Visual Journaling For Sketchnoters: Create A Personal Playground

I’ve been exploring the benefits of experiential learning lately, and looking at what happens when you build in a layer of sketchnoting to those experiences that you’re learning from.

One of the best ways to capture and process your experiences is via a visual journal, which is what we’ll be exploring in this post.

Visual Journal 7-21-13

I’ll be sharing some photos of my own visual journals along the way. When traveling I like to go heavy on the drawing side.

Why Keep A Visual Journal?

Before we dig into the specifics of keeping a visual journal, let’s step back and ask ourselves this question: “Why is a visual journal worth keeping?”

I see two primary reasons: 1) to give yourself a personal playground where you can explore different combinations of verbal and visual elements on the page, and 2) to build the practice of living an attentive, reflective, and intentional life.

Lets look at each in turn.

Visual Journal 8-10-13

Create A Personal Playground

The fear that all sketchnoters must overcome is the fear that your notes won’t “look good” when you’re done with them. That fear can lead you away from play and away from experimentation – two things that lead to growth.

By starting a visual journal with the expressed goal of using it to play and to experiment, you relieve yourself from the burden of capturing the ideas of others accurately and in an aesthetically-pleasing way.

Visual Logbook (b)

Here’s my first iteration of a visual journal – more of a visual logbook, inspired by Austin Kleon.

As a result of the freedom that comes with a personal visual journal, you now have a place where you can build your sketchnoting skills behind closed doors. You’ll take risks on the page that in other, more purposeful and public situations, you wouldn’t be willing to take.

That free-form play and risk-taking will lead to growth over the long run – not just in your visual note-taking skills, but also in your general ability to take risks and experiment with new things.

In this style I gave each day it's own page.

In this style I gave each day it’s own page.

Live Life With Intention

While you’re doing all of that experimentation and skill-building, you’re also setting the stage for a fulfilling life. By paying attention to what’s going on around and within you, you’re laying the groundwork for insights that could lead to meaningful and positive transformations in your own life.

To me, living a life with intention means paying attention to what’s going on right now, reflecting on what you observe, and, where necessary, changing the way you think about the world and the way you act in it in order to bridge the gap between the person you are and the person you’d like to be.

No better a place to reflect on life than the wilderness.

No better a place to reflect on life than the wilderness.

Living life with intention is about accepting the world as it is while acknowledging that you get to decide how to act within it, and that your actions today contribute to the world of tomorrow.

Let’s come down from that 10,000-foot view and look at what exactly you could fill your visual journal with.

What Goes In Your Visual Journal

What goes in your visual journal is, of course, completely up to you – it’s your playground, after all.

With that said, here are a few ideas:

  • A recap of a memorable experience
  • The highlights of a conversation with a friend
  • An idea for an upcoming project sparked by an observation
  • Strange things that you overhear from strangers
  • That thing that’s really pissing you off right now
  • That thing that you’ve got to do later that you don’t want to forget

My suggestion is to let your emotional response tell you whether something that happens during your day is worth capturing. By getting down those positive experiences as well as the negative ones, you’ll start to see patterns that will help you to understand how the world works and how you work.

I think it’s also worth noting what NOT to capture. Here’s my list:

  • Don’t use it for classroom notes
  • Don’t use it for notes on a book that you’re reading
  • Don’t use it to sketchnote a live event
  • Don’t use it for anything that you intend to share in public

Those applications add a layer of pressure (for me at least) that detract from the goal of playing and experimenting. So, for now, those applications get their own space in a different notebook.

And here's the latest iteration - a bit of a combo of the first two.

And here’s the latest iteration of my own visual journal – a bit of a combo of the first two.

How To Fill The Page

As you fill your visual journal, here are the elements that you get to play with: text, layout, imagery, and color.

Use keyed icons of your own creation for commonly occurring entries (ideas, to-dos, book recommendations, quotes to remember, etc.).

Sketch out interesting objects and scenes in front of you – use this journal as a way to build your visual vocabulary.

Add the appropriate amount of text (while experimenting with different styles) to provide context and details that the visuals miss.

Go through with some highlighters or colored pencils to color-code what you capture.

Drawing out the tools you use (realistically or in cartoon/icon form) can be a fun way to document your process.

Drawing out the tools you use (realistically or in cartoon/icon form) can be a fun way to document your process.

Above all else, experiment with different combinations of the verbal and visual elements available to you so that you can find those that work best for you.

A Few More Examples To Get You Going

My first attempts at keeping a visual logbook were inspired by this post from Austin Kleon.

Mike Rohde has been doing some wonderful travel sketchnotes lately – follow him on Instagram and you’ll find some goodies.

Lynda Barry‘s Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor will spark your creativity in ways you can’t yet imagine.

I’ve heard great things about Danny Gregory and I’m looking forward to reading An Illustrated Journey.

Go Build A Playground

Grab a notebook and a pen, and get started with your own habit of capturing your day-to-day experiences and observations in a verbal and visual way.

Build your own playground, and then go have some fun in it.

Do that and the learning will take care of itself.


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