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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!


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 Napkin Sketch Workbook by Don Moyer

The Napkin Sketch Workbook

You can’t draw (I can’t either), but you know drawings are a compelling way to communicate information. Graphic designers usually handle the infographics, conceptual art, and other images that appear in web content, but graphic designers are not always information designers. If you create or manage instructional content, the concepts should begin with you or someone on your team.

The Napkin Sketch Workbook by Don Moyer is the essential textbook for how to get started with this. (I’ve recently misplaced my copy and it’s driving me nuts, because I refer to it all the time). Sketchnoters advocate drawing as a simple and universal way to make information easier to digest (an essential skill in our world of info-overpopulation) but here’s the thing about these guys: they’re artists. And their drawings are great. Now Don Moyer is an artist too, and his work is incredible. But! His book starts out exactly where you need it to: with a basic library of how to draw stuff. He makes NO assumptions. He gets that non-artists don’t have the first clue where to start.

Other sketchnoters hint that it’s easy to doodle, but don’t provide the tools. This book does. Not only does Don Moyer provide the basic shapes to work with, but he puts you to work proving to yourself that with just these basic shapes, you can draw vignettes that explain fairly abstract concepts. I tried it, and my 5 year old correctly explained every drawing I made. (Here’s where I scan a page of the drawings I made in the book so you can see how simple they are, if only I could find it).

If the book just contained this much information it would be worth the price, but subsequent chapters teach you how to use drawings to explain relationships, business processes, timelines, and other concepts that are poorly served by words alone. Because it’s a workbook, you’ll interpret and sketch out a fairly involved business process for yourself— which you can then compare against his version for ideas.

He also provides tips for how to work with designers to finesse the ideas, different styles you can use, and an excellent and thorough list of resources for further research on the subject, although if you stop with just this book, you’ll be white-boarding circles around colleagues or fellow students within a few hours (the book is a short paperback, and easy to read).

There is but a single downside to The Napkin Sketch Workbook, and it is this: you have to buy it from Blurb, which has absurdly high shipping prices (if it didn’t, I’d save myself the frustration of searching for my lost copy and just replace it). It’s self-published and doesn’t appear to be available anywhere else (a shame, it is hands-down one of the most useful business books I’ve ever encountered). That said, the knowledge you’ll gain makes it completely worth the investment (although hang on to your copy once you get it).