7 Questions with Mike Rohde


Sketchnoting isn’t Mike Rohde’s day job, but he’s gaining popularity in the faith-based meetings circuit for his sketching skills. The software and visual designer used to attend a lot of professional development conferences, where he took copious, exhaustive notes. The truth is, he was never able to write down everything the presenters said, so he decided to change his method. He attended the Seed Conference in Chicago in 2007 and took a Moleskine notebook and gel pen with him. He decided to sketch the conference, using pictures, typography and a few text notes to communicate the big ideas from the event. A blog featured his sketchnoting, and soon thereafter new opportunities came pouring in.

Since that first event, Rohde has been asked to sketch a few book projects as well as conferences including SXSW, Chick-fil-A Leadercast and Donald Miller’s Storyline conference. Now he’s authoring a book (and complementary video guide, for the visual-minded) called “The Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Notetaking.” Rohde fills us in on this new book, his creative process, and what he’d like to see done differently at meetings and events.

1. Attending conferences first drew you into the world of sketchnoting. Tell us more about that.
Because I’m a designer, I’ve been to a lot of design conferences, and that’s where I was taking my first sketchnotes. I used to be a fanatical notetaker, and it became kind of stressful, trying to write down every word that every presenter said. But I’m also an artist, and I don’t know why I didn’t put two and two together earlier. I took a sketchbook and a pen to a conference, and I started taking notes. I had so much fun with it, so I kept doing it, and now somehow I’ve got a book deal with Peachpit Press.

2. Tell us about your new book. Why did you want to write it?
I believe people, everyday people, have the capacity to do visual notetaking to one degree or another. Everyone can do it. As kids, we drew all the time and it didn’t matter how good it was. It was about getting ideas down. I want to make notetaking a little more fun. I really did enjoy notetaking, but I would do all this work and never look at the notes again. I have to believe there are other people like that. They’re going to conferences and they feel like they’re forgetting it, and would like to remember more of it.

3. Why do you think conference planners are asking you to sketchnote their events?
They can see the reaction. SXSW is a good example. I’ve done it for three years in a row, and in the second year they hired me to be the official sketchnoter. I think what they saw was all the activity and excitement around it. People are talking about it on Twitter and Facebook and Pinterest. And they’re thinking “We don’t have to manufacture this. We have someone do the work and just post it.”

4. What’s your sketchnote method? Do you visualize what goes on page before you start drawing, or does it happen organically?
It’s kind of a mix, but I’ve had a lot of practice. Now, I feel like I see images in my head, a garbage truck and flowers coming out of it, for example. I might start drawing a garbage truck, but then change my mind and make it a fire hydrant with flowers coming out of it instead of water. Once it goes down on paper, you can improvise like jazz. I try to start simply transferring the basic idea and come back and add details. I listen for the big ideas, find something meaningful to me, and capture them with personality and something that interests me.

5. A lot of planners are encouraging attendees to take notes electronically, and sketchnoting is the opposite of that. Is one technique better than the other?
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the technical way of taking notes, [but] being able to draw notes can be a big advantage for someone attending a meeting. If you’re just typing notes, the tendency is for those notes to get filed away and you don’t look at them again. I’m a big tech guy. I carry an iPhone, and I was even a PalmPilot guy. But there’s something nice about the tactical aspect of writing on paper. You never have to worry about the battery running out. With an iPhone, you’re still just touching glass. You don’t get that tactical feedback. When you write, there’s more of a feeling of producing, and it’s a little more active. It produces different results.

6. What can event attendees get out of sketchnoting?
It’s a way to think of ideas differently, especially if you tend to write words. A researcher in the ’70s or ’80s talked about dual coding, or where part of the brain thinks in verbal words, and the other part is visual. Most people are using one or the other. When you do both, it serves a matrix of connections. [Combining] words and images is the best way to capture ideas. Not only can you capture more information, but it keeps you engaged and focused, and follows what the speaker and what the discussion is about. You end up with ideas you wouldn’t have captured otherwise.

7. You’ve been to a lot of conferences and events. What would you change about them if you could?
I know a few people doing an event in Madison, and what I like is that they focus on the city. They think about the place and how’s it’s different from all the other places. They’re taking that into account, and doing unusual events and parties during the conference for people to meet each other on a smaller scale. At events, you want to meet other people, and the opportunity to meet those people can either be organized by the event or encouraged by [the event planner] to help other people to organically meet up.


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