Raise your hand if you doodle while taking notes.
Personally I’ve always liked to draw and I think of myself as a “visual person”: I’m sensitive to paintings and photos as well as nice color combinations or a cool pattern.
When I need to study something, the easiest way for me is to write it down and draw a diagram. Especially in my veterinary medicine studies, I used mathematical symbols and diagrams as well as colour codes and eye-catching drawings while taking notes and summarizing the lessons.
This helped me a lot to figure out the grand scheme and the relevant concepts to keep in mind while studying. Whilst writing my thesis and other scientific pieces I used my etchings to summarize and record papers, and I found it so effective that I applied it further, to seminars and congress sessions.
As I was writing my graduation thesis — about a particular erythrocytes arrangement never described before in veterinary or human medicine — I realised the power of visualization in communicating science.
The description of this new pattern was crucial to make my professors and colleagues understand how it was arranged. I tried to put in words what I saw under the microscope, but I wasn’t getting through.
Then I had a revelation and I asked an engineer, a friend of mine, to make up a three-dimensional model of the arrangement, after drawing out the structure for him.
I ended up adding 3D models into my thesis, and projecting them in my presentation; this made an incredible difference for everyone — even those who didn’t know about the science could immediately see what I meant.
Visualization allows us to better understand and remember contents, enhance our problem solving skills and effectively share ideas. This happens because most of our brain is dedicated to processing visual information.
Humans have evolved to recognize and understand images, whilst reading is only a few thousand years old. Studies have shown that it takes only few milliseconds for us to process and attach meaning to an image, while words take much longer to be understood. This explains why we have a remarkable ability to remember pictures that far exceeds our ability to remember sentences. How many paintings can you remember? How many quotes?
Every day we’re bombarded with new information; by the web, press, television and social media. Even if our brains love to be stimulated, this information load makes us appreciate a message that comes in a natural, clear way. A message that is simple and effortless makes its own fast-track to the brain.
Think about infographics and posters: everyone can promptly identify the main concepts and understand the image or data in a graphic. These tools are more and more extensively and effectively used in science communication, especially to the public because they help in delivering the content in an easy and immediate way, using our natural inclination to process visual messages.
What is “sketchnoting”?
The 2.0 version of taking notes, doodling, and using symbols is sketchnoting: the goal is to take an idea and give it a visual, physical form – which will more easily find a home in our visual brains.
Mike Rohde coined the word almost 10 years ago and used it to define a technique that blends words with drawings, diagrams and typography. It can be used to describe almost everything, from a recipe to a to-do-list, but has huge potential in science too.
Visual notes fit science communication perfectly – here, you often need a tool to transform complex, difficult subject matter into a handful of key concepts – connected by logical relationships – in a clear and immediate way. Recording science seminars and classes and even translating articles into something more visual can make the understanding and sharing of your science much more intuitive and pleasant.
Some professional sketchnoters produce genuinely artistic works: hand lettering skills, the right use of a color palette and a good hand help in making the sketchnote more attractive, but that – of course – isn’t mandatory, especially if you take notes for your own use.
You don’t have to be an artist to organize your diagrams, simplify a text in easy-to-grasp icons, or highlight concepts in bold fonts and bright colors. You need just practice. As Mike Rohde says, it’s about “ideas, not art”.
How to start sketchnoting
The building blocks of the sketchnoting process are layout, text, images and color, but you need to find a personal process to take visual notes.
Here are the essentials (after a pen and paper) to get started with brightening up your note taking:
- Visual elements — use bullet points and arrows to list and connect concepts to compose diagrams and schemes, and the use of dividers to separate ideas.
These elements allow you to figure out the relationship between different concepts and show processes.
- Icons — a lot of the written language can be replaced by drawings, so try to use symbols instead of writing words and remember those that are effective and easy for you to draw. Your vocabulary will constantly grow, and in the future you’ll be able to quickly pick an icon you’re confident with.
- Text — obviously, it’s not always possible to keep text completely out of your notes, but you can accentuate these written components — as relevant statements or content — using hand lettering and speech bubbles. Use size, width and style to emphasize the texts and characterize their tone.
- Colour — give a final touch, categorize and emphasize points and by varying your styles and experimenting with shades and shadows.
- O’Donoghue, Seán I., et al.”Visualizing biological data — now and in the future.” Nature Methods (2010): S2-S4
Marianna Ricci earned her DVM from the University of Pisa, and since then has published a few scientific articles and gained a Master’s degree in veterinary oncology. Currently, she works at IDEXX Laboratories, deepening her interest in science communication. Find her on LinkedIn and ResearchGate.