Adventures are unique and intimate events, designed to offer our TEDx community unparalleled, behind-the scenes access to the people and places that make the local area so dynamic.

November 06, 2013

Sketchnote Adventure: Ideas Captured By Hand
Category: Adventures

Sketchnote letters

By now, if you spend any time on the Internet, you’ve seen at least one of many attention-grabbing videos in which a hand sketches a speaker’s words on a whiteboard as he speaks, seemingly bringing the presentation to life with witty little graphics, arrows, icons and thought bubbles. The first time I saw one of those, I was already interested in the topic. Now I was captivated even more by the unique delivery of the information.

I thought, “Wow! How do they do that? That’s one fast illustrator!” I was curious, but apparently not curious enough, because shortly after enjoying that presentation and sharing it with most of my online community, I moved on at the speed of life to other things. Since then, I’ve seen quite a few more of these illustrated presentations. Each one always leaves me thinking, “How do they do that?”

A couple months ago I joined the TEDxConcordiaUPortland (now known as TEDxMtHood) planning team and was catching up on all the events and to-do’s. I loved the concept of TEDx Adventures and was eager to attend one. Would you believe the very next one scheduled was a Sketchnoting Adventure? I don’t ignore gifts from the universe, especially when they come in the form of answers for my unanswered questions!

I should stop here and clarify that while I’ve been calling it illustration, it’s more accurately described as visual note-taking, or sketchnoting, because you’re sketching, but you’re really taking notes.

Doug Neill

Doug Neill, our resident sketchnoter.

That was the first thing I learned, even before Adventure day. Upon registering for the workshop, I felt nervous that my strengths reside not in drawing and artistic endeavors, but elsewhere. Would I suck at this? Should I just enjoy the cool presentations and leave this sketchnoting to the artistic types? I read up a little bit about sketchnoting and about Doug Neill, our resident sketchnoter.

As I read through his website,, I began to understand that artistic ability is not a requirement, and the finished sketch is not the main goal.

The benefits—and I would say, the purpose as I understand it—of moving from taking written notes to sketchnoting is that you become a better listener, retain more information, and recall key points more clearly because you draw visual cues and reminders as you listen. A cool finished sketchnote you’d be proud to display is a bonus.

A better listener? Better retention and recall? I can get behind that. Let’s go!

For the first half of our Sketchnote Adventure, we met at TEDxConcordiaUPortland (now known as TEDxMtHood) alumnus speaker Gary Hirsh’s business, On Your Feet. (Thanks, Gary!) It was a full house, with great mix of attendees from various backgrounds. Some were artistically inclined, some not so much, but everyone was curious and engaged.

Doug led us through a brief explanation of what sketchnoting is and why we’d do this instead of straightforward written note-taking. He broke the workshop down into talking and listen-and-sketch sections. One of the first things he shared with us was “It’s about ideas, not art,” a phrase he borrowed from Mike Rhode, author of The Sketchnote Handbook. Sketchnoting is about listening while we’re sketching. We’ll notice more, he assured us. In fact, it’s so not about art, that he half-joked that most finished sketchnotes probably wouldn’t make much sense to someone who was not listening to what was sketched. Doug encouraged us to “let go and keep going.”

After introducing that key idea, Doug explained text and lettering a bit—title text, emphasis text, normal text—and gave us some ideas on when to use each type, and how to create some stylistic differentiation among them. We practiced by sketching the alphabet in a title style and then in a normal style to help us discover how we each might do that. At this point, Doug played a piece of a RadioLab episode, and we gave this idea of listening and going a try. It was a cool episode that featured a story with famous (and hilarious) neurologist Oliver Sacks. I am going to practice my ego-checking and bravery skills here, and will share my very first sketches about that RadioLab piece.

Ivonne's 1st sketches

My very first sketches about that RadioLab piece.

I know… more words than visual elements. Not very exciting. And as Doug warned, you probably won’t even know what you’re looking at, unless you also heard that episode. But the curious thing is that I look at those sketchnotes, and I can recall in great detail most of what I heard, almost exactly as it was recorded (the conversation, the tone of the voices, a pause, a laugh). All just from listening and noticing, even if I didn’t capture it all. This seems to have worked out some “listening muscles” I don’t always use!

The rest of the workshop continued the same pattern of listening and practicing. After our crash course, our group, now armed with some basics and a better understanding of the aim of sketchnoting, walked a few blocks down to the Portland Story Theater for a live storytelling event. It was a big night at Portland Story Theater, as it was their very first Bridges event, featuring a collection of true stories about race and social justice told by members of the Portland community. Several of them were first-time storytellers. All four storytellers and their stories were sincere and captivating, though sometimes hard to listen to when you remember these are real people sharing real stories about their experiences.

I intended to capture each story giving sketchnoting my best effort, employing the concepts we’d just reviewed in the workshop. I started out pretty well, as you can see from my image below.

Ivonne's 2nd sketches

My sketches from the Portland Story Theater.

Soon enough, however, I was so caught up in the stories that I defaulted to what I’m used to: words. When I noticed that my page no longer had sketch elements, I stopped altogether, a little disappointed that I couldn’t keep up. A funny thing happened, though, after I put away my markers and sketch pad. As I listened to the remaining stories, I felt more present, I noticed more, I visualized elements of the stories—things I might have sketched—something I know I never did in the past, when I was just passively listening, or listening and writing. I was blown away by how this brief sketchnoting experiment sharpened my ability to listen and retain information. Even a few weeks later, as I sit here, I still have a vivid recollection of each storyteller and his or her story. There is a richness to my memories of them that I don’t often experience, and I can say this little Adventure has left a meaningful mark.

Now, I’m but one of the many attendees who went on the Sketchnoting Adventure. All our experiences may have been different, and I’m curious to hear from other attendees—what did you discover on our Adventure? Visit our Facebook Page to check out some great photos, and share your experience!

Curious about TEDx Adventures? Want to join us on our next Adventure? Check out our Adventure schedule to see what’s coming up next!

Ivonne Ward

Though Ivonne now lives in Seattle, she remains tight with the TEDxMtHood family, and this is her second year with the planning team. Passionate about people, volunteering and problem-solving, Ivonne is guided by curiosity and a desire to make a positive and meaningful impact in her community.