Graphic recording services are very popular these days. You might have been to an event where an illustrator  draws what’s been said on a giant sheet of paper or a whiteboard. There’s something about drawings that help people see the topic or a problem in a different light. The visuals literally help people to get on the same page which is a really good starting point when you’re discussing new strategy initiatives for example.

(Note: Sometimes people hire illustrators to facilitate a problem solving exercise. If the illustrator actively steers the discussion it’s called graphic facilitation, not graphic recording).

However, sometimes I go to events where an illustrator is some sort of curious sideshow. People might, or might not, be paying attention to what the illustrator is doing. The visuals are a “nice to have”, but are not used as part of a process. Which raises the question: why couldn’t the illustrator just use a sketchbook? Why does the illustrator need to work on a giant sheet of paper when she could do a bit more thinking by taking sketchnotes.

How about sketchnotes instead?

Sketchnoting: The Art of Visual Note-taking from Matthew Magain

Sketchnoting is similar to graphic recording except that the illustrator uses a notebook (or an iPad or whatever tool they feel comfortable with). So unlike visual scribing it’s not a public performance. This means the illustrator can focus more on the think, than the ink. After the event some illustrators edit the drawings in Photoshop or some other image editing programme so that they can turn the visuals into a more coherent narrative (this is the work process I use since I usually aim to give my visuals an afterlife on the interweb).

This means that sketchnotes can serve a dual function:

  1. as a visual summary for the participants on what was discussed and what the key themes were
  2. as a marketing tool: people who participated in the event will want to share content like this online (my sketchnote from the tech conference, see below, spread organically because it sums up a key theme).

Visuals from a graphic recording session don’t spread the same way because they are “messier” and are not instantly readable to people who weren’t at the event in person. Also, since they are drawn on a large surface the illustrator needs to take a photo of the picture and use Photoshop or similar which often lowers the image quality.

People have been taking sketchnotes forever, but only now are they being acknowledged as a legitimate way of recording an event or making sense of something (the exception are user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) designers who have been using these visual techniques as part of their work processes). There’s even a site that celebrates sketchnotes (although most of the sketchnotes on the site are for private use and not commissioned pieces).

Storytelling workshop sketchnotes by

The beginning of a sketchnote I did at a storytelling workshop.

In summary:


  • help participants to remember and understand the key themes from an event
  • are marketing content after the event (especially good because participants love to share sketchnotes online)

Graphic recording:

  • helps smaller groups of people to discuss and solve problems (however, if the illustrator takes and active role in steering the meeting it’s graphic facilitation)
  • help participants to remember and understand the key themes from an event
  • are entertainment (it can be fun to see people draw in public!)

Tip:  If you want to use sketchnotes online after the event make sure you mention this to the artist before you hire him/her. Not all artists want to spend time editing their drawings after the event. For online use I recommend the long vertical (infographic format) and slideshows on Slideshare (one image/concept per slide). One page mind map style visuals don’t work that well online but this tends to be the format most sketchnotes are in illustrators’ notebooks.

My (edited) sketchnotes from a tech conference

I went to a Microsoft conference in March and attended many, many talks (mainly about social software and the transition into more collaborative, less hierarchical organisations). I had a notebook where I scribbled down quotes and visual ideas. After the event I redrew the sketches in Photoshop (mainly because my Wacom Inkling wasn’t working properly), arranged them vertically on Photoshop, went online to check couple of quotes (all the talks were online) and then uploaded the image on Thinglink where I added interactive links to further resources. So it’s not just taking notes at events (although I’ve done that too), but editing the visuals after the event and adding background information, if need be. They are drawings with an editorial twist.