At the Crossroads of Media, Culture and Technology

Doodling: an antidote for digital distraction?

Cheryl's Example of a Sketchnote
by Cheryl Lowry

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:

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11 Responses to Doodling: an antidote for digital distraction?

  1. Lonni Gill, Ph.D. says:


    Very well done, informative and creative. How is this embedded in your work at the university? I, too am at a university and have not seen this type of work done there yet.


  2. cheryllowry says:

    Hi Lonni,

    Thanks for your comment. I don’t think sketchnoting is used in any official capacity here at the UW (although hand-drawn information certainly is used in presentations and projects). I’ve recommended it as a way for students to regain focus during class, since the new norm of classroom participation is staring at ipads / notebook computers, and/or simultaneously participating in the “backchannel” (ambient social media conversations about the class in progress on Twitter, for example) while a live conversation is taking place, something that people are actually not cognitively designed to handle well, at the expense of learning.

  3. Lonni Gill, Ph.D. says:

    By the time we get the students in the School of Education, they are juniors and have already been through those larger lecture classes. Our Education classes are quite a shock to them because they are in small groups participating and actively learning.

    It would be great to reach them as freshmen and teach them this new thinking.

    And I was one of those doodlers too, in large lectures way back when the chalkboard and overhead were the “tech of the day!”

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  5. Anita Verna Crofts says:

    Cheryl, thanks so much for this post. I’ll connect you with my friend Jessica Esch, of the United Way of Greater Portland, who is a big Sketchnoter and is taking the craft to new levels with her work. I’ll also share this post with her.


  6. Cheryl Lowry says:

    Thanks Anita, I’d love to hear from Jessica and see her work!

  7. Jessica Esch says:

    Great sketchnoting summary, Cheryl. My sketchnotes can be found here: The first five or so images are actually not sketchnotes but art pieces I recently posted. I look forward to hearing what you have to say on Twitter and want you to know that your website looks mighty fine in Flipboard.

  8. Cheryl Lowry says:

    Thanks Jessica, love the art, it’s somewhat the same genre as Austin Kleon’s newspaper blackout poems: What would you call it, text art? I’m a technical writer, and currently thinking about how to use text art, sketchnotes, and other techniques combining visuals with text for how-to information on the web, to take advantage of people’s underutilized visual learning capacity. Going to poke around your web site for inspiration :-)

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