Visual note taking: 5 easy steps to start sketching your ideas

Learn the basics of visual note taking, why it’s such a powerful tool, and how you can start taking notes with doodles of your own.

Visual note taking sketch book

Do you ever scribble on a scrap piece of paper during a Zoom call? Surely you’re not the only one who has scrawled random words across a napkin (punctuated with big circles or stars) while on the phone.

Turns out this is more than idle doodling.

Our brains are exceptionally good at finding ways to turn what we observe into meaningful experiences — and drawing can enhance the brain's capacity to learn.

The art of mapping ideas and visually illustrating their connections has become extremely popular in recent decades. These graphic recordings with simple drawings that highlight key points are probably familiar to you from conferences or meetings.

This article explains the basics of visual note taking, why it’s such a powerful tool, and how you can start taking notes with doodles of your own.

What is visual note taking?

Visual note taking, also known as sketchnoting, is a creative note-taking method that involves combining words and drawings. The process is pretty straightforward — as learners actively listen to a meeting or class, they record key concepts visually using both words and graphics.

Traditionally, visual notes are drawn in real-time with a pen or marker on a piece of paper, but digital drawing on an iPad or tablet is also an option.

But you don't need to be an artist to be a visual note taker. Plenty of people outside of the arts use the practice of visual note taking — a recent study found that 86% of computer and information employees doodle.

Sketch notes can include drawings, words, sketches, or whatever you'd like. Since the graphics are visual expressions of what the note taker is thinking, they don't have to be understood by anyone else. It's the act of doodling that makes this process both fun and effective.

Why practice sketchnoting?

Visual note taking booklet with images

Visual notes go beyond doodling little boxes or funny faces in the margins of your notebook. Although the practice itself is fun, a lot is happening behind the scenes to make it so powerful. There are many reasons to give sketchnoting a try.

Enhanced memory

One of the major benefits of visual note taking is memory enhancement. Studies have demonstrated that drawing is an effective way to enhance memory.

A study comparing retention after drawing versus writing found that participants were more likely to recall words that they drew. In addition to making key ideas easier to visualize, adding simple graphics activates the brain process that builds mental “bookmarks.”

Visual note taking can be especially helpful for students. It helps make mental connections and offers greater insight into what they're learning and how they're learning it. Many teachers are implementing this practice in schools with promising results.

Taking visual notes is also great for conference attendees. Sketchnotes are becoming increasingly popular among creatives and professionals alike to summarize conference discussions.

In some cases, organizations make them part of the conference through graphic facilitation. Using a skilled graphic artist to illustrate the main points of the discussion on a whiteboard in real-time keeps the audience engaged and supports visual thinking.

Improved focus

Another benefit of visual note taking is enhanced focus. Most of us have probably sat through a long conference or Zoom meeting and struggled to keep our minds from wandering.

Modern society can access a vast amount of information, and recent research finds that our collective attention span is decreasing. Concentrating requires a lot of self-control and doodling while taking notes can release that self-control just long enough to help you focus again.

Sketchnoting can also serve as a valuable brainstorming tool for right-brained thinkers. These big-picture types tend to be less analytical than left-brainers, making it difficult to nail down tangible ideas from their descriptive or subjective terms. Sharing information through drawings and mind maps can help them focus their visual thinking.

Stress relief

Taking notes graphically can also relax the mind. Studies have shown that visual creativity, especially doodling, boosts our focus, health, and overall happiness. Drawing and doodling can help relieve boredom, anxiety, and stress by engaging cognitive processes that combat these emotions. Motor activities like these have a calming effect similar to fidgeting and stimming (repetitive movements used for self-soothing).

5 easy steps to start taking visual notes

Sketchnoting book with drawings and words

If you're a visual learner, visual note taking may be right for you. Almost anyone can learn this technique, but a little preparation and effort go a long way. Check out these five easy tips to help you start a visual note-taking practice.

Gather your materials

To get started with visual note taking, you really only need three things — a piece of paper, a writing utensil, and a willingness to try.

However, most people enjoy the fun and variety of using a few dedicated sketchnoting tools. Various tools are suitable for taking visual notes, and what you choose is your personal preference.

  • Writing utensils: Pencils, pens, and markers are among the go-to's for most note takers. For beginners, starting with a simple 2B pencil or black ballpoint pen may be helpful until you get more comfortable moving quickly. When you're ready, add color, texture ... go wild.
  • Paper or sketchbooks: While you can technically take notes on anything, it's wise to choose a dedicated notebook to become your "sketchnote handbook." Keeping them in one spot makes for easy reference. Consider an unlined notebook in a size you can carry around easily.
  • Digital tools: Some people prefer taking notes digitally. If your iPad is your best friend, there are plenty of note taking and drawing apps to choose from. They offer illustration tools, a digital whiteboard, file sharing, and even audio recording.

Plan ahead

Before attempting the fast-paced practice of visual note taking in the wild, put in a little practice first. Practicing without the pressure of a live event will help you get a feel for the process and become comfortable sketching basic shapes and words.

There are a few ways to practice. If you recently attended a meeting or conference and have a recording, replay it and try taking visual notes as you listen. You can compare them to your initial written notes and see how much you retained.

Or, if you want a more relaxed approach, have fun with your source. Turn on your favorite Netflix show or try out one of the top podcasts right now. Doodle and notate away!

Get near the action

Students taking visual notes

Once you've mastered the basics of visual note taking, it's time to try out live sketchnoting.

When taking visual notes at an event or class, select a location that facilitates taking notes. It’s best to arrive early so that you can choose a seat unobstructed by other people or a table with space for your notebook.

It’s important to be close enough to the speaker to see facial expressions and body language. This ensures you understand the context of what they are saying. It’s also easier to concentrate without distractions in front of you.

Just let go

This might be the most important tip — relax.

Try not to worry if you are "doing it right" or if it "looks good." There's no need to feel confined to any specific format. Once you know the process, just let go, enjoy yourself, and benefit from the cognitive process behind the scenes.

You can take some time to reflect and analyze your notes after the session.

Reflect and review

A final part of visual note taking is what you do after taking notes. To make your notes as effective as you can, you must review and analyze them several times.

To strengthen your memory, revisit your notes and engage with them again. Take some time to organize the mess, gather the most useful information, and make it easier to find. Try writing a summary or "chunking" similar pieces of information into categories that will help you remember them. (You can find tutorials online on chunking information.)

Problem-solving techniques can also help you review your notes. Examine your comprehension of the concepts learned by applying them to a real-life scenario.

Free your inner doodler

To take your self-learning to the next level, consider giving visual note taking a try. Doodling can help you focus and retain information more effectively, and it's a fun way to express your creativity.

These tips will help you get started, but remember there is no one right way to take notes. Experiment and find what works best for you. You don't need any special skills or training — just a couple of tools and the willingness to experiment and have some fun.


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