Visual Note-taking on the iPad


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I take notes using my iPad -- in a very visual way. Using images as well as text, I draw the notes using my fingertip and a drawing application like Sketchbook Pro or Brushes. These slides supported my Tech Talk at Macworld|iWorld 2012 about this special kind of note-taking. See more examples of my work on Flickr: or visit my blog:

Photo credits: Slide 2 photo by Alan Wolf; Final slide photo by Alan Levine.

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  • Rachel S. Smith\nDirector, Digital Facilitation Services\nThe Grove Consultants International\n\nemail.\nblog.\ntwitter. @ninmah\nFlickr. ninmah\n
  • Traditional graphic recording on paper, using markers and colored chalks. For more information on graphic recording, please see the International Forum of Visual Practitioners ( or The Grove Consultans (\n\nPhoto courtesy of Alan Wolf.\n
  • Example of visual note-taking on the iPad, created at Northern Voice 2010.\n
  • Example of visual note-taking on the iPad, created at IFVP 2011.\n
  • Example of visual note-taking on the iPad, created at IFVP 2010.\n
  • Learning the steps isn’t difficult, but what makes it all work is practice!\n
  • Shown here, clockwise from top left: ArtRage, Sketchbook Pro, Brushes.\n\nThe drawing app you choose is up to you. To make visual note-taking easier, look for these basic features: Brushes that you can customize, a color palette you can customize, and layers. An easy-to-navigate gallery of works is nice, too; also the ability to email drawings to yourself (or otherwise get them off your iPad quickly and easily without docking and going through iTunes).\n\nKey Features of the Apps Shown Here\nBrushes: Easy to use; records your strokes, allowing you to make a movie from them that can be paired with audio.\nArtRage: Lots of art-like papers, paints, and tools; very good for traditional artists who want a painterly feel.\nSketchbook Pro: Easy to use; good layers options; good range of brushes and colors; comfortable interface design.\n
  • During this part of the presentation, I demonstrate how to draw each of these simple icons (and others as well) in a drawing app on the iPad. Build a personal icon library of imagery that you can draw quickly and easily. Icons that can be adapted to many different contexts are the most useful.\n\nTip: For icon library examples (in books, not digital), try The Grove’s Pocket Pics or Neuland’s Bikablo series.\n
  • Here, I demonstrate how to create a title font (filled) and detail font (unfilled). Once you find two styles you’re comfortable with, practice a lot so you can do the lettering quickly. It will always be slightly slower on an iPad than if you were writing on paper, but practice to make it as rapid as possible.\n\nTip: For the filled letters, I usually draw the outlines (or partial outlines) during the live talk, and then go in and fill in the color afterward. Otherwise, I would miss too much of what the speaker was saying.\n
  • Shown here are layers palettes from different apps. Clockwise from top left: Sketchbook Pro, Brushes, and ArtRage.\n\nLayers are key to making visual note-taking quick and easy. Think of layers as clear sheets of plastic stacked one on top of another. You can select one sheet and draw on it (or erase on it) without disturbing what’s on any of the other sheets.\n\nLayers can be moved up or down and their visibility turned on or off. Your drawing app should allow you lock the transparency, which is useful if you need to quickly change the color of something you’ve already drawn; locking the transparency prevents you from drawing on any part of the layer that isn’t already drawn on.\n\nI usually set up one layer for the black outlines of my drawings and lettering; another layer directly under that one for main color blocking; and a third layer below that one for shadows and large-area shading. You’ll find out what works best for you and your recording style.\n
  • Places to Practice\nTry recording TED talks in the privacy of your own office until you get comfortable. They’re short, well-organized, and easy to access online. When you’re ready to venture out in the world, try recording live presentations at conferences you attend. The most difficult thing to record is live meetings, because the conversations are unplanned and can wander all over the place.\n\nWhen It Works Best\nNote-taking on the iPad works best in situations where your role is to listen, rather than to participate. It’s very difficult to capture enough to create meaningful notes if you are also trying to analyze and frame responses to what you are hearing. The extra cognitive burden of dealing with the interface and electronic tools is much greater than what you deal with when you’re using pen and paper. It’s not impossible to take visual notes on your iPad during a meeting you’re also participating in, but it takes quite a bit of practice.\n\nWhat’s Different About Doing It Live\nRecording TED talks or other recorded presentations gives you the opportunity to pause the recording so that you can reorganize, neaten things up, or just catch up. Obviously, you don’t have this luxury in live settings :-) I find that when I first start taking iPad notes in a live session, I attract a lot of attention from the people around me -- it’s a little like being a street artist. Don’t let this faze you when it happens to you. Just keep working on your notes. \n\nTry to identify the key points that the speaker wants to convey and write those down. Supporting details and stories can be referred to in an icon or image; you don’t have to write down every word the speaker says. With practice, you’ll get a feel for what to record and what to let go of.\n
  • These are the four brushes I use most in Sketchbook Pro. From left: Skinny brush for most details and letters; thick brush for filling in color on images and titles; narrow airbrush for drop shadows; wide airbrush for broad areas of shading. A lot of my notes use these four brushes exclusively.\n\n
  • These are the three brushes I use most in Brushes. From left: skinny hard brush for details and lettering; slightly thicker softer brush for coloring in images and letters; and wide soft airbrush for drop shadows and large detail areas. I change the brush sizes on the fly much more often in Brushes than I do in Sketchbook Pro, where I tend to set them and leave them alone.\n
  • These are the color palettes I use in Sketchbook Pro (left) and Brushes (right). You want palettes that let you quickly tap a color, and that keep your most-used colors close at hand. I don’t do a lot of on-the-fly mixing because it takes too much time. I like to have three or four shades of my most-used colors, as well as a selection of grays for shadows.\n\nClearly I need to reorganize my Brushes color palette, as the colors are all over the map :-)\n\n
  • Using Brushes, you can record your drawing to make a movie that can be paired with an audio track to create a sketchnote movie. To see a set of three examples that I created, including the one above, visit Education Elements’ page on Vimeo ( \n
  • Thanks for viewing my slide show. I hope you found the information useful! I write about digital facilitation and digital note-taking on my blog at I welcome questions and comments.\n\n-- Rachel\n\nPhoto courtesy of Alan Levine.\n
  • Visual Note-taking on the iPad

    1. visual note-taking on the iPad Rachel Smith | @ninmah director, digital facilitation services The Grove Consultants International
    2. photo courtesy of Alan Wolf
    3. 5 easy steps1. Pick a drawing app.2. Practice basic icons and shapes.3. Practice two types of lettering.4. Learn about layers.5. Put it all together and take visual notes!
    4. 1. Pick a drawing app.
    5. 2. Practice basic icons and shapes.
    6. 3. Practice two types of lettering.
    7. 4. Learn about layers.
    8. 5. Take visual notes!
    9. Advanced Class: Brushes
    10. Advanced Class: Brushes
    11. Advanced Class: Colors
    12. Advanced Class: Movies
    13. Thank you. Rachel Smith photo courtesy of Alan Levine