The Art of Visual Notetaking: An interactive guide to visual communication and sketchnoting

The Art of Visual Notetaking: An interactive guide to visual communication and sketchnoting

by Emily Mills


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781633226227
Publisher: Foster, Walter Publishing, Incorporated
Publication date: 03/05/2019
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 564,637
Product dimensions: 8.70(w) x 11.50(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Emily Mills is a freelance illustrator and teaches online sketchnoting classes at When she's not teaching or serving her clients, you can find her traveling all over the country taking visual notes for The Sketch Effect. Emily lives just outside Nashville, TN with her husband, Joseph. You can subscribe at to get her visual notetaking articles and exercises delivered to your inbox.

Read an Excerpt



You're probably eager to start practicing visual notes on paper, but first we have to build a foundation and learn the why and what behind visual notes. If you don't know why you're doing something, you probably can't do a very good job at it! Let's dive in.

Whoa, that was a lot! Let's break it down.


The overall goal with visual notes is to remember the information that was shared or experienced. Information has zero value if it can't be remembered or shared! Visual notes help information retain its value over time.


Visual notes must be done by a human hand, whether in real time or after the fact, digital or on paper. The human element is essential for effective visual notes.


Just like a photograph is a visual representation and documentation of a moment in time, visual notes are a visual representation of imparted information or an experience.


This part is really important to master! With visual notes, you either create clarity or confusion. Visual notes exist to visualize, clarify, and organize information. The purpose of the illustrations is to help the information be understood and remembered, so the illustrations that are paired with the information should always be directly related, otherwise you will create confusion. The illustrations and information should work in tandem to create a visual understanding for better clarity. We'll get into the science behind this later.

Below is this concept in action.

It's easy to see which page of notes is more effective. When information is illustrated, it's powerful!


Illustration by itself is primarily form over function. Visual notes pair illustration with information to provide function over form. The driving power of visual notes lies in the information. An illustration's purpose is to visualize and highlight the information; therefore, the information must be present before the illustration can exist.

I'll ask you this: What takes longer? Writing the sentence "Leaders should listen to their employees" or drawing a picture of a leader listening to employees? Writing is MUCH faster than drawing.

If the information isn't shared with written words, it loses clarity. Effective visual notes will always include written words. Together, illustrations and information work with each other to create a more powerful learning experience.


Just as visual notes are not only illustration, neither are they only information.

While the information always takes priority in visual notes, it loses its driving power without the aid of illustration. A wall of written words is overwhelming and not interesting (or memorable!). Hand a sheet of written text to a person and ask them to read it — they'll probably groan! If you hand them a sheet with images and text on it, the reaction will probably be different.

Visual notes are all about illustrations and information working together to create a visual understanding for better clarity. Let's visualize this concept. Illustration and information are two separate spheres. The place where they overlap is called "visual notes," and you'll notice that "visual notes" includes much more information than illustration.


The definition of a doodle, according to the dictionary, is "a rough drawing made absentmindedly." Visual notes are ANYTHING but absentminded! Effective visual notes are taken with complete focus. As we learned earlier, the illustrations are intentionally related to the information being shared.


Visuals transcend culture, age, gender, spoken language, and just about every other difference. Human beings are highly visual — we always have been. From the Lascaux cave paintings in France to modern-day emojis, we love communicating visually! If you were to go to France and needed to ask for directions to the Eiffel Tower, all you'd have to do is draw a picture and you would be understood.

In modern Western culture, if you're not communicating visually, you're not communicating effectively. Think about it. Most of the apps you use are highly visual. Does your weather app show you pictures of what the weather looks like? Do you use Instagram™ to view photos of your friends and heroes? Do you watch YouTube™ videos to learn something or be entertained? Most modern communication is visual, and it's not going to change any time soon. If you want an effective way to capture ideas and share them, visual notetaking is invaluable.



As we discovered earlier, visual notes exist to visualize, clarify, and organize information so that the information remains memorable and compelling. Sixty-five percent of the population identifies as visual learners — visual notes are a no-brainer! Visuals are human language; if you aren't communicating visually, you're missing out.

Auditory information has a shockingly low chance of actually sticking when it's presented alone (i.e. hearing a lecture). Information has a better chance of sticking when you pair it with other methods of learning, like visuals and movement.

The more learning methods you use, the better. Everyone learns differently. Some learn best by listening, some by seeing, and some by doing. When you take visual notes, you get to do all three. When we include visual and kinetic learning (a.k.a. drawing pictures by hand) we engage more parts of the brain — and the information retention rate is up to six times greater!


When you make visual notes, you create a tangible artifact of your life, your work, what you learn, everything! These are precious things you can pass down to your family. Think about how cool it would be to flip through the visual notes of your grandma's life in the early 1900s! Or if your children could see the things you cared about when you were young. Physical artifacts, like photos and letters from family members, are getting harder and harder to come by, and it's only getting more difficult as our digital age progresses.

Consider also how the world has been changed by the sketches of Leonardo da Vinci and the diary of Anne Frank. Physical creations like visual notes might not change the world, but if something you create can inspire one person, that's powerful!


Anyone! Whether you consider yourself an artist or not!

Visual notes are powerful in learning environments. Teachers can use them to explain complex concepts and reach students who are visual learners. Students as young as 6 or 7 years old can use visual notes to visualize their thoughts and ideas and share them with others or take visual notes in classes to retain information better. Visual notes can help students map out ideas for a term paper or project and help synthesize and simplify ideas.

In the business world, visual notes are powerful because most environments lack visuals. Most working people can attest to boring meetings, presentations, and conferences. Because the business world doesn't typically rely on visuals to communicate, there can be a lot of miscommunication, which means that those who use visuals are automatically ahead of the game.

Using visual notes can help document your meetings, clarify information, and easily share with others in a format that has a better chance of being read. (Admit it, you rarely read the meeting follow-up email with the minutes!) Visual notes put the focus on the big ideas, instead of documenting every single overwhelming detail.


There are two categories of visual notes:

1) Lecture-based

2) Experience-based

LECTURE-BASED visual notes are taken when one person gives insight or information to another. Some examples are conferences, church sermons, panels, meetings, and workshops.

EXPERIENCED-BASED visual notes are taken when you experience something personally. Some examples are traveling, making a recipe, trying a new restaurant, and keeping a personal journal.


visual notes usually involve more information, such as facts, quotes, statistics, examples, and stories. That information is usually more complex, and because it comes from an external source, it's more foreign and not as easily or quickly understood. Because the information isn't personal, it's harder to grasp right away. To take the best lecture-based visual notes, take them live, in real-time, to capture as much information as possible, so nothing (or very little) is missed. The information is fresh in your mind, and your notes will be more accurate than if you relied on your memory to recall it later. Remember, auditory-only learning is highly ineffective, so don't trust yourself to remember lecture-based information later!


visual notes are different in that the information is intensely personal, and you'll have an easy time recalling the experience later. Experiences should be enjoyed in the moment, with as few distractions as possible. See sights! Make memories! Try new things! Don't worry about your notes until you have some time to sit, reflect, process, and capture them. Documenting an experience shouldn't prevent you from fully experiencing it. If you need to take pictures or jot down some quick notes in the moment, go for it ... but leave the full visual notes for later.


First ask, "Who is this for?" The audience or end use will determine the best method of visual notetaking.


If the visual notes are for yourself, sketchnotes are really effective, as they are confined to a journal or notebook that is easily portable. To share your work, scan your notes and email them.

If you're documenting for a group, graphic recording is a good method, as the large format is easy to read and see. You can use paper, whiteboards, posterboard, or foam core. But while this method is easy to share with groups, it can be hard to transport and keep. I recommend taking photos of your work and sharing digitally. Whiteboard work should also be temporary! If you need something to last longer, don't use whiteboard — try paper or foam core instead!

Graphic facilitation is like graphic recording, but instead of listening to the meeting, you're leading it! You keep your goals in mind as you lead people through your agenda and ask clarifying questions, visualizing everything that is shared along the way. Graphic facilitation is not for the faint of heart and is most effective with prior sketchnote or graphic recording experience.

Visual videos (also called sketch videos or whiteboard videos) are a great way to simplify complex concepts, instructions, or methods and share them with others. As we learned earlier, humans are highly visual creatures, and we're more likely to watch a video than we are to read a text-heavy paper about it. We're also more likely to share it!



One question I'm constantly asked is: "What pen are you using?" People don't ask me how they can learn to sketchnote, what books or classes I recommend, or even how I learned myself — they ask about my tools! However, the tools do not make the artist.

The only way to become an effective visual notetaker is through regular practice.

It's not about the tools you use; it's about the visuals you create. Some of the most effective visual notes I've seen were done with a ballpoint pen on a legal pad! There's nothing wrong with using fancy, expensive tools — you should always create to the best of your ability — but the priority of visual notes is the information, not the aesthetics.


Before you choose your surface, determine how your visual notes will be used or shared. For example, will you be sharing your visual notes online? Many visual sharing platforms, like Instagram™ and Facebook™, favor square and horizontal images, so making vertical visual notes on legal-size paper won't make sense. A better option would be to take your notes horizontally or use a square piece of paper.


Some people sketchnote on sheets of paper; some people use a notebook. I use a notebook because it's portable. The cover and binding protect the paper, and I can tuck it into my bag and not worry about damage. Consider the following when choosing paper:

COLOR: White paper is easiest if you're just starting out. If you mess up, you can use correction fluid.

WEIGHT: Paper comes in different weights, which refers to how sturdy the paper is. A piece of cheap printer paper is usually 20-lb. weight. It's thin and easily damaged. Drawing paper is usually 60-80 lbs. The highest-quality papers, also called stock paper or board, are over 100 lbs.

TOOTH/SURFACE: "Tooth" refers to how rough or smooth the paper feels. Watercolor paper and Kraft paper are considered rough. Look for words on the packaging like "fine tooth," "Vellum surface," or "smooth texture" to get an idea of what to expect. Some paper packs or sketchbooks also tell you what they should be used for. For example, "ideal for classic sketching and drawing" or "for dry media."

TOOTH/SURFACE: "Tooth" refers to how rough or smooth the paper feels. Watercolor paper and Kraft paper are about as rough as you can get. Look for words on the packaging like "fine tooth," "Vellum surface," or "smooth texture" to get an idea of what to expect. Some paper packs or sketchbooks also tell you what they should be used for. For example, "ideal for classic sketching and drawing" or "for dry media."


Notebooks are a convenient way to take visual notes. Try a book-bound notebook and a spiral notebook to see what your preference is.

If someone is hiring you to create visual notes so they can frame the original, a notebook is not a good idea!


Recall that whiteboard visual notes are done on a larger scale and are called "graphic recording." With whiteboards, you can easily correct mistakes. But you have to be smart about making corrections. Every time you focus on editing, you're not focused on listening. Whiteboards can also be disappointing. A passerby can easily brush up against it and erase your work. You might even accidentally erase something yourself!


With new technology being pushed out constantly, digital formats are increasingly popular for visual notetaking. Here is what you need to consider:


With the rate of new products and updates being released, will the cost of purchasing a tablet be a wise investment for you, or will it be outdated in a few short years and unable to run new programs? For some, purchasing a digital tablet is a no-brainer. For others, it might be best to stick with analog to save money.


Many notetakers love the idea of taking digital visual notes, but recognize that it does take longer to capture the info. Weigh the possibility that your tools could cause you to miss some information. Visual notes exist to visualize, clarify, and organize information. If you can't take them in an efficient manner, their purpose is lost.


Digital visual notes are easy to share. One small possible downside is that your notes might be more difficult to share in person — not everyone is eager to hand over their expensive tablet to someone else!


You can take visual notes effectively using any writing utensil available (remember: the tools aren't important!), but there are some things to consider when picking out a pen.

Did you catch that? I said PEN.

"But I'm new at this! I'm going to make a lot of mistakes!"

Exactly. I believe the best way to become an effective visual notetaker is through deliberate practice using pen. Ink can't be edited and causes forced failure. Failure doesn't sound fun, but it's helpful long-term. You learn faster and in greater amounts from failure than you do from constant small improvements that don't involve risk. Using pen is also an easy way to improve your confidence, and it has the added benefit of being easier to read than pencil.


Excerpted from "The Art of Visual Notetaking"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Emily Mills.
Excerpted by permission of The Quarto Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Art of Visual Notetaking: An interactive guide to visual communication and sketchnoting 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
LawladyCase 17 days ago
LLangley 21 days ago
Anyone interested in learning visual notetaking or "sketchnoting" as it's often called, can learn from an expert in Emily Mills' book The Art of Visual Notetaking. She provides some basic principles for visual notetaking, helps readers evaluate if they want to go old-school or digital, and gives simple, step-by-step instructions for various aspects of visual notetaking. Having just bought the Goodnotes app an an Apple pencil, I've been wanting to transition to a digital bullet journal and notebooks. I'm already eyeing the ideas in The Art of Visual Notetaking and evaluating how I can incorporate many of the techniques and ideas into my own digital notebooks. This how-to guide is perfect for a variety of people--students, business people who want to better digest their meeting notes, teachers, and so many others. I highly recommend Mill's new book, and I plan to buy copies for the students in my life to help them develop some great notetaking skills early on and make their study time more profitable. Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for this honest review.
Anonymous 25 days ago
Does anyone have an idea of why I started to research visual notetaking when I'm just finishing my studies? There is not much to say about this book other than it should be mandatory reading for every teacher/professor and student. It would make studying so much easier for everyone.
pamseven 3 months ago
I had so much fun reading through this book. It was entertaining, but also provides a lot of great information. I have often envied the ability to sketch an idea in such a way as to communicate that idea to others. This book provides the basics on how to do that. There are many, many exercises. I have done none of them yet but fully intend to. The instructions and illustrations are as helpful as you would expect a book on that very subject to be. It also provides tips for left handers. I will definitely be using these techniques.
MT24 4 months ago
I love this book! I have always drawn notes when I'm at church, or at a conference, but I have never really learned more tools on how to take it to the next level. Emily teaches you everything you need to know to get started on your journey of sketch notetaking! She goes step by step helping you get a good grasp of how to create your own style. I really love the idea of the headers. I never thought to go that detailed and actually draw the speaker. Super cool.
Anonymous 4 months ago
Visual notetaking is a skill I have coveted for some time, after watching a couple friends do it superbly. I thought this would be an excellent way to learn more about the process and begin to cultivate the skill myself. I was right! Mills offers a step-by-step introduction to visual notetaking, covering all the whys, hows, whens and whats. This is definitely a book for beginners who need to learn about tools as well as techniques. She is meticulous in detail, which is wonderful for beginners but a little tedious for anyone who has even a little bit of experience with drawing and sketching. However, even though Mills exhorts the reader to read each chapter in order, it’s easy enough to skip the stuff you don’t need. The gold here is the advice and instruction Mills gives on *how* to take notes, especially the emphasis on listening and practicing. This will be popular with people exploring lettering and bullet journaling, but also with people looking for a new way to record and absorb information.
LaurenHorner 4 months ago
As a graphic designer, I’ve dabbled in visual note taking, but see myself more as a doodler rather than a storyteller. The Art of Visual Notetaking by Emily Mills is a great beginner’s guide to sketchnoting. Emily outlines the basics of sketch notes and the importance of organizing information with both words and visual graphics. The book is very upbeat and encouraging while offering space on the page to illustrate the topics being taught. My favorite part was how Emily described “leveling up” a drawing and providing an alternate way to think about drawing characters and people (something I always struggle with). It’s always challenging to try something new, but Emily’s book is a step in the right direction. I feel I have some new techniques to practice and improve that will open up a new avenue in my professional life. The one thing I and many others like me need to remember, you need to practice and keep sharing your work. The only way we will get better is to keep moving forward. What a great read!
Anonymous 4 months ago
Emily does an excellent job of taking someone who has little confidence in his or her ability to draw, and showing him or her the steps to observing the information in their surrounding world and translating it onto a piece of paper - in a simple, compelling, practical, and fun manner! Subtle humor and fun imagery is strewn throughout this book, making it easy to connect with the content. Emily also addresses numerous artistic stumbling blocks and teaches good techniques that build a good foundation for any person to become a better artist and communicator. I encourage every artist and visual communicator, no matter their tenure, to add The Art of Visual Notetaking to his or her tool kit - used as both a personal reference and to help others connect to the magic that is found in visual communication.