• Sketchnotes: the Ultimate Guide to Visual Note Taking

    Sketchnotes have taken off in the 10 years since Mike Rohde wrote THE book on sketchnoting — The Sketchnote Handbook. In 2011 I attempted my first one and almost never tried again. Luckily a couple of things came through and helped me unlock my sketchnoting ability.

    In this ultimate guide to visual note taking, you’ll learn what helped me unlock my abilities. Plus, the other keys and tips I’ve learned from helping hundreds of other people create their first sketchnote.

    What is sketchnoting?

    Sketchnoting is a form of visual note taking that combines texts and graphical elements such as icons, arrows, containers, non-linear layouts and fancy typography. They are often used to record conference talks and meetings but can be used for planning and sharing discussions too.

    Mike Rohde coined the term back in 2006 when he was struggling with the typical way of taking notes at conferences. He was using a pencil on a legal pad of paper and trying to get every word the speaker said.

    So he set some creative limits and freedoms to change his approach.

    • He captured the key points not every word
    • He used a small A5 moleskine notebook
    • He add visual elements like drawings
    • He wrote in pen

    These rules started this note taking style. Although it has evolved since then, the core ideas remain. First, don’t worry about getting everything down, just get the key points. And second, use both visuals elements and text to make your notes.

    Why you should make sketchnotes

    Using text and visuals to take notes help you remember more information. Plus you will be more engage in the topic and you can express your creativity too. They also leave you with a beautiful graphic you’ll want to share not a long text document.

    Some people even sketchnote as their natural means of taking notes (without ever learning the name of the topic). Plus certain topics are just far better expressed and easier to diget with the aid of visuals and text. Sketchnote may even be the most natural way to take notes, if you’d never been told what you should do.

    If you want a full list of reasons for why you should give them a try, check out this article and video.

    Examples of sketchnotes

    How students and educators are using sketchnotes to learn more

    Many educators and schools are starting to use sketchnoting and related visual thinking practices to help their students learn more effectively. Sketchnote engage both visual and verbal processing sectors of the brain which helps aid memory.

    And using visual thinking practices for planning and ideation help communication. Great to avoid confusion between students and teacher as well as preparing for 21st century skills.

    Learn more about why educators should use sketchnotes here.

    How do you do sketchnotes?

    Just make a note with a combination of text and visuals. The exact make up is up to you but there are few common steps you’ll probably want to take.

    • Add a headline with some core metadata (like the speaker and the event). You can even do this in advance of the event.
    • Pick a layout (the talk topic might guide you or the intro may give you some ideas).
    • Add your first point (this might be a headline, an image, or a description depending on what fits).
    • Add another element to enhance the point (maybe an icon to reinforce the text, or some subtext to a header).
    • Don’t try to capture everything, just the most important points.
    • If you don’t have time to write or draw it, leave a clue or space so you can complete it later.
    • Continue until you have finished your note.

    If you are looking for what you can include in your visual, the next section has some ideas.

    What should people include in sketchnotes

    There are five common elements people include in their notes. These are

    • Plain text
    • Fancy typography
    • Headlines
    • Icons (little drawings)
    • Containers
    • Arrows
    • Lines
    • Speech Bubbles
    • Banners
    • Colours
    • Background styles
    • layouts

    You can group some of these elements together. For example, a speech bubble is a form of container. But thinking of them as separate items can help you remember them when you need them.

    “I’d love to sketchnote, but I can’t draw”

    Good news, you can still sketchnote even if you can’t draw for three reasons.

    1. A Sketchnote uses other elements too including layouts, colours, typography, arrows, containers and more. You can focus on using these elements rather than adding icons and drawings.

    2. You almost certainly can draw to some degree, and the way to get better is to practice. Don’t feel any pressure to share your sketchnotes yet, but it’s really all about the ideas and the learning process not about creating art.

    3. You could make visual notes using graphics and icons others have made. In this situation you might use an app like canva and import their icons to get your design layout.

    If you’d like more advice on how to sketchnote if you can’t draw, check out this cheap course.

    How to start sketchnoting

    There’s no right or wrong way to get started, with sketchnoting. In fact some just dive right and make a sketchnote at the next conference they go to. But most of us need to start with an easier challenge.

    Make a sketchnote selfie

    Sketchnote selfie

    From my experience helping students learn sketchnoting, one of the best ways to start is by making a sketchnote selfie. This removes a couple of the toughest challenge like the time pressure of live sketchnoting and the less familiar topic.

    If you want a step by step guide for creating your first sketchnote, check out this free course.

    Should I make digital or analog sketchnotes?

    It’s completely up to you. Personally, I love switching between digital and analog tools. It let’s me mess around and explore different styles and options. But you might prefer one over the other.

    Digital Sketchnoting can help you correct mistakes, create higher resolution sketches and you can experiment with hybrid-sketchnotes with imported graphics and photos.

    Analog sketch notes feel completely different and can open up the possibility of popup and 3D elements. Plus you don’t have to worry about keeping your note book charged!

    Give both a try and see what you prefer, just don’t expect a tablet to solve your drawing challenges.

    The Best Sketchnotes App

    There are hundreds of apps you can use for sketchnoting, and depending on your preferences you might gravitate to a different option. There are, however, a few which users recommend more than the rest. Here they are (including my own personal recommendations).

    The best IPad Sketchnoting Apps

    The iPad with Apple Pencil is a common choice for sketchnoting app due to its incredible responsiveness and flexibility. The most common sketchnoting apps are.

    I personally use all the first four for different needs. Paper is for simple drawings. Procreate for final products. Concepts for SVG files. And Goodnotes for marking up PDFs.
    I’ve also heard good things about noteshelf.

    The best apps for sketchnoting on an android tablet

    Although the iPad has the majority of sketchnoting fans, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t use an Android tablet. Options like the Samsung Galaxy tabs have great styli too and can produce great results. Here are a couple of the most common sketchnoting app choices.

    The best sketchnoting tools for analog sketchnotes

    The best sketchnoting tools are the ones that encourage you to create more. For someone people that’s really cheap tools, for others its more premium ones.
    Personally I like a balance. Cheap tools to test out ideas without worrying about the cost, and nice premium tools for making visual notes at events.
    Here are some of my favouirte premium tools.

    Ready to start?

    Well know you should know everything you need to start sketchnoting.

    Just get a pen and some paper together (or even an iPad), find an interesting topic and get started. If you want some more guidance, check out my free and premium courses to help you unlock your thinking with sketchnotes.


    What are sketchnotes?

    Sketchnotes are a form of visual noting combining element of classic notes, like text, and more visual elements like icons, connectors, arrangements and colours.

    Why should I make sketchnotes?

    Sketchnotes are a more creative, more engaging and more memorable way to create notes. If you want to explore your creative side or take more effective notes for a course, you should use sketchnotes. Read this article to learn more reasons to sketchnote.

    Can I make sketchnotes with an iPad or other tablet?

    Yes! Although sketchnotes started as an analog form of note taking digital sketchnoting is a common approach and perhaps even the most common way now. While using a digital tool has some advantages, there are advantages of analog sketchnoting too

    Are mind-maps sketchnotes?

    Both mind-maps and sketchnotes are forms of visual note taking and so overlap. You can have a note that is both a mind-map and a sketchnote (and call it what you like), or it can just be a sketchnote, or just a mind-map. Learn more about the differences between mind-maps and sketchnotes here.

    What should I make sketchnotes of?

    Anything you want! You can make sketchnotes of conference talks, podcasts, books, food experiences, plans and more. Look at this list of 30 sketchnote prompts if you need some ideas.

    How many images should I have in my sketchnotes?

    It’s really up to you and depends how large your images are. Some people make sketchnotes with more images, other use more text and other visual elements like dividers. Some content favors more text while others is better as an image. For more ideas over what should or shouldn’t be an image in a sketchnote, read this post.

    Can I sketchnote even if I can’t draw?

    Yes. Firstly you can use other elements in your sketchnotes and not just drawing, and secondly, you almost certainly can draw but you can’t draw as well as you like. The way around that is to practice. If you like to learn more about how to sketchnote if you can’t draw, check out this course.

  • Hi there fellow teacher. I’ve heard that you have some concerns about your students doodling during your lessons. I know it may seem like the aren’t listening or paying attention but I want to assure it isn’t necessarily the case. Yes, they may be off in their own world and not paying attention, but if they are sketchnoting, they are actually paying far more attention to your lesson than if they were looking at you, writing words by hand or typing. This is why you should encourage your students to sketchnote during your lessons.

    What is sketchnoting?

    Sketchnoting is using all your tools to take notes. It’s not limiting yourself to words, but it includes using words. It has benefits in both students taking in more information at the time AND being able to access that information later. And those are just a small sample of the benefits provided from sketchnoting. But in fact I think there are some more important reasons you should consider allowing your students to sketchnote.

    It shows they are engaged

    If someone is sketchnoting, they have to pay more attention to the lesson. They have to listen to what you are saying, and priorities what they believe is the most important information as well as work out how to get it down on paper.

    It helps them learn more effectively

    There have been a series of study into the benefits of using different ways to take in and record information. No I’m not talking about debunked learner styles but about ideas of dual-coding theory and how when we “appeal to different learner styles” every student benefits (not just the supposed learner preferences). So using visual and text provide a more memorable experience for the students. Better grades will surely follow and that means more praise/a bonus for you.

    Students find it motivating

    Some students will look forward to your classes even if they aren’t naturally drawn to the subject (pun not intended but welcomed) as they know they can sketchnote in your class. They will enjoy the process of learning as sketchnotes are more fun and so remember more.

    They will want to show others

    It’s so much fun to share a good sketchnote and when they have finished their notes, they’ll want to show other students and their parents. That means parents won’t be asking you what their kids learnt in school accusingly but instead they can see a visual map of their kids learning.

    Some books and resources you should check out

    If you want to know more about sketchnoting and how you can bring it into your classroom, I recommend checking out these resources

  • One of the ideas that I think I’ve picked up on in sketchnoting circles is that teachers should just “start sketchnoting” in their classroom. I’ll admit that this might be my misinterpretation of what people say (sometimes we read into things what we want to hear) but I felt like this has come up in a few places, so I suspect that this isn’t just me. I believe this is a misguided belief born out of good intentions and I hope that this post will lay out why we can’t and shouldn’t just sketchnote in the classroom but I still believe that sketchnoting has a place in the classroom (but not neccaserily THE place).

    We need to focus on Pedagogy

    The main issue that I have is that this belief that we should start using sketchnotes seems to lack any pedagogy. It simply states that sketchnoting is better for memory (which seems valid) and suits different learner types (erm, learning types is probably a myth, but suiting different styles does seem to benefit all students so…I guess that’s okay?) and it’s good…so do it.

    This doesn’t consider the competing theories we have about how knowledge is acquired or how we teach in practice. In the past we used to teach via passing on knowledge from a source of knowledge (the teacher and later possibly textbooks) and students had to listen and make notes. Now we have different theories which are competing for favour but they generally have left this idea of “the teacher as the source of knowledge who instructs the students” to a model where the teacher is a guide and helps the students to find out what they don’t know. This might not sound very different, but in practice it can lead to students discovering something the teacher doesn’t know and generally favours more project work and learning as a group.

    This is not a universal truth, some schools don’t follow these ideas and some politicians insist that these are bad (sometimes with good reason), but sketchnoting isn’t an immediate fit into a class which isn’t another form of a lecture.
    I’m not saying that these classes can’t be sketchnoted or use sketchnotes, but it’s not a simple 1 + 1. Thought and consideration needs to be given. Is it worth getting students to create separate sketches as they write up a report, or should they use sketches in their report, or should they sketch after the report? There are possible merits to each but we need to back these up with teaching knowledge.

    Who is supposed to sketchnote? The teacher or the students?

    Linked into that point, there is a question of who should sketchnote in the classroom? The teacher or the students? If it’s the teacher then why not just use infographics and pictures in the students text books (or the type of board work that teachers have done for years). If it is the students, then what about students at a young age who struggle with their motor skills. I’m not saying they shouldn’t sketch, but you need to consider these things (as teachers do) and not just tell a teacher to “start sketching”.

    Conversely, older students (such as late teens and adults) might have an adverse reaction to the idea of sketchnoting in class (viewing it as a waste of time or something they can’t do) and as such we may need to work on subtlying introducing sketchnoting into their practice. Ultimately they may not choose to work via this style and that is something which a teacher may have to accept. After all, their job is to teach their subject, not teach sketchnoting. Sure it might help teaching, but it is a means to an end not the ends in and of itself (this is what just sketchnote promotes).

    Different subjects should be taught in different ways

    The way we teach different subjects varies depending on their content and skills required. For example, I didn’t read much about the history of the mathematicians who’s theories I learnt about in school. Paradoxically, I learnt (and read) a heck of a lot about the lives of different political theorists as it influenced their theories. With maths, I followed example exercises to understand how to do certain equations, with German I read texts and then had to identify the words which meant different things within the text.

    Different subjects require different things to be taught and in different ways. In some cases we need to apply sketchnoting differently and we may need to use different systems or set ups to do so.

    Classrooms have constraints

    There are also constraints within classrooms. These can be practical and physical (we don’t have any desk/enough paper/pencils etc) or imposed constraints (“follow the syllabus to the letter.”, you can do whatever you want but make sure you cover all the material (which you don’t have enough time to cover as it is). This is a terrible excuse, I agree, but when you find someone in this sort of situation, it’s hard to persuade them to do anything “extra” even if it could save them time in the future.

    But how can teachers start using sketchnoting in the classroom?

    Despite saying all those points, I believe teachers can and probably should use sketchnoting in the classroom (at least as an option for students). As such, here are a few ideas for how a teacher can start brining sketchnoting into the classroom.

    1. Show sketchnotes

    Some sketchnotes could also be described as handmade infographics. These can be used to introduce ideas and demonstrate idea or concept. By presenting sketchnotes, they may encourage students to experiment with making their own sketchnotes and it provides a regence point for activities where a teacher encourages students to create sketchnotes.

    2. Start with a single activity

    Instead of getting students to dive in at the deep in, we should instead start with single activities and build up to using sketchnotes more and more. This might be starting with just sketching an icon for a group of words they learn. It might be sketchnoting a short audio recording, video or book that they have to digest. It could be summarizing the lesson at the end of the class.

    3. Provide note frameworks for students

    In my experience, this has helped my students get into sketchnoting the most. All we do is provide some guidelines or framework for their notes during the lesson. (I absolutely stole this from Dana Ladenburger) By providing a framework, we give guidelines as to what our students should write and sketch and where. They can then focus more on the content and how it fits within these guidelines. Furthermore, we also provide some insight into the lesson content and what they should pay attention to.

    4. Use a single element of sketchnoting where appropriate

    There are lots of different elements of sketchnoting and introducing them all at once can feel very overwhelming. It might be better to introduce one step at a time and then get students to try to incorporate more as they go along. For example, maybe you start with focusing on different types of text, a heading, main text and call out text. Then you might add in dividers and content blocks, perhaps you’ll add icons next and so on.

    This helps break sketchnoting down into different skills and highlights different aspects that students who “can’t draw” might be more drawn (pun not intended) to.

    5. Present students with the option of sketchnoting

    I believe it is also good to present students with the option of sketchnoting and not necessarily enforcing it where we don’t need to. Providing the option can help build intrigue and allow the students who are naturally drawn to sketchnoting to try it. Meanwhile, the students who are uncertain can simply notice what the other students are doing increasing their interest which may lead to them experimenting with sketchnoting later.

    6. Check out the book “Visual notetaking for educators”

    This is a bit of a cheat but the book Visual notetaking for educators has some useful ideas for sketchnoting in the classroom as well as a lot of the evidence for why sketchnoting can help students to learn more effectively.

    What ideas have you got?

  • How to learn a language on your own with sketchnotes

    As soon as I came across sketchnoting I knew it was suitable for language learning. How? Because I recognized that my own language learning notes were a form of sketchnotes. Instead of using only words, I used icons and diagrams as well as words. That was because I was encouraged not to use my first language in the classroom and instead seek to “think” in the second language.

    It made sense to aim for this in my notes as well, but there was an issue. I often couldn’t describe what a new word meant (try clearly and accurately describing a dog with very basic English vocabulary). Doodles and visuals helped to provide clarity in my notes and yet keep them focused in the target language. However, sketchnotes can be used for more than just recording vocabulary via flash cards. Here’s how to learn a language on your own with sketchnotes.

    Recording vocabulary with flash cards

    In the Sketchnote workbook this is one of the ideas that Mike Rohde introduces. These are useful as you can have a clear visual representation of the word you are trying to learn (so its meaning is clear) and you can practice these words on the go via the principle of spaced repetition.

    Sketching your own flashcards is very useful as it allows us to personalize our images and add in connections that we think. The process of creating the notes is also very powerful for helping to remember the target vocabulary.

    However, stopping with a single word is a real shame, but often what we do. Let’s take the word “dog” for example. I would probably draw a dog differently to how you would. Maybe yours would be a big German Shepherd, or perhaps a small Yorkshire terrier. Well, now we have some adjectives along with our noun. It could be as simple as “a small dog” or more complicated like a “cute bag-able dog” (when you have a dog in someone’s handbag). With verbs we can look at the grammar that goes along with them. “She’s playing football” for instance or “he wakes up at 9am everyday”. Focusing on “chunks of language” that frequently occur together helps take flash cards further than just a single word.

    Sketch out your day/week/etc

    One of the activities my Polish teacher used to get me to do was to sketch out the big events in my week before I came to class and use them to present what I had done. This allowed me some time to prepare what I was going to talk about and not have to worry about misspelling certain words. She would then ask me some questions and I could add to the images “what was the weather like…why don’t you add that in?”

    If you are self studying, you can then use your phone to record yourself talking about your week, save a picture and the audio together and you can keep track of your progress (or get feedback on how you are doing). You might also be able to show these notes to a more proficient speaker of the language and get their feedback on your errors.

    Idioms and Phrasal verbs

    English is full of interesting idioms and phrasal verbs. It makes the language rich and beautiful, but also difficult to learn. The fact that their meaning is not obvious or tied to the parts that make them up, makes them difficult to understand and remember. With sketchnotes, we can use visual that highlight the actual meaning as well as the literal meaning. This can be useful to help remember words…plus pictures of people with feet in their mouths are fun.

    Grammar diagrams

    Most of this post has been focused on vocabulary but grammar is also important. Languages treat time differently and in some cases we need extra grammatical tenses or aspects to describe two things where we’d use the same one in English or our own language. That’s not even touching on cases in Slavic languages.

    Timelines for tenses

    Timelines can be useful tools to help get to grips with tenses. The involve a line which represents time (including now, the past the future) and where we can show an action, whether it is a process, a finished action, a recurring action and so on.

    Colour codes for cases

    Cases aren’t a major problem in English (it’s only really the pronouns which can cause a problem) but in other languages (I’m looking at you Slavic languages), they can be a real headache. When it comes to cases, I have found using colour codes to be very useful. So if I write, “the boy is eating the apple” I might draw “the boy” in blue and “apple” in red and write those words in the same colour with bold for how the noun has changed form. That’s pretty simple, but when you add in adjectives in different cases, as well as indirect objects and locations, it can be more tricky and require more colours.

    Make a sketch a movie/story/podcast (receptive skills)

    Listening and reading practice can be enhanced by making a sketchnote to record what you are listening or reading. Simple follow along and make note of the key events and most important information. You might come across a new word, or hear an expression which you quote. Plus you’ve then got a record of the big things picture and plot which you can refer back to, this can help you understand what is going on at that moment from the bigger picture (top down processing skills).

    Here’s some examples of Doug Neil learning Spanish form a film.

    Conversation flow charts

    One of the things I used to do in Ukraine was try to anticipate interactions I’d have that day. So if I knew I needed to buy something in the pharmacist, I’d think through my conversation trying to anticipate their questions. Likewise, when I was meeting a friend, I’d try to do the same. The problem is that often I’d think “what if they say this…or they might say THAT”.

    Decision trees are a great way to build in these different routes a dialogue could take and help you think through your interaction. You can then add to them as you find out what really happens.

    Bonus: Find sketchnotes and sketchnote resources related to topics you are interested in

    Of course, if you like sketchnoting then you can use that interest to spur on your language learning. Find someone who makes sketchnotes in that language, find books on sketchnotes in that language. There can be issues with the type of language that people include in sketchnotes (it might not match up with the type of language people speak) but being aware of that will help, and maybe they can help guide you through the primary source? Find a TED talk, someone’s sketchnote for it and then follow.

    Any other ideas?

    I started this post because I had been researching this topic for my IATEFL talk on using sketchnote or visual notetaking in the young learner classroom and it surprised me how many posts there are online which go “get your students to sketchnote kthxbi”. Hopefully these give you some more ideas which you can use to teach others or use yourself (and you can expect more to come).

    Have you got any other ideas?

  • YouTube opens up the possibility of seeing a visual note and sketchnotes being created in real time. This is great for us who make visuals or who want to help our students make visuals as well. Seeing the order and items as they are created help. Check out these great sketchnote youtube channels that will boost your Sketchnotes.

    Verbal to visual

    As I mentioned in a previous blog post, verbal to visual is a channel run by Doug Neil who shares videos around sketchnoting. Some of these videos center around how to sketchnote better (perhaps the organizational elements or drawing skills) and others show examples of how he sketchnotes different topics.

    The Sketchnote video podcast from Mike Rhode

    Originally, Mike shared a short collection of 12 videos walking through some of the basics of sketchnoting as well as showing off some people’s sketchnoting works. Now, he has every episode of the Sketchnote Army Podcast Available in video from too!

    Drawing in class (TED talk)

    Here is a single TED video about sketchnoting in the classroom. It’s aimed at general education but it helps address some of the reasons why it’s a good idea to use sketchnote in the classroom.

    Will Paterson

    Okay, this isn’t a channel about sketchnoting but it is about lettering and logo design as well as design in general. These are tangential skills to sketchnoting that can help add some class to your images.

    What Sketchnote YouTube Channels do you like?

    Do you like another channel which focuses on Sketchnote videos? Maybe you even run one. Leave a comment below with the channel and I’ll check it out.

  • The Best Sketchnote Blogs for Your Inspiration

    As great as books are, blogs are also of great value. After all, a good blog will be updated frequently and include more specific examples rather than a general rules of thumbs that you see in books. As such, you should check out these wonderful Sketchnote blogs. Some aren’t education specific and as such, they might offer other insights, some of which might not be so useful and others will be.

    1. The Sketchnote army blog

    The sketchnote army is a collection of different sketchnoters sketchnotes and interesting tools, resources and videos. It also hosts the sketchnote army podcast which is full of interesting interview and discussions with sketchnoters from different fields.

    2. Mike Rhode

    I’ve mentioned Mike a few times before already, that’s for good reasons as he is the originator of sketchnotes. His personal site and newsletter feature a round up of great design, drawing and sketchnoting items from around the web. Sometimes he shares a post on the basics of typography, sometimes on how to draw someone’s face and sometimes it’s a podcast on pens.

    3. Verbal to visual

    Verbal to visual is run by Doug Neil and focuses a lot on videos (more on that in a future email) but he also offers some sketchnoting courses on his site including the basics of sketchnoting, how to make sketchnote videos and a new course coming soon on Sketchnoting in the classroom.

    4. Sylvia Duckworth

    Sylvia has put out an astonishing number of sketchnotes on different topics within education. Her blog not only has sketchnotes, but also posts on education as well.

    5. Kathy Schrock’s sketchnoting in the classroom

    Okay, this isn’t so much a blog as a page with great links to all things sketchnoting and education. This includes items on sketchnoting, sketchnoting in the classroom, tools to Sketchnote, videos and more. It’s a great place to get lost on for a while like a good wikipedia page.

    What great sketchnote blogs do you know?

    This list will continue to grow and update as I find out about more great sites. If you’d like to recommend one, leave a comment below and say why.