Sketching Webvisions 2014

At a conference last fall I discovered sketch notes.  The idea of sketch notes is that by using both sides of your brain - artistic and analytic -- you will take more engaging notes and remember the information better.  As an experiment, I decided to test this idea at Webvisions, a web technology and design conference.

I enjoy doodling, although I don't do it as much as I used to in college or high school.  I have also found that sketching is a good way of drawing out ideas when collaborating on group projects (pun intended).  Although drawing works for creating ideas, I wondered whether my notes would be more useful if I tried sketching them.  Here's what I discovered.

My tools were my old iPad, an app called Paper by 53, and a cheap stylus.  On the first day I just started drawing. That night I read half of The Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking by Mike Rohde. The book is half inspiration and half "how to."

Here are the benefits I got from sketching notes:
  • Having to draw what I saw made me more observant of the speakers and the slides.
  • I also had fun drawing the presenters, but more about that later.
  • There's a challenge in trying to capture the spoken ideas using visual shorthand.
  • In trying to frame the ideas, I'm testing what I understand of the talk.
  • Drawing my notes was a ice breaker with other people at the conference, which was nice.
  • Drawing kept my hands moving, helping me focus even if my brain or body was tired.
Not all of the presentations were conducive to drawing. Here are some problems I had:
  • It's tough to draw quickly enough when the speaker has a long list of references. In that case I tried to focus on the less-detailed concepts of the talk.
  • It was redundant and difficult to sketch when a presenter showed video clips.
  • Same with presentations that were already visually packed. I tried to choose a key aspect of the talk and sketch only that.
  • I'm not a trained artist, so I had mixed emotions about sharing my cartoons of the speakers.
  • It's hard to plan the layout of the page when the presenter doesn't provide an outline of the talk at the beginning.  A couple times the composition of the notes got weird.
This page shows the right level of "cartoony" for the presenter picture.
I like the Roomba path cartoon.
People asked if drawing the notes distracted me from the presentation, but listening and drawing don't seem to conflict.  Most of the time the slides were timed so I could look at them, then return to sketching / taking notes.  As mentioned, the only times I had difficulty were when there was a video, or a long list of items. In those cases, I could switch over to the iPad's browser, find the reference, and email it to myself for later. But the sketch notes were mainly to (a) help me process the ideas and (b) make the notes interesting for whoever read them later.

I had some problems drawing the presenters. In The Sketchnote Handbook, Rohde suggests drawing the speakers ahead of the talk, using a photo you might find on the Internet. I didn't take his advice, and chose to draw them from live, as they walked and moved around the stage. It would've been hard enough from a still photo, but sketching as they moved through life was distracting.  Even worse, I wasn't cartoony enough. I often added too many details, which doesn't help with the notes of the presentation, and might even offend some people (I hope not!).

So, what are the results of the experiment?  Sketching the notes provided a way to quickly process and confirm what I learned in the sessions. During one talk, I realized I had barely any notes -- it was because the presentation had touched on so few concrete examples.

Also, drawing kept me focused. Even through three long days of presentations, my mind never wandered from the topics in the rooms.  And finally, hopefully, the notes are interesting to other people and will be shared.

Bottom line, there are plenty of visual note-taking methods.  Using The Sketchnote Handbook method was fun, and kept me focused.  You can see all of my Webvisions 2014 notes here on Google+.

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