Anna Lena Schiller on how to start visual note making

 by Martin Belam, 3 September 2010

Update: I mentioned Anna Lena Schiller as an inspiration for my own sketching in my talk at EuroIA 2010 in Paris. The other sketchers I mentioned as inspiring were Frances Eida and Eva-Lotta Lamm.

At the Berlin datajournalism meetup on Wednesday I had the chance to meet Anna Lena Schiller, a visual sensemaker who does graphic recordings of conferences and seminars. She had made a set of pictures illustrating the talks given at another data driven journalism event in Amsterdam the week before. Simon Rogers has covered them on the Guardian's Datablog, and you can see the originals on Flickr.

I'm fascinated by the skill of being able to take visual notes in this way, and Anna kindly agreed to answer a couple of questions about how she got started, the way she works and the equipment she uses.

Simon Rogers

Martin Belam: When did you first start making visual notes like that, and what first inspired you?

Anna Lena Schiller: I started doing this professionally in November 2009. I never drew when I was little. And I don't consider myself much of a drawing person these days either. But I do think visually, which for me is layout + colours + typography + drawing.

It all started back in 2005 at a small café in Aarhus, Denmark. I had coffee with a guy called Piotr who's an illustrator. We were talking about his work and I was saying the sentence I hear from a lot of people I'm working with these days: "I can't draw". Piotr just shook his head and said "Nonsense, drawing is easy. Everyone can do it. It's just about shapes and shadows." And then he started sketching on the paper cloth lying on the table and encouraged me to do so, too. Three hours later we had a table full of images. Houses, people, robots, things. It was awesome. I still have that paper cloth at home.

I stayed in Denmark three more years to attend a creative business school called KaosPilots. In 2006 Ole Qvist-Sørensen was hosting a workshop there on visual thinking. He runs a company in Copenhagen called Bigger Picture and has been within the field for quite a long time now. If Piotr was the kickstarter for my visual skills, Ole was the catalyst. He taught me how to use visuals for facilitation, projects, note-taking and thinking in general. I found that a really helpful tool and then gradually applied it to whatever work I was doing (which was mostly management).

And in 2009 I decided to go full-scale with visual thinking and now make a living doing that.

Martin Belam: Do you make your visual notes whilst a talk is going on - or do you make a set of notes that then feed into the final image. For example, a lot of them have bold topic headings - does that evolve during a session, or do you put the headings in after a talk has finished?

Anna Lena Schiller: Visual notes or graphic recordings are always done in real-time and they're finished when the talk is over. I follow the flow of the talk and shape the visual accordingly. Visual notes are not linear, because most talks aren't linear either. I do try to make it well-readable though, bold topic headings is one of many ways to guide the reader's/viewer's eye. I only add minor details when the talks is over, never anything bigger.

I usually decide then and there what will be on the picture and what not. Those decisions are mostly based on intuition and experience. Very much like improvisation in music. You never know what'll come up, but you have a repertoire of notes and scales that feed your output.

In general visual notetaking takes good listening and abstraction skills, an inner eye to see the big picture before you've visualized it, and a bit of drawing ability, too. It's a true multitasking job - and despite the general opinion that men are not good at that, they can do it, too :)

Martin Belam: When we spoke you mentioned that practice makes you better at sketching - what do you do to practice? Is it all work related, or do you have sketching/drawing exercises that you do?

Anna Lena Schiller: I've mentioned four areas earlier that I consider make up visual thinking (layout + colours + typography + drawing). I practice all four of them. There's no distinction for me between work or practice. I practice while I work, I work while I practice. The aim is always to create a better picture than last time.

For layout and structure I look at websites and posters mostly. Trying to see patterns and apply them to my visualisations.

Colours is a pretty subjective thing. Everyone uses them differently. The bigger the paper, the more colours I use. I'm currently reading up on colour theory. Or I look at The Sartorialist.

Typography is the nerdy part of visual thinking. It's a science in itself. I can spent hours browsing and redraw fonts by hand. I also want to start sign painting. I like the combination of typography and crafts.

For sketching and icons I have a couple of books that teach me the basic principles of drawing. It's all about making it quick and keeping it simple, not painting master pieces. As Piotr said, everyone can do it. I also always carry a sketchbook and pens with me. I'm a doodleist. I just put the pen to the paper and start, knowing that something will come out of it. And it doesn't have to be picture perfect. It's important to fail in order to get better.

If I feel like procrastinating with a purpose, I go to A great excuse to practice your rapid visualisation skills.

In general: my two main inspirations are street art (Berlin's full of it) and because they combine layout + colours + typography + drawing.

Martin Belam: The pictures from Amsterdam had a mix of pen types on them - what equipment do you use to make you visualisations?

Anna Lena Schiller: Ha, I love going shopping for pens! Every month I treat myself with a visit to the art supply store and I walk out with at least one new pen. My favourite kind are the Neuland markers (for big scale recordings) and then Sharpies or similar (for small scale notes). Because I go through quite a bit of ink I prefer the ones that are refillable.

A simple rule: the bigger the paper, the bigger the pen.

I also use chalk for effects and colouring bigger areas on paper, esp. for large scale recordings.

As for the canvas -
analog: paper 90mg/m2 or more.
digital: iPad (apps like Sketchbook Pro, Brushes...) or a graphic tablet (again, Sketchbook Pro or Scribbles work best for me - I'm using a Mac).

Most important - find the materials and formats that you like best. For some it's A4, others prefer A5, sketchbook, Moleskine, tablet pc... you can also do black and white visual notes or go totally crazy with colours. Look at other people's stuff for inspiration. That's what I did a lot in the beginning. You'll find yourself imitating at first and then automatically developing your own style.

My advice: see what fascinates you most about visual thinking and then embrace your inner nerd.


I'm surprised that you didn't draw as a child. And also encouraged.

Great interview, and nice links to additional resources too! I'm reading "The Back of the Napkin" by Dan Roam, was wondering what Anna would think of it. The book is also inspiring me to draw more. Thanks for sharing!

Wonderful interview. It is really interesting that you didn't start drawing young and became so talented. I had always thought of artists as needing to be born with talent (as you obviously were) AND nurturing it from a young age.

I'm fascinated by the concept. Great layout, would love to see more!

I've been to a few events where there have been visual note takers there and it certainly is a huge improvement in going round and reading hundreds of post it notes stuck to the wall! I find its most valuable if you can get a copy of the images as an aide memoire of the event in the future.

Pictures state a thousand words. It is wonderful to see a great graphic, it has a way to tell the story without words. A person that develops this skill is one smart cookie as original is best.

I found the visual notes which Anna Lena made at the Data Driven Journalism conference in Amsterdam to be really helpful. I'd definitely recommend employing someone to make these notes for future events. It's a great way to summarise and jog the memory around the talk.

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