Digital Design and How to Sketchnote with Mike Rohde

In January, we launched our newest community connection spot online – our monthly Blab series. For us, connecting with the Piktochart community both on and off-line is all about building trust and relationships. It’s not just about convincing people to try out Piktochart. We want to provide valuable content to not only our user community, but to startups, designers, educators, and marketers all across the globe.

This month, we went looking for a great designer to join us. Piktochart has a team of 5 full-time designers (and an amazing intern) working on new templates, text frames, and icons every day. We think one of our greatest assets is our incredible range of design choices for users. We believe everyone can be creative. To show others the ropes, we wanted to bring in an industry expert – someone who is a leader in the field and who others look to for design advice and trends.

When we connected with Mike Rohde, we knew instantly we’d found our guy.

Mike Rohde is a veteran designer and the author of two bestselling books: The Sketchnote Handbook (2012) and The Sketchnote Workbook (2014). He presents workshops around the world that encourage people to use visual thinking skills to generate, capture, and share ideas more effectively. Mike is the illustrator of bestselling books REWORK, REMOTE, The $100 Startup, and The Little Book of Talent.

In the past, he has been commissioned to create live sketchnotes for conferences and events, including SXSW Interactive and Summit Series. He is also the founder of Sketchnote Army, a site dedicated to finding and showcasing sketchnotes and sketchnoters from around the world.

“Sketchnotes are any use of text and drawing mixed together to capture and communicate ideas,” Mike explained in our Blab. “That can include writing, lettering, different shapes and drawings, and icons. I use those things in combination to capture what I’m hearing or thinking about. Sketchnoting can take place on paper, an iPad, a whiteboard, or a chalkboard.”

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This time around, we had 81 live viewers watch at some point during the 60 minutes we were live. The replay count since we went offline has been steadily climbing too!

Below are the questions Mike answered live on the Blab. We’ve found using Upvoter to gather and curate community questions has been very helpful in our Blab series. Because Piktochart community members span the globe, we are always finding creative ways to include as many people as we can in live events. To us, giving everyone in the community the ability to ask or upvote questions is important – even if the live event takes place in the middle of the night in their neck of the woods!

In addition to reading this recap, you can also watch the recording of our Sketchnotes 101 Blab with Mike Rohde.

Is sketching for everyone? If I cannot sketch/doodle, should I still attempt it?

Mike says sketchnoting is for everyone. Everyone can do it, but not everyone chooses to do it.

“For some people feeling like they can’t draw is a block,” he explained. “Sketchnoting is about ideas, not art. It’s more about communication than decoration or a performance medium.”

For Mike, sketchnoting helps him to better understand what he is thinking. Sketchnoting allows him to take a moment to draw out an idea on paper – even when many things are going on around him.

Mike writes books, teaches workshops, shares ideas, and encourages others to sketchnote because he believes everyone is creative. He says that each time he teaches a workshop, those who walk in embarrassed about their lack of drawing skills leave feeling much more confident.

“It’s so exciting for me to see people realizing the confidence that was just built in them,” he explained. “Don’t let the thinking, or feeling, that you can’t draw hold you back!”

Mike suggests that those new to sketchnoting try giving more focus to whether ideas are being captured and communicated rather than if the sketch itself looks beautiful. “That’s where the heart of sketchnoting is,” he said.

What are the essentials of good storytelling?

Mike shared his experience hearing Donald Miller, a self-described “a student of story” and creator of StoryBrand, speak about storytelling at a conference. He recalled Donald talked about a good story being marked by a crisis or challenge that needs to be overcome.

Mike says good storytelling should also be clear and concise, teach valuable lessons, include some kind of visual element, explain a challenge to the audience, and then include a resolution in the end.

“I wouldn’t say I am an expert on storytelling,” he admitted. “I am as much as student as anyone here. I would suggest seeking out other resources who have gone much deeper into storytelling.”

How do you suggest preparing to sketchnote when you’re not sure what the subject and its central themes will be?

Mike reminds those interested in sketchnoting that they are in a moment. In the past, he would often do research about the speaker and learn more the topic. But he soon realized being able to prepare wasn’t always a luxury he had at some events.

“I found it was actually more exciting to go in cold and not know anything,” he said. “I was able to draw out things that really resonated with me. Once in awhile it’s good to not know what’s coming.”

His key tip for being fully present in the moment is to listen more and record less.

He says he finds more “ah-ha” moments arise when he’s focused on listening to the speaker and not so concerned with recording everything being said. He is able to think about how new ideas resonate with him, note things he’d like to research to learn more about later, or consider how he could apply a new skill being discussed in his life. He suggests finding ways to capture what’s valuable to you.

“I think the key to sketchnoting is analysis in the moment,” explained Mike.

Mike points to failure as a key step in the process and says that’s when he finds he’s really learning. He can learn what to try next time by seeing what didn’t work. In fact, Mike thinks finding what didn’t work is just as valuable as finding what was a home run.

Mike suggested that one way to get started with sketchnoting is to start with content you can control. He points to sketchnoting TED Talks.

“You can stop it, you can pause it, you can have lunch then come back to it,” he suggests. “You can even do it more than once to see how you react the second time around.”

Then, as you get more experience, Mike suggests that after a few “controlled” talks, you venture out into live sketchnoting by not stopping the TED Talk. “Let it roll and see what happens!” he says.

“It’s hard for perfectionists, because you want to make everything just right,” admits Mike, a self-identified perfectionist. “You have to allow things to be a little imperfect. Just assume the thing you are doing live is an in-between step or even something you’ll end up throwing away. Understand there is value in going through a rough sketchnote and perfecting it.”

“I have 2 notebooks: one for being perfectionist, and another one for doodling and exercising,” added Lean Avenue in the Blab chat room.

“The two-phase approach is really helpful. I find that a “capture” phase and a “post-note” phase make the ideas much more clear and synthesized. Recommended,” Kate Rutter added.

What are some of your favorite digital tools?

Mike is most excited about the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil.

“I’ve used the iPad Pro and Apply Pencil and it’s really wonderful,” he said. Friends have it and love it. I really like the pencil especially. The iPad Pro has a level of quality that I was hoping for 6 years ago.”

“iPad Pro and Apple Pencil is the best setup so far for me,” agreed Mauro Toselli in the Blab chat.

To take photos of his sketchnotes, Mike says he keeps it simple with his iPhone 5s.

When it’s time to erase mistakes, play with the contrast, and make other edits after sketchnoting, Mike points to Photoshop, Acorn, or Pixelmator. If you’re looking for something a bit more advanced and are bringing your images into Adobe Illustrator or Sketch, Mike suggests taking a look at Vector Magic. “It’s a really powerful tool for someone who does a lot of vector work and needs that kind of power,” he said.

“Big thanks on suggesting Vector Magic,” commented Caryn Ginsberg in the chat. “I’m an Illustrator user struggling with Adobe Draw and Concepts for transferring vectors.”

What are the first steps to begin sketchnoting?

Mike started his answer by clarifying that sketchnoting doesn’t have to be limited to live at conferences or talks. He has used sketchnotes in settings that don’t have live content (such as recorded talks), to capture ideas in brainstorming sessions on a whiteboard, or to document experiences.

“This is a sketchnote of the Super Bowl this year,” he explained, while holding up his notebook to the audience. “As the game went along, I wrote down what I felt were the most important moments in the game and added my commentary.”



He suggests starting out with basicas – copy paper and an average ball point pen or a pencil.

“You don’t need any nice tools,” he said. “But I would say having nice tools makes it nicer and much more fun.”

Below are tools Mike recommends, plus extra favorites posted in the Blab chat room:



“It’s really important to try these tools and books out,” Mike suggests. “Spend a few dollars to try them out to see how they work for you. I’m always on the lookout for new things to try. One thing I’ve learned over time having books and pens fail on me is to have more than one of each at an event.”

Mike says once you have your tools, then it’s time to focus on your drawing and writing. He suggests slowing down in order to focus on your handwriting and practicing often. He advises those new to sketchnoting to focus on what he calls “the five basic shapes” – square, circle, triangle, line, and dot.



“A lot of the drawing I do is modular, and I use those five basic shapes to build all the things I draw,” he said. “I realized focusing on these shapes could be a way in for people who don’t feel so confident about their drawing skill. If they use those five simple shapes to build things up, like blocks, it would make drawing much easier.”

To learn more about this technique, pick up one of Mike’s books. You can also check out the 10 sketchnote tips Mike created in conjunction with Microsoft to encourage OneNote users to use sketchnoting for helpful tips and tricks. In addition, Mike pointed Blab attendees to The Sketchnote Podcast as a way to learn more about sketchnotes if you are just starting out.

Why did you start and what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from creating the site?

A few years ago, Mike noticed he was promoting his own sketchnote work, but had trouble finding a place online that housed a collection of works from others. He wanted a place to feature the work of others and communicate how broad sketchnotes actually are.

“There was a community out there,” explained Mike, “but they had nowhere to go. It was important to me to create that kind of a space for people to go to.” is dedicated to finding and showcasing sketchnotes and sketchnoters from around the world. Mauro Toselli joined Mike to help everything run smoothly and have a consistent flow of content posted. Mauro now holds the title of Chief Operating Sketchnoter at Sketchnote Army.

“If anyone has sketchnotes they’d like featured, we have a submission page you can visit,” said Mike. “If you have something you’d like to share with everyone, we’d like to see it.”

One lesson Mike has learned while running Sketchnote Army is the importance of new sketchnoters being able see the work of others who are new as well. Mike and his team made a welcoming environment for new community members to submit their first attempts. Mike thought this was such a valuable part of the community that he and his team created a section of the site called First Sketchnote as a place to house newbie content.

“By seeing all the work on Sketchnote Army, you get a sense of what’s possible,” explained Mike. “And I’m most excited that it’s sparking community members to try new things that they’ve never tried.”

Mike notes that the sketchnote community is welcoming, encouraging, and friendly. He says criticism and attacks have no place in the community he’s helping to build.

“You aren’t going to get blasted for doing something wrong,” he said. “We have that ethic built into our core. It’s a celebration of creativity.”

Trying out online events was another way Sketchnote Army has been able to rally community members. World Sketchnote Day is on January 11th and kicked off for the first time in 2016. Community members posted their sketchnotes with a hashtag on social media, and the Sketchnote Army team had prizes from sponsors.

“I think having events like that from time to time is really fun,” said Mike.

“Loved Sketchnote Day! Thanks for taking that on!” commented Stacey Lindes in the Blab chat room.



What role do you think Sketchnotes will play in the future of content?

Mike thinks sketchnotes might end up being an interesting way to communicate information visually across many organizations. He thinks it could especially be helpful for expressing complex ideas to an audience. Mike points to this video created by friend Rob Dimeo, sketchnoter and Director of the NIST Center for Neutron Research, as an example of turning a complex, scientific idea into easy to understand, visual storytelling.

“Maybe your company has a sketchnoter produce a comic book, either hard copy or PDF, to give away to customers to take away,” recommended Mike. “I think any kind of visual is attractive. You can fit lots of information into a compact space.”

Mike thinks we are going to see more people using iPad Pro and Apple pencil, and the technologies that come after. He envisions sketchnoters creating more and more sketchnotes live digitally.

How do you start with students in a K-12 setting?

Mike says educators he meets are excited by the idea of kids sketchnoting. He says he has taught workshops in a classroom setting and kids light up when he shows them sketchnoting techniques.

“It’s a way of breaking out of the text-only mindset by having something that’s more organic,” he said. “It appeals to students who want to express themselves in different ways. It gives them permission to do what they naturally like to do.”

“Our students that use sketchnoting love it!” commented Mary Ottenwess, Tech Director at Catholic Central High School. Read Mary’s story on Sketchnote Army here.

Sketching seems to take more time than traditional note taking. Do you have tips on how to keep up with the pace of a presentation?

In traditional notetaking, people have a tendency to capture every word that is said. Mike suggests that rather than capturing everything that is said, those new to sketchnoting might try synthesizing information you are hearing and capture the most important things.

Mike cited a study showing that taking notes by hand is better than taking notes on a laptop for remembering conceptual information over the long term. The notes from laptop users contained more words and more verbatim overlap with the lecture, compared to the notes that were written by hand. Overall, students who took more notes performed better, but so did those who had less verbatim overlap, suggesting that the benefit of having more content is canceled out by “mindless transcription.”

“At the heart of it, think about what you are trying to achieve by taking notes,” advises Mike. “What are the things I can listen for and capture that can help me. If you can use sketchnoting to capture those ideas, all the better.”

He recommends taking along a tape recorder if you are concerned about missing anything. Then, you don’t feel the burden to capture everything. You can let your mind be in the moment and let the other things go.

Bonus Questions and Answers

Below are Mike’s answers to two questions we didn’t get to in our 60 minute Blab:

What are the main advantages of sketching?

MIke thinks the benefits to sketching and sketchnoting are the combination of thinking and action. You’re getting ideas out of your head and on the paper and your body is a part of the flow.

“So often ideas bounce around our heads and we don’t always see them for what they are — good or bad,” he said. “Sometimes you have to get those ideas in the light of day to see they are either terrible or awesome. And sometimes the only way to an awesome idea are many terrible ones. “

Mike sees the differences between sketching and just typing to write is the physical act of movement to create.

“On a whiteboard, a notebook, or even on an iPad screen, you’re physically moving your hands as you think and I believe that puts you in a different mode of thinking,” he said.

When you sketch, Mike says you can see your thoughts and share them with others.

“I do this with the software team I’m on as a UX designer — each week we work through many ideas on a whiteboard— and that really helps us solve problems,” he explained. “In the same way, i do that for design challenges when I work on my own. Works very well to get the ideas out so I can evaluate them.”

When do you decide to stop sketching and proceed to next step of the process?

“That’s a tough question!” says Mike. “Sometimes I’m forced to keep moving because another great idea is in my head, either from my brainstorming or from what I’m hearing. In those cases I might circle back at the end and add more detail.”

Mike says that he tries to keep things moving along as much as he can when he sketchnotes, knowing he can add additional detail later.

Read Mike’s latest articles about sketchnoting and creativity for free. Join the Rohdesign Newsletter to receive updates on his sketchnote books, giveaways, appearances, and more.

The team at Piktochart had a blast during our Blab with Mike Rohde! If you are interested in attending our next Blab, come follow us. We’ll be talking about a different subject each month and we’d love to have you join us!

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