What I want from visual notetaking; imagining wild success

Posted: - Modified: | notetaking, planning, sketches


Here’s what I want when it comes to visual notetaking. I’m going to go through thousands of books, presentations, blog posts, conversations, ideas, and thoughts in my lifetime. Maybe even millions of these little pieces of content.

I want to get really good at remembering, reusing, and sharing the significant ones, a tiny fraction of the whole. I often refer to ideas I’ve picked up in the past. I recommend books to others. I review items to see if I’ve been applying the lessons I learned, and if there are more I can use. Sometimes I come across unexpected combinations – part of one book resonating with a presentation on a different topic mixed in with a conversation I’ve just had. I benefit from holding these ideas near working memory.

Like the way I can flip through a slideshow faster than I can speedread a book, it might be easier and faster to review an archive of visuals than to refresh my memories using text notes. If I can convert some of this abundance of content into visuals, then I can use that to get around the limitations of time, attention, and memory.

Maybe other people will find the sketches useful. Maybe I’ll scale up and work with other illustrators, readers, and writers. Even if I don’t, though, I think that having these visual notes will make it easier for me in the long run.

Here’s a project for myself: convert my book notes into sketches. I could do the Lean Startup thing to find out if other people would be interested in the idea before I invest a lot of time and effort into it – mock up a minimum viable product with payment options or a subscription model. But then I want something like this for myself, too, so it’s okay to spend some time figuring out what I want before pitching it to others.

What would wild success look and feel like?

I have visual notes for the key ideas I want to revisit. I flip through them rapidly once a day, and rotate my desktop or screensaver through random ones for serendipity. They’re searchable through Evernote and accessible even when mobile. I’ve posted many of them online. Subscriptions, book reviews, and advertising provide a stream of income. People recommend other books and ideas I should check out.

I occasionally do sketchnotes on commission: simple sketches of key ideas captured in real-time during webinars or recorded presentations, used for marketing and post-session follow-ups. I also sketch summaries based on blog posts, e-books, or books sent to me. I do the occasional meetup or lecture as well, taking notes on my laptop. Focusing on electronic content means that I don’t have to travel or lug large rolls of paper around, and it takes advantage of my setup with multiple monitors.

In addition to sketchnotes, I offer or coordinate useful complementary services: presentation planning, design, coaching, transcription, e-book creation, writing, and so on. These help people scale up their ideas and engage more people.

My visual style is crisp, simple, with visual metaphors and the occasional pun. I usually work with one or two accent colours, and have figured out how to draw people with character and objects that have some heft. I draw in high-resolution mode just in case I want to make a letter-sized print of something, although I’m okay with redrawing in case I want to make a poster.

Most of the time, I work at a standing desk I’ve rigged up facing the garden. I take breaks and go for long walks, or do some gardening. Sometimes I go to art galleries to immerse myself in colour and shape and line. I keep a digital notebook of things I like: title treatments, hand-lettering, colour combinations, visual metaphors, drawing techniques. I flip through it for inspiration, and add my experiments to it as well.

I use my sketches as anchors not only for ideas, but also for memories. Like the way people flip through their photographs, I go through my sketches. I like it because I can sketch scenes that I didn’t get to shoot, and I can draw them the way they felt like instead of just what I saw. Drawing has become a part of my life, and I sketch regularly. I’ve even started drawing on paper, using ink and markers.

So, how do I get closer to that?

I’ll start with the sketchnotes, because that would be a great way to review things, develop style, and practise the craft. As I accumulate more notes, I’ll put them in a special section of my blog so that people can read them easily. I already have the standing desk (actually a kitchen chopping board). When I want to take a break from making sketchnotes, I can draw memories or fiction. Looking forward to it!

You can comment with Disqus or you can e-mail me at sacha@sachachua.com.