Want to know how to sketchnote? Maybe you’ve seen the videos where the hand draws sketchnotes for a talk. Or you drool over Instagrammable bullet journal pages. Or maybe you already doodle in the margins when taking notes, but you would never EVER let anyone see it.
After all, sketchnotes are just for people with artistic talent…right?
Sketchnotes are not about art at all. It’s about the way you organize information on a page. The visual elements just help you process the information and make it way easier to review notes later. It’s a way to “think on paper.”
If you’ve ever been taking notes, then drew an arrow to connect something you wrote with another piece of information on a page, you’ve got this! (Arrows are big in sketchnoting.) And if you can write the letters M and Q—even poorly—then you know how to draw lines, angles, and circles, so doodles are covered!
If you’ve ever wanted to learn how to sketchnote, this article has all the basics on the what and the how.
What are sketchnotes?
Sketchnotes are a visual way of capturing ideas on a page. They use words, boxes/clouds, arrows, and simple doodles to organize information.
While some people take these notes on a whiteboard for a whole room full of people (graphic facilitation) most sketchnotes are done for personal use. (So take the pressure off. You can experiment on a page without worrying how it looks to anyone else.)
The big win with sketchnotes is that our brains are wired to take in a scene and process it–which means we can look at a sketchnote page and process it faster than we can with line-by-line notes.
Doodling is also proven to improve our focus. So sketchnotes are a perfect solution for any situation where your mind tends to wander like a class, meeting, workshop, or maybe even in church.
How to create sketchnotes: the basics for beginners
The best way to learn how to sketchnote is to just start doing it and figure out what works for you. With that in mind, here are the basics:
1. Put a headline on the page.
Much of learning how to sketchnote is about prioritizing information on a page. What do you want to see first?
Giving your page a headline orients you to the information on a page. How do you write the headline? Well, the easiest way is to make the letters bigger than anything else on the page. You can make a headline pop by going over each letter with a highlighter or by just drawing a colored line under it.
If you are really feeling ambitious, you can draw it in block letters, but if that gives you bad flashbacks to having to make a poster in junior high, then skip that and keep it simple.
The technique you use isn’t really important. Just differentiate the headline in a way that you will see it first when you look at the page. (And if you need some ideas, check out this post.)
Your headline can go anywhere, but usually you find them at the top or in the very center of the sketchnote page.
2. Write something, then draw a box or a cloud around it.
A lot of what makes sketchnoting interesting is the way information gets called out on a page. Magazines and books do this all the time, by taking separate, but related information and putting it in a colored box on a page.
An easy way to do this in your notes is to write a sentence, quote, or phrase, and then just bubble it with a colored pencil or marker. It will draw your eye to the information and give it presence on a page.
Want to take it to the next level? Bubble another phrase related to it, then draw an arrow to connect the two together. (I told you, sketchnotes LOVE arrows!)
3. Go for it with stick figures.
Stick figures are awesome. They are easy to draw. Besides a circle and 5 lines isn’t supposed to look like an actual person. It’s just supposed to be a symbol that represents a person.
The fun part about stick figures is that you can make them do things. They can smile or frown. You can draw the letter V for eyebrows and make one angry. Add an exclamation point or question mark over his head and he gets even more animated.
Plus, vary the lines you use for arms and legs, and stick figures can sit, run, wave, and—if you make the lines wiggly—dance!
Chances are, you will never make it into an art museum with your stick figures, so just let them be what they are—something to make information on a page more memorable. (Besides, you are just learning how to sketchnote, so cut yourself some slack.)
4. Give your page personality with borders and dividers.
You can take a ruler and divide a page in half with a single line (which totally works). But only draw the line over part of the page and it gets more interesting. Make it dashed or add color and there is even more personality.
Do an image search for “ornamental page divider” and your search engine of choice will show you a wide variety of design ideas. But only start with the simple ones. Or, if this idea feels intimidating at all, just draw a line with a marker or colored pencil.
(You can also cheat and not draw anything at all by using washi tape—the super skinny masking tape that comes in different colors and patterns.)
The border is just to create separation, and is a handy device to prompt you to use the leftover blank part of a page.
5. If you don’t know how to doodle something, look it up on TheNounProject.com.
Doodles are used in sketchnotes and visual journaling to give text a visual anchor which can spark your memory when you review the notes later. And while it’s easy to doodle a flower or a sun, some concepts are harder. Like, how do you doodle “communication”? Or “friendship”?
Luckily, theNounProject.com has icons for everything! Graphic designers use The Noun Project as a graphic marketplace, but you can use it for free to see how simple shapes represent an object or idea.
For example, if you are taking sketchnotes at a talk about global warming, you might want to add a doodle, but are unsure what to draw. Look up “environment” at TheNounProject.com and lots of simple images will come up that you can easily doodle in your notes.
(The Noun Project is a great resource when learning how to sketchnote!)
6. Break out the stickers if a mistake makes you crazy.
Judging your performance is a quick way to suck all the fun and whimsy out of sketchnoting. However, sometimes, you are going to make a mistake that makes you cringe every time you see it.
So, if you ever try something that doesn’t work, just cover it up. You can use a mailing label to make that area of the page blank again and go for a redo, or just find a preprinted sticker that will work in the space.
Nothing ruins a journal faster than having to live with a mistake that makes you crazy. Luckily office supplies to the rescue.
Tada! Crisis averted.
How to create sketchnotes: next level
1. Use a gray brush marker to add dimension.
This immediately makes your sketchnotes look a little more artistic. (After all, most people aren’t walking around with a gray brush marker so it adds something unique.)
You can use it to darken parts of a doodle, add shadows, or just give your stick figure some ground to stand on. The cool thing about using a gray marker is that it will be lighter than anything black on the page which will give your sketchnotes dimension.
Where to find a gray brush marker? If you have a hobby or art store nearby, you can get one there, or you can grab this one from Amazon.
2. Write most of your words in black ink, and save color for the embellishments.
A “rookie mistake” with sketchnotes is writing the words in too many colors.
We’ve been trained to see text in black ink by years of reading books and blog posts. Also, the contrast between black ink on white paper helps our eyes. So, make it a practice to write most of your words in black ink and save color for headings, borders, drawings and callout boxes.
Your brain will thank you when you review them later.
3. Brands matter when it comes to pens, pencils, crayons and markers.
That janky ballpoint pen that’s been rolling around your desk drawer for ages may not yet be empty, but chances are the ink is old and it isn’t easily drawing a clean, black line on the paper. And if you are using your kids leftover school markers, stop it. The results will just make you feel like you can’t do this.
For color, go with brush markers like the Tombow Dual Liner, Prismacolor Pencils, or brand name Crayola Crayons. (Their drugstore counterparts don’t lay down as much color so they don’t look as good on paper.)
The best part about using quality supplies is that you get a WAY better result with no additional effort. (In other words, the problem isn’t you, it’s your ancient, crusty pen or dried-out, cheap-ass markers.)
4. Stylize your stick figures.
While your run of the mill stick figure performs perfectly well in a sketchnote, you can stylize them to make them look more “professional.” Making the body of the stick figure a star gives you the ability to add color to it. You can also use other techniques like using an oval for the head instead of a circle or drawing rectangle bodies.
What you do isn’t as important as continuity. Next level stick figures will be your own style that you use consistently throughout your sketchnotes.
The big question beginners always ask about sketchnotes
The question almost always asked by beginners is: how do I know what to put on the page?
Here is the extremely unsatisfying answer: You are going to guess.
Sketchnotes aren’t a transcription. There is no way to capture every single word–and you don’t want to.
Sketchnotes are a way to help you focus and they build a memory prompt to spark the big ideas when you review them later. With that in mind, capture whatever seems significant and ignore the rest. In most scenarios where you are taking sketchnotes there will be some big ideas that either jump out at you or get repeated by the speaker. Grab those.
As for where to add the doodles, leave a little space around things. Then you can go back when the speaker is telling a story and add something simple.
Your sketchnote technique gets better with volume. Go for loads and loads of imperfect practice. Take your notebook with you everywhere and you’ll be amazed at how many opportunities you get for sketchnotes from random meetings, to podcasts, to coffee with friends. (Yes, you can sketchnote conversations. Oddly, people like it when you draw a stick figure and give it the same hair or glasses as they have.)
Not ready to do this in front of people yet? Here’s a list of TED talks under 6 minutes that you can practice with.
See? Learning how to sketchnote is easier than it seems.
It doesn’t take any special talent to organize notes on a page.
In fact, you already do it daily, writing things down in a way that makes sense to you.
Turning regular notes into sketchnotes is just about throwing in a headline, simple doodles and some color in to make it easier to navigate the page visually. So you’ve totally got this!
Besides, sketchnoting is fun. It’s good for your brain. And better yet, the more you do it, the more fun it becomes.
Learn more about Sketchnoting
in our online course!
How to Start (and Keep) a Visual Journal
Want a quick tutorial on how to get started with visual journaling? (With some great prompts on how to sketchnote?) Subscribe to download the free Quickstart Guide to Visual Journaling!