Taking Notes, Part III – Notes As Art

My first guest post! While people who lack the manual dexterity to draw like today’s author 1 today’s post is a good lesson on how our notes can, and should, be shaped by our personalities. Meet my friend, Antoine.

Antoine RJ Wright is an experienced organizational strategy and process designer who has worked with various people and business forward organizations. Found often on his bicycle or traveling to various corners of the globe, Antoine has found various ways to point towards insightful and imaginative uses of connected technologies to improve individuals and teams, while serving as a beacon towards its implications and outcomes.

Many of us could remember scribbling in notebooks in elementary or high school. Beyond the scribbles of the person we may have liked, the teachers we joked about, or the shapeless doodles we created during yet-another-lecture, notes take on the personalities of their authors. There is a logical nature which we foster while taking notes. Some of this is imposed by the ways our minds work. Some is imposed by the tools we use. And then there are people like myself.

My notes have evolved into what Wes and others call pieces of art. These “sketchnotes” are an evolution of the sketching and doodling of younger years, combined with a bit of talent and formal training in art and computer technical matters. This style of note taking is a lens into how I connect the dots and process a lecture or workshop. Both during and long after the conclusion of an event. In some contexts, these are shared to larger communities in order to enable others to share my the streams of consciousness. Artwork tends to have a more involved process than just the resulting interpretations.

History of This Different Pencil

I’ve been sketching on my notes for as long as I can remember (margins, back of pages, back of copy books, etc.). But it was with the 1st generation iPad that took off in a different direction. I purchased my first iPad about a month after the it’s introduction, and then took several months to play with various note apps. While I settled on Evernote, which I’d already been using, I wanted to push things a bit further when drawing connecting lines, graphs, or inserting images were part of the process. Penultimate became my notebook app of choice, later followed by Tactilis (a favorite, and recently released anew). Yet, it was with Adobe Ideas my story of “Notes As Art” transformed into more than just doodles.

While attending a virtual learning workshop at NC State University I decided to use Adobe Ideas to record the fascinating projects being shared. At the conclusion of the workshop, I showed the workshop leader my notes and he was quite impressed. He also wondered how was I able to draw notes so well while simultaneously managing to ask insightful questions. I couldn’t answer that question, but I was happy to share that sketchnote with him.

Image: NC State Digital Learning Interactions
Image: NC State Digital Learning Interactions

Something clicked as left the workshop. If there was a place for the iPad in my life, it would branch from this ability to mesh taking notes and sketching. So I started sketching notes everywhere. I drew unprompted sketchnotes in various workshops, bible studies, and during sermons. With each of these I experimented with flow, colors, and content. I also had notes which were commissioned items. A few companies would ask for these as part of conference or workshop activities, and a few even would use these notes for official documentation when launching important endeavors. Sketching notes, something that I’d done in order to keep my mind occupied, had become the way others could connect back to events through the lines and colors on my shared canvas.

Unprompted Sketchnotes

Sketchnoting has become something of an internal challenge for me. I don’t ask for permission to do them, and the value for me is how they help me to later recall information. I might not make the decision to sketch until the event, workshop, or bible study has begun. And even then the process beings with me grasping at straws, trying to decide what might be the best fit for capturing information for later recall. But then I get going and there’s nothing but what I call the flow. When I’m finished I’ll share my note with the speaker, post it on Twitter or Flickr, or just keep it for myself in my notebook. Below are a few of the sketchnotes drawn over the years.

Image: GCIA 2011
Image: GCIA 2011

Image: Unplugged Charlotte: Fear Sketchnote
Image: Unplugged Charlotte: Fear Sketchnote

Image: Immanuel Church Sketchnote
Image: Immanuel Church Sketchnote

Commissioned Sketchnotes

What began as an experiment as an evolved note-taking format has turned into the occasional gig for me. These commissioned notes tend to have more text within them, and also lean a bit more into simplicity of information rather than depth. Commissioned pieces take a bit more thought regarding to colors and readability. But recalling information from even a readable sketchnote depends on how others are able to interpret the note. In some respects, when I’m creating a commissioned not I’m really just being a scribe for another’s memory. Let me share a few of these notes.

Image: ICCC and NACC Joint Meeting
Image: ICCC and NACC Joint Meeting

Image: Converge SE 2015 Sketchnote
Image: Converge SE 2015 Sketchnote

Image: ICCM Americas 2016 Session Sketchnote
Image: ICCM Americas 2016 Session Sketchnote

Textures of My Canvas

Aside from the introduction, you might have noticed there’s been little talk about what applications I use, mediums I prefer, or tools manipulate. This is on purpose. For me taking notes is much less about the tools and more about what is captured to be recalled later. My canvas is the 2016 iPad Pro and Apple Pencil. These days, I use Paper and Tactilis as my primary applications for notes-taking. Depending on the other forms of media needed, I might instead use Liquid Text or Penultimate so that images, other documents, etc. could be included into the note.

The iPad Pro has not been my only canvas. I have used the 1st and 4th generation iPad, the 1st, and 3rd generation iPad Mini as well. I’ve also utilized the Google Nexus 7 tablet and the Amazon Kindle Fire 7. Of all of these, the iPad Pro has been the best canvas for this kind of sketching. The integration with the Apple Pencil and the quality of the screen response has been nothing short of amazing.

Because my work tends to extend beyond sketchnoting some of the sketches serve as a solid starting point for projects I might complete in other apps such as Adobe Comp/Textastic (UI design and UX), Excel/MindNode (process and project mapping), or InVision/Marvel (UX and Service Design). I find that the artful nature of sketchnotes tends to enable better conversations about the information later on, and for notes that’s probably not a bad thing at all.

Putting a Cap on It

There’s a good bit of information in my notes. And to be honest, I’m not totally sure how I process things mentally in order to create them. I do know that it has something to do with being in a flow state of mind and when I’m able to tap into it, these notes more or less take on a life of their own.

There are others who use a similar workflow. Mike Rhode is credited with catalyzing sketchnotes into an applicable (and profitable) endeavor. His book, The Sketchnote Handbook is great for anyone who is interested in trying their hand at drawing notes and getting more value than simply “doodling to occupy the mind.” He’s got a great community around that book and some classes also.

For those who might have dabbled a bit and would like to know some more about the space, there’s a new podcast on deck called Drawpod in which Natalia Talkowska (@NatiTal) and Matt Ballantine (@ballentine70) have done an amazing job of bridging the audio-world of podcasting with the visual-space of drawing. What’s so interesting is how there are drawing thought challenges each episode to mature your drawing muscles. And both of them are accomplished sketchnote and mindmapping professionals as well. Natalia also has a creative agency in London in which sketchnoting is the core of her business. I’ve been a longtime admirer of her work in this space.

Finally, I maintain a gallery of items on Flickr (sketchnotes.antoinerjwright.com) for the items I’ve completed and want to share. I still do the unprompted sketchnotes, and from time to time am gifted with a commission opportunity. I enjoy how many have considered my notes pieces of art. For me, these are just the means through which I take the various layers of what goes on in my head, and makes it plain enough for me to recall as needed. It would have been great to have this technique taught to me in elementary or high school, but I think also that I appreciate it more now because of how its able to extend and empower others to see a different side of the events, meetings, or lectures they attend.

If you’d like to get in touch with me for doing a sketchnote for your conference, workshop, or meeting, feel free to connect with me here.


  1. Like me. I can’t say I’m not an artist, but I can’t draw worth beans. 

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