Book Review: The Sketchnote Handbook

So because of Sacha Chua’s blog I’ve gotten kinda interested in the idea of sketchnoting, the practice of using lots of pictures, diagrams, and just general visual flow to structure your notes. I used to draw a lot when I was thinking and at some point all the way back in my first attempt at grad school I got out of the habit. I’ve been thinking recently, though, that I need to include better visual aids in my lecture notes and teaching since I am totally one of those people who will use the 1000 words that the picture is worth. Of course, in order to get better at learning what works as a visual representation and organization I figure I might as well practice by learning to take very visual notes when I’m studying or listening to talks. Hence why I decided to check out a copy of The Sketchnote Handbook by Mike Rohde from my local library.

After reading through the book this past weekend, I think it was decent but not great. I’ll talk a bit about what I thought the good and bad points were. First the good

  • It was very clear and set a good example for the style it promotes
  • It had many guest sketchnoters showing off their styles, which had a wide variety
  • It made a very good case for sketchnoting as an everyday technique
  • It emphasized that you don’t need to be an artist to take useful notes

In these ways, I think the book is a success in that it definitely makes the idea of visual note taking seem very accessible regardless of drawing experience.

The major downside of the book is just one point: it was shallow. I’m not expecting a doctoral thesis on design or anything of that sort, but I did feel like there were only a few points really made in the book. I also would have liked to have seen more advice and examples of sketchnoting technical topics. A lot of the examples from various sketchnoters were about their process of taking notes, so the whole thing started to feel very self-referential. There were also some exercises toward the end of the book, but I would liked to have seen more guided exercises and more prompting along the lines of the visual metaphors exercise. I would have seriously appreciated there being some examples of STEM related topics and the visual metaphors people used for them. There was some of that in the book, but I think there could have been a good bit more. I know I’m biased in this regard, but STEM as a whole has some serious issues about presentation and organization of information, so I think we really need the help. I have seen so many talks in multiple fields that were nothing but bullet points with occasional code or equations, and that’s really not good. If we all built a better vocabulary of visual metaphors for ourselves, we could probably as a whole turn out far better talks and better share our ideas.

In the end, I think this book is worth a read but it’s not terribly earth-shattering. I don’t feel like I learned much more from it than what I’d already picked up by looking at various people’s notes online.

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