Sketchnote: The Art of Explanation by Lee LeFever

Wow! This book. All technical writers, in particular, should read it.

Common Craft is known for its widely imitated paper-cutout style instructional videos, but in a way this has become a distraction, the “Common Craft style,” I mean. Before reading this book, I didn’t realize that the cutouts weren’t the point. They are compelling, don’t get me wrong. That’s the secret to why sketchnotes get attention, of course- the handcrafted look. But the cutouts are just actors that impart ideas that are simply constructed, and contain context and emotional appeal. They make us feel smarter and build our confidence. A lot of things that attempt to explain our complicated world fail completely by these measures.

Part 1 of The Art of Explanation is concerned with the Plan: what makes an effective explanation, and who is it for? How do you build the confidence of others?

The Art of Explanation

As it happens, just to create this one dubious page of info-cats required a plan that went like this: read, highlight, review, random pages of notes and cat drafts, then sifting these for just a few to include, since running out of room seems to be my main skill as a sketchnoter.


It’s comically challenging, this thing of sketchnoting. I’m keeping after it, though. As LeFever points out, and he is quite right, the act of making yourself produce an explanation increases your own comprehension of a subject – in this case, the importance of why- context and connection. Have those sometimes been missing from my own content as a technical communicator? You bet.

Sketchnote: The Graphic Faciliator’s Guide

First things first, my attempts to sketchnote but a few of the many fine ideas in Brandy Agerbeck’s The Graphic Facilitator’s Guide, which shares the wisdom of her profession (distilling and illustrating information in a live meeting environment).

Brandy’s book is ambitious in scope; I lack her skills in info-synthesis and organization to do it justice in a page. Brandy argues that in the 21st century, we’ve embraced the postmodern perspective that all voices have value, without yet having determined how to distill and organize multiple perspectives into a coherent meaning. Graphic facilitators do just this: they step into a conversation without an outline or a script, where spontaneous perspectives are shared, and apply their thinking, listening, and drawing skills to the task of identifying patterns, symbols, and lasting meaning from many inputs.


I found this sketchnote a challenge. Perfectionism, completism, still-developing synthesis and drawing skills, the sheer skills it takes to sketchnote, all challenges to take on when approaching this discipline.

The following sketch ended up being cut out of the original sketchnote (so much for quick like a bunny). I wasn’t sure it was a key idea, or maybe I didn’t like the stick guys? Let it be noted that actual graphic facilitators, who work in front of a live audience, could never get away with this type of nit pickery!


Sketchnote building blocks + visual vocabulary

Sacha Chua has a great post on how to build your sketchnote visual vocabulary. It’s helpful to be fluent in symbols you’re likely to draw and re-use, especially when sketchnoting live. With this in mind, I’ve borrowed ideas from some other artists and sketchnoters (including Austin Kleon, Don Moyer, Sachiko Umoto, Ed Emberley, Fiona Watt, and Joy Sikorski) mixed in with my own ideas to practice drawing random things, some useful, some just for fun.


Information structure for sketchnotes

After experiencing an empty chair moment while trying to sketchnote a training last week, I realized I needed to hit the books and revisit some basic visual information structures.

The Napkin Sketch Workbook chapter “Choosing a Structure” provides great sketchnote examples for several information models, so to teach myself, I applied a concept from work (Kindle) to the info models myself. Here are my results*
*info represented is example only- not real data

Here’s another extended example of a workflow or business process. I find myself drawing these at work whenever I’m thinking about ideas or objects that move between people or locations.

Next up: tackling more structures, and a visual icon library…

Drawing is easy. Thinking is hard.

Last week I attended a training on how to write a product planning document. “Writing is the easy part,” read one slide. “Thinking is the hard part.”

I tried (and failed) to sketchnote the talk. Early in the discussion, the facilitator told an anecdote about Jeff Bezos: that he used to bring an empty chair to meetings to represent the customer. I dutifully drew the chair, which sat in the center of the page as random phrases began to surround it. I ran out of room 30 minutes into the talk.

I imagined the consumer of my sketchnote sitting in the empty chair I’d drawn. They’d look at the buzzwords I’d written, spread out in wobbly circles on the paper, wondering when they could get up and leave. My sketchnote, I realized, had no information structure — no skeleton. I guess I thought that this sort of thing would create itself as long as I could draw a few things along with the words.

It turned out that drawing is easy, but thinking is hard.

Sketchnote Autobiography

In the spirit of Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, I have a number of sketchnote heroes whose work I admire and sometimes try to emulate. One of them is Don Moyer.

His one-page autobiography is a favorite, which I’ve tried my own version of:

Actually found this a challenging exercise, it feels weird to map out a life. To quote Bob Seger, “what to leave in, what to leave out?”

Several years back, I attended an all-day onsite-offsite (a special kind of corporate torment in which team members are trapped in a conference room together for 8 hours with flip charts and markers in an attempt to get along). The leader, a UX design manager, insisted that each participant design a map of their life, which they then had to present to the group in a 10-minute speech.

The UX designers quickly produced adorable cartoons and poster-perfect lettering, while the writers hesitantly scratched out stick men surrounded by clouds of text. When it came time to sum up our lives before the crowd, though, the writers were able to compensate with amusing stories and asides.

How did I do? I can’t recall. I’m sure my drawings were bad, but since then I’ve been trying to bridge this gap.

*Bonus material*

More of my sketches stolen like an artist from Don Moyer… Here’s his great Flickr photostream.

Sketchnotes: lettering by hand

Any one of Mike Rohde’s sketchnotes makes me want to improve my penmanship. His own doubles as both art and information.

This being so, the curiously low-priced Creative Lettering Techniques by Jenny Doh seemed like a compelling investment.

Although the book’s examples are from proper artists who use stuff like Gesso and scratchboard, many demonstrate basic techniques for adding 3D or textured effects to letters with regular pens (one of my favorite pens, a Wacom iPad stylus, works just fine for this purpose).

I realized while flipping through this book however that these aren’t the quick techniques you’d use to scribe a talk or meeting, but more to embellish or add emphasis to a more designed piece of visual content. The latter is actually more my area of interest, and I’m not the best artist, so it’s a great reference.

Any book that promises to improve the drawing aspects of my writing always gets my money because I suffer from the imbalanced outlook Brandy Agerbeck warns of in her book The Graphic Facilitator’s Guide:

“Because drawing is the physical, tangible skill and because it can be the scariest and least-developed, we overemphasize it. Do not let drawing eclipse the importance of your listening and thinking skills.”

Listening. Thinking. Oh, right.

The Rise of the Content Strategist

Note: My article was originally published on the University of Washington’s Flip the Media blog on 4/1/2012

Content strategy jobs are hot—Flip the Media’s Peter Luyckx called it last year. Type “Content Strategist” into a job search engine and you’ll see plenty of results. Reflecting that trend, my own title was recently changed from Editor to Strategist.

Five years ago, Content Strategists were rarer than unicorns. I’d know– I’ve been in content since 1997 and only recently started seeing the title come up. What’s happened in the content industry that’s driving this change?

Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web, first published in 2009, has been a big influence, as Peter notes in his post. In her book, Halvorson defines content strategy as “the practice of planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.” How does this differ, though, from what professional content writers, editors and managers have been doing all along?

Read more…

Design skills: Required in your next writing job?

Note: My article was originally published on the University of Washington’s Flip the Media blog on 5/1/2012.

Have you seen “design skills” asked for in a marketing or content writing job description recently? I have— the most recent two writing jobs I’ve held listed graphic design skills a prerequisite. The visual web has arrived: look no further than Pinterest, Tumblr, or the rise of cell phone photography for evidence. With tools like iPhones and Instagram, most of us can take good pictures without photography skills, but what about other kinds of visual art?

As the web has evolved from text to images and video, many jobs in the communications field now expect candidates to bring visual design skills to positions that were once mostly about writing. Experience with interface design, storyboarding, wireframing, prototyping, infographics, and even cartooning are all in demand, as they are now part of the content creation process in the visual web era. What’s a non-artist to do?

Read more…

Content strategy: Strategy vs. tactics

Note: My article was originally published on the University of Washington’s Flip the Media blog on 7/12/2012.

Content strategy experts Val Swisher, Scott Abel,  and and Kristina Halvorson  recently hosted a webinar about success factors in content strategy projects. It centered on an important theme: objectives vs. tactics. We’re often focused on the latter which can be to the detriment of customer needs and business goals. Here are four themes from the presentation that will help you set the right priorities in your next content project:

1) Avoid the buckshot approach

Most of us center our workday around tasks. In communications, this usually means producing information. Blog posts. Web pages. Status reports. Videos. Diagrams. Presentations. We define our accomplishments around the quantity and perhaps the performance of these items, and call this content strategy. But this isn’t strategy – its tactics. “A bunch of things all in a row is taking a buckshot approach if it isnt tied to business objectives,” says Kristina Halvorson.

What are the business objectives of your daily communications tasks?

2) Content strategists aren’t content developers

Many organizations confuse the roles of content strategist and content developer. Kristina Halvorson describes content strategists as people who “oversee the success of content initiatives.” This involves creating a roadmap of content initiatives (tasks and deliverables) that clearly serve business objectives, and ensuring the success of those initiatives via the use of success measures like analytics and scorecards. This is a management role, and differs fundamentally from writing page copy and shooting video.

Read more…

Switch to our mobile site