Makayla Lewis on The Power of Sketchnoting in UX Design

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Makayla Lewis on The Power of Sketchnoting in UX Design

By day, Makayla Lewis is a research fellow in human-computer interaction, cyber security, and smart money at the Brunel University in London. By night, she’s a daily sketcher, sketchnoter, and visual thinker who shares her process at sketchnoting events, some of which she organizes herself, and has provided visuals for a range of organizations and conferences. Check out her sketchnote portfolio and follow her on Instagram for all her latest doodles and sketchnotes.

We caught up with Makayla to find out more about the benefits of sketchnoting for UX designers and how it can be an integral part of all stages of the UX process. We also talked to Makayla about her personal style and favorite tools and how to develop your sketchnoting skills.

How has sketchnoting made you a better UX designer?

I have been asked this question many times over the years and my answer has not changed. Lightweight sketches are often used by UX designers in the development and expression of experiences and complex content. They allow UX practitioners to better communicate and express their ideas, and share designs with colleagues, users, and clients. I think sketchnotes can enhance these sketches. The addition of hand lettering, simple drawings, shapes, and supportive elements — for example connectors, containers, and separators — can support the thinking process and communication of thoughts to others. So, do I think competency in sketchnoting is a valuable tool for today’s UX designer? The answer is simply yes.

Makayla Lewis.
What can sketchnoting be used for (apart from ‘just’ sketchnoting conference talks)?

The idea that sketchnotes are to be used at conferences, meetups, and events to visualize talks always makes my eyes roll. They are so much more than that. I have used sketchnotes to brainstorm ideas, explore and understand new concepts, share user scenarios with colleagues, draw interviews to ensure a shared viewpoint with users, visualize interactions and design futures to aid discussions, and most recently co-creation to help users to clearly and simply express and share their experiences. Sketchnotes are simply ‘sketches’ and ‘notes’ that are put together in a way that’s easy to digest, learn from, and discuss. It is a visual language, like any other language. I think sketchnotes can be used within almost any situation.

Makayla Lewis sketchnoting on location in London.
How do you create your sketchnotes (and what are your favorite tools and why)?

I favour traditional sketchnotes. Over the years I’ve tried lots of papers, pens, and markers. I always return to the readily available large Moleskine sketchbook. The slightly off-white paper feels less daunting, making it easier to put pen to paper. I think large (A5) size is nice and flexible, not too big to carry around and not so small I’ll lose it. A single page for short narratives, 15 minutes or less, and a double page spread is perfect for longer narratives.

Freedom doodle by Makayla Lewis showing her favorite sketchnote and doodle tools.

At least once a fortnight someone will ask me “can I see your pencil case? I would love to see the pens you use.” So a couple of years ago, I created a ‘freedom doodle’ depicting my favourite pens and markers. Looking back I still reach for the same tools:

  • Pencil: A mechanical pencil means I don’t have to worry about disposal of shavings, e.g. Caran d’Ache 888 Infinite
  • Eraser: A fine retractable eraser means I can maneuverer it like a pen allowing for greater precision and control, e.g. Tombow Mono Zero Rectangle Tip
  • Inking: Rich pigment, strong nib, waterproof, and quick dry time are important, so I always use a Uni-Ball Pin 200 Technical Fineliner Black 0.4mm
  • Grey marker: TOO Copic marker in C3, N3, T3, or W3, the Original marker has a strong and precise bullet nib that is great for shading.
  • Color marker: TOO Copic marker, precisely Sketch or Ciao markers, because the brush nib has faster coverage. I use color to highlight important areas and enhance the visual appeal. I think pastel shades work best, e.g. B02, B21, BG02, BV31, G02, E13, E21, E31, RV34, V12, and Y08, as they do not distract the viewer from the drawings or text.
  • Corrector: I am far from perfect, and mistakes are inevitable. Some mistakes I leave, others I amend creatively, and sometimes the mistake needs to be covered. I prefer white gel pens (e.g. Uni-ball Signo UM-153 Broad or Sakura Gelly Roll) over white out because they’re odorless.
Sketchnotes from UX Scotland keynote by Alberta Soranzo.

Although I favor traditional tools, clients often request digital sketchnotes as they can be projected at events and meetings immediately. To do this, I use tablets that run Windows 10, either my Microsoft Surface Pro 4 with Surface Pen or Wacom Cintiq Companion with Pro Pen. I always sketchnote in Adobe Photoshop CC with Jazza’s Signature Photoshop Brushes. This plug-in replicates my favorite traditional tools beautifully. I enjoy the freedom Photoshop gives me, it’s the first digital drawing software I learnt during my undergraduate, so I am comfortable with it. I do use Autodesk Sketchbook occasionally, though I mostly use it for quick and fun character doodles. I often mimic my traditional sketchnote style when drawing digitally. I take a high-resolution photograph or scan of one of my sketchbooks and draw on top of it. I love the hybrid look, it’s funny because people often think my digital sketchnotes are traditional.

How can designers improve their sketchnoting skills and develop a personal style?

Practice, practice, and more practice! I know that can be annoying to read but it’s true, I think practice is the key to improving any skill. When I look back at my first sketchnote, in April 2012, I think “Makayla, that sketchnote is questionable, my gosh you’ve improved a lot.” I am not trying to sound big headed, but I have improved dramatically. At the time I was so proud of it but on reflection there is no title or speaker name, it is poorly structured, the text to drawing ratio is unbalanced, and the use of color makes it hard to identify important content. We will not discuss the too-thick nib size, what was I thinking?

I wanted to improve so I kept going. I expanded my practice by incorporating sketchnotes into my day-to-day life. I sketchnoted everything: plots from my favorite TV shows and films, recipes, books, articles, documentaries, Twitter debates, meetups, TED talks, museums, and travel. It allowed me to hone my sketchnoting skills by discovering what I liked and disliked without the stress or need for perfection often found within professional settings. For example, in December 2012, I tried using clouds to separate key content, and it was effective. In April 2013 I read about connectors via Mike Rohde’s Sketchnote Handbook, which improved my visual structure. In November 2014 I rediscovered my love of instant film photography, and ever since all speakers have been drawn in a Polaroid photo. I believe through continued practice your style will find you. I can’t wait to see my style five years from now.

London shaker sketchnote entry for the Sketchnote Army Traveling Book.
How can mistakes help you grow as a sketchnoter?

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts,” to quote Winston Churchill.

I think the only way you grow as a sketchnoter is to make mistakes and then learn from them. Late last year, I found myself striving for perfection, avoiding mistakes thus not pushing myself to try something new. I became bored and demotivated, I pretty much stopped sketchnoting. Recent Sketchnote Hangouts by Magalie Le Gall and Chris Spalton reminded me that mistakes are important. Mistakes are a part of the learning process, I should be happy to see them because they show that I’m challenging myself. Now I am sketchnoting almost every other day, and sharing the results on Instagram, Flickr, and Twitter. This personal accountability, sharing with a friend or in my case the world, has helped me to continue trying, to understand my mistakes, and continue to grow as a sketchnoter.

Sketchnotes from a talk by Chris Spalton for Sketchnote Hangout.
You create a lot of resources. Which ones do you recommend to help aspiring sketchnoters get started?

I’ve created a large variety of resources over the years. If you’re looking for an introduction to UX icons, figures, and hand lettering, I would recommend UX Oxford Sketchnote 101. If you require support to better plan and structure your sketchnotes, take a look at 19 Sketchnote Style Sheet, and if you’re looking to grow your visual language quickly and easily, take part in the 365 Sketchnote Challenge. If you want to add a lettering flair to your work, download Brush Lettering for Sketchnotes.

I think one of the best ways to learn is with others, so I also organize monthly meetups, Sketchnote Hangout (online) and SketchnoteLDN (in-person), which are places to meet, learn, and practice with others from around the world in a welcoming and friendly environment.

Let’s not make this just about the resources I’ve created. The international sketchnote community is wonderfully creative, thus I also would recommend The Sketchnote Workbook by Mike Rohde, 100 + 1 Drawing Ideas: 100 + 1 Drawing Ideas for Sketchnoters and Doodlers by Mauro Toselli, Visual Notetaking for Educators by Sylvia Duckworth, Visual Thinking: Empowering People & Organizations through Visual Collaboration by Willemien Brand, and Alan Martello’s foldable lettering cheatsheet.

To learn more about Makayla Lewis, check out her website, and for UX insights sent straight to your inbox, sign up for Adobe’s experience design newsletter.

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