sketchnoting, and using visuals, is much easier for people to understand than text only. It takes a split second to recognise and interpret an image as opposed to words. This is why so many companies are opting for infographics and visual summaries as opposed to text-heavy documents. Some concepts, especially complex ones, are easier to portray using images.
I am definitely a visual learner, and with 65% of people falling into that bracket, I’m not alone. Many people learn better through visuals, and this number is rising. I use visuals a lot when working with teams as it can reduce meeting time significantly. It helps keep conversations focused and ensures everyone is on the same page.
Looking back, when do you think that you first realised that pictures worked better than words for communicating information? Was there something that triggered this realisation?
There is definitely still value in words, but I would say that I only recently realised how valuable images can be in supplementing text. When I started to share my visual summaries with others, I had an overwhelming response. So many people saw value in the information and were able to learn from my notes.
I’ve also seen it work effectively to guide and facilitate team conversations and brainstorming.
Words can often be misunderstood or misinterpreted but when you use images and visual elements (arrows, lines, boxes, icons) in addition to words, it aids understanding and communication very well.
I’ve had a look at some of your sketchnotes, and see that you use them in many aspects of your day. Where do you find them most useful?
Sketchnoting can be used in various ways – such as live note-taking in meetings, conferences and presentations. I also use it to summarise books that I’ve read. I find that it tests my understanding of the information and makes it easy to go back and refresh myself on the key points covered.
The broader philosophy behind this is Visual Thinking. How do we use visuals to enhance our conversations and take meaningful notes for ourselves and others? In this way, the use of visuals can be valuable for team workshops, brainstorming and group discussions – where we make our conversations visual and ensure that everyone participates and has a shared understanding on the session.
How do you adjust your sketchnoting techniques to cater for different situations?
Sketchnoting has different applications, so it depends what you are trying to do. I think that anyone can take notes for themselves and it would be valuable just to have these in a notepad of some kind. In a team or workshop environment,
… visual thinking and the use of visuals can be extremely engaging and valuable.
In this situation I would recommend that you rather draw on flip charts or whiteboards so that everyone can see and participate in the note-taking.
Do you find that you enjoy using sketchnotes more for certain subjects than others? I would imagine that the more familiar you are with the subject, the easier it is – is that an accurate assumption?
Some topics are definitely more challenging than others and there are times where I want to draw something great, but I don’t know how. In this case, it helps me identify where I need to improve on my skills.
I find that through sketchnoting I have built up a visual vocabulary that I can pull from when needed. For example I use light bulbs a lot because they can represent many concepts, such as ideas, strategy, inspiration, innovation. When I take live notes it’s always extremely daunting, because as much as you think you are prepared, there will always be topics that you can’t anticipate – but that’s what I love about it, capturing the moment, the emotion and the conversation as it emerges.
You post pictures of your sketchnotes on your blog and various social media channels. Do you find yourself referring back to them later? What else do you do with them?
Yes, I have found myself going back to them quite often. I’m privileged to go to quite a few conferences and presentations, which often become a bit of an information overload – although the content is so useful! Taking notes helps me remember key points and models that were discussed, and it gives me the opportunity to go back to them later.
I like to share my sketchnotes, although it can be quite nerve-wracking (my spelling isn’t always on point)! This gives others a chance to remember what was discussed, and those who weren’t there are also able to access the information.
What is your advice to anyone hoping to start sketchnoting and visual thinking?
There are some basic elements that you can research online and there are quite a few books out now which explain the method. My best advice is just to start. If you are taking notes or having team sessions, try to incorporate some visuals, and you will learn from there.
It’s a skill that you can learn, even if you don’t consider yourself an artist, …
and it will add a lot of value to your note-taking and conversations. Just start somewhere, and keep practicing!