Stylistic lettering accompanied by lines, arrows, and shapes may arguably be the fundamentals of basic sketchnoting. Sometimes the term “less is more” can apply to sketchnotes by using icons and conceptual objects to communicate the same thing as a sentence or bulleted list.
A friend of mine in the comics industry once explained to me that telling a visual story requires as minimal lines as possible that still convey the message. Too many lines are distracting and can take away from the storytelling.
Sketchnoting at its core is telling a story.
WHAT IS AN ICON?
Let’s think about this for a moment. The word “icon” has various meanings – from architectural icons (Washington Monument), historical icons (Gandhi), pop culture icons (Michael Jackson), and others. In today’s world of online connectivity most would define an icon in the context of marketing (a smartphone app) or website navigation (upload, download, help, audio volume, etc.). For the purposes of sketchnoting, we’re going to follow the latter definition.
Again, considering today’s definition or perception, an icon’s job is to simply communicate. Have you ever stopped to think of the design of the Save icon in a Microsoft document (Word, PPT, etc.)? Whether you’re old enough to ever have actually used a floppy disk is irrelevant. The era of personal computing began with “saving to disk” so the symbol of a floppy disk to communicate the action of ‘saving’ doesn’t really matter if the document is actually saving to the cloud, thumb drive, or local hard drive. The icon communicates the action saving a document. It works.
SYMBOLS IN ICONS
Speaking of symbols (which is an entirely different conversation), there are many in the English alphabet that have taken on new meanings in recent years. While a symbol is not an icon, it can be argued that some symbols have indeed become iconic. The @ symbol means something totally different than it’s original intention. And who can’t forget the pound (#) symbol which originally meant as a unit of weight (Latin “libra pondo” meaning pound by weight) and then evolved as a placeholder for a numeric value. While the # symbol is still used for numeric purposes, the iconic nature (almost pop culture-esque) of its current popularity as a Twitter hashtag goes without question.
In terms of sketchnoting, let’s start with a symbol and its meaning. The dollar sign symbol ($) communicates U.S. currency, and is easy enough to recognize and easy enough to sketch – an “S” with one or two vertical lines down the middle. What does it communicate? Money? Wealth? Used in the context of a larger sketchnote, it can mean whatever you want it to mean. The idea is having a library of quick icons you can sketch when the need arises to communicate a term, concept, or message faster than you can write a word or sentence.
Here’s an example of a U.S. currency dollar sign, an icon (or concept) that looks like a dollar bill, and more specifically a dollar bill with the U.S. currency ($) symbol combined. Now go draw that 100 times and make it your own!
Learning how to quickly sketch icons while in the middle of sketchnote takes practice. Remember, this is a skill and just like any skill takes time to master. If you’re wanting to communicate a meeting, a simple calendar icon might suffice. Or, you might need a bit more context to your icon by adding a day and date. While either of these icons can communicate different things, they can also communicate the same thing – point in time, passage of time, meeting, waiting, anticipation, etc.
THE HUMBLE SQUARE
The above calendar icons began as simple squares. You’ve probably drawn squares a thousand times already and that’s good. Let’s take that little square and give it a boost.
Below is a square, and two squares with additional lines to communicate a file cabinet, chest or rolling cabinet. Look closely and notice the two on the right are identical. The only difference is one is 180 degrees flipped (handles at the bottom of the drawer vs. handles at the top of the drawer), and the added feet on one with wheels on the other allow these two to communicate something completely different.
Next, we have a square with two opposing triangles with one triangle’s tip overlapping the other. Perhaps an envelope? Envelopes are more rectangular but it could pass as one. Maybe this is the end of a package and by adding a simple “To:” tag to the top we’ve defined the icon in context to a specific message.
In the opening I referred to “less is more” when all you need to do is communicate a simple message or concept. The three icons below communicate the same thing – a gift or present. Let’s consider the first one which is quite simple in its design and it works just fine. The one in the middle is the same minus the lid (one rectangle) so by removing a few lines we still maintain the message. The last one removes a bit more with only a vertical stripe indicating the ribbon and the bow loses its center loops. If I were to put the one on the left by itself in front of one person, and put the one on the right in front of another person, chances are they’d both say it communicates the same thing – a gift or present. The key is less drawn yet still maintain the message. My guess is you can sketch the one on the right twice as fast.
This next set is about how to build up a basic icon or concept from a starter image. The image on the left is a simple square inside another square with its corners attached with lines with two lines forming a triangle to represent a picture frame hanging on a wall. Once you learn how to whip this little icon out of the end of your pencil, you can build on it more by sketching anything inside the frame.
The square (as with the circle) is a very versatile shape. I encourage you to fill a sheet with nothing but squares and see how many icons or concepts you can think of. Below are a few ideas. The first is a countertop microwave oven. The next is a console TV. Similar to the floppy disk icon mentioned before and with TV’s looking like computer monitors today, sometimes a vintage approach is better. The next image started out as a square but with a rounded top. Finally, by extending a square to a rectangle your options opens up tenfold.
When we think of icons and concepts it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The topic is much deeper and more intricate than is covered here, but if we just strip away all the details and think, “What am I trying to communicate?”, the process of sketching this funky language isn’t as hard as it may seem.
ICON AND CONCEPT SETS
My favorite icon collections are the weather icons. The set is of the same style with each icon communicating the concept of a different weather pattern. We see countless styles from smartphone weather apps to the nightly news weather segment, and there are literally thousands of artistic styles.
The below exercise is a single icon with all the weather types represented. I know, a weather phenomenon! I sketched one single icon with the notion of mixing and matching the parts to build multiple icons.
Look at these and you’ll notice that all of them are just parts of the one above. Fun!
Once you have a collection of various icons that you can sketch as quickly as you write your name you can begin to form more complex messaging such as a “rainy day” or “money’s in the mail.”
The increasing nature of today’s electronic communication and media, it’s easy to confuse the differences between an icon and a concept. Like the weather icons above, the convey the concept of weather patterns, so arguably they can be both icons and concepts. It gets even more confusing when companies place their logo inside an app icon for distribution in smartphone app stores. Is it still a logo, an icon, a concept, or even an appcon? May warrant another conversation, but for now let’s focus on simple concepts.
When I refer to a concept in relation to sketchnoting, I’m referring to an image that’s a bit broader than what an icon can easily communicate. Below is a quick page of a few concepts depicting terms such as Inside, Outside, Watercooler, Airport, Keynote Speaker, Presenter, and a few others.
There are literally hundreds of websites today that offer free and paid downloads of icon packages. In fact, there are thousands of artists who create various unique styles of the same icons. This is where you come in with developing your own style. You don’t have to spend hours at the drawing table designing a new look for an icon, rather just learn how to recreate them in your own style by getting inspiration from others.
Two of my favorite resources are The Noun Project and Captain Icon
With practice, you can sketch them as simple and unconsciously as you write the alphabet today. It’s all about the language!
Icons: Go sketch a bunch of squares!
Concepts: Choose five words/terms and attempt to sketch their meaning with as minimal lines as possible.
Introduction – 6 Steps to Great Conference Sketchnotes.
STEP 1 – Preparing: Live sketching or Post-sketching?
STEP 2 – Preparing: Format, Visual Flow, and Materials.
STEP 3 – Characters and Locations: Who and where?
STEP 4 – Text and Dialogue: Headers, Titles, Captions, and Speech bubbles.
STEP 5 – Icons and Concepts: Developing your own style. [You Are Here]
Jane Bozarth says
This is great! Thanks, Kevin.
Looking forward to checking it out.
Thank you so much for giving some tips on how to draw. I am a junior high teacher and am interested in teaching my students (and myself) how to sketchnote. You have given me the confidence to show my students some ways to make that happen. You have made the following adage true for me today. “You learn something new every day.”
Kevin Thorn says
Thanks for stopping by and the kind words. Sketchnoting or just taking simple visual notes opens up parts of the brain that helps with retention. And it’s theraputic! Good luck and keep practicing!