8 Ways To Organize Your Growing Visual Vocabulary

It’s Visual Vocabulary Month here at Verbal To Visual. Our goal this month of May is to build up a set of quickly-drawable icons and sketches for the most frequently-used visual references – things like light bulbs, houses, pencils, maybe even a stick figure or two – that you can easily break out when relevant ideas come up during sketchnoting or doodling sessions.

Before we dig into developing and practicing those icons, let’s first investigate some ways to organize our visual vocabulary. We like to keep the long-term goals in mind here and set ourselves up for success over the long haul. And your visual vocabulary is something that you’ll want to build on over time. Rather than trying to keep all of your favorite icons in your head (or embedded within a stack of sketchnotes and doodles), let’s take a look at the tools that we can use to keep all of those visuals in one place for future reference.

First, a few words about criteria.

Criteria For Evaluating Visual Vocabulary Organizing Tools

Here are the criteria with which I will be evaluating the eight tools listed below.

Organize Your Visual Vocabulary Criteria - ease of addition, ease of retrieval, searchability, reusability, findability, scalability


  • Ease of Addition: If the process of adding a new entry to your visual vocabulary is cumbersome, you’ll be much less likely to take the time to use it.
  • Ease of Retrieval: How quickly and easily can you find an entry that you added a few weeks back?
  • Searchability: How easy is it to find a group of entries that share a commonality, and can you do a search of some kind to filter which entries you’re looking at?
  • Reusability: Once you have entered a new element, can you reuse it without having to redraw it?
  • Findability: If someone out there is looking for the type of icon that you just created, will they be able to find it?
  • Scalability: What happens when your visual vocabulary grows large? (Because you know it will, right?) Will your tool be able to handle a large number of entries?

One important thing to mention about these criteria: YOU get to decide which are the most important to you. You have your own reasons for learning the skill of visual note taking, and your own goals with the work you’ll do.

So consider your motivations and goals when deciding which criteria you’d like to give the most weight. After listing out some potential tools I’ll tell you which I am using for my own work.

The Tools

Post-It Notes

Organize your visual vocabulary with post it notes

If you have a consistent space where you do your sketchnoting, using a post-it note for each new visual vocab entry could be a good place to start storing your drawn icons. The size (I would go with the 3″ x 3″ notes) force you to keep it to a simple icon rather than a complex sketch. And if you dedicate a section of your wall to your visual vocabulary you’ll have a quick and easy reference. But if you sketchnote in a variety of locations, that benefit fades.

  • Ease of Addition: High
  • Ease of Retrieval: Medium (great if at location, bad if not)
  • Searchability: Medium (requires a manual visual search, but if they’re all on one wall that’s a plus)
  • Reusability: Medium (if you dedicate another portion of your wall to active sketchnoting you could move elements back and forth as needed – though it would probably be quicker to just redraw it)
  • Findability: Low
  • Scalability: Low (you only have so much wall space)

Note Cards

Organize your visual vocabulary with note cards

3 x 5 note cards are a bit more permanent and mobile compared to post-it notes. Like post-it notes, they still have a nice small size, but you have to decide where to store them: a stack next to your desk, a whole punch through each and a ring to join them, maybe even one of those old transparent pages you used to store your baseball cards in? Overall, though, not a bad option if you want to stay analog.

  • Ease of Addition: High
  • Ease of Retrieval: Medium (and it depends on your storage system)
  • Searchability: Low
  • Reusability: Low
  • Findability: Low
  • Scalability: Medium (again, it will depend on your storage system)

Dedicated Notebook

Organize your visual vocabulary with a dedicated notebook

If you don’t want all of those loose pieces of paper to worry about, a dedicated notebook is a good option. Pick a notebook you like and sketch out a nice title on the front that says Visual Vocabulary Notebook, and then keep it handy as you sketchnote so you can fill it with new entries. You could even keep an index in the front or a glossary in the back to keep track of which words and ideas are on which page.

  • Ease of Addition: High
  • Ease of Retrieval: Medium
  • Searchability: Low/Medium (no way to reorganize once they’re in, but with an index it wouldn’t be too hard to find an individual entry)
  • Reusability: Low
  • Findability: Low
  • Scalability: High (if you fill up one notebook, just grab another)

Camera Phone

Organize your visual vocabulary with a camera phone

Now it’s time to get digital. If you take your notes on a tablet, then they are of course already digital. But if you start with pen and paper, one simple way to store those visual elements digitally is to snap a photo with your phone and store it in folder dedicated to your visual vocabulary. Then as you’re sketchnoting you can have that folder open in case you need to reference it. And if you have the album on your phone synced to your desktop then you’ll be able to pull the photos up there as well.

  • Ease of Addition: Medium (that extra step of snapping the photo and storing bring it down)
  • Ease of Retrieval: High (just pull up the folder)
  • Searchability: Medium
  • Reusability: Low
  • Findability: Low
  • Scalability: High

Adobe Photoshop and/or Illustrator

Organize your visual vocabulary with photoshop and illustrator

If you’d like to take a step up with a digital photo and visual application, then Adobe’s Photoshop and Illustrator are options to consider. If you don’t already have them, then I don’t think it’s worth it to buy them for the sole purpose of organizing your visual vocabulary, but if you’ve got them already then the reusability factor might make it worth the effort to build up your vocabulary within these platforms. And you might be able to do some interesting grouping with the use of layers.

  • Ease of Addition: Low
  • Ease of Retrieval: Low
  • Searchability: Low/Medium (depending on how you set up you file system)
  • Reusability: High (the only saving grace here, but only if you already create visuals using these tools)
  • Findability: Low
  • Scalability: High


Organize your visual vocabulary with evernote

Let’s now move to the more robust tool that is Evernote. As an organizer of information, Evernote is set up for hierarchies and for tagging – two things that might come in handy as your visual vocabulary grows. With Evernote you could create a new note for each entry (and include a photo of that photo), store it in a folder dedicated to visual vocabulary, and add a few words to the note that you might later search for to find it.

  • Ease of Addition: Med
  • Ease of Retrieval: Med (might have to dig into folders/search to find what you’re looking for)
  • Searchability: High
  • Reusability: Low
  • Findability: Low
  • Scalability: High


Organize your visual vocabulary with pinterest

We’re now ready to move online. First stop: Pinterest. Because the site is made for sharing images, Pinterest could be a great place for you to organize and share your visual vocabulary. I see two main routes for using Pinterest for organize your visual vocabulary: one is to directly upload a snapshot of your new entry by selecting the ‘Upload a Pin’ option; the other is to first add the photo to your own blog or website, and then pin it to your Visual Vocabulary board. Either way works, and we’ll delve into the second a bit more in the next section. An additional benefit of using Pinterest is that when you find an icon online that someone else has drawn, you can add that to your board as well.

  • Ease of Addition: Med
  • Ease of Retrieval: Med (must be in front of a screen)
  • Searchability: High
  • Reusability: Low
  • Findability: High (because of the social nature of Pinterest, this could be a great way to share your work with others)
  • Scalability: High

Your Own Website

Organize your visual vocabulary with a personal website

If you’ve already got a website or blog, then you might think about storing photos of your visual vocabulary entries there. The benefit of adding them to your own site and not just Pinterest alone is that if folks stumble upon your sketches at your own site then they’ll be able to take a look at the other things you are posting there. One of the things I’ve noticed as I’ve been adding my own sketchnotes to The Graphic Recorder is that it has become a way to connect with other people that are interested in topics similar to those that I’m sketchnoting. It has been a way to expand the network of folks that I know who are interested in addressing the same problems that I am. So depending on your motivations and goals with visual note taking in general, organizing your visual vocabulary on your own website (which still allows for posting to Pinterest and other social media sites) might be an option to consider.

  • Ease of Addition: Low
  • Ease of Retrieval: Med
  • Searchability: High
  • Reusability: Low
  • Findability: High
  • Scalability: High

My Approach

My approach to organizing my visual vocabulary

Here’s the combination of tools that I’ll be using to continue building my own visual vocabulary.

I’ve become very attached to starting with a pen and physical notebook – an analog start to the process. But I do like to store things digitally (both for my own use and also to share online). So after I sketch something out that I want to save, I scan it into my computer, touch it up if need be with Photoshop and Illustrator, and then share it on The Graphic Recorder.

That’s what I’ve been doing for a while now, but a new element that I’m going to add is the use of Pinterest. I’ve had an account there for a while but have never been very active on it. But using it for this specific purpose of cataloging and sharing my visual vocabulary sounds valuable to me, so I’m going to give it a go.

I just updated the visual vocabulary page over at The Graphic Recorder to get the ball rolling, and created a new board on my Pinterest account, so you can check those out as an example if you’d like.

Which method will you use to organize your visual vocabulary as it grows over the next month and beyond?

The tools that I’ve outlined here are in now way comprehensive, so if you’ve got another idea that you like better, then go with that!

Pick what feels right, and then add to it any visual elements that you already know you’ll be using on a regular basis. If you’re not sure what those are yet, do an image search for ‘sketchnotes’ and take a look at what comes up.

Best of luck, and let me know how it goes.