Got a BIG project? Give it a wall. - Verbal To Visual, Doug Neill, sketchnoting, visual note-taking, graphic recording

Got a big project? Give it a wall.

At the start of any new project, there’s one primary problem that you face: how do you capture a growing number of details without losing sight of the big picture?

I’d like to share with you an approach to project development that solves that problem.

This approach will get you on your feet and away from your desk as you work instead on the wall and bridge what sometimes feels like an infinite gap between the first sparks of inspiration and the finish line.

Why a wall?

Here’s what I like about working up on a wall as opposed to down on a desk: I’ve found it to be a great way to go through the first few of steps of project development, that stage when you’re getting lots of potential ideas down and then organizing those ideas.

Why I like going big at the early stage of a project: you get to organize your ideas while you capture them, and never lose sight of the big picture.

When you work up on a wall (with the materials that I’ll describe next), you have the ability to go back and forth between those two steps. You get to organize your ideas as you’re gathering them.

That flexible approach to the brainstorming process sets you well up for the next stage: taking action.

Your brainstorming doesn’t do anybody any good if you don’t do something with those ideas. When you give a project some dedicated wall space that you can reference over time, that helps you take the steps to actually produce the thing and get to the finish line, whatever that line looks like for you and your project.

Materials

I’ll be sharing some specific examples of what my walls have looked like with the big projects that I’ve taken on (which have mostly been online courses that teach the skill that I’m showing you here, called sketchnoting: capturing ideas with some combination of words and sketches), but before I show you those examples let me lay out my go-to materials as well as some idea-capturing techniques.

The set of materials that I typically use when I work on the wall.

I tend to keep it simple with the materials that I use:

  • I like to use index cards and cheap copy paper because of how affordable and accessible they are.
  • It’s helpful to have scissors on hand when the ideas you capture on that copy paper don’t fill the full page (and you don’t want to waste valuable wall space!).
  • I like to use just a few different markers, typically one black, one gray, and one color – usually red or blue. That combination allows for some variation in what you see up on that wall, which can be helpful as it gets filled with more and more ideas. With those colors I might use black for drawing, the color for text, and gray as a helper color for arrows and dividers.
  • To attach your ideas to the wall, blue painter’s tape comes in handy. You won’t damage the wall and you’ll easily be able to move ideas around (and tap into that power of organizing as you’re gathering).

Along with that set of materials, I tend to have a desk close to the wall where I’ll sit and capture the ideas, then stand up and place it on the wall in a place that makes sense based on what came before it.

That back-and-forth of sitting and standing helps get the blood flowing and brings some extra energy to the creative process.

Idea-Capturing Techniques

With those materials in mind, let me next outline a handful of idea-capturing techniques.

As you get your ideas on paper, try merging together sketches and written descriptions. The visuals become helpful references as your wall fills up.

  • One simple go-to is the combination of an icon and some text. Adding a simple icon that’s related to the idea will make it easier to find it later as you’re scanning the wall. With a short text description you can lay out the details. Index cards work great for this combo.
  • Depending on the nature of the project that you’re working on, you might find it helpful to sketch out simple scenes as you create a bit of a snapshot to help you remember the human experience connected to your project, along with a caption to describe whatever that scene depicts.
  • At times it will be important to get a handful of ideas down quickly. If that’s the case, you might want to throw a quick title at the top of a piece of copy paper and then jot down a bulleted list.
  • If you’re focused on the relationship between a set ideas, you might rely on diagrams like a mind map or a flowchart. You can start that diagram on one piece of paper but then add to it if you need more room.
  • As you use your wall to gain more clarity around your project as a whole, you might work toward developing an action plan to take the follow-up steps that will get you to your finish line. You’ll be able to see current and next steps right in front of you, and with the rest of the wall you can also see the underlying work that led to those steps.

The Benefits

This approach of using an entire wall to help you develop your ideas and then take action on a big project has a handful of significant benefits.

The benefits of this analog and large-scale approach to project development.

  • The first is that you get to look at the problem that your project is solving from different angles, literally. You can walk back and forth along the wall, get close to it, then step far away. I’ve found that those different perspectives have helped me to do a better job at the early stages of a project of understanding both the zoomed-out view of what I’m working on and the zoomed-in details. Gaining some clarity at both of those levels upfront sets you up for success as you then follow through with that project.
  • I also find it helpful simply being able to walk away from the wall, leave your office for a break in the middle of the day, at the end of the evening, over the weekend, and then come back to it. Each time that you make it back to the wall, you’ll see something different there or something new that you can add to it.
  • In that way, particularly with the materials we’ve outlined here, that allows you to improve as you build. You can quickly iterate on the ideas that you’re working with by sketching them out in different ways until you find the one that feels like the best fit, and then move them around until you like the way that they’re organized. That quick iteration with analog tools is invaluable.

Examples

With that as an overview of how you might use a wall when working on a new project, let me next share a handful of examples, starting with the very first course that I worked on here, called An Introduction to Visual Note-Taking.

This is what my wall looked like as I was developing that course:

The wall of ideas when I was working on the course An Introduction to Visual Note-Taking.

I used the clothesline method as described by Steven Pressfield to first organize the different units that I wanted to include within that course and then, on small sheets of paper, I filled out all of the details for each unit and lesson.

In another resource that I created, called Sketchnoting in the Classroom (for teachers who want to share the skill of visual note-taking with their students), I did something a little bit different.

I broke up a large roll of poster paper into distinct sections for the different subject areas that I was exploring. I made it my goal to fill each of those columns with as many ideas as possible as I explored the intersection between sketchnoting and a specific subject area.

My wall of brainstorming while developing Part 3 of the resource kit Sketchnoting in the Classroom.

Here’s a “making of” video that shows in detail how I created the final set of video lessons for that resource kit.

With that process, when it came to grouping the ideas, I brought in a new color (in this case yellow) to help me organize how I wanted to present those ideas in the video lessons that I was working on:

Using a light color such as yellow to group ideas when working on one large sheet of paper.

Here’s a final example. This is the wall that I set up when I was developing Build an Online Course with Sketchnotes, in which I helped others design and produce their own educational experience using sketchnoting as a primary tool:

My office wall in the early stages of development of Build an Online Course with Sketchnotes.

Each of these pieces of copy paper was the first draft of a lesson that I later recorded in video form:

I used these first draft lesson pages to deliver a live webinar workshop version of the resource that I later turned into a video-based course.

Though my examples all center around the creation of an educational experience, this approach of using a wall to focus your ideas on a new project can apply to just about any type of work that you’re doing, both for solo projects and for group projects.

It’s one large repository of ideas (that everyone can see) that allows you to keep in view both the big picture and the details of whatever it is you’re working on, and then take the steps to not only finish the project but also make it as successful as possible because of the clarity that this type of visual representation helps you achieve.

Your Turn

So the next time you’ve got a big project that you’re working on, see if you can dedicate some wall space to it, and give these ideas a go.

If you’d like to lean in on the visual representation of ideas by developing your sketchnoting skills, check out our online courses, starting with An Introduction to Visual Note-Taking:

Reconnect to making marks by hand as you learn to use text, layout, imagery, and color to engage your visual brain.

You can find the other courses I mention above (as well as a few more) in our full course library.

I wish you luck and success with whatever project you’re working on!

Cheers,

-Doug