LBOT Preview: Meet Your Talented Illustrator


Here’s the thing no one tells you about writing books: you spend a fair amount of time feeling kinda clueless.

I realize, you’re not supposed to say that. Writing a book is supposed to be a confident sequence of a-ha moments, that feeling of unstoppable creative momentum some writers like to call “taking dictation from God.” But for me, it can sometimes feel more like walking through a dark forest, bumping my head into trees, hoping to get to the other side. During those times, it’s not like taking dictation from God. More like, from Homer Simpson.

One of the key moments in the head-bumping journey of this new book (The Little Book of Talent, due out in August) happened not so long ago, when I realized that this book needed an illustrator. (In retrospect, hugely obvious, since this is a handbook filled with specific, concrete tips designed to help readers improve their skills/grow their brains. But at the time, not so obvious.)

I found myself magnetically drawn to the work of Mike Rohde. Mike’s work is simple, classic, beautifully clear, and best of all, has this uncanny knack for capturing ideas and turning them into vivid, memorable images.

When I called Mike about The Little Book of Talent, we started with the idea of doing six illustrations. Then it was twelve.  Then twenty. Next thing we knew, Mike was cranking out no fewer than fifty-freaking-two separate drawings for LBOT, one illustration for each of the book’s 52 rules, an Olympic-level performance. For example:

Tip #25: Shrink the Practice Space    Tip #51: Keep Your Big Goals Secret

It turns out that Mike’s knack is not an accident. He’s a pioneer of a new kind of visual notetaking called sketchnotes. You might have seen it on the web, or at conferences. The idea is to replace the old ways of note-taking (words stacked on a page) with a combination of key words and images that capture the larger idea in a more concise, engaging way. Like this:

Or this:

A good sketchnote quickly captures the essence of complicated ideas and relationships, distills them to a simple, memorable form. It works because it leverages the our brain’s natural ways of learning (focused on images and spatial relationships). Best of all, it changes the role of the note-taker from passive transcriber to active decision-maker; creator.

For more, check out Mike’s work here and his flickr collection here. But the big news is that he’s at work on a new book of his own: The Sketchnote Handbook from Peachpit Press, due in October. The idea is to help teach people how to use sketchnoting techniques in their lives, and give them some tools to start.

So now I’m trying this sketchnoting thing myself, in hopes that it helps me get lost less, or at least bump into the right problems more quickly. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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9 Responses to “LBOT Preview: Meet Your Talented Illustrator”

  1. Aaron says:

    Actually, hearing that writing is this difficult IS kind of a shock. I’m currently working on my undergrad in a difficult science and working with a grad student who has been writing a proposal and gearing up for their defense. I thought that they would breeze right through the writing process. How wrong I was! I am blown away by the amount of personal and professional turmoil a person has to go through to write something great. Long hours, isolation, constant stress, it was all there. But, I guess that’s the real lesson: if you want to do something above and beyond the ordinary, you have to suffer a bit (okay, a lot).

  2. For me as I write it’s organic as the ideas I have develop, grow and I uncover new information and aspects. Then it’s about correction and rewrite, correction and rewrite.

    Thanks for making people aware what it’s really like to write.

  3. Jon Harnum says:

    Hey, Dan. Thanks for telling it straight about writing. It IS work, and to create something both meaningful and fun to read is hard work. Looking forward to checking out two new books now: yours and Mike’s. Just had a mind-opening experience with a similar sketch-based title from Dan Roam that you might want to check out, too. It’s called “Blah Blah Blah: What to Do When Ideas Don’t Work.” Good stuff.

  4. Jon Harnum says:

    oops. mis-quoted the subtitle. It’s “What to Do When Words Don’t Work.” When ideas don’t work it’s probably time to re-think them. 😉

  5. Mike Rohde says:

    Thanks for the mentions Dan — can’t wait to see your book come together and I’m finding your thoughts on writing a book particularly true.

  6. edder says:

    2 thoughts 1. benn thinking about writing a lot lately–it is easy to just garble thoughts down. it is quite another to craft ideas. Second, i have long taken notes and memorized things thru pictures. Good to see i am not crazy

  7. James H. says:

    Spot on, Daniel. I cranked out a full-length novel draft between January and April this year. However, that required an hour a day, came only came after another, shorter draft, and still precedes who knows how many hours of line edits and “darling-killing”. Wish me luck.

  8. Ryan says:

    In college, Wendell Berry taught one of my writing classes. Early on he tried to prepare us for the hard work ahead. He didn’t want us to have any delusions. The first class he said something to the effect that writing was as painful and difficult as tending to a crop. Attention to detail in areas of word choice, punctuation, and every other element that goes into quality writing.

    I use the same approach to teaching quarterbacks. On the first day, I warn them not to think that everyday is gameday. The work is tedious, monotonous, very detailed, and often painful. What someone sees on the game field is the product of work and preparation, much like what someone sees in a book is the product of revision after revision.

  9. Danny Southwick says:

    Hi Daniel!

    It’s been a long time since we’ve spoken. I hope all is well. I thought that you’d find the following link interesting: It is a medical article that talks about the role of BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor) in promoting the myelination of neural pathways. BDNF plays a big role in neuroplasticity because we need it for neurogenesis (the process of producing new neurons). One of the most widely discussed ways to increase BDNF is through physical exercise. Which made me realize that physical exercise is probably a nice way to supplement deep practice. Anyway, I just thought you’d be interested in that, considering your love of myelin producing activities 🙂

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