I strongly believe that Project Managers can benefit considerably from sketchnoting at work.

Chances are that your first reaction to reading this sentence might be one of two common misconceptions:

  1. “I don’t have time for that!”
  2. “That’s not for me, I have zero artistic skills”

In this article I’ll try to convince you that visual note-taking a) requires no talent b) can actually save you a lot of time.

Let’s start from getting on the same page when it comes to what sketchnoting is and what it isn’t.

What is sketchnoting?

One could define sketchnoting as expressing ideas visually, using sketchnotes. They can be described as a mix of drawings, doodles, text and structural elements (arrows, boxes, grids).

As you continue reading this article, you’ll see that visual notes can be really detailed and beautiful, but it’s very important to remember that they may as well be simple. Simple, as in “a child could do this”.

See, graphic facilitators often say that everything can be drawn using a set of simple figures:

Sketchnoting for Project Managers - visual alphabet

Mixing these elements together and adding some color, everyone can end up with drawings that convey a given idea and tell a story:

sketchnoting - people

The priority of sketchnoting is not to create an artistic masterpiece, it is to visualize something you want to memorize, understand or explain to others. This is why simple icons are the most helpful here, especially when you want to convey a metaphoric meaning (e.g. lightbulb = idea, creativity).

We settled that the process of taking visual notes is not about being great at art, but do we bother with drawing things anyway? As it turns out, visual note-taking helps us to retain information. Writing things down with pen and paper instead of taking digital notes is beneficial because we tend to process and reframe the input. Drawing also helps: in one study at the University of Plymouth participants were asked to listen to a monotonous recording. One group was doodling while listening. In a surprise memory test the “doodlers” recalled 29% more information.

Sketchnoting is a widely encouraged practice in the education and business environments. PMs can also benefit from it enormously.

Sketchnoting for Project Managers – use cases

First things first, since sketchnoting is very effective in the learning process Project Managers can use it when preparing for e.g. the PMP certification. Another option would be to take visual notes when attending conferences or reading industry articles. If you need inspiration, check out these beautiful sketchnotes by Makayla Lewis taken during a PMI conference. Makayla is an experienced visual thinker, but I assure that, with some practice, you too will be able to make sketchnotes during live events.

Additionally, it will help you plan your work. You can create a visual draft when planning a new project’s timeline and scope. Adding some icons to your daily to-do lists will help you remember about important deadlines or meetings:

Sketchnoting is great when you want to explain things and facilitate communication. You can use that to your advantage when dealing with your project’s stakeholders. Draw notes explaining how your team works or visualizing different aspects of the process. Lynne Kazali, an expert on agile cultures, created a visual representation of the Agile Manifesto. Her sketchnote has since become very popular and many teams have it placed on their office walls.

Your sketches will also be helpful when you need to onboard new people to the project team. They’ll be more likely to remember workflows and policies that are visually explained.

Meeting facilitation is another handy example. An illustrated agenda will be easy to follow for the attendees, plus you can add a couple of icons symbolizing meeting rules:

Visual note-taking will also be handy during Scrum rituals. Think about sprint retrospectives – they will be more engaging and memorable when your teams participate in creating a sketchnote.

How to get started with visual thinking? Tools & useful links

Starting out, you don’t really need a lot of tools. The basic elements are:

  • Blank, plain surface (depending on your goal, you’ll use a notepad, a flipchart, a whiteboard or even post-its)
  • Black pen (that doesn’t smear)

With time you’ll likely want to add these to your collection:

  • Markers (black & colorful), they’re handy for the big-format projects.
  • Pro tip: don’t sleep on a grey marker. It’s an unassuming color that visual thinkers swear by. It allows you to add depth and dimension to your drawings.
  • Brush pens. For some reason, they make you feel 10 times more confident about your skills and encourage experimenting with different fonts and styles.

Some of the most popular brands producing tools used by sketchnoters are: Sakura, Pentel, Staedtler, Neuland, Tombow.

Where to find more information about sketchnoting and its techniques?

  • Pinterest and Instagram are full of inspiration: search for graphic recording or visual thinking. You can also use Google to find more examples of great visual notes.
  • A solid guide from UX Mastery
  • Follow Sketchnote Army. They offer a lot of resources including a podcast
  • Doug from Verbal to visual shares valuable insights on his blog
  • Bikablo books serve as a great source of inspiration when it comes to icons and doodles

I hope that you see that visual thinking is less about art or talent and more about effective communication and information processing. My goal was to show you that visual note-taking can be used by project managers on different occasions. Don’t hesitate to add an icon or two to your next task list and take it from there. Once you witness the power of sketchnoting for yourself, you’ll be 100% convinced.

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