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visual notes on the iPad

Author’s note: I can’t help but be aware that this post rambles a bit. I have inserted handy headers in bold so that you can skip right down to the bits that interest you.

Bryan Alexander's Keynote

I’m hanging out in YVR, waiting for my very delayed flight back to SFO, and reflecting on the whirlwind that was Northern Voice 2010. It was such a wonderful, lively conference, and I got such a kick out of meeting people whose blogs and tweets I follow. The sessions were really quick and packed with information — which made it a challenge to take notes on my iPad, but that’s what I did.

A couple of weeks ago, Scott Leslie started to actually organize an AltMooseCamp, because MooseCamp wasn’t going to happen this year (after seeing the program for NV10, I understand why — so many great sessions — they needed both days!). I took one of the AltMooseCamp spots and said I’d talk about how to do graphic recording on an iPad. I had recently talked to Fred Lakin about visual recording on iPads, and he had tried it, so it was almost like I knew what I was talking about. At the time, I didn’t even HAVE an iPad, but I had one on order, and a lot of faith that it would all work out.

It did. My iPad arrived about a week before NV, giving me enough time to play with it a bit. I also ordered a stylus (this one) and I played with that too. I didn’t actually do any visual recording, but I bought a sketching app and played around with it to learn the controls. Then my iPad, my stylus, and I got on a plane for Vancouver.

I figured it would be best if I had something to show during my talk, so I recorded Bryan Alexander’s opening keynote on Friday morning. That’s it up at the top of the post. I was really pleased with how easy it was, once I had the hang of the controls. During my talk, I showed two apps and let a couple of people actually hold the iPad (it’s true, and I have witnesses). I was expecting about four people to turn up but there were at least 20 in the room. We talked about visual recording and what’s different, worse, and better when using the iPad. After my session, I went on to record almost every session I attended on Friday and Saturday.

Here’s What I Learned
Software. I tried Autodesk SketchBook Pro ($7.99) and Adobe Ideas (free). All the notes in my Flickr stream were done with SketchBook Pro. The controls in SBP are very easy to access while working: 3-finger swipes and taps get you to the brushes, the layers, undo, redo, and the menu; 2 fingers let you zoom and pan; and 1 finger is used for drawing. There’s also a handy “puck” that lets you change brush size and opacity quickly. To switch colors, you swipe down with 3 fingers (this brings up the brush palette) and tap the new color (30 swatches are displayed, or you can tap the color wheel to pick a custom color) — you can also change brush type, size, opacity, and other options here if you want — then tap once on your drawing and you’re back in business.

The controls in Ideas are a little harder to master and are a little too fiddly for me to use quickly while recording. They are housed in a panel on the side, and one button is used to change the context of the panel (color, opacity, or size). So to switch colors while drawing, you tap the brush button, tap the color button in the fly-out panel, and then either use one of the four default colors that appear in the context menu or tap the color wheel to access other colors. I’ve seen a screenshot of a larger palette of swatches, but I haven’t worked out how to make it show up yet. If you also want to change the size and/or opacity, it’s a few more taps to do that. I usually missed the button and had to tap more than once to get the fly-out panel, but that would probably get easier with practice.

Drawing Feel. Both programs have a good drawing feel. Ideas auto-smooths lines, which is nice (sometimes) and a PITA (sometimes) — if you’re a sloppy letterer, it’ll end up changing your a’s to circles — but the sensitivity is very good compared to other auto-correcting applications I’ve used. Mostly it just smooths out your writing, which is actually nice. SBP does no smoothing at all, so what you sketch is what you get. I didn’t have a problem with it.

Zoom. Both apps let you zoom in to do small writing and fine detail. Ideas has an infinite canvas, or something really near it, which is really nice. SBP does not; the canvas is the size of your iPad, and you can zoom in to make better use of the space, but it’s meant to be small. I found that one screen was perfect for an hour’s talk.

Stylus. I didn’t use mine to take notes. I found that when I held it, I wanted to rest my wrist on the surface of the iPad, as I would if I were writing on paper. Since the iPad is multi-touch, this resulted in really interesting but unwanted lines on my notes. Instead I used the tip of my finger, as if I were shading with chalk or pastel. Both programs gave me a satisfying variety of line widths. Neither is pressure-sensitive, so I had to adjust the width when I wanted it to change, but I found it worked fine. If you *do* rely on a stylus, I recommend Ideas over SBP, because it’s easier to switch tools with a stylus in Ideas and it’s easier to switch with your fingers in SBP. You have to put the stylus down or hold it awkwardly to do the 3-finger swipes in SBP.

Here’s a video of an actual artist (Dani Jones) using the same stylus and SBP to actually draw something really cool, just so you see it can be done if you have mad skillz. She also uses a lot more of the brushes and tools. It’s worth taking a couple of minutes to watch just to marvel. You can also get an idea of how SBP’s brush/color palette works. (Note: I initially, and mistakenly, attributed this drawing and video to Erik Mallinson, who had reposted the video on his blog. My apologies to both.)

Layers. SBP lets you add as many layers as you want, quickly and easily. Yay! Ideas has two layers — the one you draw on, and the one you can put a photo into to draw over. I couldn’t see a way to add additional layers.

Posture. Obviously this is something that will vary quite a lot from one person to another. I had the opportunity to try out a number of different kinds of seats during the conference. I found that the easiest way to take notes was to have the iPad resting on my knee, tilted slightly up from horizontal, when I sat with one leg crossed over the other. This worked best in chairs with no arms, and in right-handed student desks. When I used left-handed student desks or those long curving desk things in large lecture halls, the iPad was too high up for me to draw comfortably and it was difficult to keep it tilted at a slight angle (see “Glare” below). I also found that sitting cross-legged on the floor or on a bench with the iPad on my lap was a good way to draw, although it was harder on my back and rear. TMI? Sorry.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by cogdogblog

Notetaking Experience. Brilliant. I loved it. It’s still a little slower than using paper, for me, and still a little sloppier, but I really liked having different colors and shades and not having to cap and uncap pens, or keep them from rolling off the desk, or cart them around. I really liked having my notes digitized and ready to post on Flickr in a couple of taps, too. With SBP, by the way, all drawings are portrait by default, so if you turn the iPad horizontally (as I did), you have to rotate the image before you post it or it’ll be sideways. I’m hoping they’ll fix this somehow. I could not find a way to rotate it cleanly in the app, so I saved the layered version to iTunes and opened it in Photoshop. It was an extra step, but a quick one.

Glare. The Life Sciences building at UBC is gorgeous. Lovely wood, lots of light, the ceiling is entirely glass — just beautiful. It reflects perfectly in the shiny screen of an iPad. The glare in any kind of light is very pronounced — you can use the iPad to check your hairdo when it’s turned off — but in the atrium where the keynotes were held, it was astounding. If you’re recording in a dark lecture hall, you’ll have no problem at all, but if the room is lit or you’re in a lovely natural light setting, it can be challenging to find a way to tilt the iPad so that you can both see it and draw on it. Not impossible, just challenging.

Battery life. Awesome. I started with a full charge in the morning, recorded six talks (a one-hour keynote and five 45-minute sessions), checked email, showed the iPad off to anyone who looked even remotely interested or couldn’t outrun me, passed it around after dinner so people could play games, and ended the day with 20% charge. I didn’t have to plug it in at all during the day (which is good since the cord is really really short).

How Does It Relate to Visual Practice?
Well… I wouldn’t use it (yet) for visual facilitation, where I’m interacting with a group and helping them work through something. It’s not as natural as pens and paper yet so I would be too distracted, I think. What I was doing at Northern Voice was visual recording, where I’m just listening and making notes. Then there’s the issue of the size; when you’re doing visual practice with a group, either recording or facilitating, you want the group to be able to see what you’re doing. I have not tried projecting the iPad onto a screen while working, so I don’t know how that would work, but I’ve heard that not all apps can be projected yet (some can’t access the video out?). I also have some concerns about sensitive persons in the audience watching my mad panning and zooming as I work. I think this is a great process for personal recording, but not yet for group work.

I’m also very interested in the possibilities for remote visual practice through something like screen sharing, but I haven’t even begun to figure out how to set that up.

Would I Do It Again?
Oh yes, yes I will. All that stuff I said about Why I Need an iPad is actually true — the phone’s too small, the laptop’s too big, and it does what I need to do when I’m away from my desk during the day.

If you’ve used your iPad for something like this, please leave a comment about your own experiences, especially if you’ve tried other apps or if you have a different take on the experience.

Pix or It Didn’t Happen
You can see all the notes I took collected on Flickr. Also take a look at these visual notes from NV10 by Rob Cottingham — he did the same thing, only he’s a cartoonist so his sketches bear a strong resemblance to real-world objects and people. Here’s the one he did of my talk — I love it!


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Randy Thornton and Rachel Smith, Rachel Smith. Rachel Smith said: new *long* blog post: visual notes on the iPad (my experiences from #nv10) […]

  2. […] whether this gadget is useful in the graphic field, check out Rachel S. Smith’s post, visual notes on the iPad (and see this flickr set, iPad art). Wowzers! Also spotted – and results ooh’d and […]

  3. […] I had some fun chats with folks afterward, too. And hey, check out the totally wicked visualization Rachel Smith did of our session! Fibre Arts and Social Media, by Rachel Smith (CC A-NC […]

  4. […] it was messy, on my flight today, I decided to see how easy it was for my colleague Rachel to diagram on an iPad, so I fired up my copy of Adobe Ideas and tried to  diagram out the […]

  5. […] Visit the authors site and read how she created these notes… […]

  6. […] describes her experience of doing visual recording on the iPad in wonderful detail on her blog. (image and accompaning text (CC) Rachel […]

  7. Hi, Rachel –

    Thanks for mentioning my notes from your session – I’m glad you liked them, and I was delighted to meet you.

    One other thing: I’m so glad you and some of the other participants mentioned the SketchBook Pro splash screen. I’d love to think we’d moved beyond the babe-with-pouting-lips style of marketing: it’s crass, it’s sexist and it’s embarrassing to have on my screen when I’m launching it in a professional context.

  8. ninmah says:

    Rob, I could not agree more about the splash screen. I found myself trying to cover it up every time I launched the app. I’m even more offended by it because it’s not even really good art; there’s so much potential for this kind of tool in the hands of talented artists, and the best example that Autodesk could come up with is an airbrushed pinup picture. Use some imagination, guys.

    I really enjoyed meeting you too! I love Noise to Signal. Thanks for putting it out there for the world.

  9. […] devices are sometimes things that you couldn’t create on any other kind of platform, like my visual notes or David’s latest Labyrinth 2 level, which was instantly delivered to my iPad all the way up […]

  10. Johndan Johnson-Eilola says:

    Great review–this sorted out some important issues I’ve been thinking about before I commit to buying an iPad.

    I wanted to point out that the “video of an actual artist” link points to what appears to be a video by Dani Jones (–At the very end of the video embedded on Erik’s site that you’re linking to, the copyright info lists Dani’s site.

    (Erik is just posting Dani’s video as an interesting piece of media; he’s not claiming he did it.)

  11. ninmah says:

    Johndan, thanks for pointing that out — I’ll fix it in the post. Much appreciated! I missed that important detail.

  12. Jude Rathburn says:

    I loved your discussion of graphic recording on the iPad. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. This idea of graphic note-taking is very new to me – can you recommend any books or articles about the process? I am trying to learn how to be a better visual thinker Thanks for any resources you can share.

    By the way, have you ever used LiveScribe? I have been using it for the past couple of months to take notes at conferences – my notes are basically text, but I think it would work to draw images as well. You don’t have the color choices, but the neat thing is that you can also record the audio in case you missed something.

  13. ninmah says:

    Hi Jude,
    Thanks for your comments! I have a LiveScribe, and I have used it to take meeting notes often. The audio recordings are nice. I also like the feature that plays back your drawings (or notes) in the order that you take them — very cool.

    To learn more about visual practice, take a look at the IFVP website. The International Forum of Visual Practitioners is an organization dedicated to furthering this field. You might also like some of the workbooks from The Grove Consultants — their materials are excellent.

  14. lillican says:

    Taking notes on iPad is wonderful, I make notes on iPad daily. As I know, there are some iPad note taking apps can meet what you need, go to try the best note taking iPad app – Wondershare iDraft.

  15. ninmah says:

    Lillican, thanks for that perspective. I haven’t tried Wondershare iDraft yet.

    Since writing this I have also tried Brushes, which works as well as Sketchbook Pro and has the added advantage that it records each stroke in a movie that you can play back, and AirSketch. AirSketch lacks a critical feature for this kind of notetaking — the ability to zoom in for fine details — but it does allow others to watch your notes unfold on their own computers if they’re on the same network as your iPad. Very cool.

  16. Susan Stewart says:

    Thanks for this intro to graphic recording on the ipad, Rachel! I first watched your brushes video while at a graphic facilitation workshop with Nancy Smith. I was motivated to see if I could transfer what I was learning with markers and chalk to the ipad. I was captivated by the potential of the ipad for graphic recording and found that, for my very elementary scratchings, the brushes app works best for me. (I really like the playback mode…can see using it for assessing my recording process or, as you demonstrated in the brushes video, using it to provide a visual storyline that is additive.) I was surprised how quickly I learned to zoom in to make the fine markings and back out to see what it looked like at full screen.

    I would very much like to hear how others are using the ipad for graphic facilitation…methods they are using and apps they prefer. (Videos would be excellent since I need to see and do – rather than read and imagine – in order to learn best.) Some of the facilitation methods I use include notations on 1/2 sheets of paper made by the participants which then get moved around, grouped, etc. Has anyone used a drawing app for this kind of facilitation? What are the pros/cons/tips? (I appreciate the issue of others being sensitive the zoom in/out of the screen!)

    Rachel, are there one or two key places where folks are discussing the use of electronic graphic recording/facilitation?

  17. Susan Stewart says:

    P.S. What application did you use to add the voice-over to your brushes video?

  18. ninmah says:

    Hi Susan,

    Thanks for your comments. So far, I’ve seen discussion about the iPad here and on Fred Lakin’s blog, as well as a bit in Twitter. Once the new IFVP website gets set up, I hope to open an area there to continue the conversation and make it available to more practitioners. I’m sure there are other places where people are beginning to discuss it.

    Other kinds of electronic tools, like drawing tablets, tablet PCs, and shared whiteboards, are also used for visual practice, but I don’t know of a central place where they’re talked about.

    To record the audio for my voiceover, I used Audacity. I put it together with the video in iMovie.

  19. […] Pro on my iPad during Northern Voice 2010 in Vancouver.For details about how I did it, see my blog post describing the experience.Stuff for adoption in my personal blog. Image by ♥ KawaiiCloud ♥ […]

  20. […] Speaker: Rachel Smith, Director, Digital Facilitation Services, The Grove Consultants […]

  21. […] Speaker: Rachel Smith, Director, Digital Facilitation Services, The Grove Consultants […]

  22. […] far as graphic notetaking, the visual notetaking guru who I met at macworld, Rachel Smith, recommended two tools: Sketchbook pro or brushes. I’m still unconvinced about the efficiency […]

  23. […] Speaker: Rachel Smith, Director, Digital Facilitation Services, The Grove Consultants […]

  24. […] far as graphic notetaking, the visual notetaking guru who I met at macworld, Rachel Smith, recommended two tools: Sketchbook pro or brushes. I’m still unconvinced about the efficiency […]

  25. […] Speaker: Rachel Smith, Director, Digital Facilitation Services, The Grove Consultants […]