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How To Get Started With Sketchnotes

Have you ever seen someone make creative notes at a conference and wished that your own notebook was more presentable? It’s probably much easier to do than you think. You don’t have to be an aspiring lettering artist, and you don’t need to develop top-notch drawing skills.

Making your notes more interesting doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking. It’s not like learning to play the piano or taking up diving. If you think sketchnoting looks fun, I have some tips to get you started.

Creative Note-Taking For Anyone Link

People make all sorts of visual notes. An army of sketchnoters1 is out there, and everyone has their own style. Some do amazing sketches and lavish letters. Some translate complicated concepts into easy-to-grasp diagrams. But for the sake of this article, let’s keep it simple.


The laser show at the Smashing Conference52 in Oxford earlier this year.

It doesn’t matter whether you call it sketchnoting or doodling or scribbling or simply “adding some joy” to your notes. Just aim for something visual that takes your notes to the next level. Combine this with an effort to slow down when forming letters, and I’ll bet you will surprise yourself at the difference it makes. The goal is to create something that you would want to take out again and look at — and, hey, perhaps even show others.


Me at the Smashing Conference in Oxford. (Image credit3)

You Are Your Own Target Audience Link

Sketchnotes done live over 45 minutes can’t capture everything. They won’t be a perfect structured summary. My notes are not intended to stand on their own feet. They have value for me and perhaps other attendees at the conference.

Make the notes for yourself first. Share them if you want — other attendees will probably love to take a look. Sketchnotes can spread the word to the outside world about an interesting talk or about the conference itself. But people who have not heard the talk can’t expect the sketchnotes to carry much meaning on their own. I mention this because people sometimes misunderstand their purpose.

Keeping this in mind will help you get started on your own sketchnotes. You don’t have to try to “instantly” explain everything or worry that you’ll miss one of the speaker’s key points. It’s OK — they’re just your personal notes.


Your notes might not make much sense to people who haven’t heard the talk. And that’s fine!

A Bit More Useful And A Lot More Fun Link

So, why bother with any of this? Because the act of writing stuff down helps you to remember. This is a basic study technique. The sound bites you capture from a talk will jog your memory when you flip through the notes later. By drawing something to create connections, you will increase your ability to remember. Notes that combine words with sketches are more useful than text alone. Chances are you don’t even hang onto boring old regular notes anyway.

Making something you will look at later might be the most helpful benefit. But all in all, you could do worse than to have “fun” be your main reason for taking sketchnotes. When the primary purpose is fun, you’ll let yourself play around. Write something silly, draw objects that talk, and in general don’t be so serious. I reckon fun is reason enough.


Oh, all those WYSIWYG horrors!

Stationary Geeking Link

We all know that it’s not about the tools, but so many wonderful pens are out there, waiting for you to try them. You can find a lot of motivation in a set of shiny new pens that have perfect nibs and a long way to go before drying out. I hereby grant you permission to go nuts in the pen aisle.

You have had plenty of ballpoint and rollerball pens, but have you tried a fineliner? Its tip is made of fiber or plastic, like on a marker, and it comes in a variety of widths and colors. Any brand is fine. My handwriting looks a lot more neat with a fineliner than with any type of ball tip. This might not be the case for your style and scale of letters. Try!


Start off with two black fineliners and a light-gray marker for shading.

You can start by getting two different widths of black fineliners to create contrasting lines. (I’ve been using 0.4 together with 1.0 a lot lately.) You will also want to get tools for coloring and shading. You can add shadow with a light-gray marker, which does wonders for elevating your doodles.

A handful of different hues are enough to add a splash of color. The daring may want to venture outside the primaries and secondaries of the basic color wheel. Look for color names like salmon, asparagus and raspberry for a more elegant touch than your basic red and blue.

Paper Can Inspire, Or Scare, You Link

Choose the paper that will inspire you the most or — if more relevant — scare you the least. Do you like the idea of starting a new notebook and filling it with sketchnotes? Then go find a nice big expensive one to start your collection.

My favorite at the moment is a spiral-bound notebook with a format somewhere around landscape A4. These sketchbooks are a pain to haul around, but I like the large pages of thick paper and how it folds to lie flat on my lap.


A spiral-bound notebook gives you one large clean page to work on.

Does a softer start with training wheels sound more appealing? Blank canvases are known to distress, so we need to outwit ourselves. Some alternatives for less daunting paper:

  • a clipboard with single sheets of paper,
  • a cheap notebook with a million thin pages,
  • any scraps of lined or squared paper,
  • a very small sketchbook (use several pages instead of just one!),
  • the back of something you found in your swag bag.

Cheating With The Content Link

Remembering something that was said while continuing to listen as you’re spelling and sketching is impossible. My trick is to draft notes in another notebook and to snap photos of certain slides. It sounds like extra work, but this is the only thing that works for me. My brain can’t perform all of those tasks at the same time; I have to “switch” between them.


It might look like multitasking, but I am shifting my focus back and forth from draft notebook to sketchnote. (Image credit4)

By jotting some words on the side, I can zip back to sketching what I was working on. Lettering something already written down elsewhere makes it easier to keep listening because I’m just drawing one letter at the time. When I get stuck for content, I refresh my memory by checking Twitter to see what other attendees have commented on. You can always count on finding the funniest quote of a talk via the conference’s hashtag.

Solving The Layout Puzzle Link

People often ask me how I plan a layout without knowing the structure of the talk. The truth is that I almost always either run out of space too soon or have trouble filling the page. Some speakers list the topics they’ll cover. Pay close attention if they do: This is a sketchnoter’s gold. A lot of times, though, you can’t plan much of anything — you just have to wing it.


The layout can be a puzzle, but you decide how big the various pieces will be.

If you’re sketchnoting live, you really only have the scheduled duration of the talk to go by. Has the speaker reached about the halfway point at the same time that you have? Also, save space for any excellent closing points. If you end up with too much empty space, go ahead and put something huge in the bottom-right, or draw a sun. I tend to cram too much onto the page and should remember that white space is not the enemy either.

Preparations For The Conference Pro Link

I noticed once that I was stressing a lot to avoid certain mistakes. Speaker names, Twitter handles and talk titles: You want to get those correct. To make this easier, I prepare a cheat sheet with this stuff — one talk per page, all ready for my draft notes on the side. I write down the title, too, because that first slide might disappear before you’re ready to start. (And watch out for changed titles!)

Want to publish your notes as soon as they’re done? Prepare a list on your phone with the speaker’s Twitter handle and talk title. Rather than searching for the correct spellings for your tweet, you could spend this saved time on your notes or taking a coffee break.


You absolutely want to get certain details correct. A cheat sheet could save precious time during a busy conference schedule.

Another problem for me was wasting precious time pondering which colors to use. The finished product often ended up looking less than harmonious, too. So, before the Smashing Conference52 in Freiburg, I planned a color scheme. I picked a series of nine matching colors, one key color for each talk, with touches of the previous and next colors as accents. Just going through the colors in order during the two days made things easier.

Bootcamp For Perfectionists Link

Sketchnoting is excellent training to combat those pesky perfectionist tendencies. I know you’ve got plenty of them, and I know how detrimental they can be. I used to suffer from illusions that I could go home and “finish the notes later.” This never happened. Ever. Now I photograph my notebook right there on the floor of the venue, and that’s it. No completing tomorrow, no fixing spelling mistakes, no retouching when I get home. Tweeting your notes right away is very much optional but highly recommended! For me, deciding that the page was done there and then made all the difference.

There is no right or wrong way to take sketchnotes at a conference, and you should absolutely make your own rules. Some people like to get a head start with an elaborate title or a caricature of the speaker. Some people scan their notes later and color them digitally. You don’t have to cover the entire talk either. Snippets are excellent and give you much more freedom. Figure out what works for you, change the rules as you go, and give yourself some sort of a deadline.


Anyone can draw a community!

“Sounds Great, But I Can’t Draw!” Link

Sure you can. You can draw arrows, smileys, stick people, browser windows, mobile phones, boxes, stars and clouds. Practice at your desk with an online talk first, and I’ll bet the result will be a lot better than you expect. Now, go get yourself some new pens!

Other people are technically better than us in a whole range of things. Don’t let that get in your way. We could look at a master writing calligraphy and feel we are not worthy of even holding a pen. Sketchnoting should be like running, cooking and photography. It’s for anyone and everyone who wants to try, have fun and improve as they go along.

(il, al)

Footnotes Link

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SmashingConf Barcelona 2016

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Elisabeth is a web designer from Norway, working in her own company. Although she enjoys her hometown Bergen, she’s always eager to travel and explore new places. She loves attending conferences and is especially interested in learning more typography, SVG and JavaScript. She posts sketchnotes and other work on and you can follow her on Twitter.

  1. 1

    THE article I always wanted to read on sketchnotes. Thanks for sharing!

  2. 4

    “Sounds Great, But I Can’t Draw!”

    That paragraph is awesome! I totally agree, as long as you have hands you can draw, now it won’t look amazing but who cares! It’s called a sketch for a reason! You get better as you go, plus it opens up new doors for creativity and ideas.

    • 5

      Elisabeth Irgens

      November 12, 2014 9:05 am

      So happy to hear this resonated! It took me a very long time to be okay with my own scribbles. I went through graphic design school thinking that drawing was best left to my fellow students, who were so much better at it than me. Now I don’t care anymore, and the practice from taking sketchnotes has made me much better at making sketches when working too. Like quickly explaining ideas for clients on paper.

  3. 6

    Zack Grossbart

    November 11, 2014 1:04 am

    I love sketching, but I’ve always had a problem drawing. I can’t even make a circle that connects. I found it really helpful to use a dot grid page for writing. It’s kind of like graph paper, but with just dots instead of the lines.

    You can print out your own, but I love the fancy ones.

    • 7

      Elisabeth Irgens

      November 12, 2014 9:06 am

      We should use any help we can get! Have you tried the Whitelines notebooks? They have white lines that don’t compete with your pen. Great for editing digitally after. I use the squared ones all the time and they’re great for sketching webdesign layouts.

  4. 8

    If I have time to get that creative with my notes, I’m either not paying enough attention to what’s being said, or what’s being said isn’t very engaging.

    • 9

      Elisabeth Irgens

      November 12, 2014 9:06 am

      I find it’s the other way around, taking proper notes forces me to concentrate. But I can only speak about my own experience!

  5. 10

    Yes, fun should be the reason enough, and you touched every aspect of it (sketchnotes), really comprehensive article. I think I’ll finally look for some grey marker. They bring out the boxes and the letterings very well.

    • 11

      Elisabeth Irgens

      November 12, 2014 9:07 am

      I picked up this trick and got my first gray brush pen in a sketchnote workshop with Eva-Lotta Lamm a couple of years ago. It really does wonders!

  6. 12

    oh this is a comfort..ehehe..thanks.

  7. 13

    I have always had a very hard time taking notes that are legible and that I will actually want to look at in the future when I need to try and learn the information. I never really understood why people would spend so much time trying to get there notes to look good, but the farther I go in my college life I am beginning to see that when you take good notes that you can clearly understand then it becomes a lot easier to process the information and then be able to retain the information. I have been trying very hard this semester to find a way to make my notes more entertaining and informative because I feel like if your notes are boring then you will not be as willing to learn the information and it will also be a lot more difficult to retain the information being studied. As I have made a conscious effort to try to take more time on making notes and also trying to make creative notes I have found that my overall test grades have gone up and I truly believe that it is because I can look at my notes and actually comprehend what it is that I am supposed to be learning. I really enjoyed reading this article and hope to take some of the ideas the author gives and I hope to make my notes better so I can get increasingly better test scores.

  8. 15

    Yes, it doesn’t matter whether you call it sketchnoting or doodling or scribbling or simply “adding some joy” to your notes and this is what I do. I enjoy doing my work and that creates awesome article and infographics for my blog.
    In the initial days of writing I dd not know drawing but learned as I tried doing it.

    • 16

      Elisabeth Irgens

      November 12, 2014 9:19 am

      Keep it up! There are so many things we get better at by continuing to do stuff, even if we’re not brilliant at it.

  9. 17

    Stephanie Lewis

    November 11, 2014 1:14 pm

    I love to sketchnote and always do when I go to conferences! It makes me remember things better and focus on what the key messages are. Also, the speakers LOVE them. You really don’t have to draw well to do them (and you don’t want to spend the time during the talk). And if you’re a perfectionist like I am, sketch in pencil and then after the talk/meeting/class, ink them in.

    • 18

      Elisabeth Irgens

      November 12, 2014 9:14 am

      Yay, it sounds great to ink them in afterwards. I’m afraid my inner procrastinator would get the better of me if I tried that approach, they would just not ever get done. But I think it’s amazing to see when other people do more work on their notes before or after.

  10. 19

    Fantastic post! Really got me fired up to do some sketching. I can’t draw…but hey, what’s the worse that can happen?

    I do have a lack of focus sometimes, and I’m no multi-tasker thats for sure. So it’s going to take a while. I think as you said, taking photos of slides as you go along is useful :)

  11. 21

    7 months late for an April Fools joke.

    • 22

      Elisabeth Irgens

      November 12, 2014 9:09 am

      Actually, that would be 7 months and 9 days.

      • 23

        Seriously, time is valuable, especially in our field. Does any serious professional in the industry actually spend more time sketching out notes and doodling than putting all that effort into something else which matters? I don’t want to offend you but your website could use a lot more effort. It is very basic. I would advise you to use your skills and put that time into that instead of silly notes that will end up in the trash years from now.

        • 24

          Elisabeth Irgens

          December 15, 2014 7:30 pm

          Sketching is one of the most valuable skills I have picked up the last couple of years. I can now quickly explain ideas and concepts on paper, when I work with other people. This is a great time saver on projects and my clients appreciate collaborating like this. But this is my work – the work you do may be completely different.

  12. 25

    michael hinrichs

    November 11, 2014 9:24 pm

    I love the article, but there really should be some sort of a shout out to Mike Rohde here…this post is basically just a summary of his book on the topic called, “The Sketchnote Handbook”. Mike Rohde and Sunni Brown are some of the biggest proponents of this note-taking method (Mike did create the sketchnote army website that was referenced) and deserve some sort of a mention in a post on how to get started with sketchnoting!

    Great article! :)

    • 26

      Elisabeth Irgens

      November 12, 2014 9:10 am

      Thanks for mentioning Mike Rohde and his book! I haven’t read it, but it’s on my wishlist together with Sunni Brown’s “The Doodle Revolution” and “The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures” by Dan Roam. There are *lots* of books on visual thinking, a list of resources could be an article of it’s own.

      For me personally, the missing shout out would be to Eva-Lotta Lamm. I attended her sketchnote workshop at Frontend 2011 in Oslo and this was when I first started to be happy using pen and paper.

  13. 27

    Inspiring and encouraging!
    Thanks, great article.
    Feels like colouring the world a little more beautiful, starting with our notes. :)

    • 28

      Elisabeth Irgens

      November 12, 2014 9:15 am

      Glad you liked it! And yeah, *everything* looks better written with coloured pens.

  14. 29

    You’ve persuaded me to give sketching a try. Thank you!

  15. 30

    “The goal is to create something that you would want to take out again and look at — and, hey, perhaps even show others.”

    I guess I take notes with a different goal in mind… I am actually an artist, but when I take notes I don’t find myself having time to doodle and draw. I take very abbreviated notes which I can later transform into diagrams of sorts if needed.

    In my opinion this whole trend seems to be just that – a trend, and doesn’t really have a purpose besides optics.

    Beautiful drawings though :)

    • 31

      Elisabeth Irgens

      November 12, 2014 10:42 pm

      Hi Jenny, thanks for your thoughts. I can imagine it doesn’t make sense for an artist to spend time being creative with notes. But for people writing code all day, this can be an opportunity to venture outside our comfort zone and practice something different. If a trend gets more people to become friendly with pen and paper as tools – I think that’s a pretty kick ass trend.

    • 32

      Justyn Czekanski

      November 18, 2014 12:21 am

      Jenny, I think that the point is to make sure that the notes are meaningful to you. If you find it distracting to create such notes – well done – you’re finding your own way of learning. That’s the whole point!

  16. 33

    I really dig this. Made want to practice with some audiobooks’ snipets. Thanks for sharing!

  17. 34

    I was about to try this out. Never ever tried with a fear of “Lack of Creativity”. Your articles makes me clear on it.
    One more question I have is, “What about fonts writing.” When I start writing a bold font, it ends like a lean font in the last character.
    What would be your advise to write different font styles?

    • 35

      Elisabeth Irgens

      November 13, 2014 8:11 pm

      Happy to hear you want to try! If you search on the web for “hand lettering” or just “lettering”, I think you will find lots of tips on drawing letters. I’m really no expert, I just play around with different styles and try not to worry too much how it ends up.

  18. 36

    Sharifah Raudhah

    November 13, 2014 8:11 am

    Neat and cute and of course inspiring for a newbie like me. If you can share, the brand of pens and coloured markers you used on the sketchnotes pic would be lovely.

    Thx Elisabeth! and yes we all can draw!

    • 37

      Elisabeth Irgens

      November 13, 2014 8:17 pm

      Hi Sharifah, very glad to hear you found some inspiration in my article. I use all sorts of different brands, depending on what I can find. But some favourites are Microns and Tombow ABT Dual Brush. Best of luck with your sketching!!

  19. 38

    Good to see someone who is also excited about analog stuff in 2014 and not just digital! Btw I finished my course of “right brain drawing” in May and can recommend that to anybody with zero skills in drawing. thanks for the article!

  20. 39

    Great article. Thanks

    Grey pens – as in very very light grey – are super awesome for sketching. Use over pencil to blend etc… fun stuff


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