Sketchnote Handbook

Cover of the Sketchnote HandbookBack in June 2012, I was contacted by UX designer and visual note-taker extraordinaire, Mike Rohde. We’d been in touch before, to talk about “sketchnotes” and spreading ideas around. Along with 14 others, Mike asked me if I would like to provide some artwork for an upcoming book: the Sketchnote Handbook.

Are bears Catholic? Does the Pope… ? Well, yeah – you get the idea. I was only too happy to produce some illustrations and that book has now been published.


Those of us asked to contribute illustrations to the book were given a 2-page spread (roughly A4 each page) and some ideas for content.

During the summer, I sketched out a draft of what I thought my content would be, and sent that to the publishers, Peachpit Press. They, and Mike, wanted to see what the guest illustrators had in mind for how they would use their space. I stuck with a fairly traditional approach (probably influenced by reading a lot of comics!), I suppose, and did a separate illustration for each page.

Sketchnote Handbook draft

Starting small

My draft was actually done at half-scale, so when it came to working on the final piece, I needed to redraw it at full size. Seems like more work than necessary, right? There was a point, though. I stole an idea from one of my favourite graphic designers, Abram Games, who produced lots of war effort and railway posters in the early and mid 20th century. One of his great tricks was to produce miniature versions of his posters, trying to capture the key forms and communicate the feeling or message even on a tiny scale. His reasoning being that if poster designs “don’t work an inch high, they will never work.” Clever, eh?

It’s a trick that I sometimes use when considering information design and the presentation of documents and web pages alike. Something to have up your sleeve, perhaps.

Redrawing my illustration for the sketchnote handbook

So I redrew the artwork in pencil, changing some sections from the original. Then I set about inking all the pictures and writing the text. I have an even deeper respect for comic book inkers and letterers after that – it was bloody hard work! A couple of late nights one weekend, though, and it was done.

Did you make any mistakes?

Thanks for asking – yes, I messed up a few things. I even misspelt “sketchnotes” at one point! I blame that on burning the midnight oil. Not to worry, though. The final stage of the process was digital, which means that many sins can simply be absolved in Photoshop!

Final tweaks

There were a couple of typos and I either changed my mind about or wasn’t happy with a couple of images. I rewrote or redrew these, scanned them, and then added them to my master Photoshop file, replacing the bits I didn’t want.

Sketchnote Handbook illustration in Photoshop

That luxury is something that we don’t have when producing real, live sketchnotes. At least, I don’t – I always work with pen and paper and if I screw it up, you’ll see it! But this was different. This was an illustration for a friends book. It was going to be printed and seen by lots of other people. If I can’t write even”sketchnotes”, people are going to think I am pretty dumb, right?

Mike had kindly provided us with a Photoshop template file featuring guides for margins, bleeds, etc. I’d drawn my artwork to scale (with my own guides) so it was easy to just fit the scanned image in. I remember that it was pretty cool to think that these would end up as real pages. Simple pleasures!

Sketchnotes, ho!

Planning an illustration for the Sketchnote HandbookAnd that was it. Save and email, and then wait.

As I write this, I haven’t actually seen the book yet. It has made it over the Atlantic: a friend of mine has a copy already, but I can’t wait to see it for myself.

For me, sketchnotes are not a gimmicky thing. They are genuinely useful. I find it much easier to look back at my notes and recall the event: talks, meetings, workshops… I even enjoy it! Much better than the dense lecture notes I used to do.

It’s great when other people like them, too, of course, and even better when they use them to learn or catch up on a talk they missed.

Making sketchnotes is informed by my work; by what I read; by other sketchnoters; by comics. In turn, they inform my work: sketching interactions and aspects of UX, and visualising information and ideas (mine and those of others). It’s like practicing a language – the vocabulary and grammar (linguistic or visual) are just there when you need them, the more use use them.

So I’m proud to have two pages in this book, especially since it is alongside work from friends and people whose work I respect and learn from. Big thanks to Mike for inviting me in the first place. Check out the book – maybe it will change forever how you make notes.


3 thoughts on “Sketchnote Handbook

  1. shoutyman says:

    Go to a conference, do some research on the speakers, arrive early, take a pen and paper (and a trendy iPhone (remember no other phone will do becuase your cool)), draw picutures and bother your friends via social media with your hubris….er thats it

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