Sketchnoting

I’m trying out a new hobby: Sketchnotes. I think they’re used most often for capturing events: Creating concise, attractive, pop visual representations of talks at IT conferences is like a kind of sport for visual designers. As in jazz improvisation the masters are doing it in real-time, using pens not pencils, often wrapping up their works as the events themselves are concluding and Instagramming them out to attendees. In any case, the products of this are beautiful, useful, and help in a general way make sense of things.

Designers also create sketchnote drawings and animations of archived video lectures of the talking head variety in order to boil down a lot of information about, say, macroeconomics or the writings of John Stuart Mill into something sharable. RSA Animate is a master of this and where I became aware of it. Robert Reich is also an amazing sketchnoter of his own sometimes-abstruse points, for example in this YouTube video “The Truth about the Economy”. Above all Sacha Chua, whose very personal mix of diligence and curiosity and tech and art has been a real inspiration to me, esp. in the area of open visual thinking.

My goals for sketchnotes are smaller and more personal:

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What I’m trying to get at is something like this:

  • Sketchnoting seems valuable to me mainly as a practice and not as a product. It’s sketchnoting, not sketchnotes. The virtues of this practice are:
    • Recollection & understanding: At a practical level, being able to distill something into a sketchnote means that you have understood it, and probably that you will remember it very well.
    • Re-presentation: I want to make a practice of publishing more, of “putting it out there”, and treating the things I write and make as if they will be published, which is a way of shaping them and taking care with how good they are, how they function.
    • Visual art: I used to draw a lot as a child and still doodle. My dad was an artist. Maybe sketchnoting can be a way to get back into something deeper, something more deeply pleasurable and immediate, something I’ve maybe dismissed. Or missed.
    • Slowness itself: The main practice here is…returning to things. Reviewing your own work. Being present. Trying to understand yourself, to slow down and understand.

I started my latest longhand journal with some tests of simple ways to make my tasks and notes to myself reviewable and crisp.

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It’s fun and slow and above all, as I said above, a great practice, a way to take your own internal dialog more seriously. Let me know if you do it or want to talk about it.

Blog: Catching an entrepreneurial wave at IBM SmartCamp in Wilmington, NC

Just wrote this post on the developer.ibm.com blog about an IBM Smartcamp we held last week at tekMountain:

Just look at the list of cities that are hosting IBM’s SmartCamp this year: Austin, Dubai, Mexico City, Riyadh, Sydney. That’s an auspicious group. Global. Urban. Connected. Then, down at the very bottom of the list, weighing in at ninety-eight pounds, our own scrappy, Wilmington, NC for the Southeast US!

Read the blog

Fiction advice: Make your meteors the right size

Here’s some fiction-writing advice that’s been useful to me lately. Plot has always been the most difficult part of writing for me. I’m afraid of action! Stories I write have a tendency toward passive observation and inertia, which is why simplistic metaphors about meteors destroying the earth can be so helpful—by getting me out of fanciness and subtlety and into the action that needs to move things along.

When you tell a story, you’re creating two things:

  • A subject: the main character, the believable and absorbing world in which that character lives, the “who”
  • A predicate, the thing that happens, the action, the crisis, the “what”

These two may be closely related, or spring out of one another, or even be the same thing, as in tragedies, where some flaw in the main character is why everything goes bad. But for practical purposes, it’s useful to separate them—and useful to make sure that the subject and predicate fit one another. Do them both, and do them both right.

This is key. In the analogy of the world being struck by meteors, you have to build the world, yes, and then you have to create the meteors, hurl them toward the earth. And you have to make them the right size or the story’s not going to work. I for example have a tendency to create tiny, unnoticeable meteors if I can even muster them at all before giving up on “a story”—that’s the second of the two problems pictured below.

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It looks cartoon-ish, right? So does the fiction whose plot this represents. A crisis that’s too sudden, too large, way out of proportion with the pace, the mood, the movement or the ambitions of the world itself. This is melodrama.

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This plot? Who cares? Don’t millions of mote-sized meteors hit the earth every day or something? And nobody notices? This is micro-drama. The artsy stuff. Readers confront this plot with, What’s actually happening here? What am I supposed to care about? Where’s the story?

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When you get the balance right between your subject and its plot, between the world and the meteors that threaten to destroy it, you create a world that someone can care about, and then you create a world they then do care about: action that fits, that is neither too dramatic or imminent nor too subtle and inert.