A game plan to get better at being ‘visual’.
I remember how I felt the first time I watched an RSAAnimate video:
“This is awesome!” quickly followed by “That must’ve taken a lot of effort” (which goes with the unstated “Oh! I could never do that”).
A few years later, I found myself at graduate school studying design. I realized that sketching was fundamental to being a designer. It was the fastest way to make the abstract and ill-formed ideas in my head tangible.
However, after dropping out of the same design sketching class twice, I figured that I was not patient enough to do the lines and ovals warm-up; or practice my 1-point, 2-point and 3-point perspective. So, I decided I needed a different approach.
Since I was in graduate school, attending lectures was part of my routine. I could turn taking lecture notes into an excuse to sketch. I could draw the concepts that were being talked about. At the very least, if there was an image on a slide, I could copy that.
The best part: no one would get to see my horrendous drawings. You see, even when it came to “sketching notes” the bar is pretty darn high. I had seen people do it at a conference and even that felt intimidating to emulate:
So I started. Sadly, my hope that no one will see my sketches came to naught when a classmate looked over at my notebook and said, “Hey, I like how visual your notes are.”
And I was like, “Wait, this is visual?”.
That made me realize how low the bar for this kind of thing was. Most of us, having spent years writing on ruled notebooks get impressed with the most mundane departure from the norm.
More, if my notes were mildly impressive to someone, that was great because it is not hard to get started.
So, here’s a gameplan that you can try.
Step 0: Find your excuse
I’m a huge fan of the metaphor of a “head fake”. In sports, a head fake is when you move your head to suggest you are going to pass or move in one direction, when you really going in another. A head fake in the context of learning is where you learn one thing while (often unknowingly) learning another.
My strategy to use my class lectures as an excuse to sketch worked out. It was slow progress. I was pained by the gap between my speed of drawing vs. speed of writing. I captured a lot less than I would have if I had just taken basic notes. I felt I was still taking the usual notes for the most part.
A few weeks in there was nothing to report. But a few years in, I can tell that I have improved significantly. I head-faked my way to getting better at sketching and expressing myself more ‘visually’.
What is your excuse to sketch?
Perhaps you have to sit through meetings at work. Sketch the minutes. Maybe you take the bus everyday. Sketch imagined conversations between your co-passengers. Maybe you are reading a book. Capture the big themes at the end with a sketch or a doodle.
I am making this Step 0, because if you are like me, I know you are not going to practice. I know you have no discipline and you won’t set aside time to do this. So unless you create an excuse, a scenario where you will get practice whether you want it or not, none of the sketching techniques below will be of any use. So find an excuse that works for you.
Step 1: Don’t sketch
“Neat notes are messy, conceptually. Messy notes (mind maps) are neat conceptually.” — Tony Buzan
There is a reason I have titled this article “Visual Writing” instead of ‘sketchnoting’ or (the more intimidating) ‘graphic recording’.
Even with the best intentions to start sketching, the first wall is a big one — the little voice in my head reminding me that “I don’t know how to sketch”. This gets worse when paired with the possibility of public exposure.
You don’t need to sketch to be “visual”. There is an easier place to start. Most of us are used to writing linearly — whether it’s taking notes, or planning your day or just expressing your own thoughts.
To start getting “visual”, get messy. There are many ways to do this, but one that I use a lot is mindmapping. Mindmaps are so ubiquitous that you probably don’t need an introduction, but I’ll share some insights from Rolf Faste who has written about them at length.
Mindmaps, in Faste words
Rather than look like normal writing, mind maps look like explosions of writing, or star bursts of thought fragments, or perhaps like someone cut sentences into strips and threw them onto a page.
Their most distinctive feature stems from the fact that they start in the center of an empty page with a key phrase, issue or question. It is to this organizing theme that the map maker returns over and over again. Lines are used to connect these thoughts together. When new thoughts are related to previous thoughts, they may be inserted near the old location, or lines may run across the page to connect the two ideas together. The result does, in fact, look something like a map.
It shows how the map maker got from one idea to another. Its form reveals the nonlinear, jumpy nature of the thinking process. Its contents record the brain’s wonderful ability to make connections between ideas, and to create new ones.
I think linear writing is devoid of these connections. When you get messy, such as with a mindmap, you don’t just capture content but you also use the space on the page to show how the ideas connect.
Mindmaps have become one of my key tools to start thinking about a project, to process and synthesize ideas and sometimes just get out of a mental rut.
If Faste’s mindmap looks a little too polished (and it is), here’s a terrible mindmap I did when sitting through a session on how to file taxes in the US (this is about 4 years ago).
There are more ways to get messy — you can draw a timeline, a Venn Diagram, a tree, or just be totally random — anything to break yourself out of the drudgery of linearity. I share more non-linear ways to write in the footnotes.
Step 2: Use your words
Guess what, still no sketching. There is more you can do to write visually without having to draw. Try different styles of handwriting.
Over time, I have realized that I do exactly 6 variants of handwriting and get quite a bit of visual mileage from those techniques.
Regular: My handwriting in running case or uppercase
Scaled: Making it tiny or big. You can also do a double or triple stroke.
Block: Turn them into big blocky letters (you’ll get better with practice). You can fill them in you want.
Emotion-y: Get flow-y. Try to capture the feel of the word I am writing.
Boxed: Enclose the text inside a box of some kind.
Here’s what all of these techniques look like:
Step 3: Add visual rubber stamps
Trust me, with just the steps above, you will get complements from watchers-by.
But of course, you got into this because you wanted to sketch. And now that we’ve worked a bit on your courage to get started, it’s time we up our game.
The framework I use is the one I learnt from the amazing Michael Barry. He would run this exercise in class that ran something like this: Everyone in class would get a tabloid/A3 sized sheet of paper and had 5 minutes to draw the prompts on a slide: a person, a baby, a house, a tree and so on. The prompts would move rather quickly (less that 15 seconds each).
Here’s a sample response:
I’d imagine if you tried the exercise, your sketches would not be too different (The baby with the twirl is surprisingly consistent).
I think given the time constraint, you ignore your inner perfectionist and spit out whatever icon you have in mind. Right? This is what Michael Barry calls a ‘mental rubber stamp’ or ‘visual rubber stamp’. We all have them. Why not use them when you take notes?
You may come back with two responses:
a) You may claim that you don’t have any visual rubber stamps.
b) You might ask what to do when you run out of the rubber stamps in your repertoire?
The answer to both questions is the same. If you have no visual rubber stamps (even though I know you’re lying), or you’ve run out, you’ve got to add new ones.
And you add them one by one. One by bloody one. It’s slow. Which is why having an excuse and an unbounded timeframe is helpful.
What I do is that whenever I come across an idea or concept that I don’t have a rubber stamp for, I just google it and then try to replicate the easier version. Google has a setting where you can explicitly search for Clipart.
Another favorite resource of mine is ‘The Noun Project’ which has icons for nearly everything.
And after I’ve drawn it a few times I get a new stamp in my repertoire.
Step 4: Pick up tiny techniques
Remember how I mentioned that I tend to drop out of semester-long sketching classes and leave books midway? There is a silver lining. I still get to learn just a little bit and pick up at least one tiny technique.
For example, I tried the book ‘You can draw in 30 days’. I left it in 3 days, but I did pick up a little technique on how to add shadows.
I attended a workshop in Delhi by the comic artist Bakarmax and I picked up his technique on how to make 3D faces. Make a ‘T’ on a circle, and use the tall line to make a nose and the wide line to make eyebrows. After that you can then move the T and make your character to look around!
Yup, a lot like visual rubber stamps.
That’s it! 5 steps.
End notes: Systems over goals
I just wanted to emphasise Step 0, find your excuse, once again.
In the book “How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big”, Scott Adams makes the case for creating a system instead of pursuing a goal. In his framing of those words
A goal as a specific objective you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. Systems have no deadlines and on any given day you probably can’t tell if you are moving in the right direction.
– Scott Adams
Unknowingly, when I switched from “become better at sketching”, to the behavior “sketch every time you are in a lecture”, I went from having a goal to having a system.
I’m not kidding. I first wrote a draft of this essay almost 3 years back, at that time my system was fairly young. But now it has almost been 5 years. When I went over my old notebooks — I saw how much I have improved.
On the left are lecture notes from a class I attended back in 2012. On the right are lecture notes from a MOOC I was watching in 2017.
(Traces is an idea I’ve stolen from Jonathan Edelman. In a class I took with him, we had to put together things left behind once a project was done in the form of ‘traces’. Here I share tidbits and asides that I could not fit into the main section of the essay)
1/ Mindmapping is one of David Kelley’s favorite ideation tools.
2/ Sheep are fun. Check out this project called ‘The Sheep Market’ by the artist Aaron Koblin. He paid 10000 people 2 cents each on Mechanical Turk to “draw a sheep facing to the left.” 😄 .
3/ On the topic of sheep and visual rubber stamps, a fun side project I had was doing sketches for a friend’s talk (Sarah Stein Greenberg’s take on reinventing higher education here).
She wanted to visualize the notion of “really excellent sheep”, and her idea was to show a blindfolded sheep jumping through hoops! I googled “jumping sheep”, “blindfold” and “hoops” and combined the three into this:
Remember, do not hesitate to get your visual rubber stamps wherever you might find them, and remix stuff!
5/ Done enough mindmapping? Here are some more to try. Carissa Carter is is a big fan of what she calls the “Amorphous Venn”, inspired by this Eames sketch:
Dan Roam has actually made a framework for what kind of spatial layout is best for what (though this is more “presentational”/ “persuasive” sketching — great at work).
Whoever draws the best picture wins — Dan Roam
(Okay, I admit one of the reason I wanted to mention Dan was to add this little sketch he made when I managed to get a signed book copy from him)
7/ One of the authors on the links above (Sacha Chua) has a great excuse to sketch! She sketches books she reads!
8/ Another excuse to sketch, packing lists:
On the shoulders of giants
A bajillion people have written about doodling, sketchnoting and much more, and have written it better than I have.
I feel like the ability to draw, especially in a form as simple as sketchnoting is important enough that one more voice doesn’t hurt. (How important do I think it is? As important as the ability to read and write – the ability to imagine.)
Here are the geniuses you should learn from:
I read Back of the Napkin in 2007, but it took me 5 years to put some of his lessons into practice.
‘Make a World’ is a kids’ drawing book. It is exactly what you need to create visual rubber stamps. (Hat tip to Meagan Fisher — I think she mentioned it in one of her essays or talks).
If you are interesting in sketching, Understanding Comics and Making Comics are my recommendations.
Besides the above excerpt on Mind Mapping, there is a bunch of great stuff under the Resources section here: www.fastefoundation.org
Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is for more serious sketching — like portraits and still life. But it’s her philosophy and belief in drawing as learnable skill that helped me give myself permission to sketch and suck at it.
I firmly believe that given good instruction, drawing is a skill that can be learned by every person with average eyesight and average eye-hand coordination. And learning to draw, without doubt, causes new connections that can be useful over a lifetime for general thinking. — Betty Edwards
Hey there! Thanks for reading. If have suggestions, feedback or just want to get in touch, I am at goel.ashish[at]gmail.com