Sketchnotes: A Guide to Visual Note-Taking

Sketchnotes: A Guide to Visual Note-Taking

If you’re a visual learner with a passion for pens and paper, the sketchnote method is perfect for you. Sketchnoting combines traditional handwritten notes with drawings, symbols, and other creative elements. The result is an engaging map of ideas with clear visual cues.

With sketchnotes, you can:

  • Use visual cues to boost memory retention
  • Keep your brain active and engaged with variety and stimulation
  • Develop ideas more comprehensively by creating connections between points
  • Make your notes more compact and easier to review at a glance

In this guide, we introduce basic sketchnote techniques and recommend some supplies to get you started

The Sketchnote Process

Step 1: Listening and Experiencing

Sketchnote Step 1: Listening and Experiencing
Listen closely for key points.

Be alert! If you are attending a meeting or conference, take note of lists, famous quotations, or items that the speaker repeats. If you are using sketchnotes to record personal experiences like travels, observe sensory details like sight, smell, or sound.

Step 2: Processing

Sketchnote Step 2: Processing
Process content and only record important material.

Don’t write down everything– instead of taking verbatim notes, process the content and only write the most important material. It is better to fully take in one major point, rather than frantically scribble many lesser ones. During this step, think of yourself as a thought curator.

Step 3: Writing

Sketchnote Step 3: Writing
Write quickly and keep your letters consistent.

Start writing. Your handwriting should be fast, but legible. Use abbreviations when necessary, and keep your letter size consistent so the emphasis points can stand out. Remember that sketchnotes do not have to follow a linear order, so you can use any part of the page. When relevant, add your own responses or thoughts on the topic.

Step 4: Visualizing

Sketchnote Step 4: Visualizing
Add visual elements like boxes, arrows, and images.

You don’t have to be good at art to add visualizations to your sketchnotes. During down time or pauses in the presentation, add shapes, lines, and symbols to the most important sections. This act of revisiting uses visual cues to help cement the concepts in your mind. Then, use shading to add depth.

Elements of Sketchnoting


Elements of Sketchnoting: Text
Start with your normal everyday handwriting.

The most basic element of sketchnoting is your standard everyday handwriting. Your penmanship does not have to be perfectly tidy– after all, you will be writing quickly. It should, however, be legible and consistent.

Suggestion: Use your regular handwriting for specific details or items in a list.

Emphasis Text

Elements of Sketchnoting: Emphasis Text
Use emphasis text to make a heading stand out.

Emphasis text is meant to stand out on the page, and is often used for headings, titles, and important takeaways. Add emphasis by embellishing your letters or using a different writing style. Some examples include bold text, all caps, or bubble letters.

Suggestion: Use bold, block print for headings.

Basic Shapes

Elements of Sketchnoting: Basic Shapes
Basic shapes are an easy way to add visuals.

Everyone can draw basic shapes like circles, triangles, and squares. Use these as alternatives to plain black bullet points, or to mark items of the same category. You can also combine basic shapes into figures like cubes and venn diagrams.

Suggestion: Draw a rectangle around all dates and times.


Elements of Sketchnoting: Containers
Containers collect thoughts or items together.

Containers are used to collect a group of thoughts or items together, or to emphasize one primary point. Some examples of containers include boxes, speech bubbles, thought clouds, and banners.

Suggestion: Draw a thought cloud around future goals.


Elements of Sketchnoting: Connectors
Connectors link related ideas to one another.

Connectors are used to connect one idea to another. Arrows, paths, lines, double lines, and dotted lines can be used to link related concepts. You can also use connectors to illustrate chronological items like timelines or cycles.

Suggestion: Draw an arrow to illustrate cause and effect.

Icons and Symbols

Elements of Sketchnoting: Icons and Symbols
Use icons to represent ideas or objects.

Simple icons and symbols are an easy way to add visuals to your sketchnotes. Some examples are a stick figure, book, gear, and cloud. As you advance your sketchnote skills, build a repertoire of common symbols like buildings, modes of transportation, and more.

Suggestion: Draw an envelope to represent email.

Sketches and Illustrations

Elements of Sketchnoting: Sketches and Illustrations
Illustrations can capture stories or metaphors.

If you want to further stretch your artistic muscles, add detailed drawings to your pages. A picture is worth a thousand words, and illustrations can vividly capture analogies and metaphors.

Suggestion: Draw a mini comic to depict the events of a story.

Sketchnote Supplies

Sketchnotes can be created using whatever materials you have on hand. You never know when inspiration will strike, so it’s perfectly fine to use a free hotel pen and a cocktail napkin to capture that brilliant idea. However, having a designated set of sketchnote supplies will keep your notes organized and visually consistent. Quality materials will also look more professional in a business setting, and make your sketchnoting experience more enjoyable.


A blank, plain paper notebook is best. Avoid ruled notebooks because the lines are too rigid and may get in the way of your sketches. Graph and dot grid notebooks are good alternatives if you prefer your sketchnotes to be nicely aligned, but be aware that the grid may limit your creativity.

Top Notebook Recommendation: Maruman Mnemosyne Inspiration Notebook

Maruman Mnemosyne Inspiration Notebook
Maruman Mnemosyne Inspiration Notebook

The minimal Maruman Mnemosyne Inspiration Notebook lives up to its name– its silky-smooth blank pages will inspire you to write and sketch freely. Durable ring binding allows the notebook to lay flat on your lap or desk, and each page has a subtle “Title/No.” section to keep your sketchnotes organized. If you opt for the graph version, the gridded lines are light and subtle.

Also Consider: Leuchtturm Softcover Pocket Notebooks, Rhodia Dot or Rhodia Blank Pads

Black Ink Pens

Because you will be jotting down notes at a fast pace, choose black ink pens that can write quickly without skips or stalls. Avoid pens and markers that may smear or bleed through to the next page.

Top Drawing Pen Recommendation: Sakura Pigma Micron Pens

Sakura Pigma Micron Pens
Sakura Pigma Micron Pens

Beloved by artist and designers worldwide, the Sakura Pigma Micron is a reliable marker pen with crisp, bleed-free lines. It comes in many tip sizes, from tiny 0.2 mm to bold 0.5 mm. The ink is archival, which means your sketchnotes will be well-preserved for years to come. For more information, check out our Guide to Drawing Pens.

Also Consider: Uni Pin Pens, Ohto Graphic Liner Drawing Pens

Top Gel Pen Recommendation: Pentel EnerGel Euro Needle-Point Gel Pen

Pentel EnerGel Euro Needle-Point Gel Pen
Pentel EnerGel Euro Needle-Point Gel Pen

The Pentel EnerGel is known for its incredibly fast-drying ink, which makes it great for lefties and fast-paced writers. It is the ideal pen of sketchnoting enthusiast Mike Rohde, author of The Sketchnote Handbook. To learn more about these reliable pens, read our Guide to the Pentel EnerGel or check out our Guide to Fine Tip Gel Pens for other alternatives.

Also Consider: Uni-ball Signo RT UM-138 Gel Pens, Zebra Sarasa Dry Gel Pens

Emphasis Pen

To add depth and dimension to your sketchnotes, you will need a marker pen that can quickly add emphasis to important points. Most commonly, the emphasis pen is a gray marker that can add shading to letters and sketches. It can also be a highlighter or accent color, such as blue or orange, but avoid using too many colors in one sketchnote.

Top Emphasis Pen Recommendation: Kuretake Fudebiyori Brush Pen – Gray

Kuretake Fudebiyori Brush Pen - Gray
Kuretake Fudebiyori Brush Pen – Gray

With its versatile brush tip, the Kuretake Fudebiyori allows you to quickly add shadows or accents to your sketchnotes. Use the very tip of the brush to fill in small spaces, and use the side of the brush tip to cover larger areas. The light gray color is unobtrusive and easy on the eyes, while still providing an eye-catching visual effect.

Also Consider: Faber-Castell Pitt B Brushes, Zebra Mildliner Highlighters

Carrying Case

If you are traveling on a business trip or running across campus to your next class, you’ll need to keep your sketchnote essentials together in a compact, organized way. Using a carrying case ensures that your supplies will be ready whenever you are.

Top Carrying Case Recommendation: Lihit Lab Teffa Bag in Bag

Lihit Lab Teffa Bag in Bag
Lihit Lab Teffa Bag in Bag

The Teffa Bag-in-Bag is a durable organizer that will easily hold your entire sketchnote kit. One large compartment is for notebooks, and smaller exterior pockets are for pens and markers. It can also hold small accessories like earbuds or a USB drive.

Also Consider: Cubix Round Zip Pen Case, Sun-Star Digistyle Carrying Bag

What to Sketchnote

The sketchnote method can be used in many creative ways. We’ve collected some potential sketchnoting scenarios below.

Conferences and Conventions

Capture key ideas at conferences and conventions

Sketchnoting first gained traction at large design conferences, and it continues to be a great method of note-taking during these busy, action-packed sessions. Even if you don’t regularly attend conferences, practice by sketchnoting podcasts or TED Talks.

Products Used: Staedtler Pigment Liner Marker Pen, Uni-ball Signo RT UM-138 Gel Pen, Faber-Castell PITT Artist Pen B Brush, Maruman Mnemosyne N183A Inspiration Notebook

Work Meetings

Use sketchnotes to develop a big-picture view at meetings.

Instead of taking ordinary notes at the next work meeting, encourage your team to try sketchnoting. Because sketchnotes don’t follow a strict linear order, they offer a big picture view that can facilitate discussions and brainstorming. Additionally, sketchnotes from multiple viewpoints will reveal a greater variety of opinions and insights.

Products Used: Pentel EnerGel Euro Needle-Point Gel Pen, Kuretake Fudebiyori Brush Pen, Tombow Kei Coat Double-Sided Highlighter, Kyokuto F.O.B COOP W Ring Notebook

School Notes

Draw timelines and icons in your school notes.

Whether you are learning history, science, or math, sketchnoting is an effective way to map out complicated dates and formulas. Use connectors to mark important dates in history, or symbols to illustrate the steps of a microbiology cycle.

Products Used: Zebra Sarasa Dry Gel Pen, Sakura Pigma Micron Pen, Faber-Castell PITT Artist Pen B Brush, Maruman Mnemosyne N182A Inspiration Notebook

Personal Diary

Record day-to-day memories with drawings and bullet points.

If writing entire paragraphs in a diary is not your style, switch it up by trying a visual diary instead. Combine journaling with drawing to create an at-a-glance view of the day’s events, including your outfit, current mood, and meal plans.

Products Used: Uni Style Fit Slim Gel Pen, Zebra Mildliner Double-Sided Highlighter, Hobonichi Techo Planner

Travel Log

Document your travels and plan your itinerary with sketchnotes.

Sketchnoting can be a fun, creative way to document your travels and highlight favorite memories. You can also plan your itinerary sketchnote-style: use connectors to mark flights and train rides, or draw a container around a list of must-see landmarks.

Products Used: Pilot Hi-Tec-C Gel Pen with Grip, Kuretake Fudebiyori Brush Pen, Tombow ABT Dual Brush Pen, Traveler’s Notebook Starter Kit

Sporting Events

Keep track of your favorite sports team’s victories.

Whether you’re a die-hard Warriors fan or obsessed with the Seahawks, keep track of your favorite sports team throughout the season by sketchnoting their winning matches and best plays. You can also use sketchnotes to build your ultimate fantasy sports team. Score!

Products Used: Pentel EnerGel X Needle-Point Retractable Gel Pen, Kuretake Fudebiyori Brush Pen, Leuchtturm1917 Softcover Pocket Notebook

Books, TV Shows, and Movies

Sketchnote a list of characters as you read.

Are you a bookworm, TV critic, or movie buff? Sketchnoting can be a fun way to record episodes, plot twists, and favorite characters. For example, use sketchnotes to decipher the increasingly complicated Game of Thrones family tree.

Products Used: Uni Pin Pen, Faber-Castell PITT Artist Pen B Brush, Rhodia DotPad Notepad No. 16

A Final Note

While the term “Sketchnoting” first emerged among attendees at design conferences, it has since spread beyond the graphic design community to schools, professional settings, and beyond. The next time you need to remember something, consider picking up your favorite sketching supplies and trying the sketchnote method.

Have you tried sketchnoting? Do you currently use sketchnotes in your day-to-day life? Share your experience by leaving a comment below!

Product Type Recommendation Product Highlights
Notebook Maruman Mnemosyne Inspiration Notebook Durable lay-flat binding, smooth paper, clean and minimal style
Notebook Leuchtturm1917 Pocket Notebook Pocket size, variety of colors and page formats, ribbon bookmark, elastic closure
Notebook Rhodia No. 16 Pads Portable A5 size, top-bound format is good for left-handed writers
Drawing Pen Sakura Pigma Micron Drawing Pens Crisp bleed-free lines, various tip sizes and colors, archival quality ink
Drawing Pen Uni Pin Pens Precision tip sizes, markerproof, waterproof, fade-resistant
Drawing Pen Ohto Graphic Liner Needle Point Drawing Pens Sturdy and wear-resistant metal rollerball tip, archival quality ink
Gel Pen Pentel EnerGel Euro Gel Pens Quick-drying EnerGel ink, comfortable rubber grip
Gel Pen Uni-ball Signo RT UM-138 Gel Pens Retractable tip, comfortable rubber grip, water-based pigment gel ink
Gel Pen Zebra Sarasa Dry Gel Pens Quick-drying ink, sturdy binder clip for attaching to papers and notebooks
Emphasis Pen Kuretake Fudebiyori Brush Pen Springy and flexible brush tips, light gray color is subtle and easy on the eyes
Emphasis Pen Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pens B Brush Large variety of available colors, pigmented and lightfast ink
Emphasis Pen Zebra Mildliner Double-Sided Highlighters Soft and subtle colors, twin tips for both highlighting and writing
Carrying Case Lihit Lab Teffa Bag in Bags Sturdy construction, large zippered compartment, smaller velcro pockets
Carrying Case Cubix Round Zip Colored Pen Cases Compact size for holding pens and markers, interior mesh pockets, elastic straps
Carrying Case Sun-Star Digistyle Carrying Bags Cushioned compartments, lined outer pockets, good size for an iPad or tablet

Shop This Post

Sketch Starter Kit
JetPens Sketch Starter Kit

Still not sure where to start? Check out our Sketch Starter Kit for collection of versatile tools that will transform your ideas into tangible sketches. From figure drawings and portraits, to wireframes and mockups, these sketch tools will be an indispensable part of your creative arsenal.