At the April Web414 meetup, Mike Rohde shared about his new “Sketchnote Handbook“.

Visuals & Audio Transcription

I started as a print designer. I’ve had this journey where I’ve gone from print design to web design. Now I’m into user centered and user experience and user interface design, working on mostly web applications, websites and those kind of things. So part of my journey has been, the way that I come up with ideas is I sketch them. I’ve always sketched them. Since I was a little kid I drew and so when I got into the design business using sketching to kind of get ideas on paper which is the natural way for me to work. So I think that built a lot of the things that have come out now in the Sketchnote Handbook.

To tell you a little bit of a story of how the Sketchnote stuff came about, it was late 2006, I had become a fanatical note taker and I took notes in these giant books with pencil and I wanted to use pencil because if I had a pencil I could erase mistakes and if I had a giant book I could capture everything that I heard and then my idea was if I captured everything I heard I could go back later and sort of figure out what those notes meant, what that talk meant. The funny thing was is I never looked back at the notes so I would put all this effort into these beautifully detailed pencil notes with all this information but I would really never go back and look at them and it became really frustrating. So by the end of 2006 I really needed to go in a different direction. I needed something new and I needed a way to deal with this information that I was trying capture, process and apply for my life.

A lot of times you go to these conferences and the idea is you’re going to go and learn something from somebody and be able to apply it to your life to make either your work or your self better and because I was so hung up on capturing the notes, I was missing and not really, I never looked back at them so I wasn’t really given the analysis that I really needed that I was craving. So the solution for me was to set limitations. As a designer you’re often given these limitations that you have to deal with and developers too. Hardware limitations, software doesn’t work exactly like you want. So you’re always dealing with limitations when you work on things and so for me when I have limitations that help me to clarify the direction I want to go. So, I didn’t really have any limitations other than the ones that I set for myself and I had one of these little moleskin sketchbooks. I bought it at Barnes and Noble a couple months before. I didn’t know what to do with it, it was too beautiful; it had this beautiful cover and the paper inside was wonderful. I chose the sketchbook because it had really thick paper; I like the feel of paper. But it just sat around in my desk for months and I didn’t know what to do with it. Well at this point in time when I was finally frustrated at the end of 2006 I made the decision that I would try and take notes in this little book instead of going with this giant book that I was lugging around. And one of the reasons I chose the little book is because I could put it in my pocket and have it with me wherever I went. It didn’t take a lot of carrying; I didn’t have to take a backpack or something. Now the other thing that I wanted to do was limited myself with how I took the notes so I had been using pencil. My solution there was to go in the opposite direction. Instead of using pencil I challenged myself by going to pen because once that ink goes on the paper it’s there. You either have to accept or you have to find a way to turn it into a monkey or something like that.

So those were my two limitations and those two limitations sort of directed me toward the overall limitation with the information and that was if I had a small book there’s no way that I could capture the detail that I had been in the other notes that I took. So it forced me to this idea of listening very critically. The pen made me become very considerate and deliberate with what I would capture because once I put it down it’s not going anywhere. So those two limitations sort of forced me to this idea of processing the ideas I was hearing at conferences. Instead of capturing everything with the hopes that I would get something valuable and then go back and look at it later, which I never did, I was moving the processing and the analysis up to the front. As I was listening to these ideas I was processing and thinking about what was valuable and what made sense to me and then capturing that. And instead of just using written notes I started to use the skills that I had learned as a kid and developed in my design career and those were drawing, typography, and lettering, and drawing ideas. So I’d get ideas in my head and using that technique of drawing, I would draw these concepts down, and when they got merged with lettering they came really powerful and I was having a lot of fun doing the notes. That was the big difference.

The old notes that I took were sort of drudgery by the time I got to where I put them, and this was exciting, it was fun. And so it was so much fun that I actually shared it online and the other conference attendees found them and really liked them. The speakers liked them. But the most fascinating thing that happened was people from around the world that I didn’t know, were really liking these notes. Like for them, it was a way of capturing the event that I had been out in a really compact way. Almost like a Reader’s Digest the way they would compress ideas in a story to a simple couple of pages. It worked the same way. And so when that started happening I realized that there was something unique going on with Sketchnotes. From there I started doing sketchnoting, it started getting more popular. I was just doing in on my own for fun. Eventually that led to me being invited to come to conferences, capture the Sketchnotes and share them as a promotional tool and a way to document those events. And then eventually that led to being hired to come and sketchnote events and then producing, taking the work that I did and making a PDF out of it, delivering that to all the attendees so they would have sort of a shared documentation of the event that they had attended seen through my eyes. That led then to the illustrations in the 37 Signals book Rework, The $100 Startup which was mentioned earlier and other books. So it led to this illustration thing as well. But then it eventually led to the production of the book that’s being passed around. Because I have done sketchnoting for about five years, there was an opportunity to pitch the idea of teaching how to sketchnote to people that didn’t know how to do it, were interested in it but really didn’t have any way of starting. It was a way of sort of getting the idea on paper and also on video which you’ll see; and sharing that in a way that regular people could take this idea and start using it in their everyday lives.

So, that was the start in how we got to the point of the book happening. Now, sketchnotes themselves are basically, I call them Notes Plus. So it’s like you’re taking regular notes like you always do but you’re adding something to them so it’s not like you’re taking anything away you’re just adding. So you’re adding things like typography or little drawings, and in comparison here I’m using represented fonts as shoes. So is Arial is like the penny loafer and Archer is like Converse All-Stars, and then having fun with this typography with shapes and things and little things like little bird there and the “Free yourself” I’ve got like a little set of handcuffs. So this is what sketchnotes look like for me. It was a way of capturing what I was thinking visually but also with words because I love words, I love typography, and so mine tipped towards this mix of typography and writing and imagery. This is another one. It’s a little bit more text- heavy, but here’s a really simple drawing and this concept of using really simple drawings to illustrate ideas I really felt like it could be translated for regular people who are not designers, they’re not artists, but the challenge was how do you do that? So this is a really simple sketchnote. It’s really just hand lettering and ideas but it’s just really focused and I was listening very intently and processing as I listened to produce this work.

This is my friend Craig Berman, he lives in Chicago. This guy was really different. He’s an industrial designer, he builds products. So his mind works in different ways. So the way he draws is very different. These are much more visual, so you’re seeing a lot more drawings and then wording is sort of assisting and getting the idea across on what those images mean to him. So he went to this talk and listened to Matali Crasset and was capturing the ideas that were coming and flooding through his head and then after the fact he had a great marker and he went and he lighted to give it some more depth. So that’s another way to do sketchnotes that’s a little bit different.

So I use the little books like this and my friend Creighton [SP] uses a little big bigger ones, so they’re a little bit larger. This is my friend Eva-Lotta Lamm; she’s a German living in London. She works for Google. She does user experience design. For some reason the sketchnoting stuff is really popular with user experience designers. I think because they like the structure and all that kind of stuff. But she’s got really beautiful work. Her style is really whimsical. As you see in my style my structure is very linear so I typically because of the book, I start at the top left and I go just like you read a book. If you look at my friend Creighton’s work his is a little more all over the place. He’s just sort of capturing things as he thinking. He might be able to give you a structure of what he was thinking, of what went down first, and Eva-Lotta Lamm follows that same process; where she sort of captures the central idea at the top and then sort of brings these other ideas and illustrates them mixing with text and imagery like little cell phones and people. I love her people. Especially like the pirate over here with his giant arm. It just sort of makes it really human for me. And then she comes in and she highlights it with blue as a way to give it a little depth. So really that’s what sketchnotes are.

The talk that I’m giving is more about the process of writing a book. I thought it would be really interesting to try and document this process. I did it on my blog actually. So before I began, once I had signed the contract, I had this crazy idea that it would be really interesting to try and document what it’s like to write a book. Both for me to remember but also to share with other people. Because I don’t think there’s lots written about what it’s like to write a book and how hard it is and the things that you go through and how you feel. And I wanted to try and capture that in some small way so that somebody following after me can look at this process and maybe get a better feel for it. And it was also fun.

So I started by writing the manuscript. I used my iPad a lot on this project, more than I’d expected I might. In fact I’m presenting on the iPad and I pretty much just travel with the iPad because I could do so much on it. But I would sit in a cafe and I would write. I would bring up my favorite text editor i.e. writer and I have a Bluetooth keyboard, and I would just sit there with a coffee and start hammering out these ideas, writing down on the manuscript, to try to figure out like where these ideas going. So that was a lot of the way that I started working.

Then once I had the manuscript I would sit at my kitchen table most of the time and then convert those ideas into sketches. So once I had the concept, the text, the manuscript, and that worked well because I could send it to my editors, they could make changes and unfortunately I had to use Word for a lot of this process because it’s got the track changes and I was in their world now but it worked out okay and they gave me lots of feedback and helped really hone the manuscript into really tight, little bit of text. And then once that was done then I could bring the manuscript up on the iPad and start to illustrate it. So there actually exists, I made these little templates, I don’t know if you can see them here. I think maybe my next screen will give you, here we go. You can see there’s like a template that I created. I knew that I had lots of pages, I had like 240 pages that I had to produce and I didn’t want to keep drawing the page outlines because I’m kind of a nerd so I made a template and I used that. I printed two or 300 sheets and I would use that for my pencil sketches. And the nice thing about this low-tech solution was I could have an iPad, a pencil, and these stack of papers and I could work any place. I was never dependant on my computer. And the iPad had such great battery life that it would probably outlast my work sessions. So for instance in the middle of writing the book we had a family vacation in Pennsylvania. And so what I did is I just took my iPad and my stack of papers and my pencils and my eraser and every night I would go to this cafe in this little Amish town and I would work on my book. I would sketch out stuff, I’d have my music playing and I’m drinking coffee and I would be building these pages like you see here to sort of get the concepts down on the book.

One of the nice things about having a little margin was I could start putting little notes, like if I didn’t like how big that was or I wanted to change some idea I could write things, like you could see here. I started getting this idea of having reverse type. So I would document those kinds of things in my sketches. Here’s some other pencil sketches that I did. Part of the book as it goes around you’ll see our samples of my work and other peoples work to illustrate ideas that I was trying to get across. And I had this idea of making it look as though the paper was torn out and there was a sketch on there. So this was a way to work through these ideas, figure out where they would fit, how big they would be in relationship with each other.

Another really important thing for the book was, I didn’t’ want to handwrite all this stuff. I had a feeling that my hand would be cramping by the time I got done. I had made a friend who was a type designer. He lives in Alameda near Oakland on an island and he’s a professional type designer. He’s worked I think for Monotype or one of the big houses. He done all kinds of amazing work and now has his own studio and he works with artists you produce typography and then he’s got the technical skills to pull it off. So we partnered up. I gave him, I wrote letters, letter after letter after letter in my moleskin notebook and then scanned that in (?) and sent it off to my friend Delve [SP] and he went through and traced all these letters and not only did he trace just one letter but he traced all of them. So that one of the fascinating things about the type face is that on the body text there’s multiple different characters and if you’ve got the features turned on in open type it will actually sort of rotate them, it’s not quite random, but sort of rotating through the different characters. So as you type it looks as though it’s a little bit different. So he produced that.

I also produced another font. I needed something for headlines because body text was really good but there was going to be a need for headline fonts and things that I could work with. So, on this font when I realized that I got out a piece of paper and I drew out the characters that I wanted. I wanted it to be kind of narrow and tall and very bold. I needed upper and lower case. So I went through and I just did the characters that I really needed. I scanned them in with a tool that I use and I handed off the vector art to my friend Delve who did his magic again. He produced the font, a working font for me that I could use for my headlines. So we tweaked it as we went along. I’d find weird things in the font and he would fix them. So it was kind of nice having my own personal type designer to help me with this. And the nice thing is, is once we went through that process of vectorizing, producing these fonts, all along we had this idea that we would sell the fonts after the book was out. We’re really close to releasing the font. It’s probably going to come out in May. All of the vectors and files are with Delve now, so he’s doing the final work on the font, doing all the details. We’ll review it and its likely going to come out in May. So you’ll be able to buy the body text with the italic and bold and then the headline font. And one of the fun things we did with the headline font, because I had all this bits of art in the book we actually stole those bits and we’re going to put those in as dingbats. So if you go on special keys you can do little icons and stuff, as part of that typeface. So you can look for that in May.

But that was a huge, after looking back on the book, having had that font done was a huge weight lift off my back, because I knew there would be changes and there were. If I had to redraw stuff and try and make it match it would’ve just been really painful. So having this typeface that represented me made everything so much easier. I can’t even calculate how much time it saved but it saved a ton.

So one of the interesting challenges of this project was Peachpit wanted to have a video along with the book and I was kind of like, man, what are you doing to me? I’m killing myself doing this book already and you want a video. But I agreed to do it. We thought it was a good idea. I like the idea of having a couple of different ways to share the same message and even though they were sort of working from the same content, the video sort of has its own personality; partly because I didn’t have a manuscript. I was working on the manuscript as we were shooting the video. So we were kind of flying by the seat of our pants and things were happening all at the same time. And when I knew that I was going to have to do the video I was kind of really worried, like the perfectionist in me wanted to write the whole book and then you produce the video from the book. But I was forced into this situation where I had to do them both at the same time and I was really worried about it. The funny thing is, is that by doing it the way we did it actually benefited me in the end. Because I shot the video at the same time as I was doing the book and it was sort of forming, some of the video that we shot actually helped the book become better. One of the videos in the series was of me sketchnoting my friend John Miller. And there was a whole video, like a nine minute video of this talk that I was sketchnoting and I was able to watch myself do it and figure out what things I did in which order so that I could structure the book in a way that made sense and showed that process. So if I had done it the other way I would’ve never had that benefit. So it was a lot of fun to do.

My friend Brian Artka who has got an office right down the street here, he’s trained as a documentary filmmaker so all that skill and all his tools came in handy when we produced the video. It was a lot of fun to do. I learned a lot about video making, how hard it is and how much time you put in for a very small amount of video. So when I watch a video, or TV, or movies now I really, really appreciate the work and I notice things and I notice things that they do and wonder why they make decisions that they do. So it was definitely an education. What you see here, we needed an open, I kind of didn’t want the movie, or the video to just start. I wanted to have some way to flow into it. So what we did is I had this idea for bringing you in. So this is a storyboard that shows, it’s fading in, we see my backpack sliding across the table and you see me pulling out a book and sitting down at the table and then drawing the title of the video. It was an interesting way to bring someone into the book that was not just the title but it was something more interesting.

This was Brian’s office. Again, we used the iPad for like a teleprompter. We would take the script that my friend Gabe produced and I would sort of break it down into bullet points so that I could speak it more naturally. One of the things we noticed about videos in a lot of these books is people were just reading scripts basically mounted in front of them and it felt like they were just reading. And I wanted to go beyond that. I wanted it to feel more like you were sitting at a table with me and I’m teaching you a little bit at a time. So we really worked hard to produce a script and then boil it down so it was really bullet points for me to really enunciate.

So that’s my view. This is Brian’s view at the table. So, it was pretty hot, so I had my shorts on and I was preparing looking at some stuff as we were, I was on a break. This is onsite at my friends at Translator’s office, they gave up their office for the event and so we had a little small crew of people and Brian came and he shot with two cameras. You can see Brian off on the side here shooting handheld and then he had a camera in the middle that was shooting speaker and sort of the whole experience and then he cut those together in editing for a really nice effect.

Actually I wanted to take a break and I don’t know if we have any audio here. I thought it might be fun to actually show…

Speaker 1: Anybody who’s not seen the book go ahead and grab one. So part of the challenge we had was we had to figure out and prove to Peach Pit we could do this video.  So Brian and I before we got started on the full production, we went up to his office and we basically did some test shots. I kind of had no idea that Brian was doing this, but he was actually planning a video, which he released.

I just checked it today and it’s at 5,600 views on Vimeo, so it’s been seen quite a bit.  But this is basically test shots that we sort of shot together to figure out how we would produce the video.  And then Brian with his editing skills, put it together.  It’s sort of the story of how I came about Sketch noting. Let’s see how it goes.

A: Yeah, this is on Vimeo, so you can go see it.  The URL is up at the top if you want to capture it.  It’s just a three minute video that Brian put together.

[Video playing 02:34-04:43]

That was the little video that Brian sort of snuck up on me, which was pretty cool.  I’m going to show you one more while we have it up.  So this is an actual video too, it’s a sample, it’s sort of an overview of the whole book video. The approach that I’ve taken is trying to give away as much as I can without giving the whole book away. We have chapter four is up there as a PDF, so people can check it out.  We’ve got video too that sort of gives an overview of the whole video.  So you get a feeling of the whole thing before you push the button and buy it, or go to the store and buy it.

So this is that video that will give you a feeling for what the video is like.  You’ll see his office and stuff.

[Video playing 05:49-08:23]

So those are the videos that we did, the first you could see sort of lead to the second, but it was a little different approach.  It was really helpful having Peach Pit see the first video you saw. It really helped them get a feel or sort of the direction.  We made it a much more straight forward in the actual videos.  The first one was kind of arty.  Brian really wanted to have fun with it.  And explore some ideas.  So they’re a little bit different from each other.

Once I had the manuscript down, and I had the pencil sketches done for the whole book.  I sent out each chapter as I would finish it. I would send it to the editors.  They were making edits on my little drawings because they knew what the manuscript would be like.  So they were kind of comparing and giving feedback and things in the pdf’s that I would send them.

Then once we got all nailed down, everybody was happy.  Then I went into the production phase.  I tend to work well in batches, so initially I was thinking that I would just do one chapter all the way from beginning to end.  But as I start ed proceeding that way, I just realized that was against my normal process. That was not the way I did my normal work, so why would I do something different on this huge project.

I sort of reeled myself back in. I said, let’s batch everything up.  That’s the way I usually work.  So that’s when I did sketches first, all the way to the end, and then I went into batching all the illustrations.

Here you see, working on some of the titles for the title page for the first chapter.  Then, that was scanned in and all the pages were laid out in PhotoShop and InDesign, a combination of the two.   Here’s some little icons that I drew for the table of contents, some light sabers and R2-D2’s and my little dog Rufus up there.

This is some of our finished work, so this is after the hand drawn lettering, and art has been scanned in, tuned up and perfected.   I’m working in PhotoShop here, getting all the pieces right.  So the whole guts of the book were done in PhotoShop in black and white.  And the last step was separating the psm orange [inaudible 10:42] color from the black so it was ready for production.

I did all the production too.  So I worked in InDesign and brought all the images in.  I made sure everything was in the right place, and then delivered the final file to the production people at Peach Pit, who then send it to printers and the brand.

It was kind of unusual for an author to design and do everything on their own book, but I really liked it because I had control over the whole process.  I could really make it turn out the way that I wanted to, and have control all the way from the beginning to the end.  So here you can see the book on press, it’s been printed and bound and they’re just about to cut it.

One of the unique things that we tried on the book were these rounded corners and the coating.  We thought it be fun to sort of mimic the moleskin with the rounded corners.  That was added, and then they were going to do actually a linen cover on it, and when they did a test it looked terrible.

I said, we can’t do that it’s going to look too bad so we fell back on this sort of lamanent coating, but it’s plain paper.  It sort of has this velvety feel, and the nice thing is,  we have a baby. So when it would get kind of oily I would get a baby wipe and wipe it off and it would look just like brand new.

So that’s a little tip.  This is what the book looks like inside. You guys have seen it.  This is my friend Alexis [SP] Finch, she’s in Chicago.  This really represents her personality.  She’s sort of crazy and all over the place, and this is the way she captures her notes.

One of the important things about the book was, I feel like sketch noting is a community. It’s a community of people that do this approach.  They try it, everybody’s learning from everybody else. People are at different stages.  Some people are just starting.  Some people have lots of experience, but altogether we work as a community.  No one puts anybody else down, we’re all doing it together.  We’re all learning from each other.

One of the ways I wanted to represent that in this book was to offer 15 of my friends a two page spread in the book to express whatever they want about sketch noting.  How they came to it, the tools that they used, tips and ideas for readers.

This is one of those spreads of the 15.  Here’s [inaudible 12:54]I showed you a piece in the beginning in black.  So this is her spread, where she talks about tools, and she’s got a little illustration of herself.  She sort of separates the two things, sketching versus drawing and some tips for getting good at drawing things.

I thought it was really, really important that they, my friends had places in the book, and I really tried also to work to mix genders, to mix across locations.  There’s a bunch of Aussies, people from the UK, as well as the US.  I try and make this a real representation of the community, and that’s one of the things I most proud of.

There’s one of the pages.  You can see we’ve got orange and black and grey.  This spread was all done in Photo Shop except for the page numbers which were done in End Design.   Here’s another spread, this is from one of the pdf samples.

One of the big ideas was ideas not art. I think a lot of times you see sketch notes and they’re really beautiful because maybe an illustrators done them. One of the big messages that I wanted to get across with the book too was if you’re not an artist, that’s okay.  It’s really about capturing ideas.

If your art looks like crap, that’s, okay, because you could still capture ideas with crappy art.  That’s one of the big messages.  So that’s sort of the process, we ended up going to press.  Peach Pit said the books really doing well.  I think about a month and a half, two months ago they informed me that they ran out of the video edition, and they had to print more.

I don’t think they’re out sold, I think that’s, sort of, if you’re in the tech scene and you think about hand held devices and some makers will say they’ve shipped so many devices as being a big number, but all that means is Best Buy’s got 100,000 of their tablets sitting on the dock and they haven’t sold them.

It’s kind of like that.  Some of them are probably sold, but some are probably on a shelf some place but that was the first 3000 of those books is gone and they had to rerun more, because we’re getting requests and didn’t have any to give.

So that’s really good news, the publisher says it’s selling regularly. It seems to keep popping up, trying to do things like speaking like this, doing a podcast and visiting other cities and teaching.  One of the things I do is like a little work shop where I introduce people to the idea, and that’s gone really well. It’s really fun to see people try it for themselves and then discover that it’s not as hard as they thought.  So the books doing really well. I think there’s 81 reviews on Amazon. I think of those 81, 65 five stars, 8-10 four stars, a couple of ones, twos and threes.

It seems to be rating really well.  People seem to like it. It’s getting people excited so it really doing kind of what I wanted it to do.