In grad school, I took a storytelling class in which we were to make a 3-minute film as a final project.
The goal was to choose an organization and, of course, “tell their story.” At the time I didn’t quite understand what that meant. I was a technical writer then, and accustomed to explaining how to do things, not why. And so I chose an organization and set out interviewing its employees about what the organization offered and how to use it.
Of course, when I showed this storyboard to the class, it didn’t go over well. I was missing the point, they explained. What were people supposed to feel about my organization? As a technical writer, it seemed a ridiculous question!
So clearly, I needed a new approach. I realized that I had to change the film’s point of view and interview someone who was the “hero” – a person impacted by the organization in a positive way.
Here was the result – a film that taught me a lot about the difference between explanation and storytelling.
Facebook changed the look of News Feed in March of 2014 to improve consistency across mobile and web. As the UI writer for News Feed, I was tasked with writing a message to explain this change. It would appear at the top of News Feed the first time people signed in.
Like most UI writing, this message was deceptively complex. Understandably, people don’t always like changes. We wanted to make it clear that:
- This change was based on people’s feedback
- It improved a few simple and specific things (photo size and design consistency)
- Its goal was to make Facebook easier to use
There were many other constraints (length, word choice, clarity, imagery) typical to the UI writing experience (about which I’ve written before) but overall the message successfully (and positively) communicated the change, which is always the goal.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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…
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.
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.
More of my sketches stolen like an artist from Don Moyer… Here’s his great Flickr photostream.
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.
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?