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Author Talk: Mike Rohde on Sketchnoting

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Publisher Nancy Aldrich-Ruenzel interviews author and sketchnoting pioneer Mike Rohde about his new book, The Sketchnote Handbook: the illustrated guide to visual note taking. They discuss the benefits of sketchnoting, Mike's specific style and techniques, and the rise of "the Sketchnote Army." Mike also touches on the documentary style video he recently released, The Sketchnote Handbook Video.

This interview is a transcription of the podcast, Mike Rohde on Sketchnoting.

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Nancy Aldrich-Ruenzel:  I’m here today with Mike Rohde, the author of The Sketchnote Handbook, a brand new book that’s, I think, hot of the press today.  Congratulations Mike. 

Mike Rohde:  Thanks.  Thanks a lot, Nancy. 

Nancy:  So tell us what the book is about.  I think you coined the term “sketchnoting” didn’t you? 

Mike:  I did.  I did.  As I was working, the word “sketchnoting” just seemed to fit what I was doing, and so I used that term, not realizing that it would be something popular and be used to describe this phenomenon.  The book is about sketchnoting, and sketchnoting is this idea that, when we take notes at events and conferences, often we just use text.  We don’t elaborate in any way, and a lot of times that text has a limit in how it can describe things or maybe it takes a lot of text to describe things.  And I found that, because I have some abilities in drawing, that if I applied the drawings and the notes and mixed them together, that it actually produced more interesting notes, and I found that I remembered things better.  And so I continued to do that, and it turned into this community of people that like doing these visual notes together, and the book was an attempt to put down some of the principles of sketchnoting in a video form and then also invite 15 of my friends who do sketchnoting at different levels to also join me and show their work and give their tips as well.

Nancy:  Is this what you call “the Sketchnote Army”? 

Mike:  Yes.  The Sketchnote Army is an interesting thing.  It’s a website that I started in December of 2009.  I started noticing lots of other people doing sketchnoting and putting sketchnotes online, and I felt there was no place for them to live really, and so it just made sense to have a look and see if sketchnotearmy.com was available.  It was, so I took it and created a website where I could showcase other people’s works so that their work could get out there and get known, and people could start being encouraged.  The idea behind it was to develop some kind of community around this movement.

Nancy:  Tell me a little bit about the different styles of sketchnoting.

Mike:  Well, everybody has their own style, I’m finding, even if it’s a subtle thing.  I think what’s most fun about sketchnotes is that each individual kind of does it in their own way.  And that was one of the fascinating things I found about sketchnotes, and one of the reasons behind doing Sketchnote Army was just seeing how different the different people would take even at the same events.  They’d produce notes that would look so much different from each other, and I think the other message the book and Sketchnote Army focus on is this idea that whether you’re a great artist or you’re just a regular person, you can still do this thing.  You can still do sketchnoting because it’s about capturing ideas and not about the quality of the art or how great an artist you are.  And I wanted to show that in both the website and the book. 

Nancy:  And how would you describe your style?

Mike:  I tend to work in a very bold constrasty style because I use a small book and a gel pen.  That’s the way I prefer to do this because it gives me limitations.  I have a limited amount of space and, with a pen, I don’t have an option to really erase and make changes, so it forces me to be really thoughtful about the things that I put down on paper.  Because of that, I’ve developed this style that tends to be bold and black and white.  I tend not to use color, where other people would use color.  Other people sometimes use larger books.  And so really it’s just a personal thing that my style tends to look more contrasty and bold and that kind of a look.  And that’s carried through in the book as well. 

Nancy:  I can’t wait to get my hands on the book.  So tell me, are there sketchnoters out there, you’ve seen so much around the world, that you personally admire?  Tell us a little bit about why.

Mike:  Well there’s lots of people I admire.  I think actually the people I admire most are the people who don’t feel like they’re artists but that they give it a try.  What’s interesting is that the book was actually released on pdf, and so there was someone in Singapore who found this out by buying it and had a copy, and I think a day after she purchased it she had used some of the exercises and posted them on Twitter.  And it was really interesting to see her work, and I think I’m most excited by that: by people who aren’t typical artists.  They’re not the typical people who would try this thing, and they try it and they find it really valuable for them.  But on the other end of the scale, there are people who do this professionally, like I do.  You know, I might be hired by a convention, by an event.  People come in and sketch this and capture the feeling of the event in visual form.  One of the people I think I most admire is Eva-Lotta Lamm.  She’s a German but she lives in London. She works for Google, and one of her ways of capturing ideas is sketchnoting.  And her style is very different from mine, but it’s just beautiful.  She has this whimsical style.  She uses a finer point pen, and she embellishes after she’s done taking notes with highlighters and so forth to make them colorful and fun.  I just really love how prolific she is.  She’s a really good ambassador for sketchnoting as well, and just a great person. I just really love her. 

Nancy:  Great.  I want to check her out.  So you’re sitting in an event, you’ve been commissioned to sketchnote the event, and get the feeling of the event and so on. What happens when you draw a blank and, you know, half way into a lecture you have nothing to draw.  How do you work around that?

Mike:  Well, typically, that’s not a huge challenge for me.  I think probably the opposite is maybe more of a challenge, and that is having too much to choose from and knowing which is the thing that I want to capture.  So over time I’ve developed this ability just to listen, and I think the key is, I think for me and I think for others, is to find out what is it that’s meaningful to me, because where I came from in my original notetaking was to take everything down and I was pretty fanatical.  I used a pencil and a giant book and I used to try and capture every detail, and it just became kind of a burden, and I never looked at the notes that I took.  So my solution was to go the other direction and say, well, what is it that’s meaningful to me as a person?  This is a personal thing that I’m doing.  It’s my style, but what are the things that the speakers are saying that are meaningful to me?  And when I feel like that’s a meaningful thing to me, that’s the thing that I would capture.  So that was kind of the filter that I would use to put things down.  And the nice thing about that is I didn’t feel like I had to capture everything, and so it let me listen to other things and make sort of decisions like “that’s an interesting sidenote” and if it brought up an image in my mind, I’d draw that, but if it didn’t mean anything to me I’d just let it pass and not feel guilty about letting it pass, because really it’s about what am I taking away as a person from this talk and how can I capture it in a way that helps me remember it later.  So with that focus in mind, that helps me to pick from all the choices that usually a speaker will have for me. 

Nancy:  That’s great advice, and I would love to learn more about the video that you created.  So what can people learn from the video – it’s called The Sketchnote Handbook Video – that they won’t get from the book? 

Mike:  Well, the video edition is quite an interesting thing.  It’s a different perspective on sketchnoting.  It follows and it’s a companion to the book, so the concepts are similar; but I think the interesting thing is you actually are in the room with me.  The videographer, Brian Artka, who did the work, is a great documentary filmmaker, and so he took this approach that he wanted to take a documentary of me doing this work, and approaching it as though it were you and me sitting in a room together, and I’m teaching you the things that I know.  So it’s a little bit like that.  You’re sitting in a room and you’re looking over my shoulder as I draw, and one of the interesting things is that we go on site to an event where I actually sketchnote the event, the speaker, from beginning to end.  So I think it’s a 9-minute presentation and you just follow me along.  I give you tips and tricks and then you look over my shoulder as I make decisions and listen to the speaker and put these things down on paper.  And so you get a real sense that the book can’t really convey in the same way of how the sketchnotes actually come down on paper, how I’m making decisions and what it looks like when I’m doing the work.  So I think that’s really fascinating.

Nancy:  How fun!  I can’t wait to see it.  How do you transfer your analog sketchnotes to digital?  So let’s say that you’ve got to send this electronically to somebody.  Do you have a process that you prefer over others to do that?

Mike:  I have developed the process over time, and what I do is I have a portable scanner.  They’re actually reasonably priced.  It’s a Canon scanner.  It runs on a USB cable so I can plug it in without anything to plug into the wall, which is very convenient when I’m mobile.  Then I put my notebook on the bed, and I scan all the images at pretty high resolution, and then I happen to use Photoshop professionally so it makes sense for me to bring the images into Photoshop and then tune them up, adjust the contrast, fix any dirt of smudges, or if there were misspellings, for instance, of someone’s name, I can fix that in there as well.  Then I’ll usually save graphics files for putting online but I like, also, to produce a pdf, because a lot of times the event organizers like to give the attendees a copy of the pdf so they can look at the notes and maybe be reminded of the things that they heard, as well.

Nancy:  Wow, what a great idea.  So maybe this could revolutionize the boring notes we look at via email from meetings that we attend.  If we could get people to stretch a little bit and start getting visuals.  So…you’re a trained designer and artist.  You’ve illustrated a few best-selling books already, including Rework and the Hundred Dollar Startup.  So having come off those experiences, were you prepared for what it would take to write your own book after having been an illustrator for books? 

Mike:  You know, I think both of those projects helped me prepare to a degree, but they couldn’t prepare me…for the long term drive that it took to get from beginning to end.  I think the whole process from beginning to end was seven months, from the moment we signed the contract.  And I thought about it before that as well.  We had discussions.  But, you know, I made a comment.  One of the things I did as I did the process was to document the process on my blog because I felt like if I could do that then I could go back and look and see, like, what did I go through.  But I thought there would probably be other authors and other people that don’t really have an understanding of what it’s like to write a book.  It was unusual from the perspective that not only did I write the book, but I also illustrated and did all the production and design work on the book too.  So it was a little bit maybe more of a burden than a typical author would be, but one of the observations that I had after I was done and had a chance to kind of ponder it was you know a lot of times, in the workplace doing a book illustration project, it’s a pretty long process, especially Rework where there were quite a few pieces.  You know, you could put in two weeks of hard work and sort of map it out, right?  It’s doable.  But in a book project, it can’t be done that way.  You know, I really had to change my perspective, and it was valuable for life lessons as well, like the things that we want to improve, like our health, you can’t just do it in a weekend.  It’s a life long, every day thing.  There were nights where I felt like I made a few bits of progress, and I had to be happy with that as I laid my head down on the pillow and went to sleep knowing that the next day I would get up and go after it again and just keep on pushing, you know, every day for seven months and just not give up, just sort of stick to it.  That was my lesson from that.  It was tough.  It was probably the toughest project that I’ve ever done, I think.

Nancy:  And then at the end your wife gave birth to your third child, right?

Mike:  Right. Actually the child came in the middle of the project, so in a sense it was a forced break close to the end, a breather, and then finalize everything.  So, in a way, that was a worry going into it – when would the baby come?  And I think, actually, when the baby came, it was actually comforting because okay, that’s off the table, now I can finish this book, like I didn’t have something hanging over me in the same way, oddly enough. 

Nancy:  Yeah, I know.  I understand what you’re saying. Well Mike, I believe that you created a companion website for the book. Do you want to tell us a little bit about sketchnotehandbook.com?

Mike:  Yes.  So this is basically an overview of the book itself.  It’s on my personal website.  That link will actually direct you to my site and to the handbook page.  And it sort of goes over what is the book about.  It’s got pictures.  Because I documented the process of writing and designing and illustrating the book, you can go and see that as well as other sample pictures…Chapter 4 can be downloaded for free, so you get a sense of what the book is like from that, as well as some quotes from other people that have seen the book and have opinions, and some more description about the video edition.  There’s a sample video there that Brian and I did as we prepared to shoot the documentary film that was just a sort of promotional for the book and for me.  So you can see that and get a feel for what the documentary would look like.  And just, sort of, an overview of the book itself.

Nancy:  Great, OK.  Well folks listening, check out the sketchnotehandbook.com and Mike, in the meantime, I want to thank you for your time today.  It’s been fun chatting and the book should arrive any day.

Mike:  That’s right.  Thanks Nancy so much.  I really appreciate the opportunity to work with you and Peachpit. 

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