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Visual Notetaking & Science: Rob Dimeo’s Sketchnotes

(Originally published at https://inet.nist.gov/pao/visual-notetaking-science-rob-dimeo's-sketchnotes on NIST's internal website)

It’s an ideal for most of us: that we would be continually growing, trying new ideas, and improving the way we do things—all the while integrating the powerful energy of our passionate interests into our daily work.

Click on each sketchnote to see a hi-resolution version.
Shechtman sketchnote hi-res version
Shlamminger sketchnotes hi-res version
Ashkar sketchnotes hi-res version

One day about a year ago, NCNR Director Rob Dimeo was thinking about how to more fully understand certain areas of research carried out by the many scientists and users who work at the multidisciplinary NCNR, particularly those outside of his own area of expertise.

“I wanted to become a better student of the diverse science being carried out at the NCNR every day. I knew it would help satisfy my own scientific curiosity as well as make me better at my job,” Dimeo explains.

In order to better understand the work of NCNR researchers, he wanted to become more engaged in the scientific talks they present, make sure he captured the main points of those talks, and remember these things better afterwards.

These desires led him to a how-to book about the practice of making sketchnotes, which he defines as a “one-page visual map of a talk or meeting,” created in real time (i.e., while listening to the talk). Such a visual map includes text, doodles, arrows, and quick hand-drawn graphs.

The practice captivated him. For the past year, he has been creating a sketchnote for every technical seminar he attends, every management meeting, and every article or book he reads. Three examples of his sketchnotes are shown in this article.

For more examples, see his Flickr album, where he posts sketchnotes in order to get feedback and suggestions from other sketchnoters around the world. (On the lighter side, one of his sketchnotes summarizes a scientific article on why tapping one opened beer bottle with another opened beer bottle, causes the tapped bottle to foam over.)

The benefits of sketchnoting, Dimeo says, include quickly apprehending and capturing the main points of a talk or piece of writing, remembering these things better than he otherwise would have, and having fun in the process.

Another benefit he reports is that he’s much more likely to go back and reread a sketchnote he created than he formerly was to reread the pages of notes he took about talks or articles.

Dimeo creates some of his sketchnotes on paper, and some on his tablet using a program called SketchBook Pro. He used the software, for example, to make the sketchnote of Dan Shechtman’s colloquium shown above.

Starting “Really, Really Bad” and Becoming “Passingly Decent”

When he first tried sketchnotes, he found the process challenging. “It took a considerable amount of time, and I was frustrated because I felt that I couldn’t draw well,” he says. “But the how-to literature about sketchnotes says you only need the drawing skill of a 5-year-old—and that a sketchnote is about ideas, not art.”

After a while, the practice got easier and didn’t take much, if any, extra time. He got better at discerning and capturing the key points of, say, a NIST colloquium talk, in real time, such as the June 17 Dan Shechtman colloquium, about which Dimeo made the sketchnote shown above.

When he first started sketchnoting, he says, his goal was to progress from being “really, really bad at it to being passingly decent."

“The hardest part is listening very closely and processing the information while making the sketchnotes, but that’s also the most advantageous skill once you’re able to get past how uncomfortable it feels” says the NCNR director. “The process transforms one from being a passive listener to being an active, highly engaged listener.”

A Way to Serve and Respect Others

Occasionally Dimeo shares his sketchnote with the person who presented the talk or wrote the article addressed in the sketchnote. Sometimes, these people are so impressed that they show it to their colleagues and family, place it on their office wall, post it in their personal research website, or use it in their technical presentations. Those were responses of the following three researchers.

“I was very flattered that someone took the time to pay close attention to my talk and make a visual document of it. He did a good job of summarizing the main points,” says James Glasbrenner, a Naval Research Laboratory postdoc who gave a talk at the NCNR about his research in April. He has posted Dimeo’s sketchnote on his personal research website at https://jkglasbrenner.com/sketchnote-of-my-nist-talk.

Glasbrenner was so impressed with the sketchnote as a way to process information that he now creates his own sketchnotes to capture scientific talks, literature reviews, and even events in his personal life

Says PML physicist Stephan Schlamminger, “I love Rob’s sketchnote, which captured all the important information from my talk titled ‘The Measurement of Planck’s Constant and the Revision of the SI.’ The visual element helps. It makes science fun and playful.”

Another of Dimeo’s sketchnotes shown above concerns a scientific article by NCNR guest researcher Rana Ashkar. “One thing I thought of immediately is that I can use this sketchnote as a much easier way to explain my research to friends who are not physicists or who don’t work in the same field,” says Ashkar.

One of the friends Ashkar shared the sketchnote with is an editor of a general-interest science magazine. That editor was so impressed with the sketchnote, and with other sketchnotes in Dimeo’s Flickr account, that she talked about the possibility of running one or more of his sketchnotes in the magazine.

Bringing One’s Heart into One’s Work

Although Dimeo says he doesn’t see his sketchnotes as artworks in and of themselves, he does admit that they have helped him to integrate his passions for both science and art.

Integrating the two passions “makes it more interesting for me,” he says. “It makes me want to do more sketchnoting. I think that’s the case with anyone who has an avocation or a hobby: You like doing it and you want to do it more. So the fact that I’m able to combine the two interests is a big benefit.”

For further insight, read Rob Dimeo’s online essay titled “Sketchnoting (and Scientific Talks)” at http://essentiallyelastic.tumblr.com/sketchnotes.

—Richard Wilkinson


Last modified 21-July-2015 by website owner: NCNR (attn: Robert Dimeo)