Q&A: Mike Rohde, Sketchnoter
Sketchnoting isn’t Mike Rohde’s day job, but he’s quickly becoming highly sought after for his sketching skills. The software and visual designer used to attend a lot of professional development conferences, where he took copious, exhaustive notes, but he was never able to write down everything the presenters said. So he decided to change his method. He attended the Seed Conference in Chicago in 2007 and took a Moleskine notebook and gel pen with him. He decided to sketch the conference, using pictures, typography and a few text notes to communicate the big ideas from the event. A blog featured his sketchnoting, and soon thereafter new opportunities came pouring in. He’s sketched for a few book projects as well as conferences including SXSW, Seed Conference, Summit Series and Chick-fil-A Leadercast. Now he’s authoring a book (and complementary video guide, for the visual-minded) called “The Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Notetaking.” Rohde fills us in on this new book, his creative process, and what he’d like to see done differently at meeting and events.
Q: Attending conferences first drew you into the world of sketchnoting. Tell us more about that.
A: Because I’m a designer, I’ve been to a lot of design conferences, and that’s where I was taking my first sketchnotes. I used to be a fanatical notetaker, and it became kind of stressful, trying to write down every word that every presenter said. But I’m also an artist, and I don’t know why I didn’t put two and two together earlier. I took a sketchbook and a pen to a conference, and I started taking notes. I had so much fun with it, so I kept doing it, and now somehow I’ve got a book deal with Peachpit Press.
Q: Tell us about your new book. Why did you want to write it?
A: I believe people, everyday people, have the capacity to do visual notetaking to one degree or another. Everyone can do it. As kids, we drew all the time and it didn’t matter how good it was. It was about getting ideas down. I want to make notetaking a little more fun. I really did enjoy notetaking, but I would do all this work and never look at the notes again. I have to believe there are other people like that. They’re going to conferences and they feel like they’re forgetting it, and would like to remember more of it.
Q: When did you know you wanted to go into the field of design?
A: As a kid, I drew all the time. I made newspapers, books and comic books. When I wanted something interesting, I just made it because I could draw. I ended up in a printing class, not drawing, but I learning technique behind printing. All the design class students kept asking me why I was printing. At that point, I thought maybe I needed to shift. Maybe I do want to be a designer. But I thought back to the summer between high school and college, and my dad had a heart-to-heart with me and said, “You can’t make a living as an artist.” That’s what directed me into printing. As it turns out, the good thing about my printing experience is that designing and printing to together. My strength as a technical print designer made me a better designer. I created company identities, packaging and annual reports. All along, sketching was a part of that. A lot of time clients would see sketches of ideas, and they could be in on it before we do the final work.
Q: How does sketching relate to what you do now?
A: In the mid ’90s, I worked at a web startup designing websites. One site was for The European Space Operations Centre in Germany. We designed corporate websites, and I did that for several years. Sketching was part of the process. Lately, I’ve switched to user interface design, so all this experience in print and web now is being focused on apps. Sketching is the forefront of that. So it seemed natural when time came to do sketchnoting.
Q: Conference planners started asking you to sketchnote their events. Why do you think they are hiring you?
A: They can see the reaction. SXSW is a good example. I’ve done it for three years in a row, and in the second year they hired me to be the official sketchnoter. I think what they saw was all the activity and excitement around it. People are talking about it on Twitter and Facebook and Pinterest. And they’re thinking “We don’t have to manufacture this. We have someone do the work and just post it.” I would call sketchnoting an emerging movement. None of this was planned at all. I started doing this, and other attendees liked it. Speakers liked it because they could see what messages they were sending. People who haven’t been at an event like it because it gives them an idea of what to expect.
Q: What’s your sketchnote method? Do you visualize what goes on page before you start drawing, or does it happen organically?
A: It’s kind of a mix, but I’ve had a lot of practice. Now, I feel like I see images in my head, a garbage truck and flowers coming out of it, for example. I might start drawing a garbage truck, but then change my mind and make it a fire hydrant with flowers coming out of it instead of water. Once it goes down on paper, you can improvise like jazz. I try to start simply transferring the basic idea and come back and add details. I listen for the big ideas, find something meaningful to me, and capture them with personality and something that interests me.
Q: So you don’t worry anymore about writing down everything the speaker says?
A: No. If you think about an attendee at a conference, the things they’re going to take away are the things that resonate. They’re not going to remember all the details. It’s flying by. I think some conferences have people who live blog who can be like a stenographer, but I wanted to go in a different direction.
Q: You called sketchnoting a movement. Are there others out there who are also doing it?
A: Sure. I see sketchnoting as a community, so there’s a group of people who naturally started doing it and sharing it. They’re kind of all over the world. In fact, as part of the book, it was one of the things I wanted to include. I’ve got 15 other friends of mine doing sketching in the book and their tips so you can see different styles and approaches.
Q: A lot of planners are encouraging attendees to take notes electronically, and sketchnoting is the opposite of that. Is one technique better than the other?
A: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the technical way of taking notes. Let’s say I’m a secretary and I need exact notes. In that case, regular hand-typed notes are appropriate. But there are probably plenty of meetings where you don’t need that level of detail. Being able to draw notes can be a big advantage for someone attending a meeting. If you’re just typing notes, the tendency is for those notes to get filed away and you don’t look at them again. I’m a big tech guy. I carry an iPhone, and I was even a PalmPilot guy. But there’s something nice about the tactile aspect of writing on paper. You never have to worry about the battery running out. With an iPhone, you’re still just touching glass. You don’t get that tactile feedback. When you write, there’s more of a feeling of producing, and it’s a little more active. It produces different results.
Q: Do you ever go back and look at your sketchnotes?
A: I do go back and look at them. I look now and think, “Wow, I used to do things that way and my process has changed.” I look at them more professionally. Also I’ve started exploring sketchnotes as a way of capturing a travel experience. When I travel, sketchnotes are more like a journal and at the end, I write tips for myself. I have fun going back and remembering those trips.
Q: What can event attendees get out of sketchnoting?
A: It’s a way to think of ideas differently, especially if you tend to write words. A researcher named Alan Paivio in the ’70s proposed the idea of dual coding, or where part of the brain thinks in verbal words, and the other part is visual. Most people are using one or the other. When you do both, it serves a matrix of connections. [Combining] words and images is the best way to capture ideas. Not only can you capture more information, but it keeps you engaged and focused and follows what the speaker and what the discussion is about. You end up with ideas you wouldn’t have captured otherwise.
Q: You’ve been to a lot of conference and events. What would you change about them if you could?
A: I know a few people doing an event in Madison, and what I like is that they focus on the city. They think about the place and how’s it’s different from all the other places. They’re doing that into account, and doing unusual events and parties during the conference for people to meet each other on a smaller scale. At events, you want to meet other people, and the opportunity to meet those people can either be organized by the event or encouraged by [the event planner] to help other people to organically meet up. I love SXSW, but now it has so many tracks and it always feels like you’re missing something else. I like the idea of a smaller conference with limited attendance with one track so everyone is together and getting the same stuff. There’s a unity of experience for everybody.