Picture your last meeting or classroom experience: was everyone staring at a digital device? Despite the wishful demand for multitasking skills found in most job descriptions, none of us are actually that good at it. There’s been a lot of media focus on the cognitive cost of digital distractions, but we don’t need another web article to tell us that checking Tweetdeck at work or in class makes it harder to pay attention.
The visual thinking movement has an antidote for the problem of digital distraction, but it may require you to set aside your iPad and pick up a pen. Sketchnotes are handwritten notes that use simple visual cues —doodles, lines, and labels— to capture and organize information. As you’ll learn from this Sketchnotes 101 presentation from SXSW 2010, you don’t have to be an artist to practice visual notetaking. All you need to know how to draw are the 6 fundamentals: letters, connectors, bullets, shadows, frames, and stick people. Sketchnote Army, an online community of visual notetakers, has many examples of how to use these fundamentals to take notes if you’re looking for inspiration on how to get started.
Although some of us were probably busted for doodling back in grade school (and may be understandably nervous about trying it now in business or classroom settings), cognitive science supports the value of pairing images with learning. Gamestorming author and visual notetaker Sunni Brown says that sketchnotes greatly improve recall of information because people are primarily visual; in fact 75% of the neurons in our cerebral cortex are dedicated to processing visual information. The studies she cites conclude that the more visual an input is, the more likely we are to recall it. The focus required to take effective sketchnotes also helps us to develop listening skills, an ability atrophied by all the digital distractions competing for the scarce resource of our attention.
Sunni Brown is a professional “graphic recorder”, which is large-scale sketchnoting done in meeting settings to visually capture the collective output of group sessions. Her blog provides fascinating examples of and research about the sketchnoting craft. Mike Rohde and Austin Kleon are also influential sketchnoters who use creative handwritten lettering, simple pictures, and basic lines and connectors to make art from information.
Other sketchnote resources include Dan Roam’s Back of the Napkin (a great resource for understanding how to use sketches to solve business problems), user experience designer Eva-Lotta Lamm’s Web Expo 2010 presentation on getting started as a sketchnoter, and the Ed Emberley drawing book and childhood classic Make a World, which has been teaching kids (and everyone else) how to draw anything using lines, circles, and scribbles for over 40 years.
And for those of you who want to try it but just can’t put down the digital device, you can sketchnote with an iPad too. (Just don’t check Tweetdeck while you’re doing it.)
The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) sponsors talks by leading intellectuals and uses a sketchnote strategy to “animate” these talks and shares them online. They are awesome examples of how sketchnotes can work in real-time.
Here is an RSA animate video from Mathew Taylor: