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Mike Rohde Sketchnoting 101 @ How Design Live Chicago

Written by in Design, HOW Design Live, Inspire

“Now, Kids, Pay Attention!”

And they always thought he was daydreaming.

Editor’s Note: Heading to HOW Design Live in Chicago May 2-6? Here’s a bit of revenge against all those eraser hurling teachers who thought your doodling was the sign of inattention. Grab a seat at Mike Rohde’s MasterClass on sketchnoting*, but bring a pad of paper and pen. Rohde has written two books on the topic and shares insights about effective doodling, drawing, and note making during meetings, classes, and conferences. As he explains, “You don’t have to be an artist to do this.” Writer and design journalist Emily Potts spoke with Mike Rohde about the art of taking notes in class—and it brought back painful memories for her.


Who, Where, When @ HOW?

HOW Design Live in Chicago May 2-6

Grab a seat at Mike Rohde’s MasterClass on sketchnoting* but bring a pad of paper and pen. The session will be overflowing.

Also we encourage activist-minded creative minds to visit Justin Ahren’s session Good is Good for Business. Ahren’s puts his time and money where his heart is. Learn more about doing good.

Share your suggestions for sessions worth noting at How. Comment to this post and tell us who, where, and when at HOW you’ll betaking notes.

EP: How do you know what to draw, or what makes the most sense when a lot of ideas are being presented?

MR: First, I think it’s important to think about sketchnoting relative to experience level: In other words, if someone is just starting to explore sketchnoting, I would recommend just adding a little drawing to the text notes that person is already doing. Maybe in the margins of the page. As you get more comfortable with practice, you can slide the “drawing” control farther to the right, and play with adding images to your sketchnotes. I think practicing with video recordings (like TED talks) helps the sketch note beginner build skills ahead of a conference where pressure is greater.

SXSW 2008

You begin to get a feel on what to write, draw or letter depending upon what resonates with you, and how you choose to structure the page. Typically, once you let go of writing down everything, you become more selective about what you capture—you identify the big ideas. When you listen for ideas that are meaningful, you begin letting go of ideas that aren’t as meaningful, or applicable to you and instead focus on what’s important to you. I’ve been sketchnoting for years, so I’ve learned when and where to blend text, hand lettering, and drawings. But even now it’s a challenge for me and I think that’s a good thing! It keeps me interested and on my toes.

“I teach drawing in a practical, simple way, using squares, circles, triangles, lines and dots, which makes drawing more like building with Lego blocks than fine art drawing.”—MR

EP: Are your notes really that focused when you’re in the moment, or do you often go back and refine them, revisit them and add details?

MR: I really like to capture sketchnotes in the moment. I only do minor tweaks after talks (checking for typos, crossing Ts, etc.). I like the challenge of keeping my work real-time. However, If I sketchnote ideas from my head for a project, I might not feel as compelled to do it in the same session, which frees me to explore other ideas after brewing on the session.


EP: What do you think are the easiest shapes for people to draw?

MR: I teach drawing in a practical, simple way, using squares, circles, triangles, lines and dots, which makes drawing more like building with Lego blocks than fine art drawing. Squares are easier, but if your expectations are practical drawing and not fancy art, start with those five simple shapes. I also suggest creating a visual library tailored to your interests so you have at hand easy to draw icons. Build your library by adding new icons and new drawings as you go along.

Espresso 101

EP: How have improved your sketchnoting skills over the years? Has your note-taking method changed?

MR: Definitely! Every time I sketchnote it’s an opportunity to experiment and improve. I look back at my sketchnotes from ten years, five years, or even one year ago and see a clear path of improvement through practiced. My methods have changed, too. When I started, I was focused on text—but over time I’ve moved toward drawing and experimenting with ideas around that.

“I encourage new sketchnoters to start by adding into their notes a few drawings here and there. Focus on capturing big ideas. This reduces the pressure to jump head first intro drawing and instead, ease into it.” — MR

SXSW Interactive 2010

EP: Do you ever tear out pages and start over, or do you work through your mistakes?

MR: There are some cases where I made such a bad typo, for say the speaker’s name, that I skipped ahead to a new spread in my sketchbook. If errors are minor, I’m of the mindset to keep working the sketchnote and seeing how creative I can be to cover or tweak it. I’ve never ripped pages out of my books. Lately I’ve noticed that I learn much more from sketchnotes I’m displeased with. When a sketchnote goes wrong (often I’m the only one who sees where goof-ups might be), I learn how to handle it differently the next time. As you begin sketchnoting, understand that mistakes are often more useful than perfect sketchnotes. Most of all, give yourself grace when things go wrong. Have a chuckle and laugh about it!

EP: Did you ever forget to bring paper and pen to class?

MR: Never.

EP: Did a teacher ever throw an eraser at you for not paying attention in class?

MR: I collected thrown erasers as trophies. They motivated me.

EP: Did you spend more time in detention hall than in class?

MR: Emily, you’re projecting. Stop it. See you at How Design Live. Pay attention.


*Sketchnoting is a word not yet recognized by New Oxford American Dictionary, but, give it time. Doodler’s were unappreciated for centuries before Mike came along. If grammar is your thing, use “sketch-noting” until Oxford catches up with Mike Rohde.