In primary school I was always caught drawing. Doodling and colouring, drawing faces and figures. In secondary school I stopped. In uni I began again. On a different level: Visual Note Taking.
What is that?
The idea behind visual note taking is that you combine images with words. You listen to what is said and transform it in your mind into a picture. Our brains are functioning in a way that we can recall images much better than text. Have you ever had the problem that you just put words on the paper without being able to recall anything afterwards? You probably just copied words from a presentation. I did that for a long time, too. Then I found out that I’m actually a visual learner. I love images, I love drawing.
This semester I’m going to nearly every lecture and I make little sketches during them. I still copy words from the board but I illustrate them. So that they look colourful and well structured. Our professors don’t particularly like structure. They talk and add information at different places, go back to a topic and jump two ahead. I was very confused by that until I discovered visual note taking. You can add to the little drawings you made because you don’t have to write everything down anymore. Notes are not meant to repeat everything that was said. They serve the purpose of underlining what is important. The process of distinguishing what is important and what isn’t is a long one. It takes practise. With the time, though, you establish a number of key words that will ring a bell. You start to have a library of pictures in your mind. If you always use the same images for the same terms, you will remember them more easily.
For example: My picture for inflation is basically a pile of money with a little plus sign. The image for insurance – a little guy with an umbrella. “Time” is a clock, “agriculture” a cow, “nature” a tree. It takes some time and a little research to find your pictures for the words you are hearing. That process is a lot of fun!
I started one year ago with a very limited visual vocabulary. With just a basic understanding of structuring information. It has got better. My first exams I learned for with visual notes were the ones this summer. I was able to remember lecture contents much better with pictures.
Here is how I make these notes.
I bought a little notebook for every subject so that I have all the notes in one place and not pages flying around. Normally, I use a fountain pen to write. Studies show that you can remember notes written in blue better. Also, I just like the look of writing with it.
Those notes are mostly words or explanations, sometimes bullet points.
With a black pen, I draw all the images. Graphs and little people, boxes and arrows.
For every subject, I then have a different coloured pen for highlighting. I will underline, circle, colour etc. This is to show the special importance of a fact.
This three colour approach can be very helpful to structure information but if you would like to use more or less colours – that’s perfectly fine too. If you just have one pen, you can draw images as well.
I normally divide my page into three parts. The left part of the page is notes. The right part is drawings. The bottom part is summary. Professional visual notetakers are able to make one huge drawing out of the information. To put everything in a well-fitting place. I’m not that experienced yet. That’s why I find it helpful to divide my pages like that. The goal is to reduce the word part and have it equal the picture part. That’s quite difficult and takes a lot of practise.
Often, I draw pictures underneath important words to remember them. I add graphs everywhere because they help me to understand certain aspects. You always have a lot of graphs in science, so that’s great.
If I’m particularly bored I will draw on the margins of my pages. They were the places for my sketches since the beginning of school. I get a little nostalgic about doodling there from time to time. Have you done that too in your childhood? Why not try and use it for your actual notes now?
Let’s get started
“I couldn’t do that, I can’t draw. How does that look so neat?” Here’s the thing. I believe that everyone is able to draw and that it just takes some practise. Observe the things around you. Sketch them with very few lines. Just get the overall shape right. Then write a word underneath that represents it.
Draw you mobile phone. “Technology”
A sofa. “Comfortable”
A camera. “Remember”
A candle. “Calm”
Write down the first associations you have. Those will be the ones you will remember. Start to draw a little library of images for yourself. You could listen to an interesting Ted Talk online. Draw the key words mentioned in the talk. Then ask yourself if you could summarise it just based on your notes. If you can, congrats, you’ve done it. You can now go and take great notes. If you can’t, practise more. Try to identify what was going wrong. Did you take too long to draw and didn’t listen anymore? Didn’t you find the right images? Did you write too much? Did your notes lack structure?
Here are some tips to get better:
Don’t focus on drawing, focus on listening. Just as you would with writing down bullet points, the note taking has to be done while listening. You miss a lot if you concentrate on sketching. If you don’t get the doodle finished, leave it. Embrace the white space. You can put something in there later on.
Draw stick figures. If you have a hard time with drawing humans, make it a stick figure. They can express a lot with their posture. Play around a little, try to make them do certain things. Let them scratch their heads. Let them lean forward and shout. Draw a speech bubble above them.
Use different fonts. You can write in CAPITAL LETTERS, in tiny and w i d e s p a c e d ones. You can do so much with fonts, stress important factors just as you do with colour. You could bend the words around an object. Make the word an object itself. Draw little banners around it. Make it pretty. Afterwards. Invest just as much time during a talk or lecture or discussion as necessary. If you want to rework your notes, you can do so later on.
Keep it simple. Don’t try to draw fancy ornaments or groups of people. Do as much as you need to understand the key facts.
Keep it short. Don’t use that much writing. Imagine a page full of text in front of you. You wouldn’t like to learn all that, right? You wouldn’t like to tell a story based on that. Make it interesting with as many pictures as possible. Ask yourself “Will I need that? Will I remember that?” If both questions are answered with no then find a different way to express this fact.
The weirder the better. Our minds remember the crazy facts. The ones that shocked us or that we were surprised about. If a funny picture pops up in your mind that reminds you of the thing you were told – draw it. If no one else gets that picture, it’s no problem. Those are your notes and you have to understand them. Doodles help us to remember. Make them remarkable.
Clip art. My go-to resource for little doodles is clip art on the internet. That works best if you have very abstract words you don’t know how to express in drawing. I had for example “insurance” in economics and wanted to depict it. When I looked it up, there was a man with an umbrella. The umbrella is a perfect image so I copied that one. There are a lot of possibilities. Look at the work of other visual note takers to get inspiration. Use their symbols!
Add comments. In statistics today I was extremely confused by all these different approaches. So I wrote it down. I let my little stick figures express my thoughts on the topic. Because why not? It’s fun and the possibility that I remember the Weibull distribution is high. Just look at that cow.
Don’t be a perfectionist. You will get things wrong, that’s fine. They will not always make sense, it’s ok. Your structure might not fit on the page. Use the next one! If your drawings look shaky, if your handwriting isn’t perfect – that’s no problem. Just keep going and keep practising. One day it will become natural to you.
Visual Note Taking is an amazing possibility to have fun whilst a meeting, in a lecture or anywhere basically. You can also try it as an alternative journal entry. You don’t have to be an artist to make beautiful notes. You can just start with little boxes and put single words in there. Connect them with arrows. It’s as easy as that.
The most important thing is to keep on listening. Focus on the key points. Be simplistic. Practise. You don’t have to start off with making the whole page into an artwork. I’m not doing that either. I’m still a beginner. I haven’t figured out how to structure a page properly. However, every little doodle that you make will help you remember more facts. If your colleagues see your well-structure notes the next time, they will be impressed.
It would make me so happy if you tried taking your notes like that. Tell me about your experiences! If you have any questions on the technique, please feel free to ask them in the comments.
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