Growing Your Visual Vocabulary One Topic At A Time - sketchnotes, doodling, visual note taking, verbal to visual, doug neill

Growing Your Visual Vocabulary, One Topic At A Time

When I first heard of the idea of building a visual vocabulary in preparation for future sketchnoting sessions, I liked the idea but had no clue where to start. I would think of the size of a physical dictionary with thousands of words to chose from, but which ones should I sketch out first?

If you think of developing your visual vocabulary as being similar to learning a new language (because really that’s what it is – you are learning a very visual language that will allow you to think and communicate in new ways), two ideas come to mind.

First, as a beginner it can be helpful to learn some of the most frequently-used words – topical things like food, directions, and common ways to say hello and introduce yourself.

Second, nothing beats getting out there and immersing yourself in the language you want to learn.

In this post I’ll be applying the first principle to the development of your visual literacy. Next week we’ll take the second approach.

Looking Back

I think one of the reasons that I struggled with the question of where to start with my own visual vocabulary is that at the time I didn’t have any focus with the topics that I was sketchnoting. I knew that I wanted to develop this skill of sketching out ideas, but to practice I would sketch out any talk, podcast, or book that happened to catch my eye that day. Though there were no doubt some benefits to sketchnoting a wide variety of topics, I think I would have been more likely to intentionally build my visual vocabulary if I had picked a subject to focus on.

There was a time when I wouldn’t have known what that topic would be. But now I do – that topic is education. I’ve come to realize that the field of education is one that I could easily spend the next ten years (and more likely than not, the rest of my life) exploring.

Now that I know that, the idea of building a visual vocabulary is much less daunting. I’ll start with a list of ideas and objects that come to mind when I think about the field of education, and then develop visuals for those ideas and objects.

It is with that process in mind that I give you the steps for completing today’s task of developing your own list of frequently-used icons that are specific to the field you’re most interested in sketchnoting.

Step 1: Pick A Topic That You Care About

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The topic could be the field that you’re studying, the industry within which you work, or the hobby that you’re most passionate about. It’s entirely up to you.

Just pick one for now. This is a necessary step that will provide useful bounds for the steps that follow.

Step 2: Write As Many Words Related To That Topic As You Can

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After you’ve selected your topic, write out as many words as you can that come to mind when you think of that topic. Don’t worry about sketching anything just yet – first get as many relevant words down as you can. Think about objects used, ideas discussed, and actions taken within the realm of your topic as you add to your list.

Step 3: Develop Simple And Easily-Drawn Icons For The Words On Your List

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Pick five words from you list, then experiment with simple and easily-drawn icons that express that word. If it’s an object that you’ve got in front of you, take a look and see how you can depict that object in as few lines as possible. Don’t be afraid to do some google image searches as well. When I get stuck I’ll add “icon” or “cartoon” after the word I’m trying to sketch to see if I find an image that I like.

If you’ve still got energy after the first five, give another five a go. But make sure you save up a bit of energy for the last step!

Step 4: Store Those Icons Using Your Tool Of Choice

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Now that you’ve got a set of simple and easily-drawn icons related to a topic that you’re interested in, you’ll want to store those icons for future reference. Last week I outlined eight tools that you could use to organize your growing visual vocabulary. Check out that post, pick a tool (one from that list or another you come up with on your own) and store all of the icons that you sketched out in the last step using that tool.

One last hidden bonus step: sometime tomorrow, return to your icons and practice sketching out each of them to reinforce the work you did today.

The topic that I chose to develop some icons for was education. I posted them to my blog if you’d like to see.

What topic did you choose to grow your visual vocabulary? Feel free to let us know in the comments below or with a simple tweet.

Happy sketching! Let me know how it goes.