Today we are interviewing Doug Neill of VerbalToVisual.com. Doug does what I like to call sketchnotes, which are basically doodles that portray information. I think that in this world where there is so, so, so much information coming at us, being able to see it simplified in a visual way is really helpful. Unlike a lot of people who are graphic recorders, Doug actually comes at this from a teaching background, so he’s all about presenting the information in a way that’s going to make most sense to a learner — and, basically, anyone who consumes information is a learner. Doug talks about how his road from teaching took him to becoming a freelance sketchnoter, because he started doing sketchnotes for his class that he’s launching on how to do sketchnotes. Hear more about that at the end of the show.
Doug: I guess the earliest form of my career would be moving towards this direction of high school teaching. I got my teaching degree about four years ago. As I was making my way into that field, I had a little bit of a struggle. I didn’t feel like quite the right fit. So even after getting my degree, rather than jumping right into a full-time teaching job, I spent about a year substitute teaching, which I actually enjoyed quite a bit. It was a good way to test out that field and see how that felt, but I had enough. There was enough that didn’t feel right about that career path for me that I was on the lookout for other opportunities to pursue.
In that time of searching, I ended up watching a rather short TED talk given by Sonny Brown that introduced this idea of using doodling as a tool to process and capture ideas. Doodling tends to have a negative connotation associated with it. But one of Sonny’s goals, as part of that TED talk and then a book that came after that, was to kind of redefine what it means to doodle. That was the first time that I’d really come across this idea of drawing and doodling as a benefit, as a tool that you can use to do real and important work in the world. And there was something that I liked about that creative side of approaching problems. I was not a doodler growing up. I didn’t know how to draw, but I liked the idea of developing a creative skill related to other work that I could do.
After seeing that talk, I started experimenting with it on my own and started a blog called The Graphic Recorder where I documented my process learning this skill. And eventually I got good enough. My skills slowly built up over time. Before I thought I would be ready for this, I distinctly remember someone sent me an email after seeing my site and asked, “Hey, how much do you charge to sketch out ideas? I have this blog post, and I’d like to have an image to correspond to it.” At that moment, a light went off in my head. It’s like, “Oh, I could make a career out of this.” So I started taking things a little bit in the direction of freelance illustrator or graphic reporter and enjoyed sketching out the ideas of others and experimenting with that as a new potential career. And I enjoyed it. But along the way and even ever since I decided not to pursue a full-time teaching gig, I had this conflict, like feeling that I was abandoning the education community. And I always felt strong ties to that community.
So after freelancing for a while, I realized I wanted to take things in the direction of teaching this skill of “visual note-taking” and reconnecting with my background in education. That’s what formed the main thing I’m working on right now, which is called Verbal to Visual, where I produce educational materials that help people develop this skill of visual note-taking and apply it to their work as a student or as a professional.
Jasper: You say you developed your skills over time as you learned how to do this. What were those skills? What do you need to do this other than just basic drawing skills?
Doug: I break down this skill of visual note-taking into a number of pieces. The first has nothing to do with putting pen to paper but more to do with your mindset going into it, and that’s using the idea of intent as a filter. So, as you’re listening to information or trying to come up with your own ideas related to a certain subject, you can use your intended purpose for whatever reason you want to capture ideas. That can help you take what could be an overwhelming amount of information and allow you to filter out the things that don’t matter and the things that do matter. Once you do that filtering process, then you know what ideas are worth putting on to the page.
Once you get to that step, you have four things that you can play around with. You have text that you can put onto the page, words that you can write down. You get to decide where on the page you put those ideas down, so there’s the layout component. There’s imagery, anywhere from a really basic drawing of simple icons and stick figures up to more complex scenes. And then there’s also the use of color. Those are the four components. I have a science and math background, so I like to think of it as those are the four variables that you get to play with, and you can combine those four things — text, layout, imagery, and color — in all sorts of different ways. And you can kind of tailor it to your specific situation, whatever you are trying to do, what you want to get out of any particular note-taking situation.
I didn’t really have that framework back when I was just getting started. So for me, the biggest part was probably developing those drawing skills, starting with really simple icons. I remember my first step was developing what I would call a visual vocabulary, a set of icons that I had practiced, that I knew how to draw, and that I could pull out easily in any note-taking session. In those early days, I also did a lot of experimenting with using different materials, even when it comes to whatever the size of page that you are getting ideas on, whether it’s a line page or gridded paper or completely blank. Now I’ve turned to using note cards a lot. I like getting individual ideas on note cards and then being able to move those ideas around to see how they relate to each other.
So, early on, it was a lot of experimentation and trying to get over my fears and stigmas around drawing in particular. Those fears have slowly faded over time, but they’re still there to a certain extent, which is okay.
I’m passionate about ideas. I love coming across new ones, dissecting old ones, and combining a number of them together to see what happens. I also like to share with others those ideas that, in my eyes, can help to bring about positive change in individuals and communities.
Not too long ago I discovered the joy of illustrating ideas – the process of drawing an idea out by hand with images, words, and diagrams both to analyze that idea in a visual (rather than just verbal) way and also to better remember that idea in the future. One name for that process is sketchnoting, and its popularity is growing, for good reason.
The process of taking visual notes engages your brain in a more integrated way than text notes alone. For that reason sketchnoting is a great skill to pick up if you love learning as much as I do. If you are interested in developing this skill (and trust me, anyone can do it, even those of you who think you can’t draw!) then check out the resources that I am compiling and creating.
I continue to post new sketchnotes of videos, books, or articles that I come across that have ideas that I want to remember. I’m also creating illustrations that focus in on one big idea and present it in a print-friendly form. I’m selling those illustrations at my Society6 shop.
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