How To Avoid Cluttering Your Sketchnotes - Verbal To Visual - visual note-taking, sketchnoting, Doug Neill

How To Avoid Cluttering Your Sketchnotes

If you’ve ever been furiously scribbling down notes and then step back to see that you’ve crammed a single page with way too many ideas, then you’re familiar with the problem we’ll be exploring today.

In this post I’ll share some ideas that will help you to avoid cluttering your sketchnotes so that they’re actually useful to look back on, rather than an overwhelming mess.

Your Filter & White Space

As you’re listening to a podcast or reading a book or watching a presentation, there are lots of ideas coming your way.

What I encourage you to do is to set up some sort of a filter that helps you decide which of those ideas are worth capturing. Because the first key to not cluttering your sketchnotes is to not try to capture everything.

Two tips up front: don’t try to capture everything and remember that white space is your friend!

That desire to capture every single detail is an important thing to let go of here at the beginning.

Instead, start by defining what filter you’d like to use. What’s a guiding question that you might establish to decide which ideas are worth capturing? What do you want to get out of the information that you’re taking in?

By identifying some sort of a filter up front, that will keep you from trying to capture everything.

Another thing to keep in mind as we look at this question of how many ideas to include on a single page is that white space itself is a note-taking tool that you can use to separate ideas.

That white space will allow your brain to quickly identify which set of marks go together and which don’t. The thing that we’re trying to avoid here, the problem with cluttered sketchnotes, is that they become less useful to you the messier and the more crowded that they become.

By acknowledging that white space is one of the tools at your disposal, that makes it easier to not cram too many words or sketches into any section of your notes.

Single-Page or Multi-Page?

In addition to establishing a filter and using white space, I also think it’s worth deciding between two primary note-taking options: whether you’re going with just a single page of notes or a multi-page approach.

Before you start taking notes, decide whether you’re going with a single-page or multi-page approach.

Sometimes it’s nice to limit yourself to a single large page. But if you do that, if you want to put that constraint on your note-taking process, then along with it I think you need to acknowledge that it’s just the highlights that you’re going to capture rather than the complete picture of the book you’re reading or the podcast you’re listening to.

By setting the intention of only capturing the highlights, that takes off some of the pressure and allows you to focus in on just the things that really stand out – the ideas that clearly pass through your filter.

But if you’d like to remove that limitation so that you can capture lots and lots of ideas, then the multi-page approach is better for you. That allows for more of a comprehensive capturing of the ideas you’re taking in. Note that I use comprehensive(ish) here to reinforce that you’re not trying to capture everything–you still need some sort of a filter to decide what makes it onto the page and what doesn’t.

So the high-level question to ask yourself is this: do you want to limit yourself to a single page of notes or allow for multiple pages?

Once you’ve answered that question, we can get more specific about your process.

Single-Page Processes

Let’s dig a layer deeper and look at some specific note-taking processes that are well suited to either single-page or multi-page sketchnoting.

A few note-taking processes that are well suited to the single-page approach.

Mind Maps

If you’re going with a single-page approach, you might try using a mind map as your note-taking structure.

Here’s a video that explores what the combination of mind mapping and sketchnoting might look like:

Blog post: A Mind Mapping Approach To Your Sketchnotes

The general approach here is to pose a question or a topic in the center of the page and then capture some details as you move radially outward from there, connecting related ideas with lines.

That’s a great way to capture a set of ideas on a single page.

Flowcharts

Another approach that I consider to be the cousin of the mind map is a flowchart, in which you connect ideas using arrows to capture the overall flow of the information you’re taking in.

Here are a few examples of some text-heavy flowcharts that I’ve used while listening to podcasts:

Note how using a few different styles of containers and lines can add some helpful variation.

The notes above are from an episode of The Fizzle Show (about small-scale entrepreneurship) that explored the question of what’s the right amount of prep before launching a new piece of your business.

I enjoy the freedom that comes with the simplicity of this flowchart approach.

Watch the above sketchnotes of Debbie Millman interviewing Erin McKeown come to life in this video: Flowchart Sketchnotes on Making Music.

I like the flexibility of how those flowchart sketchnotes can grow throughout a podcast conversation.

Brick Road Approach

Another approach that I think is well-suited for single-page note-taking is one that I’ve called the brick road approach, in which you fill up the page one imagined rectangle at a time, with each rectangular chunk of space dedicated to its own mini-sketchnote of the next idea you want to add in.

That’s the approach that I took with these sketchnotes from the 30 Days of Genius series with Chase Jarvis in his interview with Marie Forleo.

Sketchnotes of Marie Forleo’s conversation with Chase Jarvis on the 30 Days of Genius series.

Those three examples of mind maps, flowcharts, and the brick road approach show you how you might approach single-page sketchnoting.

What I like about those is that there’s a clear stopping point. Once you’ve filled the page, you can call it good for the day.

Multi-Page Processes

But there are some cases in which you don’t want to do that, times when you’d like to move from the first page on to the next one as you continue capturing ideas.

So let’s next look at a handful of approaches to multi-page sketchnoting, starting with the one we just mentioned.

A few note-taking processes well suited to a multi-page approach.

Brick Road Approach

I think the brick road approach is flexible enough to handle single-page or multi-page sketchnoting, because unlike mind maps or flowcharts, you don’t have to worry about connecting one idea to the next (something that’s hard to do as you move from the first page to the second page).

Instead, once you’ve filled the last rectangle on the first page you can just flip to the next one and keep going.

That’s what I did with the recent sketchnotes I took of Tim Ferriss’s interview with Neil Gaiman.

Page one of my sketchnotes of Neil Gaiman’s conversation with Tim Ferris.

Page two of my sketchnotes of Neil Gaiman’s conversation with Tim Ferris.

With a multi-page brick road approach, since you know that you’ve always got more pages to turn to, you don’t have to stress about trying to cram a bunch of details onto any single page.

Column-by-Column

I also think that a column-by-column approach is a good way to tackle multi-page sketchnoting.

In this case you work top to bottom, left to right as you alternate between sketches and text to capture whatever you’re listening to.

If you’re using large paper you can divide each page up into a handful of columns, or if you’re using a smaller notebook (like I did when capturing these sketchnotes, again from the Tim Ferriss podcast but this time with guest Jim Collins) you treat each individual page as its own column.

Page one of my sketchnotes of Jim Collins’s conversation with Tim Ferriss.

Page twp of my sketchnotes of Jim Collins’s conversation with Tim Ferriss.

Page three of my sketchnotes of Jim Collins’s conversation with Tim Ferriss.

With small notebooks like the one shown above, that column-by-column structure is already built in and you can just move top to bottom, left to right, filling as many pages as you need.

Cornell + Sketchnotes

Finally, a third approach to multi-page sketchnoting to help you avoid cluttering your notes is the Cornell method with sketchnotes added in.

You might already be familiar with the Cornell structure. If you’d like to see a deep dive into how you might merge the Cornell method with some sketchnoting techniques, here’s a video in which I outline what that combination could look like and sharing some sample notes:

Blog post: Improving Cornell Notes With Sketchnoting Techniques

Your Turn

So if you feel like you’ve been trying to cram too many ideas into your sketchnotes and that cramming has made them less useful for you, then I hope these ideas can show you how you might avoid that problem.

The techniques I’ve shared above will help the note-taking process itself go a little bit more smoothly in the moment, and will also make those artifacts of your learning more useful in the future. They’ll help you put those ideas into action, which is of course the whole reason you’re taking notes in the first place.

If you’d like more structured support as you bridge that gap between ideas and action using sketchnoting skills, then check out our online courses, starting with An Introduction To Visual Note-Taking:

More tools to help you build your visual note-taking skills in our intro course.

You can view our full course library here.

Good luck as you continue immersing yourself in interesting ideas and filling some pages with interesting sketchnotes along the way (without over filling them).

Cheers,

-Doug