Attend a Milwaukee creative or business-related gathering, and chances are, you’ll see Mike Rohde. He’s that guy in the corner, doodling in a Moleskine notebook with his gel pen. At first glance, he might not seem that unusual.
But one peek inside his notebook will take your breath away.
By day, Mike is a user interface designer at Gomoll Research + Design Inc., a husband and a father of three. But by night, he’s a sketchnote artist—one of the first, in fact, to pioneer this artistic blend of information and design. What began as a hobby led to four illustration deals, and now to his own book. In December, Mike will unleash The Sketchnote Handbook onto the world.
His story offers many nuggets for achieving success in any field.
But first, what are sketchnotes? Mike explains them as “a way of taking notes that uses drawing and typography as components for memory capture.” This approach teaches notetakers to listen just for big ideas that mean something to them personally. Shedding most minute details, a sketchnote artist renders key concepts with creative lettering and clever drawings, too.
Sketchnotes aren’t just for artists, either. Anyone can use this technique. “Sketchnotes are about ideas, not art,” Mike explains. “If you can draw simple drawings that convey ideas so you can remember them later, that’s a win.”
The Sketchnote Handbook, published by Peachpit, is designed to prove just that. After unpacking the principles behind sketchnotes, Mike provides techniques for drawing almost anything using just five basic shapes—squares, circles, triangles, lines and dots. “It’s about thinking like a kid,” he insists. “Kids don’t worry about how their drawings look. They worry about what they want to convey.”
Mike’s sketchnotes began when he was just a kid himself. As a boy, combining information with art was just second nature; he drew, designed and built things constantly.
But professional life changed everything. After finishing school, Mike found himself focusing primarily on text, and using text to capture information at work meetings and conferences. He chuckles at how he filled stacks of notebooks with penciled conference notes, “so I could erase my mistakes.” By 2006, it was “getting crazy,” especially when he realized he never looked at those notes again.
In 2007, a Moleskine sketchbook came to the rescue. Mike bought it at Barnes & Noble because he loved the feel of the heavy paper, its small size and pocketability, but he didn’t know what to do with it. So he decided to try an experiment. Taking the Moleskine to his next conference, he captured notes the exact opposite way from what he’d always done. “I realized I’d have to be more thoughtful about what I wrote about,” he says.
The rest, as they say, is history. Mike had such a great time with his first sketchnotes, he decided to do it again. And again. And again.
Soon he was posting his sketchnotes on Flickr, where he invited conference speakers, participants and non-attendees to view them. This simple sharing technique promoted the conferences he attended and brought his skills to the attention of speakers like Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, founders of 37signals and their popular Basecamp project management platform.
Mike continued to attend events where the likes of Fried and Hansson spoke. His online sharing process built preliminary relationships and later led to his first illustration deal for Fried and Hanssen’s NYT-bestselling REWORK, soon followed by Chris Guillebeau’s The $100 Startup and Daniel Coyle’s Little Book of Talent.
As time went on, sketchnotes began to spread. In 2009, Mike started Sketchnote Army as a way for sketchnoters to share work and find each other. He began to notice underlying principles across their work, even though their techniques varied. “I was excited about this community, this movement that was happening, and wanted to take a lead position to promote it,” he says.
What better way than to write a book? From the beginning, Mike knew he wanted to write one, but he needed time to develop his skills and his network. In 2011, four years after he started sketchnotes, Mike found himself at dinner with Von Glitschka, a noted author, illustrator and designer he met online. Glitschka challenged Mike to do that book and to facilitate the process, Glitschka introduced Mike to Nikki, his acquisitions editor at Peachpit.
Intrigued, Nikki asked Mike to submit a book proposal. Not only was it accepted, but Peachpit and Mike agreed that the book should be presented as a completely illustrated book. Mike was comissioned as both the book’s author, illustrator and designer.
But Mike didn’t keep The Sketchnote Handbook to himself. He invited 15 sketchnote artists of varying skill levels to feature their work inside it, too. “I wanted to make sure we had representation from a wide variety of the community,” he explains. “Some of the featured artists are professional designers. Some are not.” The end result proves anyone can do sketchnotes.
While Mike’s publishing journey may seem incredibly smooth, it wasn’t challenge-free. Mike wrote the book while employed full-time, and fulfilling his duties at home. “I’ve never been afraid of doing hard work,” he admits. But at the outset, he told himself there would be days he would wanted to quit or feel too exhausted to keep going.
He promised himself he would keep going anyway.
And he did.
On November 30th, both The Sketchnote Handbook and a companion DVD (shot by Mike’s friend Brian Artka) launch worldwide. On December 6th, the book’s official launch party will be held at Translator Lab in Milwaukee.
After that, Mike says he plans to take day trips across the Midwest to promote the book . . . all while still managing his family and his job!
At first glance, Mike’s story might appear too good to be true. But Mike quickly points out how crucial faithfulness was to ultimate success. “It took five years of hard work and development to be in the position to do the book,” he explains. “In 2007, I wouldn’t have been ready.” Not only did Mike take that first step to try sketchnotes, but he attended conferences, network extensively and shared his sketchnotes online—for years—without any promise of reward.
To put it simply, he was good at “being there.” Mike’s consistent attendance at conferences with the same speakers, sketchnotes in hand, eventually to his illustrating REWORK. Faithful execution on that project led to more illustration gigs and finally to his opportunity at Peachpit.
“I wasn’t good buddies with any of these people,” Mike notes. “It was just developing awareness. You show up and share your work consistently. When you do that, you prove that you’re worth investing in, for a bigger opportunity.”
Against that backdrop, Mike’s story truly is remarkable. And his recipe for success, deceptively simple as it is, remains accessible to anyone who’s willing to put forth the effort. Ultimately, Mike boils his success down to just three actions: “Be consistent, deliver and make others look good. We often want the big hit right away. But all hardest work is building opportunities through good work and making connections before you need them.”
So, wherever today finds you on your creative journey, take a note from Mike Rohde. (Preferably in cool typography, with a drawing or two!) Be faithful to practice your passion. Show up—every time. And deliver on any opportunity you’re given.
You’ll be thankful you did.
And while you’re at it, mark your calendars for November 30th, to purchase your very own copy of The Sketchnote Handbook. And don’t forget your Christmas list . . .
Plus, RSVP here to attend the launch party in Milwaukee.