Novis Notes - My latest tools for visual note taking
People often see me taking notes and stop to ask me what app I'm using and how I do it. For the sake of encouraging others to enjoy their note-taking, let me share with you my setup and some resources.
There are two parts to this.
- The tools I use
- The way I take notes.
I'm going to share them in reverse order.
Also called, sketch noting, the idea is to create a blend of images and words to capture big ideas.
I came across this several years ago when I found this link in a chat group:50 Resources for visual Note taking.
That, in turn, lead me to the Sketchnote Handbook by Mike Rohde.
Along these lines, I would also recommend investigating Zen Doodle and anything by JoAnna Bassford. The idea is to expand your creativity by doodling. While JoAnna Bassford's books are considered Adult (as in grown-up) coloring books, they are also fantastic examples of line art. I often practice drawing leaves inspired by her designs.
The point here is not to be perfect, but to unlock that right-brain creativity that comes from doodling. With a few lines, boxes, and circles, it's incredible what you can represent visually. Add a splash of color and soon people will be oohing and ahhing over your notes as well.
The above is a real page, from a real journal from 2018 with pens shown.
If you are learning to take visual notes, one book I can not recommend highly enough is The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam. He breaks down how anyone can make drawings that convey powerful ideas with no real talent for drawing. It has to do with how human beings process information. We look for meaning. Words are powerful, but they contain a level of indirection. Pictures, even crudely drawn ones trigger our pattern recognition and vision processing. This book helped me get over my fear that my drawing wasn't good enough to share.
I used to do all of this on paper (Rhodia dot journals, TWSCBI Vacuum fountain pen with diamine Onyx black ink, a TWSBI ECO Stub fountain pen filled with Pumpkin Orange (or Florida Blue) ink and a gray Tombow marker for fills and drop shadows). If you think that's a lot of stuff you are right. Plus fountain pens do not travel well. Most sketch noters use gel pens - the Japanese make the best, check out JetPens.com for an excellent selection. I happen to collect fountain pens.
Then fellow EO Arizona member Aric Mei changed my world. At EO Alchemy in Salt Lake City, Utah, a friend of mine changed my world when he showed me his system for visual note-taking.
Visual Note Taking Power Kit
He showed me four things:
- An iPad Pro - the 12.9 Inch model.
- An Apple pencil 2.0
- A screen protector called PaperLike
- An app called Notability
What these four things do for you is impressive.
First, the larger Apple iPad Pro screen has the surface area of a letter-size sheet of paper. As a result, your handwriting will be unchanged in size when you print your notes out later. If you use the 10 inch iPad, your writing will look oddly large and childlike when the notes are scaled up to letter size for printing. The revamp of the iPad Pro in 2018 made carrying this large a device around much better. Now it's no worse than a laptop.
The Apple Pencil 2.0 is the best stylus I have found and several reviews back that up. It makes writing on the screen natural and straightforward. Where it shines is when you combine it with the paperlike screen protector. It creates such a sensation of writing on paper that you stop thinking you are pushing plastic on glass. To me, it just feels more natural.
The final magic happens within the app Notability. This app does multiple crazy impressive things. Here are a few:
- You can import PDF documents and write directly on top of them (good buy fax machine/scanner for signing documents)
- It emulates a wide range of paper colors, print patterns, and styles. From Dot to yellow-lined, to college rule, to engineering grid.
- It can search your handwriting (surprisingly accurate)
- It can convert your writing to text
- You can audio record a meeting or session.
- You can select your drawings, scribbles, and notes and move them, resize, recolor them. The editing ability is remarkable.
But the best part is that individual note files are infinitely extensible. You keep adding pages. Forever. Now I have all my notebooks with me. What's more, instead of my notes becoming interleaved like they would with a paper journal, they stay organized into groups and files. I simply add another page and keep going.
The above is an example of a note I took at EO Alchemy in Portland - a year after I started to use the tool.
You might notice that I was able to take pictures at the event and insert them right into the document. Not only can you add images, but you can also embed web clips, line drawings, and stickie notes. As for colors? It's endless. You can vary line width, pen-type (there's a highlighter). You can also create your own ink colors! I did this by sampling my favorite inks and converted them to RGB in Notability.
That's not all. The app lets you configure the notes to look like your favorite notepaper. If you want yellow notepads? Got it. College rule white? Done. What about engineering green with a grid? Absolutely. Notability emulates a wide range of notepapers. My current personal favorite is the dot pattern on slightly manilla colored paper. However, if you want more, you can make your own paper templates by importing PDF files to use them as templates for blank pages. This same mechanic makes it easy for filling out forms. You can also as easily export your notes as pdf files to email, or save to any one of half a dozen cloud services like DropBox, Google Drive, or Microsoft OneDrive.
Here are a few resource links:
I have found my new setup to be extraordinarily useful and fun. It also has been a great conversation starter. People to ask me about it all the time.
So what does it cost? The iPad Pro drives the total cost. Those things are not cheap. The Apple Pencil can also set you back quite a bit. The screen protector and Notability app combined cost less than $50 at the time of this writing. For me, however, they have been well worth the investment for the creative power they unleash.
It has worked for me. Your mileage may vary, but I hope this gives you enough information to get started and have some fun.