Sketchnotes vs Lettering: What's the Difference?

This post has been a long time coming. Since I have both sketchnotes & lettering tabs on my blog, I figured at some point I should explain the difference between the two.  I'm currently at the tail end of a crowd funding campaign where the rewards include both a lettering piece and a series of sketchnotes, so I figured now was as good as a time as any to finally break it down. The campaign actually provides a great case study so I'll use the things I've been working on for that to make my point.

sorry about the lighting on the photos believe me I'm googling Photography for Bloggers pronto!



 This 2-page spread from Mike Rhode's The Sketchnote Handbook, pretty much sums up the purpose of sketch notes. 

Photo credit: Mike Rhode, Flickr

Notice the focus is on simple icons, and pictures that communicate without needing to be "fancy", when taking visual notes the mantra is "Content is King!" If you've created something that is visually stunning, with perfect letters but you (nor anyone else) can look at it and extract the main points of the lecture, then I'm sorry to break it to you but you've failed at taking sketchnotes. 

The litmus test for good sketchnotes, is not unlike the litmus test for good notes period. This brings me back to one of my  personal sketchnoting mantras "ajr over ego" in Arabic ajr means benefit or reward. So if your sketchnotes are beneficial in that they convey information clearly then they are good, even if they aren't particularly pretty. Sharing your notes can help other people in their process of learning so here the benefit outweighs the negative self-talk about how non-artistic they are. 


For the "case study" portion I want to focus on how the workflow of sketchnotes and lettering are different. Though often-times I go direct to sketch note, I wanted to illustrate another way of going about taking sketchnotes that might seem a bit more accessible to those people who are nervous to try it out. 

For the first sketchnotes in the #PearlsforPearls series I chose to go with Imam Suhaib Webb's commentary on Suratul- Fatiha (The Opening Chapter of the Qur'an). I took notes from the audio, and paused, and rewinded as needed, especially when trying to catch Arabic terms. I started off writing regular old notes, in a regular old notebook.

Then I used my traditional linear notes, as a template to work from for my sketchnotes. At times to make sure that I captured a point correctly I did refer back to the original audio, but was mostly able to work from my own notes. Of course because I was now taking sketchnotes I need to pull out my "fancy" supplies, which include my Papermate felt tip pen, sourced from the specialty art store Target, a few sheets of 11x14 printer paper because we have an overabundance of that size at my house for some odd reason and it makes for a nice big surface, and my "cheat sheet" which is a pad of   grid paper that I write on top of in an (often failed) attempt to write in a straight line, also a pink eraser (probably from the dollar store) and a pencil which I generally use for working out the title artwork (if you can call it that). Clearly I'm exaggerating, but I hope that I've driven home the point that sketchnoting is accessible and doesn't need to be intimidating. So if you develop a pen habit (which you might) don't blame it on me!

Though the two-step process can seem time consuming there is definitely benefit in it. For one, it allows for "baby steps" for people who may be interested in trying sketchnotes but are nervous to try them as the content is rapidly coming at them. Taking notes in the traditional way, allows you to capture the content (especially if you're taking notes live and don't have the benefit of pausing and rewinding), and then take your time to figure out the other elements like icons, layout, hierarchy, etc. Otherwise some people  when they start out, get so caught up in the drawing, that they actually miss a good portion of the lecture.

The second benefit involves actual learning. It is not uncommon that people take pages, and pages of detailed notes, never to look at them again. By doing sketchnotes as a two-step process you are purposefully building review into the process (and review is important for retention). When you go back through your notes you have the opportunity to whittle it down to what was really most important. You may find that on your first go 'round you wrote as much as you could for fear of missing something, or thinking something might be of more importance later. As you convert your notes to a sketchy form, you get to process the content for a second time and reflect on what portions are really key to the overall message. Also, by assigning visual metaphors and icons to the content that you deem important, you are further improving your chances of remembering it. 

You can see below, the final sketchnote version of the notes on Imam Suhaib's commentary, there's actually not a whole lot of drawing but I did try to use frames, arrows, numbered lists, and text weight in order to transform the notes from their original form. 

While sketchnotes are fundamentally different from hand lettering, it isn't odd (as in the case of what happened with me), that someone who started out taking notes for notes sake, ventures into the realm of hand lettering in an attempt to improve their ability to produce hand-drawn "type", and then gets hooked! To this end, sketch noting has been called a "gateway drug."



This 2-page spread from Mary Kate McDevitt's Hand-Lettering Ledger, defines hand- lettering as  the ART of illustrating letters, words and phrases. The whole point of lettering then is to look nice aesthetically, though the words/phrases you choose to letter may convey significant ideas.
Photo credit: Mary Kate McDevitt


The process could easily be summed up by saying, drafts, drafts, and MORE drafts. Whereas my sketchnotes go through at most two versions, the process to create a lettering piece that I am happy with is much more iterative. 

When doing a lettering project I don't generally start out trying to letter the whole piece. You can see from my sketches that the bulk of the time was spent on trying to work out how I'd draw the key words in the quote, pearls, immerses and sea. I also did some thumbnail sketches in order to figure out the layout and composition of which words would go where. I spent a lot of time on pearls because its a key word AND if taken too literally would result in a very feminine piece. I finally settled on doing pearls in a script, with only a few pearls sprinkled in (because I just couldn't resist), I think that the addition of the anchor and the way I drew sea balances it out so it doesn't come across too girly. 

Once I'd settled on a design, I had to  draw it out to size, on the graph paper, in pencil, and then ink it on a piece of tracing paper to scan in. Though the tools I use when lettering are all still accessible, they are a bit more specialized than what I use when sketch noting. I use the same line of pens (LePen, with different sized nibs to vary the thickness of my lines while still providing consistent ink color, I use regular no. 2 pencils, an eraser, tracing paper, and graph paper, plus I found a cool ruler in the quilting section of Joann Fabrics.

So this is the final product after I scanned the image in I used GIMP and PicMonkey to add the finishing touches. 

If you check out the crowd funding campaign I mentioned previously, I'm actually selling these as a digital download art print for $8, and am collecting pre-orders for faux-leather journals with this lettering piece debossed on the front $24 which includes US shipping. The campaign closes Tomorrow March 28th 12:45 am EST) so if you want a journal hop on it pronto!

If you're interested in learning more about Sketchnoting & Handlettering you can check out my Resources page for more books to read, and bloggers to follow. 


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