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Does Visual Note-Taking Have a Place in the Business of Ecological Restoration?

By Liz Clift

Visual note-taking, sometimes also called sketchnoting or graphic recording, allows you to represent ideas non-linguistically. And considering that the written word is a relatively modern invention (in particular, it wasn’t until very recently in the history of human beings that the written word was something most of us in the Western world, at least, have access to), it shouldn’t come as a surprise that an estimated two-thirds of people are visual learners.

Visual note-taking of a biological processes

As a perpetual doodler, who has always been drawn to less traditional forms of note-taking, learning about visual note-taking was eye-opening for me.

At last, I had a name for the thing I used to do—and the thing that “being a professional” had nearly stolen from me.

“Content-driven doodling” on the other hand, has the potential to spark creativity and improve comprehension, and to help people (like me) who learn better visually and kinesthetically, rather than aurally, retain information in a meeting or presentation—or a site visit or reading.

Visual note-taking can be as linear or as creative as you need (or as the presentation dictates), but visual note-taking usually utilizes some combination of the following:

  • Text – meaningful quotes, key points. Use flourishes or other typographic treatments to emphasize key points or add interest to large blocks.
  • Containers – Enclosing words in shapes (thought clouds, boxes, circles, or quote bubbles)
  • Connectors – Connect ideas or pieces of a story with arrows and lines
  • Frameworks – how you understand the underlying structure or model of a presentation, which might look like a 2×2, Venn diagram, or continuum
  • Icons – allow you to distill reality into a simple drawing (i.e. – a stick figure, a basic tree or flower, a suggestion of a building)
  • Shading – allows you to add dimension and contrast to notes
  • Bullets – that are interesting and distinctive, or help you remember if your team is responsible for that action item or someone from another team is responsible.
  • Color – May depend on the content of the presentation and your ability to maintain your note-taking workflow, but color can allow you to differentiate or distinguish info and then come back. You may want to limit yourself to 2-3 colors.

What, you might be wondering, does this have to do with ecology or restoration or actual design of places?

Kent Johnson, Architect uses visual note-taking to understand place

I may be biased (I am a writer), but so much of the work we do as environmental professionals is about telling a story—and then helping it come to fruition, perhaps as a restoration project, a management or strategic plan, or an educational tool (like interpretive signage). For instance, depending on the project, you might be helping to tell:

  • The story of a place. Past, current, future. Maybe one of these, maybe all of them. Most of us think visually about these histories. Visual note-taking can help us figure out how we want to tell that story to a client, the public, a regulator, or another stakeholder (in a way they will appreciate).
  • The story of a species. The passenger pigeon used to migrate in flocks so large they would fly past a particular location for hours. The wolves have returned to Yellowstone, and in their return have influenced ungulate behavior, which allows aspen and willow trees to once again thrive alongside rivers.
  • The story of a disaster. The way that water breached a levee. The way a reactor’s radiation spread. The way that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) responded, and what the will be the next steps.
  • The story of recovery. What does the site look like in Year 1? Year 3? Year 5? Year 20?

Visual notes might spark exactly what you need to help you write a memo, report, interpretative signage, or your next presentation. Why? Because you’re already thinking outside the box. Something might be the beginning of a conceptual design or a presentation to the community or a sketch that eventually gets transformed into a publicly consumable good on a brochure.

Or, less immediately relevant but just as important, visual notes really can help you remember what you and others at a meeting or training discussed. Doodling does help people retain information (29% more than non-doodling counterparts) and improves overall problem-solving.

Plus, in many ways, visual note-taking is an extension of the type of field notes that our predecessors have used extensively—ranging from more detailed botanical drawings to a quick sketch of what the site looks like—and that we may even use ourselves.

Visual note-taking as a way to better understand an organism

Will you get it right the first time? Probably not. I’m certainly still practicing. But “not being able to draw” isn’t an excuse (google: “Star People: How to Storyboard”). Is it for you? Maybe. Maybe not. You’ll have to try it to figure that out.

But if it means that you retain more information, it’s more visually appealing, and it might help you make more creative connections that could improve your problem-solving ability, maybe it’s worth a shot.

Author’s attempt at visual note-taking based on Twitter on #NPS’ birthday

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