Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Sketchnote Handbook: Drawing is Thinking

All my students have heard this over and over again from me: "Draw tons of sketches before you commit to any specific shape or layout in your infographics and visualizations." I am hardly alone in offering this advice: Both John Grimwade and Moritz Stefaner, who lie in opposite extremes of the infographics-dataviz spectrum, suggested the same idea when I interviewed them for The Functional Art. I also devoted a great portion of a chapter in the book (the 8th) to explain how sketches fit into the creative process.

Some take this advice as old fashioned and useless. Perhaps they think that a sketch is a wasteful step that lies in between the time-consuming initial research and planning and the exciting finished graphic. But sketching is much more than a formality endorsed by academics and experts: When you give your visual mental images a physical shape —when you put them on paper, no matter how rough their execution is— hidden connections become visible and a deeper understanding of the information you're dealing with will arise. A sketch is an instrument for clear thinking. I don't draw sketches just to plan for my graphics, but to explore the story I want to tell. Call this learning by drawing, if you wish.

The bibliography about sketching and sketchnoting is growing quickly. The latest addition is the notable The Sketchnote Handbook: the Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking, by Mike Rohde. If you liked McCloud's Understanding Comics, Roam's The Back of the Napkin, and Kleon's Steal Like an Artist, this book should be part of your reading list.

The Sketchnote Handbook
 doesn't cover principles of visual design, as the sketches Rohde is interested in are not intended to be shown to anybody else, but to be used by the authors themselves as mnemonic devices. A sketchnote "is a memento, not a reference" (p. 120) and will help you focus while listening to a lecture: Sketching and taking notes force you to avoid distractions and pay attention at what's been said.

The book is organized in seven chapters that outline simple rules of thumb, strategies, and techniques. Many of them are excellent. Reading that "sketchnoting is about ideas, not art," for instance, may lead many people to overcome their fear of drawing. "I don't know how to draw!" is a deeply-rooted concern that is heard all the time in classes and workshops. Well, neither does my 7-year-old son, but this doesn't curb his artistic enthusiasm. School will do that for him, unfortunately, as Rudolf Arnheim explained in his magnificent classic 
Visual Thinking. It is appropriate to quote him here (highlights are mine):

"The prejudicial discrimination between perception and thinking is still with us. (…) Our entire educational system continues to be based on the study of words and numbers. In kindergarten, to be sure, our youngsters learn by seeing and handling handsome shapes, and invent their own shapes on paper or in clay by thinking through perceiving. But with the first grade or elementary school the senses begin to lose educational status. More and more the arts are considered as a training in agreeable skills, as entertainment and mental release. As the ruling disciplines stress more rigorously the study of words and numbers, their kinship with the arts is increasingly obscured, and the arts are reduced to a desirable supplement. (…) The arts are neglected because they are based on perception, and perception is disdained because it is not assumed to involve thought."

Visual Thinking
was published in 1969. More than forty years later, perhaps it is time to take Arnheim's words seriously and recover our inner visual thinkers. That's what books like The Sketchnote Handbook are trying to do in a fun, engaging, and ultimately thoughtful way. Let's praise them.