Building Visual Communication Skills with Sketchnoting

Jill  Vanoncini

July 01, 2014

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When Extractable’s UX designer Lisa Aufox asked who would want to participate in a sketchnoting workshop, I jumped at the chance. I've done some visual journaling before, and we use visual communication techniques in client presentations all the time. But I've often wondered how people can simultaneously listen to a talk, synthesize and organize the information, and get it all down in a sketchbook so that it's both comprehensible and nice looking. That seemed like a daunting task for a word-focused content strategist.

Lisa broke sketchnoting down for us, and it's a lot simpler than I thought it would be. Like any new skill, it's going to take time to perfect, but as Lisa pointed out, it gets easier with practice as you build your visual vocabulary.

 Here are a few of the basics:

  • Focus on the main concepts-simplify, rather than trying to include every detail.
  • If you don't have time to add that perfect image or text treatment, leave space for it and add it later.
  • Color and shading can add emphasis and depth. But, if you emphasize everything, then nothing stands out. Make it easy on yourself and add color and shading at the end of the talk, when you know the relative importance of each item. Lisa recommends starting with black and adding gray for shading, along with a single color.
  • Some speakers use metaphors and stories, which often translate easily into sketches, so take advantage of that when it happens.

Lisa shared a few basic tools and techniques, which we practiced together:

Techniques for emphasizing letters and words

lettersandwords copy

Drawing basic shapes

basicshapes copy

A few easy methods for drawing people and facial expressions

people copyDrawing objects (which went fine until I realized that while I can certainly recognize an anchor, I can't actually draw one without some kind of visual reference)

objects copy

Drawing concepts (it was fairly easy to visualize "sharing," but "adapt" was a whole different story)

concepts copy

Next, we talked about managing the layout. A single page or two-page spread works best, so that you can see the entire note without flipping pages. The challenge is to fill the page evenly and give each element the right emphasis without running out of space. Here are some layouts you can start with.


linear copy


skyscraper copy


radial copy


path copy


modular copy


popcorn copy 2

As practice, we all sketchnoted together while viewing How to Build Your Creative Confidence, a TEDTalk from David Kelley of IDEO. It's fascinating to see all the different ways that the Extractable team found to represent the key points of the talk in their sketches.

closeup group copy

Now that I've learned the basics, I'm excited to use sketchnoting as a way to practice my visual communication skills. If you're interested in learning more about sketchnoting, here are some resources to for inspiration:

Sketchnotes 101: The Basics of Visual Note-taking