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Visually Minded: Drawing and Presenting Ideas as Sketchnotes

An Interview with Jonny Daenen

Visual thinker and Sketchnoter Jonny Daenen shares techniques for drawing and organizing graphic presentations and sketchnotes for ideas you are passionate about.


"Pouring your information into a visual representation has the benefit of making ideas tangible. It motivates people to have a conversation or discussion about it. It's also a lot easier to spread information this way, as pictures have the power to create a lasting impression within an instant."

Jonny Daenen - My background lies in Big Data. I got my Ph.D. in Computer Science in 2016, after focusing on big data systems for several years. Currently, I am a Cloud data engineer at a marketing automation company. It's incredible to think about the vast amounts of data we generate daily and all the things we can do with it. I see myself as someone who designs and builds solutions for creating value from this enormous pool of data.

I love learning about technology and then applying or spreading the knowledge. The latter is something I've picked up during my time as a teaching assistant. It's a great feeling when you are able to teach new concepts to people who are eager to learn. At the same time, when you explain an idea to someone else, you'd better make sure you understand it thoroughly first! During my career, I've discovered that visualizations are a key component in teaching, discussing, and pitching ideas. It helps me to understand what's going on and transfer information to someone else.

How did you get into visual thinking and sketchnoting?

Great question! I've been fond of doodling for a long time, and I think this is where my urge to draw comes from. I remember a history course in high school, where we had to memorize quite some information, for example, about agriculture in historical times. As I was not keen on learning by heart, I decided to draw logical pictures containing all the elements. A doodle with cows and crops made it so much easier to understand and remember. 

Fast forward to my Ph.D., and I'm still drawing and doodling. Only this time, I'm using the blackboard to pass on ideas to students. At some point, during a TEDx event, I also saw people making sketchnotes live on stage and followed an introduction to sketchnoting. Packed with quite some ideas, I gradually started to adopt them into my daily routines.

During my career, I noticed that I liked capturing information, and started leveraging these visual techniques more and more. Today, I am applying them to create presentations, technical diagrams, and summaries of Apple product presentations. I've also decided to go fully digital.

One of my first attempts to draw a high level diagram, created in Papers.

Can you please share what visual thinking and sketchnoting are? How does visualization help you to remember and share ideas?

In my mind, visual thinking is about capturing the essence of "things" - systems, products, technologies, ideas, etc. - in a visual image. It helps us to understand problems, enabling a zooming out to abstract concepts, and a zooming in on all the nitty-gritty details when needed.

Sketchnoting is the art of visual note taking. A keynote, presentation, event, manual, technology, etc. can all be summarized visually. This helps to make topics more approachable and digestible.

My main purposes for sketchnoting are to capture information for later reference, evangelize ideas, and learn more about a topic. While I draw, my mind focuses on the matter at hand, helping me understand things better and allowing me to easily remember them. People have responded quite well when I share my sketchnote summaries or when they see drawings appear in a slide deck. It seems to be a very powerful method to get a message across.

One of the first drawings I did in Concepts that shows the basic components in marketing. This was used in multiple presentations.

Pouring your information into a visual representation has the benefit of making ideas tangible. It motivates people to have a conversation or discussion about it. It's also a lot easier to spread information this way, as pictures have the power to create a lasting impression within an instant. 

In software engineering, for example, I find it really helpful to have a diagram of what I'm working on. It helps me navigate code and allows easy communication with other people. It is vital to have a bird's eye view of what you are working on while still understanding the details of the code in front of you. Especially when you get confronted with bugs, visual thinking is helpful and allows you to more quickly approach the problems at hand in a structural fashion.

And whether it helps me remember things? Well, yes and no. On the contrary, it helps me free my mind. While I draw, I think about the structure and properties of what I'm drawing. I'm comparing similar technologies, zooming in and out in my mind while I pinch on the screen, and discovering logical concepts as I progress. This process helps me better understand whatever I'm sketchnoting about. 

Still, at the same time, my brain will also know that all the details are in my sketchnote for reference, and it seems it will forget about unnecessary details and instead store a pointer to the sketchnote. Next time I need to recall the price of the iPad Pro in 2020? Or the technology that Spotify talked about to manage their data quality? My brain will know that I noted that down in a specific sketchnote and present me with a vague layout of what my drawing looked like.

You have very informative sketchnotes with a clear presentation style. How do you go about visualizing ideas and data? What creates a clear presentation?

Thank you! Visual representations should capture the essence of an idea, product, technology, etc. as much as possible. When sketchnoting an event, I start from the bottom up: starting with the details, clustering them into bigger ideas, and attaching these to a bigger topic. It's a hierarchical approach, which should help viewers quickly identify relevant information while also allowing for fast zooming from specific details to the more abstract topic.

For slide decks, this is a bit different. Here I start working around the main takeaway, outline a structure in a mindmap and translate individual slides into drawings during the process.

Presentations or sketchnotes should provide a logical flow of information; they should guide the viewer. In presentations, you get a linear flow, which can sometimes feel quite restrictive but at the same time also more reassuring. In sketchnotes, you get a lot more freedom, but the challenging part is in the overall flow of your drawing to make sure people can find their way in it.

One big difference between presentations and sketchnotes: in presentations, the visuals support the story; in sketchnotes, the visuals are the story.

A sketchnote for a live show of the Dutch-Belgian podcast Tech45, to celebrate their 10 year anniversary.

Once you have your key ideas down, how do you organize your information on the page? 

I try to group information into clusters that belong together. If I'm making a sketchnote of an Apple keynote about a new iPhone, Apple Watch, and health services, I will cluster the information accordingly. Many presentations and events already have an implicit or explicit structure that is quite usable as a guiding structure.

When you are creating larger sketchnotes that span multiple presentations or many topics, I'd recommend collecting information first and then choosing what your focus will be. This is a lot more challenging but can be even more rewarding as you will learn a lot by creating this structure yourself.  Whenever I'm stuck, I always resort to creating a mindmap of the structure. This will be my guide and help me make decisions about what content goes where.

My latest Apple sketchnote: WWDC 2021. Heaps of new products and features were announced, I tried to combine it all in this gigantic sketchnote.

What are your favorite tools and apps for sketchnoting? 

Concepts, of course! I do have some real-world Copic markers that I use for decorating Christmas or birthday cards, but in the digital world, Concepts is my tool of choice. My current setup consists of:

  • Apple iPad Pro 10.5"
  • Apple Pencil (1st gen)
  • Concepts App

When my girlfriend introduced me to Concepts, I was immediately sold. The gesture system and the fact that the app is vector-based were ideal for me. I've never considered myself great at drawing, as I always had difficulties getting what's in my head on paper. And even when I did, I managed to add that one final detail that messed it all up. By using Concepts, those limitations in my drawing process were immediately removed. I can now draw joyfully, use quick gestures to rearrange my drawing, and perform the "undo" gesture whenever I need to.

A mindmap of all aspects I use Concepts for.

How does Concepts fit into your visual thinking workflow?

My workflow is a bit different depending on when I'm creating a presentation with hand-drawn slides or when I'm making a sketchnote.

In the case of a presentation, I start out with a mindmap. I use the MindNode app to brainstorm, group, and structure my story. When roughly 70% of my story and content ideas are there, I pour this mindmap into slides with textual content. Next, the most essential and complex slides get their own drawing (drawn in Concepts); the text is reduced to a minimum, as I will talk over it anyway, but the essence remains. Finally, I start doing dry-runs, and I iterate over the slides and drawings until it feels good. 

For this process, I love working with the combination of an iPad and a Mac: I simply copy-paste a part of my drawing from Concepts on my iPad directly into Keynote on my Mac (using Universal Clipboard).

When I create a new sketchnote of a presentation or event, I always follow it live. It forces me to stay focused and capture essential information fast. I will note down text and make some quick doodles; the result looks a bit like a messy shopping list. The big thing here is that Concepts allows me to quickly switch tools and make fast adjustments (select, rearrange, zoom, scale) without interfering with my flow of thought. 

At first, this is where I stopped. While sketchnoting often focuses on getting your drawing done at the moment (especially when it's on paper, you cannot edit easily), I noticed that I needed a bit more freedom and time. 

0.1 Apple Spring Loaded Event - first rough version after the live event. 0.2 I added core elements of the most important announcements. 0.3 More visual elements are added to guide the viewer. 0.4 All sections now have a heading to make them stand out, basic highlights were added in orange and spacing has been improved.

So, after the initial rough phase, I start grouping related information together and drawing larger images showing a central topic. For example, I capture all details from a new iPhone camera system live, then I group this together; this is then grouped again with other topics around the iPhone, which is then grouped with maybe another iPhone Model. This is how a specific section in the sketchnote comes to life. 

In my sketchnotes, I try to follow a hierarchical format so that people can quickly get the information they want. Compared to a presentation, which is linear, sketchnotes allow you to create your own flow. When people want information only on that iPhone camera system, they are attracted by the iPhone illustration and can then zoom in on the camera cluster right next to it.

After capturing the overall structure, I fix weird-looking icons and redo some unreadable handwriting. It turns out I still need to work on my 1's, apparently, there seems to be quite a difference across continents on how to write the ideal number one. Next, larger illustrations are added to clusters to make them stand out.

Whenever possible, I try to fit into the event theme. Apple, for example, always has a specific theme in their events, which I try to adopt and mix with my own style. 

Now that I've got all the content, I can focus on the overall layout to end up with a balanced image. I move the bigger groups around and try to create an implicit flow in the picture. Then, I let some key terms stand out using colors, and I add shadows to bring the illustrations alive. Finally, some things I've been dragging along since the beginning get cut. When they just don't fit, they need to go, even if I thought it was a great idea. Kill your darlings, I guess...

When it's done, I export my work at different DPI settings and publish it online. As you can see, as opposed to presentations, all of the work on the sketchnotes happens within Concepts itself.

Final version of Apple's Spring Loaded Event.

You mentioned you do a lot of visual communication work with clients. What is your workflow like with them?

When communicating with clients, it's crucial to have a common understanding. Visuals can help a lot; whether you're using a whiteboard, a presentation, or a diagram, it will almost always make conversations easier and more to the point. 

For live discussions, I prefer to use a whiteboard whenever possible; it encourages people to think together and to be part of new ideas from the start.

When I'm preparing a slide deck, my goal is to tell a story that supports the main idea of the presentation. When I explain a technical solution, I try to avoid bombarding the client with too many specifics and instead focus on the value the solution will create for them. This can often be expressed using simple images and icons. In contrast to text, these will often emphasize your point and support your story to a greater extent. Of course, my backup slides will have some more detailed diagrams for the Q&A part.

After meetings with clients or stakeholders, I do not go as far as creating a summary sketchnote for that meeting, but instead, I make a summary mindmap. Again, a very powerful visual tool that allows people to quickly find what they are looking for. I've even found these mindmaps to be a potential replacement for slide decks in some instances: it takes way less time to put them together and immediately shows structure and content in a digestible form when done right.

Do you have any tips or techniques you can share about visualizing information?

The sketchnotes I create have changed over time. I learned a lot by starting with the Concepts sketchnote tutorial and still using some of the presets today. I've also been inspired by seeing other people create illustrations on my iPad and borrowed some of their techniques. 

I recommend experimenting with colors, quick shadows, smoothing, and nudging. Also, just trying out different tools in the app really helps! But the technique that works best for me is iterating. The sketchnotes I create are refined over several days (sometimes weeks) until I get them into a presentable form.

Sketchnote I created when I got certified for Google Cloud, to indicate all important parts included in the certification.

When choosing what to draw, I try to utilize simple illustrations. A battery gets a power icon, performance gets a rocket, and so on. The key is to find something recognizable for most people and keep it clean and simple. When you don't know what could represent an idea, try to think of a few emoji that would capture it.

Sometimes it's tempting to let the visuals distract the viewer too much, hence I believe it is important to try and keep information central to your visual. A good example on how to use a minimalistic approach to emphasize your point visually can be found here:

What are some best practices you can recommend for getting into a visual workflow and improving your skillset?

The first step is finding something you're passionate about. I am passionate about technology, I've been following Apple keynotes for quite some time before I started sketchnoting. The same holds for my new, more technical Google Cloud sketchnotes. After seeing Google's keynotes, I always want to make sure other people have a low-friction way to accessing this content I find so interesting myself.

Google Cloud's Data Cloud Summit: summary from a series of presentations, which introduced the latest advancements in Google Cloud Platform w.r.t. data technology.

That is the second step: finding your motivation. Why should you draw? As I said, I love to capture information for later reference, evangelize ideas, and learn more about a topic; drawing helps me achieve these goals. If you can find the thing to motivate you - which can be anything - you're all set!

Once you've found the right topic and motivation, I'd recommend doing the Concepts sketchnoting tutorial. Whether it is for a full sketchnote, a slide in your presentation, or a technical diagram, you'll be ready to go in no time! And remember, when you're not happy with your first result, this is all digital: just iterate over it tomorrow!


Jonny Daenen is a computer scientist specialized in Big Data. He is interested in understanding the inner workings of both existing and new technologies, and loves to make them accessible to a broad audience. He's passionate about data engineering and data science, Cloud computing, visual thinking, and Apple products.

Cover photos by Michelle Gybels
Interview by Erica Christensen


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