One of the most common first questions I hear from people new to sketchnoting is “What should I write, and what should I draw?” It’s easy to understand the confusion. Once you’ve received permission to use images in your notes, now you have to work out when you should add images and when you should write instead.

Some new sketchnoters swing from one extreme to another before finding their balance. That’s not a bad approach as it allows you to explore the possibilities of using image by going “all in”.

In this post, I am sharing the general rules and ideas I consider regarding using text or sketches in my sketchnotes. In practice, I often go by gut feel and so probably break these principles a lot.

Warning: Some people use more text, others more visuals

There are some people who add only a few images to their sketchnotes, and have a lot of text. Other people follow the reverse path. Where ever you fall on the continuum is okay. You can also choose to use more images or text for certain sketchnotes that encourage that style.

Icons to set a topic

When you notice a general topic, you can use an icon to highlight the topic, or even group everything together.

Icons to highlight a point

If you’ve noticed an important point in a talk, or an idea stands out to you. You may want to use an icon to draw attention to that point.

Icons of physical objects

The easiest icons to draw are those for real objects like cars, coffee cups, and pizza. These make for an easy icon to draw and are easy to identify too. That makes them a great choice to draw in your sketchnotes.

You can combine images and text

You don’t have to choose between images and text, you can combine both icons and text to reinforce the message you want to send. For example, you could draw a letter and then write “email” on top to help show what it is.

Using other drawings to separate and divide

The visuals in sketchnotes aren’t just about icons. You can also use other elements like dividers to separate sections of your notes. These can also help divide and group information. If you don’t feel confident with drawing icons, starting with adding separators may be a simple first step.

When is text best in a sketchnote?

Text is generally best for quotes, explanations and specific information like names, temperatures and amounts. Sometimes these can be combined with images, but sometimes it’s best to just write the text and not worry about it. Just because you can use drawings, doesn’t mean you have to only use drawings.

Conclusion

It’s very difficult to give a hard and fast rule for when you should use text and when you should use sketches in your sketchnotes. This is much harder during live sketchnoting when you have to make an instant decision. I hope these tips can help you work out your own principles for when to draw and when to write, but regardless remember to relax and have fun working out your own system.