Did you know I’m doing a sketchnote every day this month? I’m posting all final images on Instagram. Many of the sketchnotes I have shared in the past have been lecture-based, but this month I’ll be showcasing all kinds of sketchnotes: black and white, color, different layouts, different types of information, different sizes, etc. Check them out and see how diverse sketchnotes can be!

I believe all visual note-taking methods have value.


There is no question about the value of taking visual notes. Studies show that pairing images with text has a profound increase in retention and recollection.


I also believe some visual note-taking methods are better than others.


What I DO question are visual note-taking methods, specifically when these visual notes are meant to be shared with people other than the artist.


Visual Notes meant to be shared with others need to have a good layout.


I am an artist with The Sketch Effect, a visual communications solutions company. We go to our clients’ events, actively listen to the content, then write out and draw the big ideas in real-time. These visual notes (called “graphic recording” or “sketchnotes”) are put on display for attendees, posted online for the world to see, and emailed to attendees afterwards. Our goal is to make our clients’ content easier to understand, remember, and share. That goal would not be attainable without proper structure.

Notes without a layout? Don’t bother.

I have seen a lot of sketch artists filling canvases with as much content as possible– even filling in blank spaces from the beginning of the talk with content from the end! This is ok if the notes are only for the artist to view, but when the visual notes are for others, it MUST be understandable for THE AUDIENCE.

The majority of people are used to (and prefer!) a linear story line. We like a beginning, a middle, and an end. They read from left to right, top to bottom.

If a sketch artist jumps around the canvas filling in content wherever there is space, it is impossible for the average person to follow along. Oftentimes speakers will present an idea and build on it throughout the talk. How could the audience follow the train of thought if the information is visually captured in different areas? Simple: They can’t.


An artist’s job is less about capturing every detail and more about leading the audience on a journey. An artists job is to help the audience remember.


Layout aids memory

Have you ever had a friend say “Remember that one time we…” and you can’t recall it happening? Then your friend starts telling the story, and suddenly it all comes back to you! Before you know it you’re the one finishing the story and filling in the details.

Our brains are pretty neat. Sometimes we have a tough time recalling a specific memory, but we can usually remember and recall if we’re given some of the key points along the way.

“Our memories are rich because they are formed through associations. When we experience an event, our brains tie the sights, smells, sounds, and our own impressions together into a relationship. That relationship itself is the memory of the event.” http://brainconnection.brainhq.com

A Sketch artist’s job is to visually capture the big ideas (creating the associations) so the audience can fill in the gaps themselves for a more whole memory of the content and event.

To make memory easier on the audience, arranging these big ideas in a clear, easy to read format is the only way to go. Check out these two examples:

A clear layout allows the viewer to focus their concentration on the content itself, not how to read it.

Practical Tips for Layout:

  • Know Your Audience: Most people will naturally read from left to right, top to bottom, largest to smallest. Knowing these facts and using a layout that feels natural will offer the best readability.
  • Use hierarchy: Make sure your most important points are largest or called out with color or a shape. Less important information should be smaller than important information.
  • Be consistent: Your headlines, points, and callouts should all look different. Use the same shapes/containers for similar types of information. If you’re doing multiple works, use the same layout style for every canvas.
  • Help the Reader: Use arrows, lines, and shapes to help the reader know where to go next. Even if it feels obvious to you, it may not be obvious to everyone else. No one ever complained about too many way-finding signs on a trip to an unfamiliar place.
Below are a few basic layouts. Choosing a layout style depends on the type of information you are recording and how much information there is. Start with these styles and figure out what works for you, and experiment to create your own layouts.


  • Visual notes meant to be shared with others need to have a clear layout
  • Focusing on big ideas and the storyline makes filling in the gaps easier
  • Find the best layout for the content and for you!
  • Practice, practice, practice.

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