"This workshop moved me from merely a legible writer to a visual communicator. For the first time, I learned how to create a visual hierarchy, not just with words but also with simple visual accents that breathe life into the words."
When I was a kid, I knew I wanted to be an artist. There weren't enough objects and animals in the world for me to paint and draw. I was fascinated watching Bob Ross on Sunday afternoons at my grandparents' house. I watched him create rustic landscapes and bottled moonlight with just a few strokes of his palette knife and flicks of his paintbrush. And in middle school, I nearly wore out the public library's VHS documentary of Jackson Pollock's action painting. I just loved to watch people make art.
On some level, I'm guessing you feel the same way. Maybe you follow a bunch of artists on Instagram, or you find yourself sketching simple studies of donuts and coffee cups in meetings. Perhaps you even watch portrait tutorials when they pop up in your Facebook feed. Some of us just can't escape the impulse to create. Watching someone else create something out of nothing can scratch a similar itch.
I found myself experiencing the same fascination when I first encountered Ink Factory's visual notetaking videos. There's just something captivating about watching someone create visual representations of spoken ideas in real time.
According to their website, Ink Factory's mission is "to create visual experiences that inspire and engage." The most common way they work with businesses and organizations is to create visual notes in tandem with a public presentation or conversation. Those notes and the performance of drawing them are available in real time to an audience in attendance. I assume that before the pandemic, Ink Factory worked most often at in-person conferences, presentations, interviews, lectures, and public conversations. I've never seen the process in person, but I imagine the experience mesmerizes.
At M.C. Squares, we spend every day innovating whiteboarding tools and practices to help people think more effectively, communicate those ideas, and collaborate with their teams. Fundamentally we think a lot about how people use writing tools and surfaces to get work done and feel more organized about their work and life.
So when our VP of Marketing, Kristen Bangs, Slacked our team a link about a company specializing in visual notetaking, we were more than curious. We spent the rest of the day exchanging comments about the quality and clarity of the notes they showcase in their marketing materials. We couldn't get enough of their blog, both for its design and content. The initial crushing died down, but we knew we had to learn more about Ink Factory and possibly partner with them in the future.
First step? We decided to take a peek behind the curtain and sign up for one of Ink Factory's online workshops. Taking visual notes might seem pretty straightforward. You listen to what someone is saying, write down the essential words and phrases, and scatter in some relevant visuals. It's not complicated; it's just a matter of practice, right? The thorough and varied list of workshops Ink Factory offers makes it immediately clear just how complex and nuanced visual notetaking can be.
Four of us from the M.C. Squares marketing team signed up for the "Lettering and Handwriting For Live Visual Notes" workshop. When Ink Factory sent their first prep email, they listed some specific items we should have ready to get the most out of the workshop: a simple variety of markers that most people can trouble rounding up around the house. A quick trip to an office supply store would quickly fill in any gaps in the list. They recommend markers of varying tip sizes and styles and a few other household items like paper, pencils, erasers, and whiteout.
Everything We Had Hoped For
The morning of the actual workshop, I found myself with my markers and sketchbook spread out in front of me alongside my laptop. I logged in to see that there were only seven participants and three facilitators. Ink Factory was dedicating a lot of resources to these workshops.
To give you a sense of how smitten we all were with Ink Factory, our entire team rushed to sign up. Even our VP of marketing, Kristen, wanted to take a workshop. (That's her handy work at the top of this post.) When asked about some of her biggest takeaways, she noted how generously Ink Factory staffed the workshop with incredibly talented and accomplished artists:
"Not just one but THREE experienced instructors in this session shared their tips, tricks, and anecdotes. More than just a webinar, this was an engaging conversation between artists at the top of the field. They used every moment precisely to bring the attendees along on a journey from "handwriting" to creating compelling visuals that capture the essence of a presentation and engage attendees."
After some basic introductions and previews, we put markers to paper almost immediately. We started with simple warm-up exercises making freeform shapes, lines, letters, and other scribbles. The facilitators offered the insight that these were the tools of visual notetaking. Had you asked me before we started what tools a visual notetaker uses most, I would have thought of markers, paper, and maybe a digital tablet. But it made a lot of sense for us to think of these simple, familiar marks as our building blocks. It also assured us that a big part of improving as a visual notetaker was practicing these marks enough to become part of our muscle memory.
One of our producers, Nicole Ebel, explains just how important these exercises were in comfortably introduce her to the world of visual notetaking:
"As a total beginner to lettering and visual notetaking, I was able to learn the basics without getting too overwhelmed. The instructors not only emphasize the importance of the tools and rules that come with lettering but also the importance of breaking the rules and using creative freedom to get the point made. Even though my handwriting is mostly chicken scratch, this class gave me the motivation to take the time to retrain my muscle memory to improve my handwriting and practice my visual notetaking skills."
Learning While Practicing
One of the most effective tactics Ink Factory used for this workshop was to give us discrete little tasks like practicing the foundational marks while at the same time offering commentary on the workshop's central ideas. For instance, the instructors illustrated using different font weights to establish visual hierarchies aligned with the concepts in a presentation or discussion. It's a remarkable experience to have someone point out and explain the visual rhetoric operating in what otherwise seems like a whimsical and organic process.
Even for someone like Kristen, who has spent a lot of time thinking about and practicing visual communication strategies, the world of visual notetaking has an unexpected depth and complexity:
"I've been practicing effective whiteboard lettering for a while and definitely have legible handwriting. This workshop moved me from merely a legible writer to a visual communicator. For the first time, I learned how to create a visual hierarchy, not just with words but also with simple visual accents that breathe life into the words. I know what I need to practice to get better (and that I need a lot of practice). I'm pretty excited about what I created in the session."
The last thing we want to do is to describe the workshop experience in detail. We couldn't come close to recreating the experience. Instead, here are a few of the ideas we learned about throughout the workshop:
- The difference between handwriting and lettering is that the former is more functional, while the latter is more artistic and visually expressive. Both are necessary for most sessions.
- Effective visual notetaking requires dexterity with size, spacing, slope, and shape of letters to communicate competently and find your unique style.
- The instructors also demonstrated how to use simple icons as a visual shorthand for ideas and add variation to the presentation.
- We also discussed ways of spatially organizing the overall structure and how to use a visually arresting title to anchor the composition.
Putting Our Skills to Use
As we entered the last third of the workshop, I felt pretty confident that I could now apply everything I'd learned so far in pretty much any presentation I might want to illustrate. The ideas were clear, and I knew how to use them. Our final activity was to practice these strategies while illustrating a 15-minute audio presentation. That's when I remembered the difference between understanding an idea and putting it into practice. I struggled to keep up with the presentation and apply what I had just learned. It was disorienting.
It's important to remember that your aesthetic tastes and expectations will far outstrip your skill level when you're starting any new artistic practice. You want to make something as good as what you're used to, but you don't yet have the skill or experience to make it. For some people, that can be disheartening. But it doesn't have to be. It can also feel fantastic. There can be such a rush of adrenaline when you realize you're not all that great at something you're suddenly obsessed with.
Given the workshop's affordability and the inexpensive tools needed to take it, there was a minimal barrier to entry. It's clear that Ink Factory wants to spread their passion for making and sharing visual notes. It's probably also useful to help people understand how much skill and practice visual notetaking demands.