An Interview With Sketchnote King Mike Rohde

Mike Rohde

I remember seeing these amazing sketchnotes early last year from the SXSW conference from Mike Rohde, a designer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

I loved his unique approach to the talks in each session and became addicted to Mike’s blog and sketchnotes from later conferences.

Recently i got the chance to chat to Mike on Twitter and asked if he would be willing to answer a few questions focusing on sketchnoting, wireframes and how these fit into his design process and workflow.

Given that i’m known as a bit of a wireframe and moleskine junkie, it’s easy to see how Mike would perhaps be my perfect interviewee…

Mike, you’re regarded by many as the ‘king of sketchnoting’, but how long have you been sketching and how did this turn into ‘sketchnoting’?

Been sketching a long time now — since I was a little boy. I loved cars, cartoons, comic books and Star Wars. I drew constantly. Fortunately, I’ve kept up my drawing as I’ve matured, having been encouraged by wonderful teachers in high school and college to keep a sketchbook and draw like crazy.

My first official sketchnotes happened at UX Intensive 2007 in Chicago. I made a conscious decision to capture concepts rather than details of conferences, and to make typography and drawings an integral part of my conference notes. They were fun to create in real-time and fun to review after the event too.

UX Chicago Sketchnotes

Oddly enough, I found that other conference attendees loved viewing my sketchnotes. To my surprise, even people who hadn’t attend the event really enjoyed viewing my sketchnotes. That’s when I knew I’d stumbled onto something pretty cool.

Can you take us through your sketchnote process when attending a conference or event?

Here’s my process:

I get to the presentation at least 15 minutes early and look for a good seat. In many cases a good seat may be close, but in rooms which darken, finding a seat directly under a spotlight in the ceiling might be a better choice.

I carry a couple of Moleskine sketchbooks (pocket sized) with Pilot G2 gel pens (with several backups) and I like to start by creating a title for the presentation on the page before the event starts. This allows me time to capture the names and other details without feeling rushed once the presentation begins.

Once the talk starts, I listen for the concepts being presented, and capture those ideas in words, typography and drawings. I draw upon images that might pop in my head, or from interesting items in the room (speakers, slides etc.).

In some cases, I may capture sound bites. The sound bite method works especially well for very scattered, rambling speakers, Q&A sessions and panels that feature many people.

Sketchnotes

I capture the event in a linear form, left to right, top to bottom in the book, until I fill up the Moleskine. When I have a complete set of sketchnotes at the end of an event, I scan the sketchnotes with a portable Canon flatbed scanner and prepare the final art for the web using a Photoshop template, exporting PNGs for use on Flickr.

Lately I’ve been working on a project that converts my set of sketchnotes from SXSW Interactive 2009 into an application for the iPhone. I’m partnering with SixVoices, a Michigan iPhone development firm, to turn my SXSW sketchnotes into a virtual set of cards for iPhones and iPod touches. There’s a blog post and video with a demo of the app in development.

What are your sketching tools and what made you choose them?

I use a variety of tools depending on what I’m doing. I love Moleskines, using pocket size sketchbooks for sketchnotes, and lined or gridded books for ideas. I also like Miquelrius sketchbooks (squared) for concepting logos and icons and for website wireframing, I’ve recently fallen in love with the Maruman Mnemosyne A4 Notebook from JetPens.com.

In fact, I’ve created a short video on the Maruman for wireframe sketches:

As for pens and pencils, I like the Pilot G2 0.7mm pen for sketchnotes, and for logo, icon and website pencil sketches, I use a Faber-Castell eMotion 1.4mm pencil and a standard 0.5mm mechanical pencil with softer leads in them. I also use a small clear plastic triangle for drawing straight edges and a kneadable gray eraser.

How does sketching fit into your design workflow?

I typically use sketching in my design workflow at the start of projects. I’ll read through the creative brief and review any important reference and take notes right in my sketchbook, usually on the right margin. Then I’ll begin sketching, flowing across the page and numbering ideas once the page of sketches is filled.

I use my sketches for internal reference, or may share them with team members. I also like presenting my concept sketches to clients, providing I have an opportunity to present and explain them in person or with detailed notes. Including clients brings them into the process, generates great feedback and gives clients a great sense of ownership.

Next step for website and UI wireframes is to create a more refined version of my loose concept sketches. That’s when I move to a larger gridded A4 book, where I have space to draw a more refined concept and add notes in the margins.

I find this part of the project is critical for me, because I’m figuring out much of the overall design in a loose state, where there are no rigid limits. From here I jump to the computer for mockups.

In your opinion what are the benefits of using sketching as a wireframing tool?

Firstly, it’s fast. You can rip out a wide variety of ideas very quickly and get feedback for refinements quickly too. There’s less fiddling with the app controls and more emphasis on getting the idea down without too much worry that it’s perfect.

Secondly, I like that sketches are iterative, in-progress and not expected to be perfect. Amazingly enough, clients seem to also react well to my sketches, providing good feedback. I think it’s because they are in-progress, imperfect and open for comment by clients in a way that rigid mockups are not.

Typical Wireframe Sketch from Mike

Finally, I feel sketching wireframes frees me to experiment with ideas without worrying about technique or frills of the design look & feel. Sketching focuses me on the structure and proportions. It encourages me to experiment with the elements. When I skip the sketching and go right to the computer, my ideas tend to become rigid and confined by app limitations.

What tips would you give budding sketch artists to improve their technique?

  • Keep a sketchbook and pen or pencil and try to carry it with wherever you go. This will allow you to capture ideas when they strike, so you don’t lose them. 3×5 cards and a dog clip work great too.
  • Sketch something every day, even if it’s a useless doodle. It’s critical to keep your mind active — every single day!
  • You don’t have to be a good illustrator to maintain an active sketch life. Sketching is for thinking and expressing yourself in a visual way, so forget about how good your sketches are compared to so and so. Just draw!
  • Draw with children. Little kids never worry if they draw properly, they just draw. And they love to do it. I challenge you to pick a kindergartner you know and draw for 30 minutes with them. It’s a fun and amazing experience. Try it!
  • Michael Nobbs has 75 ways to help you draw more on his site, check them out.

Live Sketchnoting

Lastly, I couldn’t interview you without mentioning that you’re an avid user of Moleskine Notebooks. Where did your love of Moleskine begin and why do you think so many creatives prefer them over other brands?

I began using Moleskine notebooks and sketchbooks in 2002. I bought a Moleskine pocket sketchbook in early 2002 but didn’t start using it until late in 2002. Seems odd, now that I use Moleskines in all shapes and sizes, all the time!

I prefer Moleskines because they’re high quality and have a good balance of size and features for the price. The high quality paper, handy back pocket, bookmark and elastic closure strap add up to a perfect notebook for me. I’d think these features and benefits are also attractive to other creatives like me.

Grace, thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts and processes with your readers. I’m always encouraged when something I’ve drawn or said encourages someone to draw again. I hope this interview does just that for many readers.

Further resources related to Mike you may want to check out:

I’d like to say a huge thanks to Mike for taking the time to give such detailed and insightful answers. I’m off to grab my moleskine and start sketching…

3 Comments

  1. Mike Rohde says:

    Grace, thanks so much for the interview. I’m honored to appear on your blog and hope my answers provide more insight into my sketching and sketchnotes.

    Cheers!

    Mike

  2. Mary Shaw says:

    Thanks so much for this great article. I downloaded Mike’s sketchnotes iPhone app and love it, especially since I missed SXSW last year. It has tons of really useful info. Ironically, I bought my own Maruman earlier today before I ever saw this post. I’m starting a new wireframe project tomorrow and liked the light colored grid. Also ordered a Behance Dot Grid book for the same purpose and will compare the two.

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