Sketchnote Breakdown: Tips & Techniques

I first started learning how to sketchnote about seven years ago, and for a while now I’ve been wanting to dig into some of my old sketchbooks both to revisit the ideas I captured and also to highlight some of the sketchnoting techniques that I’ve found to be helpful over the years.

So today, that’s what we’re going to do.

Combinatorial Creativity

The sketchnote that we’ll be revisiting is from a conversation between Debbie Millman and Maria Popova on Millman’s podcast Design Matters:

The piece here that I’d like to focus on the most is the idea of combinatorial creativity, which is at the core of Popova’s work. She runs a website called Brain Pickings where she shares ideas from the books that she’s reading and connects those ideas to others that she’s come across in the past.

That site is kind of like a publicly available personal research project asking the question what matters and why, and creating a framework around that. The impact of that work isn’t just personal, though, it’s also broadening the creative horizons of everyone who follows her work.

A Sketchnote Archive

The reason that the idea of combinatorial creativity resonated so deeply with me – then and now – is because that’s a piece of my long-term goal with sketchnoting.

For the most part, over the past seven years my focus has been on sketchnoting and sharing individual ideas that are interesting to me.

The hub for those sketchnotes used to be The Graphic Recorder, where in each blog post I shared a single sketchnote from a single source. That’s where I first shared the sketchnotes that we’re looking at today.

Fast forward five years to today, and it’s Instagram where I’m most frequently sharing ideas in sketchnote form–still just one at a time.

While there is definite value in focusing on one idea at a time and incorporating that idea into your life and your understanding of the world, what Popova’s work makes me want to do is spend more time on the combination of all of the ideas that I’ve been capturing over the years.

The closest that I’ve come so far to tapping into that combinatorial power is with an experimental video series that my friend Austin and I recorded last year, Visual Conversations, in which each of us brought in an idea that we’d come across that week and then we smashed them together to explore what lived at the intersection of those two ideas.

While I enjoyed creating that series, it didn’t quite develop legs quick enough to stick with it.

Looking to the future, I’m not exactly sure what type of combining I’d like to do, what core question I might want to gather a set of ideas around. But I’m starting to think more about what that could be, and it is reassuring to know that I’ve got that archive at The Graphic Recorder and on Instagram and here within Verbal to Visual, which now has a pretty solid archive of its own.

That’s part of the reason I like sketchnoting so much–the fact that it results in such a useful record of your learning, a record that you can return to at any point in the future.

Curator’s Code

Speaking of record-keeping, one other piece from these sketchnotes that I wanted to look at was this idea of a curator’s code.

Because of the degree to which Popova’s work builds on the work of others, she pays a lot of attention to giving credit where credit is due. That’s where the curator’s code comes from, going so far as to develop iconography to help clarify when what you’re sharing on Twitter or anywhere else on the internet is a direct repost from someone else or an indirect discovery.

Web of Influences

That idea of a curator’s code reminds me of something I’ve wanted to do for a while: trace the web of who and what I’m paying attention to, and how I came to pay attention to that thing.

I’m imagining a literal network that keeps track of who I’m reading and watching and listening to, and how one book leads me to three others, how one author introduces me to five others.

I think it would be interesting to be able to follow that network in reverse and trace back how I first got interested in one topic or another, or when I was first introduced to an impactful idea and who introduced me to that idea, and even why I started paying attention to that person in the first place.

Obviously there’s a danger of becoming a little too preoccupied with maintaining the detail of that web, but in moderation I think it holds a lot of potential.

I’m pretty sure the idea of creating that web for myself is influenced by two ideas from Austin Kleon–this one in Steal Like an Artist of gathering the branches on your tree with your creative heroes:

And also his suggestion in Show Your Work! to find your scenius – “a whole scene of people supporting each other’s work, copying from each other, stealing ideas, and contributing ideas”:

One way that I’m trying to at least lay the groundwork for the type of network that I’m imagining is by crediting not just the source of an idea that I sketchnote, but also the reason I came across that source in the first place.

For example, when I share a sketch related to a book I recently finished I try to credit the person who lead to me picking up that book.

In the case of Levels of the Game, it was Tim Ferriss who introduced me to the work of John McPhee. With The Inexplicable Logic Of My Life by Benjamin Alire Saenz and We Are Okay by Nina LaCour, I can credit John Green. And in the case of Essentialism by Greg MckKeown, it’s Heath Padgett.

When I share those on Instagram I mention that in the caption. That’s a way of me trying capture those links and connections in the moment, before I forget how or why I came across a particular book, author, or idea.

So those are a few of the big things that come to mind as I look back on these notes.

A Few Sketchnoting Techniques

Next I’d like to point out just a few sketchnoting elements that stand out to me for those of you who are building your own visual note-taking skills.

You might have already noticed this, but I treated the page above the notes like scratch paper, a space to experiment with visuals and jot down phrases for later that I may or may not want to include in the actual sketchnote.

I think that’s a helpful playground of sorts to have on hand when you’re taking live sketchnotes, so long as you don’t spend too much time there. Most of your time should be spent making marks on your actual sketchnote, not the scratch paper.

I also wanted to point out one unifying element within these notes: the loose sheets of paper.

The first sheets I drew were for the process diagram representing creativity as recombination. After completing that, I realized that that single visual element was relevant for many of the ideas that I was capturing, so I looked for opportunities to reuse that same element in other portions of the notes.

Finally, I happen to remember that the last thing I added to these notes was the bookshelf in the upper right. One of the most enjoyable parts of the sketchnoting process, for me, is when you’ve got an extra chunk of space on the page that you haven’t used yet, and you get to decide what image or phrase to put there.

It’s fun to think back on the conversation or the talk that you’ve been listening to or watching, and try to come up with something that’s relevant to and resonates with the set of ideas as a whole.

Since books are at the center of Popova’s work, a filled bookshelf felt like a natural fit, and I like how it turned out, especially with the loose sheets of paper falling from that bookshelf.

Please feel free to steal any of those sketchnoting techniques and start using them in your own work.

Your Turn

I hope you enjoyed this look back on an old sketchnote of mine. This could be an ongoing series, so if you did get something valuable from it please do let me know so that I know to keep making videos like this one!

If you’d like to dig deeper into the development of your own sketchnoting skills, check out our courses, including An Introduction To Visual Note-Taking:

You can browse our full course library here.

Have fun exploring whatever idea paths your interests are taking you down these days.