Review: The Sketchnote Handbook by Mike Rohde

"The Sketchnote Handbook Cover" I happened to be logged into my Google account one day when I received a surprise invitation to join a video hangout with Mike Rohde, who was testing the service to see what it did. Mike, who is part of the secret cabal of super-nice, super-competent Minnesotans Midwesterners I keep bumping into, has gained quite a lot of attention in recent years with the sketchnote style of note-taking he favors. Philosophically it’s sort of the opposite “live-blogging” an event: instead of mashing words into your twitter stream for the sake of capturing the moment, you instead savor and distill what you’re hearing into drawing + words on a page in your notebook. While I was not unfamiliar with the concept of drawing while taking notes, I’d categorized sketch-noting as a stylistic choice for document design; it’s actually much more!

With his new book The Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note taking, Mike has meticulously presented the thinking and methodology of sketchnoting in an insightful and fun format. It’s really good. From the rounded die-cut corners of the book cover to the information-focused layout within, the book oozes attention to detail in a way that’s humble and approachable, not stuffy and overbearing. As Mike acknowledges, he is not the originator of the sketchnote idea, but he certainly has done us a great service in sharing his approach with us.

What’s the Big Deal about Drawing Notes?

I’d previously thought of sketchnotes as an attractive way to take notes, so other people might enjoy them. I found it’s much more, a powerful and fundamental approach to information capture, distillation, and retention. Mike presents a bit of theory about how it’s the combination of both verbal and visual brain processing that creates stronger comprehension and memory while you’re taking the notes. The visual note style then becomes a powerful anchor for those memories. You end up with notes that you are much more likely to read. Mike used to take detailed written notes at meetings, and hated reviewing them. I have much the same aversion to my own notes, and have to force myself to read them. Through sketchnoting, you focus not on capturing unfiltered data, but on understanding the key ideas FIRST and THEN sketch-draw-write them. The results are notes that you truly can use. A secondary benefit is that they will, with practice, really look cool and impress your colleagues.

This is already one of my favorite books, and I’m putting it on my short list of references for design thinking. It’s somewhat like Scott McCloud’s classic Understanding Comics in its effective use of the comic medium to deconstruct itself. I find the overall clarity of presentation, with its mix of sketchy illustration and type, remarkable in that it’s not only insightful, but it’s also very inclusive and encouraging. Whereas Understanding Comics is a deconstruction of sequential art, The Sketchnote Handbook is more like a deconstructed drawing activity book you do with your friends. Mike invites his readers into a world he and other sketchnoters really love; the feeling reminded me of drawing when I was a kid at recess with my friends drawing spaceships. Now that we’re old with jobs, we don’t get to draw as many spaceships as we should but surprise-surprise: we can still have as much fun with the ideas we work with now!

Thoughtful and Approachable

Fun aside, lurking beneath the playfulness is solid design thinking. Mike details the structure of notetaking layouts and the particulars of his craft when he’s on the road, all in sketchnote style. And if you’ve never taken an art course before, The Sketchnote Handbook acknowledges your trepidation with a wonderful introduction to the five basic shapes you can start with (circles, squares, triangles, dots, and lines) and shows you how just about everything can be broken down into these parts. He also emphasizes how it’s not about making art, but about capturing ideas using our verbal and visual senses simultaneously; this is what leads to increased retention years later.

Not just drawing. Solid design thinking.The Sketchnote Handbook is very encouraging!Other community members of the sketchnote movement contribute their views too. It’s an excellent book: beautifully-designed and accessible, practical and actionable. Highly recommended!

» Visit the official The Sketchnote Handbook book site