Mike Rohde on becoming the Sketchnote king

The Sketchnote King

When did you last pick up a pencil and draw something? I bet it’s been a while—and I think I know why. You think your drawings aren’t good enough, so, you don’t bother. This is a real shame, because you’re missing out on a great way to collect your thoughts and ideas.

Mike Rohde used to attend meetings in which he wrote madly, in an attempt to capture every idea. The speed and fury of this activity destroyed his pens, leaving them unusable lumps. Worse yet, he suffered from blood blisters, larger than Kalamata olives, on his bruised and beaten hands. (This was all rather ugly, and it stressed him out.)

He knew he needed to try another approach. So, he left for the Seed Conference with just a pen and a notebook. His mission? To document solely the big ideas—using simple sketches and select text. The exercise was a success. Later, he posted images of these pages, online. Viewers loved them, and wanted more. Suddenly sketchnotes were born!

Since then, Mike’s taught people around the world to relax a little, and make their sketchbooks more fun. He’s joining us, today, from his home studio in Milwaukee, to announce his upcoming Officehours sessions, and answer some questions.

How did you find your way into a creative career?

It started with a printing class in high school. I changed schools when our family moved in October, which meant I couldn’t get into the art class I wanted. However, I was able to get into the printing technology program at my new high school. As a result, I learned letterpress, silkscreening, how to run offset presses, and more. It was awesome!

One of Mike’s sketchnote logs, capturing his experience as an Apple Watch user One of Mike’s sketchnote logs, capturing his experience as an Apple Watch user.

This led me to work afternoons at a pre-press shop, during my senior year. I then completed a printing degree at a local technical college. One of the first year printing prerequisites was a design class. Things really seemed to click there. Fellow students reinforced this idea. They asked, “why are you a printing major?” and told me I should instead be a designer.

At the end of the semester, I took a chance and switched to the design program. Once that happened, I found my sweet spot as a technical designer. (My years of print experience gave me the knowledge that helped me become a well-rounded print designer.)

My entire career is marked with these types of professional shifts: in 1997, I switched from print to web design, in 2008, I took a local art director position after 10 years working remotely. In 2010, I shifted from web design to user experience design. I want to keep growing in my professional life. I think it’s important for all of us to keep expanding our experiences.

Who helped you, when you started out?

There are so many people who were instrumental in my career. For the sake of this interview, I’ll narrow my list to just a few:

Howard Austin was my design teacher at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC). He taught me to be a professional. He had high standards and would not accept crappy work from students. This expectation of excellence drove me to become a better designer. I look back now and see how valuable his lessons were in initiating my design career.

Cyndi Covert was my art director at The Design Centre at MATC (an in-house design firm staffed by students). She, too, challenged me to do better. I think she saw potential in my work, so she was tough on me. Turned out, I was capable of much more than I could imagine, at the time. She taught me how to work on deadline, and listen to clients. She also challenged me to think critically as a designer.

Mike uses sketchnotes to learn about espresso. Mike uses sketchnotes to learn about espresso.

Juergen Strigenz was my art director at Hare-Strigenz Design. He took a chance on me, right out of college, and is still one of my mentors. He taught me about teamwork, how to stay cool under deadline pressure, and how to be a pro, day in and day out. We shared many late nights solving design problems in the studio or on a running press. Juergen helped me become a seasoned professional.

There are so many more people whom I could name. However, these three guides represent my early days—when I was learning what it takes to be a great designer.

Is there any advice you’ve received that’s affected your career/development?

The three best bits of advice I’ve received:

Focus on excellent work. I learned this in college and during my early years. I continually seek feedback from art directors and mentors, on ways to improve my craft. It’s in producing excellent work that I provide my clients with value.

Learn from every experience, good or bad. I made mistakes (like placing a flag graphic upside down, on a printed piece). I also experienced success. In both circumstances I tried to learn and build knowledge. In doing so I’m better equipped to avoid the bad, and seek the good, on new projects.

Make friends and build your network before you need it—because you will need it. All the design firms I worked for rely on referrals. I learned the importance of making friends with clients, because they move around. As they do, they remember great work and great people. Connections are like gold—so treat your connections with respect, and help them out however you can.

A screenshot showing how Mike splits B&W files into black and orange pantone colors—and then imports the final files into InDesign. A screenshot showing how Mike splits B&W files into black and orange pantone colors—and then imports the final files into InDesign.

What prompted you to write the Sketchnote Handbook, and subsequently the Sketchnote Workbook?

I shared my sketchnotes online but felt something was missing. I wanted to create a physical book to share my ideas—and the work of other sketchnoters, from around the world.

A few good friends kept pushing me to create a book, most notably my friend Von Glitschka. He introduced me to Nikki McDonald at Peachpit. She loved the idea for The Sketchnote Handbook and helped it become a bestseller.

Later, I felt like I had more to share about how sketchnotes could be used in people’s lives. So, I wrote The Sketchnote Workbook. I’m always experimenting, and this book became a collection of new experiments that worked well. I collected the ones I felt others could best integrate into their lives.

Both books seem well received. Are you happy with the overall uptake on your books, and the messages within them?

Both books and videos are bestsellers. They’ve done very well, which is satisfying. I’m excited to see sketchnoting spread around the world. There are now translations of my books in Russian, Chinese, German, and Czech.

The international reception the books received is a signal that the world is hungry for sketchnoting. I’m honored to be the one who brought this idea to the world. I think these two books help people think differently, by tapping the power of visuals.

I’m also excited about sketchnotes taking off in the education space. I regularly hear from teachers who tell me that sketchnoting engages their students in ways regular text doesn’t. I’m stoked that teachers now encourage doodling in school!

The ideas I presented in both books guide me every day as a UX designer. In my work, I apply these concepts in logbooks and on whiteboards, with the development team I help lead.

Pencil sketches for the Postbox icon, exploring angles and other details before moving to Fireworks for icon building. Pencil sketches for the Postbox icon, exploring angles and other details before moving to Fireworks for icon building.

What have you discovered as a result of writing and illustrating these books?

Here are 4 things I learned from the experience:

Creating books is hard, yet satisfying work. The Sketchnote Handbook and The Sketchnote Workbook were my two toughest projects. I’m unusual as an author, because I wrote, illustrated, and created the final production art for my books. (10 years as a print designer came in handy). I feel a sense of relief when I finish producing a book. Later, a deep satisfaction comes from hearing positive reactions from readers—and, of course, sales. It took a little while to see this blossom, though.

Published authors get a unique kind of respect. People who fight through hard challenges (like a Masters degree or PhD) and deliver, are afforded a bit of reverence. Now that I’ve published two books, with a well-known publisher, people regard me differently. I sense a kind of respect, which wasn’t there before I was an author. I’m the same guy. I think my image changed because I delivered books under pressure.

Growth means doing scary things from time to time. Writing a book seems like a daunting task—and it is. For each of my books I wondered what I had gotten myself into—especially at the mid-point with a deadline looming. In the end, both book projects forced me to improve. As a result of the challenge, I’m a better writer, marketer, teacher, and designer. I made connections around the world and gained amazing opportunities to present sketchnoting—in places I could have only dreamed about, before I created these books.

Creating a book is only half of the work; marketing is the other half. I started to market my books as soon as I began them. I wrote blog posts about my journey. I also posted photos of sketches, video shoots, and design work (on Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook) as I built out my books.

By sharing the process (early and regularly) I built anticipation—and eventually sales. Promotion after publishing was also important. I took interviews on podcasts and websites, and was active on social media. Helping readers also makes a huge difference.

Logo vectors for Madison Ruby, undergoing refinement and variations. Logo vectors for Madison Ruby, undergoing refinement and variations.

Tell me about The Sketchnote Army.

I noticed there was no central place to find sketchnotes. In the early days you had to hunt around Flickr, Twitter, and blogs to see sketchnote work. So, in 2009, I created one place where I could showcase the work of others, tell their stories, and encourage people new to try sketchnoting. I called it Sketchnote Army. I see it as a way to showcase the sketchnotes that other people around the world make.

The site has grown. With the addition of my friend and Chief Sketchnote Officer, Mauro Toselli, in Italy, we now have a global operation, and a much tighter site. Mauro is fabulous at keeping the engines running smoothly, and offering great ideas for us to explore.

One of Mauro’s latest ideas is the new Sketchnoter Stories series we just launched. In it, sketchnoters can tell the story of their journey, and how sketchnoting changed their lives.

Another favorite series is First Sketchnotes. In it, those new to sketchnoting share samples of their first sketchnotes and talk about their experiences.

I love the Sketchnote Army community. We work hard to establish a welcoming, encouraging, and safe place for sketchnoters to share work. I think this draws like-minded people to the community. It’s awesome!

We are always on the lookout for new work, so if you have sketchnotes to share with the world, we want to see them! Submit your sketchnote work with our easy to use form.

You’re a busy guy! Is there anything else you’d like to note, before I let you get back to work?

Thanks for the opportunity to share! I love the idea of mentorship and giving back!

Want to know more? Got a burning question that the unworthy interviewer simply failed to ask? Of course you do! Request 10 minutes with the Sketchnote king, and conquer your sketchbook!