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Visual Note-Taking 101 from SXSW 2010

View more webinars from Austin Kleon.

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Back in March, my friends Mike RohdeSunni BrownDave Gray and I presented a panel to a packed house at the SXSW Interactive conference here in Austin, Texas. Last week, they posted a podcast of the session without visuals – so I spent some time syncing our slides to the audio.

Watch it above, or see the whole thing here: Visual Note-Taking 101 from SXSW 2010.

Watch a short YouTube video of my faces exercise:

And learn more about visual note-taking:

The coolest artifacts from the panel are the amazing Scout Books that Pinball Publishing had printed for us: read all about them.

I squirreled away a couple of them before we ran out — leave a comment below telling me why you want one okay those were making me feel too guilty that I only have four: how about a link to the coolest thing you’ve seen this week and I’ll pick four winners. Contest ends Monday, May 17th. (Be sure to include your e-mail — it won’t be published.)


visual thinking for writers

In November I taught my second online course for Vizthink, “Visual Thinking for Writers.”

Description  ] [ Buy It ]

It was a catalogue of techniques I’ve discovered over the past couple of years that have helped me with my own writing.

I thought up the course after thinking a lot about the tools writers use, and how young writers are often scoffed at in Q&A sessions when they ask things like “Do you write by hand or on a computer?”

In my experience, it’s not a silly question at all: tools -> process -> writing.

The way you work is important.

My main idea was that the best thing you can do for your writing is step away from the computer, spend $10 in the school supply aisle of your local grocery store, and start making writing with your hands. (See this Wall Street Journal article that asked novelists how they write — well over half of them start with handwritten notes, index cards, etc.) If I was going to teach the workshop in the flesh, I would simply organize it by pens, index cards, post-it notes, scissors, tape, etc.

Here’s a reading list of blog posts I used as inspiration:

I’ve posted some of my slides below.

visual thinking for writers

visual thinking for writers

visual thinking for writers

visual thinking for writers

visual thinking for writers

visual thinking for writers

visual thinking for writers

visual thinking for writers

UPDATE: Here’s some really nice praise from one of the webinar participants:

Austin Kleon’s webinar was engaging, energetic, and expert. My colleague and I went into the webinar thinking we were getting a $60 presentation. What we got was a learning experience that was intelligent, interesting, fresh, funny — yet grounded in solid research about the ways people think about and respond to their worlds. And it’s *immediately applicable* to both our professional and personal lives! If this is what VizThinkU provides, we’ll be back — a lot.– Denise Dilworth, Content Strategist


tea bag + sharpie on index card

For this second batch of tea bag doodles, I merged a little activity I stole from Dave Gray via Bill Keaggy with another activity I stole from Matt Madden’s blog.

Here’s the drill:

steps to tea bag comics

  1. Drop a tea bag randomly onto an index card and let it dry
  2. Draw a grid of panels over the stain
  3. Shop for images in the panels, and riff off those with some doodles and captions to make a mini-narrative

Like I said before: nothing serious, just a fun way to pass a couple minutes and find some ideas.

tea bag + sharpie on index card

tea bag + sharpie on index card

tea bag + sharpie on index card

tea bag + sharpie on index card

tea bag + sharpie on index card

This last card I used to take notes on an article about how language shapes the way we think:

tea bag + sharpie on index card

See the first batch.



Leonardo da Vinci used to suggest that art students “look at any walls spotted with various stains,” so as to “arouse the mind to various inventions.” Sandro Botticelli liked to throw a sponge wet with colored paints against a wall, then search out new landscapes in the resulting splatter.—Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World

This is a fun little cubicle Rorschach activity that I ripped off of Dave Gray. I found it while reading through Bill Keaggy‘s “100 Pieces of Paper and The Stories Behind Them.”

I switched from coffee to tea at work, so every morning I take an index card and set my tea bag down on it, letting the card soak up the tea. Then, I shop for images on the card, and riff off those with some doodles and captions.

Nothing serious, just fun way to pass a couple minutes and find some ideas. You could probably do it with coffee rings, too. They’d be like little ensos.






Related: Christoph Niemann’s coffee-on-napkin drawings.


Here’s a little sneak-preview of the slideshow introduction I’m working on for my portion our Visual Note-Taking 101 webinar that’s a week from today! (Register here.)

I got the idea from some sumi-e doodles and quotes I collected a couple years ago, thinking about my formal (and informal) education:

the battle between pictures and words

…lately I find myself frequently torn between whether I’m really an artist or a writer. I was trained and educated as the former, encouraged into the world of paint-stained pants and a white-walled studio where wild, messy experiments precipitate the incubation of other visual ideas— though I’m just as happy to sit at a desk in clean trousers with a sharp pencil and work on a single story for four or five days in a quiet and deliberate manner. In short, I’m coming to believe that a cartoonist, unlike the general cliché, is almost—bear with me now—a sort of new species of creator, one who can lean just as easily toward a poetic, painterly, or writerly inclination, but one who thinks and expresses him- or herself primarily in pictures.—Chris Ware, Introduction to The Best American Comics 2007

all manuscripts will be in 12 point times new roman font
does anybody even read short stories anymore draw this junk

“When you have the talent to be able to write and to draw it seems a shame to choose one. I think it’s better to do both.”
Marjane Satrapi

together pictures and words can work miracles

A comics-art curriculum is interdisciplinary. As comics-art students learn to become literate and visually literate, they need to develop a vast array of skills. They need classes in drawing, writing, computer art, literature, storyboard, and character design. They need research skills, so they can make their stories convincing and make their characters behave and look real enough to come alive on the page or screen.—James Sturm, “Comics In The Classroom

crayons and butcher paper of my youth


vizthink visual note-taking conference call notes
see it bigger

On May 12th, I’ll be doing a Vizthink webinar with my friends Sunni Brown, Mike Rohde, and Dave Gray (as moderator) on visual note-taking. Price is $99, but you get access to the live session AND the recording AND it all goes to the good cause of keeping the Vizthink staff and community afloat financially.

Visual note-taking 101: Techniques for making your notes more visual and memorable
with Mike Rohde, Sunni Brown and Austin Kleon

Tuesday, May 12, 2009 | 11:00am EDT (15:00 GMT) | 3 Hours

Ever since Leonardo put pen to paper, visual note-taking has been a route to improve the quality of your thinking, make information more memorable, and make your ideas easier to share with others. Learn practical techniques and “tricks of the trade” from modern visual note-taking masters Mike Rohde, Sunni Brown and Austin Kleon. In this three-hour course you will learn how to use visual note-taking to improve your listening skills and take better, more memorable notes. The focus of this class will be on how to write, sketch, and diagram ideas live, in real time, as you hear them. Many of the techniques you will learn will also help to improve your skills in drawing your ideas at the flip chart or whiteboard.

Get more information and register here. (Also: dig the new VizthinkU portion of the Vizthink website!)

Sunni does graphic facilitation for a living, so she’s used to talking about her and her work, but this will be the first time that Mike or I have dug in and tried to explain what it is that we do.

The seminar will be in three parts. Sunni will talk about the art of listening and Mike will talk about being an editor vs. a stenographer. My part is called, “But I can’t draw!” I’ll be addressing folks’ fears of the pen, and talking about how there’s a a drawing alphabet just as there is a writing alphabet, and if you just learn the alphabet, you can draw anything. I’ll be using some cartoon theory, Lynda Barry’s “Two Questions”, Ed Emberley’s “Make A World”, and ripping off Dave Gray’s stuff on how to draw.

(TIP: I’ll be collecting a lot of my materials for the talk under the tumblr tag “But I Can’t Draw!” if you want a sneak-preview.)

This should be a lot of fun. I’m thrilled to be associated with these folks, and a little overwhelmed at the prospect of teaching with them: after all, it’s been only three years since I learned that this stuff even had a name…

Please let me know in the comments if you have any specific questions you’d like to have answered or topics you’d like addressed!

Visual Note-taking conference call notes
see it bigger

UPDATE: Here’s a sneak-preview of the introduction/bio slideshow I’m making for my portion:

View more presentations from Austin Kleon.

UPDATE: A recap of the event.


The Little Man: The San Francisco Chronicle’s Rating System

Yesterday I read this little paragraph in Roger Ebert’s response to claims that he gives out too many stars:

The only rating system that makes any sense is the Little Man of the San Franciscio Chronicle, who is seen (1) jumping out of his seat and applauding wildly; (2) sitting up happily and applauding; (3) sitting attentively; (4) asleep in his seat; or (5) gone from his seat….The blessing of the Little Man system is that it offers a true middle position, like three on a five-star scale.

So I did a little research. The Little Man was the creation of Chronicle artist Warren Goodrich in the early 40s:

On the occasion of the Little Man’s 50th birthday, Goodrich recalled it was just another assignment that he dashed off quickly, noting, “I’m surprised (it) continued.”…Goodrich, who died last year, once recalled that a woman (possibly a disgruntled actress) once hit him on the head with her umbrella and said, “I hate the Little Man!”

The woman isn’t alone. Many of the writers at the Chronicle hate The Little Man. They boo-hoo that the picture already tells the story!

The beloved icon of this newspaper’s entertainment sections is, in fact, a complete nuisance to criticism….That’s because the Little Man gives you a visual clue to what you’re about to read.

And they complain about what Ebert loves: the middle man on the scale—the man with ambiguous feelings.

[T]he message is often unclear…when he’s merely sitting in his chair, watching. Not clapping. Not jumping out of his seat and clapping. Not slumped in his seat. Not out of his seat. Just sitting there.

I suppose a comment could be made here about how people can’t handle ambiguity in their lives: they want things to be black and white, with no shades of grey. As Ebert quotes Siskel,

“What’s the first thing people ask you? Should I see this movie? They don’t want a speech on the director’s career. Thumbs up–yes. Thumbs down–no.”

In fact, the editorial staff was so bothered by the neutral middle man that they had him redesigned:

Few are aware that the L.M. was retrofitted about 10 years ago with a more benign expression. The Little Man pose in between the politely applauding and the snoozing Little Man was redesigned in a microscopic makeover: the “alert viewer” Little Man’s expressionless mouth was tweaked with a slight upturned curve, to indicate a hint of a Mona Lisa smile, suggesting a vague amusement. His raised eyebrows indicate interest but not quite approval, denoting mixed feelings. After artistic spinal fusion, he also sat up more alertly, signifying a mixed review.

All of this came after Talmudic editorial discussions about the meaning of the enigmatic No. 3 Little Man: Did his indecipherable gaze indicate intrigue or ennui? Polite diffidence or glazed-eyed apathy? As a Datebook editor noted, “He’s the middle child, and the most unmanageable.”

the little man

I say: 3 on a 1 out of 5 scale should be ambiguous and neutral. Instead, he’s upright as if he’s engaged and smiling, as if he’s liking it. His back should be against the chair:

the little man redesign

And to be totally ambiguous, his mouth should be a straight line (or no line at all), with no eyebrows. A blank face:

the little man

An ambiguous visual calls for explanatory text! And so, the neutral man is a friend to the good critic: if the visual is ambiguous, then the reader should be more tempted to investigate the article text to get the writer’s take!

the little man - the new lineup

Note: this was a repost from my tumblelog. Apologies for doubling up.