Unleash Your Inner Artist: Interview with Mike Rohde

This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 9: Thinking Different

It’s my great pleasure to introduce Mike Rohde as our guest in this issue. Mike is the author of the _Sketchnote Handbook_ and the newly-released _Sketchnote Workbook_. I discovered Mike’s book about 18 months ago and I’ve been hooked on sketchnoting ever since! Mike’s approach to visual note taking is really accessible, even to non-artists like myself, and he’s achieved something of a cult following amongst people like myself for whom sketchnotes have revolutionized the way we think and take notes.

Mike, why don’t you tell our readers a little more about yourself.

Thanks for the opportunity, Darren! I’m a designer, author and illustrator, living and working in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. It’s just 90 miles north of Chicago, right on Lake Michigan. It’s a great place to live and raise a family.

I have wife and kids, so I have experience in that regard! We have an 11-year-old son, 4-year-old daughter and a nearly 2-year-old son to keep me busy when not I’m not working.

As a designer, I began my profession as a print designer, working for 10 years, designing just about anything you can imagine: logos and business cards, brochures, annual reports, and even the packaging for Miller High Life beer!

In the mid-90s I became fascinated with the web and Internet, and started designing sites and getting into internet culture. That led to a position working remotely with a European firm, designing websites for clients like the European Space Agency, while still creating logos for small web app developers, like UserScape.

After 10 years, I switched it up, working as an art director for a local Milwaukee web design firm, with medium-sized, local clients. I learned to present and answer challenges from clients in person and improved my skills working for and helping direct a design team.

For the last 4 years, I’ve been working as a user-centered, user experience and user interface designer (UX/UI). I create design experiences and user interfaces for web apps, mobile apps, and websites that incorporate observations of users doing tasks with those apps, so we can see what works, what doesn’t and make those apps a better experience.

As an illustrator, I’ve worked with authors and publishers to illustrate books like REWORK and_REMOTE for Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, The $100 Startup for Chris Guillebeau, and The Little Book of Talent for Daniel Coyle. I continue to take illustration commissions and really enjoy them.

I became an author in 2012 when I wrote, design and produced _The Sketchnote Handbook_ with Peachpit Press. That book and video were very well-received, and sold well, mostly by word of mouth. I’ve just wrapped up my second book and video, _The Sketchnote Workbook_ at the end of July, which releases in August. I’m very excited about these two books!

For any of our readers who aren’t familiar with it, can you briefly describe what Sketchnoting is all about?

I like to call sketchnotes notes plus because they’re just like the notes you take now, with drawings, icons, and lettering added for emphasis. The addition of visual elements help you remember ideas more clearly and make note-taking more fun.

Sketchnoting is all about being in the moment and relying on your mind to tell you what’s important or interesting so that you capture what resonates with you.

Rather than capturing every detail (which you really can’t do), sketchnoting focuses instead on hearing and capturing the big ideas, or at least the most relevant ideas to you. When you analyze in real time for this goal, your notes will be more useful when you refer to them at a later time.

Sketchnotes are first for you and then for others, and only if you choose to share. The notes you create are always most relevant to your experience and needs, even if others can gain insights and wisdom from them if you choose to share them.

Finally, sketchnotes can be applied in more ways than just capturing meetings or conference talks. You can use the approach to capture and map your own ideas, plan projects, document processes or capture experiences. That’s what _The Sketchnote Workbook_ is all about.

Sketchnoting is all about being in the moment and relying on your mind to tell you what’s important or interesting.

I always get lots of interest from colleagues when I Sketchnote in meetings or conferences; what sort of reactions have you experienced?

People are fascinated when I sketchnote and often they will respond “I wish I could create sketchnotes, but can’t draw” when I suggest they can create sketchnotes too. That’s when I talk about “ideas, not art” and that sketchnotes are just a tool to capture ideas, not a way to show off how good (or bad) your drawings or handwriting is.

“Inner game” is our season theme, and I know that Sketchnoting is rooted partly in your past struggles to conform to corporate preconceptions of “how to take notes”. How did you finally overcome this and let your creative side come through?

Honestly, I became frustrated about 7 years ago. I’d come to the point of _hating_ note-taking, even though I was really good at it. I was capturing lots of detail, but it was stressful to feel that I was always missing something. It was clear I needed to change, so my solution was to put constraints on myself.

As a designer, I always work within constraints, and that’s what makes for the most fun and most interesting of solutions. It was the same for my notes. I chose to switch from a large, lined book and a pencil, to a pocket sized book and a pen.

I literally _could not_ take the detailed notes I was creating, and the pen forced me to be deliberate about what I was going to capture. This led me to analyzing talks live, on the spot and incorporating drawings and lettering to make my notes more interesting than lines of gray text.

I had so much fun within these constraints, I kept using the new technique, and here we are 7 years later with 2 books, a loyal following of fans and most important—lots of other people using sketchnotes to break out of their own note-taking ruts.

What advice would you give to people like me who work in a stuffy corporate environment where Sketchnoting might seem a bit…odd?

Be proactive! If you’re just starting, show my books to higher-ups and tell them that you’re trying a new technique to capture ideas for yourself and your colleagues. Having something published provides social proof for the idea.

Offer to share your sketchnotes with them, so that they can see the benefits. Leaders like to see their teams take initiative, especially if it means you are deeply connecting with your work and eventually, those ideas are being shared. If that leads to more understanding of your team, that’s even better.

Don’t wait to be _discovered_ sketchnoting, initiate the approach and then share why it makes you a better team member.

Have you come across any surprising or unexpected applications of your techniques?

I was most surprised to see teachers using sketchnotes in their classrooms. I wasn’t sure how teachers would react to the Sketchnote Handbook and the idea of doodling, but they love it. Teachers are my biggest proponents because they see how sketchnotes get their students engaged in the ideas.

The _Sketchnote Workbook_ tries to capture many of the ideas teachers are using to help make sketchnotes useful for their students, like idea generation, mapping and capturing experiences. I can’t wait to see how teachers will use the new book and its challenges and worksheets in school settings.

Teachers are my biggest proponents, because they see how sketchnotes get their students engaged in the ideas.

Writing a book is a big step; How did the Sketchnote Handbook come to exist?

It’s a metric ton of work. And I was crazy enough to do it twice! Toughest two projects I’ve ever done.

It started by first being active and creating work and a community. Then my friend Patrick Rhone suggested I write a book, followed by [Von Glitchka dropping a note to his editor about the idea after I had dinner with him.

Next thing you know, I had a book proposal approved and was creating _The Sketchnote Handbook_ and now _The Sketchnote Workbook_.

As for the process itself, I captured what I did for both the _Handbook_ and _Workbook_ on my Rohdesign blog. In those series of posts, I shared photos and stories of my successes and struggles while creating both books.

* Rohdesign: The Sketchnote Handbook Process
* Rohdesign: The Sketchnote Workbook Process

As much work as those books were though, they are the work I am most proud of. I had nearly complete control of the creation and had a great team to help me execute my vision.

You’ve just released a new book – the Sketchnote workbook. Tell us about it.

_The Sketchnote Workbook_ is designed as a companion to _The Sketchnote Handbook_ by offering a bunch of ideas for using sketchnotes in everyday life.

I share ways you can use sketchnotes to generate ideas, map ideas, plan, docent processes, capture travel and food experiences, capturing movies, TV, books, and audio. The last chapter shares advanced techniques I’ve learned in the last seven years of practice, along with reference to creating lettering, people, faces, and more.

It’s also full of challenges for readers to try, and worksheets to help you get better at creating icons that can be used in your everyday sketchnotes at work and at home.

Finally, we went big, with a two-hour 41-minute series of 32 videos to teach the ideas in the book in action—something that couldn’t be done with a printed book.

In that sense, the physical book and online videos are a unit—they cover similar ideas but in different ways—so you end up with a unified visual approach to sketchnoting.

This month we’re exploring how to “think differently” and find inspiration and creativity. What are your thoughts on finding inspiration and from where do you draw yours?

I have the opinion that inspiration is all around us; The question is: are we slowing down enough to notice? I find that when I slow myself down, observe, and listen— all kinds of ideas appear.

So, the real challenge is making space for inspiration. That’s where I also find my best ideas come from. Carving out margin a real challenge, especially with a full-time job, side projects, and a family, but I must find a way.

Of course, the other source is seeing my friends and others doing great work. I fully subscribe to my friend Austin Kleon’s idea of [stealing like an artist](http://austinkleon.com/books/steal). Being inspired to do great work by seeing great work. Not the cheesy kind of stealing, but inspirational stealing where you make something new out of several ideas you’ve observed.

inspiration is all around us; The question is: are we slowing down enough to notice?

We ask every guest to share their home screens with us – talk us through a few key apps.

I have an iPhone 5S and love it. I’ll say it’s my favorite iPhone, the right balance of size, power and features.

* Safari – I spend lots of time here, reading links from Reeder or email. I also keep several tabs open that I reference through the week.
* Dispatch– I bought this email app a while back and just recently switched back to it from Mail. I like the way it creates new emails and the tools for managing my messages. My only wish – landscape mode!
* Instapaper – this app captures things I want to read later on the Mac or from Reeder or Tweetbot.
* Reeder – The go-to place for RSS reading. I’m still an avid RSS feed reader. Lots of my tweets for articles from from Reeder.

* Tweetbot – This tool helps me manage all of my Twitter interactions. I enjoy the UI and for Sunday football games, I make use of the Lists feature to see game commentary.
* Basecamp – I manage all of my side projects with Basecamp and this app lets me keep up on status and post comments.
* Maps – for getting me places I don’t know.
* Flickr – I’ve been a long time Flickr user. I like this app for replying to comments and seeing images. I use the web app on the Mac for most photo management.

* Messages – Helps me keep in touch with family and friends.
* Camera – I like to shoot with the stock camera app, because it’s so fast. I move images to Instagram or Camera+ for tweaks.
* Quotebook – This app stores my favorite quotes for review and for sharing with others when the urge strikes.
* Byword – For my text file collection I use Byword. Clean, simple and beautiful. On the Mac I use Byword, nvAlt and Writer Pro.

* Pandora – for times when I want the music to play for me, though it’s being replaced with iTunes Radio lately.
* Listary – My way of sharing lists for shopping, gifts, etc. with my wife. Uses the Simplenote database to store my lists.
* Day One – How I capture my thoughts from time to time on the phone. I also use the Mac and iPad versions.
* Spotify – for a broad selection of music where I want to choose the album or playlist. Sometimes I use stations here too.

* Overcast – A very recent addition for podcast listening that replaces Instacast. Love the sound boost feature for times when I don’t have headphones for listening.
* Evernote – Where I store richer notes and info that don’t work in my text notes collection.
* Music – With the combination of iTunes Match and Radio, I’m finding this a very useful music app lately.
* Fitbit – the iOS companion to my Fitbit Force. I find I’m walking more when I use the Fitbit, which is a good thing.

* OmniFocus – used to help keep me on track with tasks.
* Phone – ring ring!
* Scratch – handy for capturing quick text bits I can copy or send to other apps.
* Fantastical – Quick entry of appointments with natural language.

Whats your best tip for staying productive?

When I don’t want to do something, I convince myself to do it for a just little bit. To start something. Once I get going, I find myself being drawn into the task and the next thing I know, I’ve made progress, or the task is done.

With books, it’s that way. Every day you need to move the project forward. Some days are less, some are more and if you can do that, you have a chance to get the book done.

Just get started!

What’s your next big project?

My focus is on promoting _The Sketchnote Workbook_ with interviews, podcasts and telling the story of the book and sketchnotes wherever I can. I think the next steps are different length Sketchnote Workshops (2 hours, 4 hour and 8 hours) to teach these ideas in a more intentional way, and in person.

We’ve already done a pilot of the day-long workshop to great reviews, and I’ve run the 1-2 hour mini sketchnote workshop all over the place this year to great feedback too.

Now I’m starting to line up events at a business to teach these ideas to internal staffs, and planning for my own public workshops that anyone who has the interest can sign up for and attend for a day. Look for those in 2015!

Thanks for talking to Alpha Efficiency Magazine!

You are welcome, Darren. I’m honored to be featured.

competition closes 14th September