Ninmah Meets World Rotating Header Image

glad you asked!

I got a lovely email today from someone who found my visual notes. She had a few questions, and as I started to answer them, I thought, hey, this would make a good blog post, and maybe someone else has the same questions. Does it count as a frequently asked question if someone asks it at least more than once? If so, these are all FAQs, as I’ve been asked them all before. They are so well-posed that I present them to you here exactly as they were written, no editing required. The questioner’s name is omitted to protect her privacy. She prefaced her questions by saying she uses Brushes as her drawing app.

First off, how do you manage to not run out of paper (the page) when taking notes?
Practice, mostly. The screen size is good for about an hour’s worth of a keynote or presentation-style talk. A lecture might take more space, because I’d want to take more detailed notes. A conversation takes less space, because there’s a lot more pausing and back-and-forth. Or, to look at it another way, since the space is the same (one screenful), it’s good for 1 hour of keynote, 45 minutes of lecture, and maybe 2 hours of conversation or meeting. Sometimes I don’t fill up the whole screen, and sometimes I do need to continue on to a second one.

I also break up my notes with larger headers and smaller images and detail text. If you compare my earlier work with some of my later work, you’ll see that it took me a few tries to get control of the sizing so that it’s consistent throughout the page. Sometimes I still don’t nail it ;-)

How do you manage to write the dot above the letter “i”? Every time I try to touch the screen with one finger, the menu shows up.
You’re not the first person with this question. It turns out I didn’t discover it because I don’t usually punctuate, I use all caps most of the time, and even when I use lower case, I don’t dot my i’s. You need to move your finger (or stylus) in a tiny circle, curve, or up-down motion to dot your i’s or make a period. It takes a little practice to break yourself of the tapping habit.

What zoom level do you prefer to take notes in?
I’m all over the map. The first thing I do is to make a sizing mark for my header — a little stroke at 100% zoom to show myself how tall to make the header letters. This varies depending on the number of words I want to write. Then I zoom in so that size is comfortable and I write the header. Then I zoom out to make sure I got it straight and didn’t switch sizes in the middle and so forth. Everything else kind of keys off that — topic headers are the next largest thing, but smaller than the page header, and detail text gets smaller in varying degrees. Sometimes I emphasize something by making it larger than the header. When I’m writing the smallest details I’m often zoomed in all the way. I move my screen a lot while I work. It’s one reason I hesitate to project from my iPad as I work — I’m afraid of making the audience seasick.

How do you color the background (the paper) and the inside of the letters? And do you do that after you’ve finished notetaking or while doing it?
I add a layer, drag it under the text layer, and use a wider brush to put the color where I want it. This way, I’m coloring under the outline of the letters so it looks neater. I usually have one layer for the lettering (the black text and outlines), one for the coloring of letters and objects, and another one at the bottom for the background colors. Sometimes there’s an upper layer with borders, and usually there’s one more layer with miscellaneous stuff that gets added at odd times. Layers are a great way to experiment with different coloring options, too.

I usually go back and forth between coloring and writing. Sometimes, there’s a rambly part of the talk or conversation that doesn’t need to be recorded, and that’s a good time to color. Other times, the speaker is so jazzed and spot-on that I end up doing all the coloring after the talk is over. Both methods work. I usually add the background coloring last.

Do you prefer using the stylus or your fingertip while taking notes (in Brushes)?
My fingertip, by a lot. I have a stylus, but I find that it gets in the way. Zooming, changing colors and brushes, and even writing and drawing come more naturally to me when I’m using my finger. This is very much a personal preference — I know people who are artistic geniuses with the stylus, but can’t do a thing with their fingertips.

Any other tips worth listening to before I try making better notes?
You’re assuming any of these tips are worth listening to :-) The best thing you can do is to practice and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Any time you can, whip out the iPad and take notes, even if you only end up filling part of the screen. Pixels are cheap :-)

If you’re not confident about your lettering, practice that. Just write alphabets or spelling lists or shopping lists or journal entries. I’ve changed my handwriting several times over the course of my life, just because I wanted to see different shapes in my letters. Takes a lot of practice to turn it into habit, but if you’re taking handwritten notes, it’s worth it.

Layers are really handy for experimenting, as I said; if you think something might not work, just pop up a new layer and try it on that. You can always merge it down if you like it, or trash it if you don’t.

To capture a lot of thoughts really quickly, just write enough of the word to remind you what it was and you can go finish it later. For instance, if the speaker is giving a list of five things, and she’s going really quickly, just write the first one or two words (or partial words) and leave space to fill in after she’s done with the list. It’s very unsatisfying to miss things because you’re still writing the first few words.

Thanks for asking, and good luck with your foray into visual practice!


  1. Susan Stewart says:

    Rachel…THANK YOU for turning your response into a blog post! I haven’t yet played with layers and have been frustrated when I screw up a really good image.

    Sometimes for space I use the lightest grey I can conjure up and “parcel” out my space because – with the ipad in particular – I tend to way over estimate or under estimate size…ending up with a lopsided picture. I can then erase those lines as I draw or during completion of the final product.

    A group of us who were introduced to graphic facilitation together would like to do some practice sessions with one another…those who live in Canada have planned ski and draw days (read the white type – it says “jealous”!)…but for those of us not within driving distance, we want to do something electronic. Do you have any suggestions for a useful platform to do this? I haven’t been on SL in ages…does SL have capability for sharing/co-creating visual images?

    Rachel…thank you for sharing your learnings about the ipad as you go!

  2. ninmah says:

    Thanks for your comment, Susan! Grey lines are a good way to mark space — and if you put them on their own layer, you can delete or hide them afterward. Sketchbook Pro also has templates that you can add (same way you add layers), including grids, lines, perspective guides, and so on.

    For a virtual sketching platform, I know you can do some of that in some online meeting environments like GoToMeeting (I’m not sure which ones or exactly how it works, although I plan to spend some time figuring that out soon). SL doesn’t have a good way to do group drawings that I know of.