When Sketchnoting Might Not Be Appropriate

As much as I’d like to say “Sketchnoting is for anyone, anywhere, anytime!” it’s just not true. There are some instances where sketchnoting isn’t appropriate or practical. Read on to find out what they are so you can avoid these situations:

While Having An Experience

I once tried to take visual notes while at a restaurant. I saw people trying new restaurants or ordering new dishes and sketchnoting their experiences, and I wanted to try it, too! The first problem was that it was probably rude with others present. When you’re with people, it’s better to enjoy their company instead of retreating into a hobby no one else is involved in!

The second problem was damage. Water condensation dripped onto the page and make the ink bleed everywhere, and I got salsa on the edge of the page. Not ideal. The hassle of taking my sketchbook with me and getting the page ruined was far greater than my desire to take visual notes in the moment. Sometimes it’s just better to wait! When you’re taking experience-based sketchnotes, just enjoy the moment and take your notes later. (Read more about lecture vs. experience-based sketchnotes here)

When You Need More Details

I’ve had a few students reach out to me asking how to make their college lecture notes into sketchnotes. This can get tricky, because some college classes and courses are more information-dense than others. Sketchnoting a 100-level geology class would probably be pretty easy… Sketchnoting about theoretical quantum physics at the doctorate level? Not so much.

Sketchnotes are not meant to be exhaustive but instead like highlight reels, where only the key points and main ideas are captured. When it comes to college classes, the goal is for you to learn. To learn, you often need to take very thorough notes in lectures, from your books, during projects, and in labs.

Sketchnotes may not be the right tool for your class note-taking, but they can still be a tool to help you learn and study! To compromise, take traditional notes for your classes. When you’re studying later, take the most important concepts and turn those into sketchnote study guides. In my experience, professors were pretty upfront about what would appear on tests, or at the minimum, what concepts and chapters. Some professors may even let you take in a sheet of paper or notecard for tests- this can be your sketchnotes! A picture is worth a thousand words.

When The Room Is Dark

I’m embarrassed to share this story, but I have to so you don’t make the same mistake! I was attending Nashville’s TEDx event and taking sketchnotes in the audience. This wasn’t a paid gig… it’s just what I do for myself. I came prepared with a book light in case the room was dark, and it was! The lights were just low enough that I couldn’t see well, so I asked the few people around me if they minded if my book light was on– I had it on the dimmest setting and aimed well below anyone’s eye-level. Everyone was fine with it! Suddenly, the lights went from low to pitch black! I felt like it was TOO dark and I suddenly wondered if my light was a good idea after all, wondering if I should turn it off. A few seconds later, an usher to come tell me to turn it off.

I was embarrassed being singled out for not following a rule I didn’t know existed, but I didn’t blame the usher! I shouldn’t ruin someone else’s experience of the event because I selfishly wanted to take sketchnotes. Luckily, I found a solution! I left my good seat near the front and found a chair in the back of the auditorium where some exit lighting was just bright enough for me to see my page. No book light needed. If you want to sketchnote somewhere, check the venue’s policy! If they don’t allow cellphones or recordings, they’re not going to like you bringing your own light. Sometimes the most respectful thing to do is not take sketchnotes at all.

When You Have To Sign Something Before Listening

If you ever have to sign a non-disclosure agreement, confidentiality agreement, or a privacy contract before you hear information, it is probably best to not take sketchnotes in these situations unless you’re being paid to do so. I’ve been a graphic recorder in these secret meetings before, but I obviously can’t tell you about them due to the contracts and agreements I signed!

You may hear proprietary information like trade secrets, recipes, formulas, future plans, or internal affairs that are meant to be kept secret and private. The work I created was only shared with the people in the room, never anyone outside. Traditional notes might also be more appropriate for these situations. Sketchnotes are really engaging and pique curiosity, and you may have an easier time with discretion and keeping secrets if your notes are inconspicuous and “boring.”

I hope this list helps you avoid some potentially awkward, embarrassing, or inappropriate situations!