Some time ago I discovered a new method of taking notes. One that seemed draw my attention to important points when reviewing them and allowed me to quickly remember the entire concept discussed at a glance. It is a method known as Sketch Notes. I was immediately drawn to it (pun intended) for its obvious visual appeal. Every idea, concept and process had the potential to be easily represented as one or more sketches on a page. The simplicity of these drawings made them incredibly easy to understand, at least for the person that drew them, and acted as a very powerful memory trigger.
While I was reading about Sketch Notes and the art of visual note taking, I found myself wanting to use the system more and more. But, I resisted. I’m simply not an artist. My background is in web programming, not design. I don’t have an ounce of visual creativity in me, apart from the odd stick figure and smiley face. My notes, apart from the occasional rudimentary technical diagram, were boring bulleted lists. Dot point after dot point of scribbled words. A lot of the time I could barely read my own writing.
Most of my note taking occurs during meetings, so I was writing things down as fast as possible in an effort to keep up with the conversation.
In an effort to change this messy habit I forced myself to try sketching my notes. What happened was really quite amazing.
My notes began to take on a life of their own. I could identify ideas quickly and easily and then connect all the other ideas stemming from their core. My sketches were, and still are, very bad, but it works for me.
How it Works
I start with the central idea or concept – this could even be an agenda item from a meeting. I write this down towards the centre of the page in my notebook and give it a border of some kind. This could be something like a simple box or circle, a cloud, or even something like a photo frame. All topics covered that directly relate to this agenda item or primary idea are then added around the periphery and, if it makes sense, I draw a small image to represent this topic. For example, it could be that the topic is the objective, goal or target of the idea. For this I draw a sniper reticle. For anything that is a system-owned process I’ll draw a cog, and so on. Essentially, each concept gets its own “icon”. Each topic is then joined to the original idea with a solid arrow.
In the event that a topic sprouts one or more sub-topics, these are sketched and noted around the periphery of the topic and again joined to the topic with arrows.
Any side note or piece of information that is relevant and important but not necessarily connected to a topic or core idea is simply written off to the side. I then sketch a something like a Post It note around it so that it actually looks like a separate piece of information. For these sketches, drawing a shadow behind the note really makes it pop out of the page.
After doing this for a while I found that I had merged to different note-taking concepts: sketch notes and mind mapping. And so “sketch mapping” was born!
My sketch maps are a mix of written words and drawings that I am comfortable with. When I started sketch mapping I had a number of comments from other people that my notes were really effective.
After I create one of these sketch maps, I snap a photo of each page with the Evernote page camera (find out more ways to use this tool in my book, Evernote Every Day) so that I can easily reference it later, without having to flick through pages in my notebook, simply by searching with Evernote.
Below is an example of one of my sketch maps (click to enlarge).