Publish at January 25 2016 Updated May 09 2022

Handwriting and drawing renew note taking and presentations

Sketchnotes, lettering and paper napkin!

Long, structured and sequential texts are valued by the academic world, sometimes at the expense of a more global vision. Imagination, visual thinking and subjectivity have little place in this universe.

To counteract these reactions, but also the powerpoint-type serial presentations, authors have proposed other techniques for taking notes and developing presentations. These approaches rely on handwriting and drawing.

Visual note taking is not a recent development. Travelers, scientists and inventors have spontaneously used this method. Léonard's notebooks include sketches, diagrams, observational drawings, and text.

Closer to us, The Macroscope by Joël de Rosnay presents many diagrams, with arrows, feedback loops, symbols and pictograms, and hand lettering that gives an understanding of the hierarchy of information.

The English version online shows how text and visuals reinforce each other.

On a paper napkin...

In 1974, an economist, Laffer, made a name for himself with a diagram on a napkin at a restaurant. The Laffer curve will be one of the fundamentals of the economic doctrine of the Reagan era. Depending on the convictions of each, one retains from then on that a scheme can much clear, or on the contrary erase the nuances, and lead to bad decisions!

Changing the world on a corner of the table, by getting to the point is an idea that can only succeed. Dan Roam has developed this approach through a few books... that would fit on three kilos of paper napkins. The titles are self-explanatory: Convince in two strokes of the pen, BLA, BLA, BLA, don't let words do your ideas any more,... Dan Roam offers us in all modesty (!) to cover and expound a new way of thinking, through his books or the Napkin academy.

A VIVID presentation

For Dan Roam, presentations and note-taking must engage both visual expression and writing. The acronym VIVID stands for Visual and Verbal interconnected. An idea, in order to be understood, must be expressed in words and presented visually. Our training has valued the criterion and linear thinking. Dan Roam proposes that we establish a balance.

A grammar, and a vocabulary

Dan Roam establishes a correspondence between linguistic grammar, and his visual "grammar" which allows one to answer the questions "what, where, how much, how, when, why...". For each of these questions, visual representations are proposed through his works, but nothing prohibits inventing others. The "when" can thus be presented by a line, a schedule, a Gantt chart, arrows, successive steps of an action, etc.

A series of cursors, to adapt our work

To adapt our presentation, Dan Roam invites us to use a series of cursors on different dimensions. As always, he gives us an acronym: SQVID: simplicity, qualitative, vision, individual and delta (evolution, change). These terms immediately call out their opposites: laborious, quantitative, exeacute, comparative and static.


Dan Roam's principles are based on acronyms, such as the one that defines the qualities of a VIVID idea.

  • F : VIVID ideas have a Fform: An idea that is expressed in a simple form is more effective;
  • O : VIVID ideas include Oppositions, they consider opposites, or other scenarios.
  • R : VIVID ideas are Rrecognizable - New ideas must be made familiar with metaphors and references à what is known.
  • E : VIVID ideas Éevolve - They must be able to be taken up, modified, improved by others;
  • S : VIVID idés show only the S substance - They focus on the essential;
  • T : VIVID ideas T hit their mark;

By way of illustration, Dan Roam shows us that the great management successes of recent years meet these criteria. The illustration below shows some of the images that have influenced companies in recent years.

forest and best sellers

Sketchnotes, freeform visual notetaking

The word "sketchnote" is a brainchild of Mike Rohde, the author of a primer on the method, and two exercise books. The rules of sketchnote are less coded than those we have just seen, they hold in a few precepts.

  • Use the space of the page for a non-linear presentation;
  • connect the cconcepts and the ideas with flaws;
  • hiérarchize the ideas by fonts and font sizes; by shapes of arrows, etc;
  • showcase some of one's personality and subjectivity.

Mike Rohde tells us that graphic quality matters little. Certainly, it is not to produce drawings éute;s, and the speed of execution is essential. But the balance of solids and voids, the rhythms, the lettering, the sobriety and harmony of the colors, the fluidity of the line are essential, if it is not simply a matter of personal note-taking.Just look at the works of Eva Lotta Lamm or Catharine Mi-Sook to convince oneself that it is also about style and aesthetics.

Virtuosos sometimes do the exercise live, during conferences or performances. This is called "graphic facilitation". The twitter accounts of Sketchapensieri, of SketchPost or of Nicolas Caruso will give you an overview of these animations.

Participants leave with a photo of the sketchnotes... An alternative or a complement to the powerpoint file on the usb key!

A very active community

To get familiar with the sketchnote technique, you can visit the twitter accounts of Mauro Toselli, Mike Rohde, Marc Bourguignon, Chris Spalton... The people from often diverse backgrounds who share this discipline change a lot, and form a fairly active community. 

They meet around the blog sketchnotearmy which presents confirmed designers as well as beginners in the discipline.On twitter, the hashtag #sketchnote also brings its share of disappointments.

Here come the neurologists!"

People who practice sketchnoting insist on the benefits of the method. This note-taking requires great attention, it solicits complex mechanisms, linking hearing, visual, and the reorganization of ideas read or heard.

On this point, they find the conclusions of some authors, for whom handwritten note-taking would be much more effective than typing on a keyboard. Our brain reorganizes, selects, and appropriates what we perceive. Sketching would thus improve comprehension and memorization.

What about their communicative potential, however? It appears that sketchnotes are rarely self-contained. If you didn't attend the lecture or read the article they refer to, they are of little use to you, for the most part. On the other hand, when they are skilfully done, as the authors cited in this article know how to do, they help clarify what is being said and keep the essential points in mind.

After calligraphy, here comes "lettering"

Inspired by calligraphy, but also by signs and advertisements, cartoons, and even graffiti, lettering is also a return to the subjective and to traditional techniques. It is distinguished from calligraphy by its great freedom. The specialists rely on a solid culture of typography, but also grant themselves great freedom of expression.

Aphorisms, quotations or poems are thus created by hand, with chalk, brushes, markers or pens... This almost artisanal work gives back an importance to letters and words, which the computer had made impersonal.

But it is not always so simple. Many vectorize their output, to smooth out the edges and give them a more professional look. And since drawing software mimics the clumsiness and inaccuracies of traditional tools, it's hard to find your way around.

Many bridges exist between these approaches. Note-taking, the presentation of ideas are no longer automated. A part of subjectivity is possible. But above all, they require the mobilization of several forms of intelligence, spatial or linear, verbal or visual.

Finally, the authors devote time and sometimes a lot of talent. They value the ideas they present, and show that note-taking can be a real pleasure.

Illustrations: Frédéric Duriez



Dan ROAM Convincing in Two Pen Strokes ESF édition

Mike ROHDE The Sketchnote Handbook: the illustrated guide to visual note taking  –  Pearson - 2012

Cristina VANKO Hand-Lettering for everyone - Perigee - 2015

Mike ROHDE - Youtube channel - accessed 23 January 2016

Héloïse LESSIER on Up-Inspiring graphic facilitation: designs - consulting on January 20, 2016

Dan ROAM - blog accessed January 23, 2016 - Book Review of Bla, bla bla by Dan Roam - accessed January 23, 2016't-let-the-words-serve-your-ideas-dan-roam/

Cyntia MAY - For Science Magazine: "Should you take notes by hand or on a computer" - February 2015 (excerpt)

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