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Entries in Observations (73)


A Year of Daily Logging

Logbook 2014

THIS YEAR I decided to keep a logbook, thanks to Austin Kleon.

At the end of 2013, I ordered a one page per day Large Moleskine diary in yellow, starting the process of logging on January 1st, 2014. Now that the year is over, my weathered logbook as a treasured item, full of memories.

I've already started a new logbook with a Hobonichi Techo from Japan, with a slightly smaller size and thinner paper than the Moleskine. I'm loving it.

Techo vs moleskine

Hobonichi Techo vs. Moleskine.

A Logbook is Not Necessarily a Diary

Trying to sustain a year-long logbook was a bit of a risk. I’ve never been great at consistently keeping a traditional "dear diary" book. I’d start hot for a few weeks or months before flaming out.

The shift away from a "dear diary" to fill at the end of the day, to a book where items are logged as the day unfolds is a key difference. My logbook is a living document. I fill it as the day progresses, rather than working to create a narrative of the day from memory.

Of course that doesn't limit me from adding thoughts after the fact. I’ve made use of empty pages to sketch out concepts and ideas. On one occasion, I sketchnoted a TV documentary as an experiment as I worked on The Sketchnote Workbook — it worked great!

Logbook ss titanic show

Sketchnote of a TV show: Titanic's Final Mystery.

A Space for Tasks and Ideas

Along with logging daily activities, I use my logbook to set key tasks for the day, using hand-drawn checklists. Sometimes I'll add icons with notes and comments to log entries. I manage my detailed tasks in Things, but it's helpful to keep 2-3 key tasks in my logbook as a reminder.

Logbook sa trip

Sketchnote Travelogue of San Antonio, TX.

I'll often sketchnote experiences, like visits to restaurants or cities. It's great to freely use pages to capture whatever strikes me.

Capturing ideas is another great use for my logbook. I use space to draw something I'm thinking about to work out the details, like this image of a pinewood derby car my son wanted to create.

Logbook baconator

The Baconator Pinewood Car concept sketch.

That's the beauty of a logbook — it's your space to capture whatever you'd like. There is no correct way — whatever you want to log is fine.

Logbook nathan 2014

My son Nathan's favorite things from 2014 page.

Try a Logbook!

Experimenting with logbooks has been an enjoyable and valuable experience. I challenge you to start a logbook, even if you're starting late. Think of all the free pages in January you'll have for sketching ideas!


The Long, Slow Overnight Sensation

Nathan Reading The Sketchnote Handbook

I'VE HAD A FEW PEOPLE TELL ME recently that they're pleased to see my "meteoric rise" or my "internet fame" increasing around The Sketchnote Handbook and The Sketchnote Typeface.

While I'm not sure about meteoric rising or internet famousness, I have been thinking about how I got where I am now and what wisdom I can share with you.

Here are 3 things that occurred to me.

1. Play the Long Game

I've found it important to think of your body of work with a long-term view. When I do things, I aim as much as I can to think about how a project or opportunity will impact me over the next many months or years.

By choosing to illustrate REWORK in 2009, my reputation as a book illustrator grew and afforded me opportunities to illustrate many more books. My track record as an illustrator helped me land The Sketchnote Handbook book offer. REWORK continues to provide opportunities for work four years later.

Case in point: REMOTE, the new book from 37signals coming October 29. Doing REWORK opened a door to create 71 more illustrations for the new book.

Questions to consider:

  • If I take this project, how will it impact my body of work?
  • What future clients will choose me, based on work I'm accepting now?
  • If a potential project pays well, but negatively impacts my reputation, is that really a long-term win?
  • How does this opportunity move me closer to my long-term goals?

2. Invest Success into New Opportunities

Investing one success into another opportunity is another valuable lesson I've learned. To write The Sketchnote Handbook, I created a typeface with Delve Withrington to make the book easier for me to produce. I then made the typeface available for sale. The book's success was invested in The Sketchnote Typeface, which has sold well and has appeared in several web and mobile applications already.

Questions to consider:

  • How can I take momentum, goodwill or ideas from one successful project and invest them in another opportunity?
  • Are there partnership opportunities I might consider to make a project investment a win-win for myself and someone else?
  • Who (potential customers, clients) might benefit from something I'm doing or have done, that could create a new opportunity?

3. Embrace & Invest in Community

I'm a proponent of building strong communities because I think they're healthy, rewarding and make people better people. I believe embracing and investing in communities brings opportunities to keep the long-term engine running.

In 2009, I started Sketchnote Army as a way to share the work of other sketchnoters because it was hard to see new work easily. Because of that investment in building a community, I created an opportunity to make friends with many sketchnoters.

When the time came to invite featured sketchnoters to be part of my book, the process was met with excitement. The 15 featured sketchnoters in The Sketchnote Handbook represent the community so well—there's a great blend of women and men from around the world in those 30 pages. Having the community also aided my collecting other sketchnotes for the rest of the book.

Questions to consider:

  • What kind of community do I wish existed?
  • Who else can help me kickstart this community?
  • Can I join a community to share my skills in, to help make it better?
  • How can I encourage others in my community?
  • What opportunities can be created with others in the community?

I've found these three elements critical to my own long-term successes and hope they can play a part in yours, too.


Here are a few resources that have helped me in these areas:

  • Die Empty - an excellent book by Todd Henry about getting your best work out and creating a consistent body of work.
  • Steal Like an Artist - A kickstart of a book by my friend Austin Kleon about taking the perspective of an artist, in whatever work you do.
  • Anything You Want - A great book on the value of slow, humane growth and doing things yourself by Derek Sivers, the founder of CD Baby.
  • Sell your by-products - An article by Jason Fried about taking what look like by-products to you and turning them into value for others.

This article also appeared on Medium.


Window of Time



Most of the time I don't even think about the time I've spent or what's left of my life. Most days, I live in the moment.

Sometimes, when I'm having a great day, or my kids do amazing things, or I realize how much I love my wife, a fear sneaks in to ruin things. It's the fear that my window of life will close.

That sneaking, stinking fear, left unchecked, can lead to depressing thoughts. When it tries to ruin my day, I call it out.

Instead of focusing on endings, I appreciate the window of time I have left.

Instead of dwelling on mistakes, I remember what I've learned from them and how they make me better.

Instead of feeling flawed, I remember that everyone is flawed and there is beauty in imperfection.

Within my window of time I choose whether my impact on others will be positive or negative.

I hope you to fight against the fear too. Make a positive impact. Leave a beautiful life behind that inspires others to live lives fully, just as you did.

Embrace your window of time.


Uncomfortable Opportunities


I DON'T LIKE BEING UNCOMFORTABLE — who does? But, when I'm feeling uncomfortable, it's often a marker for new opportunities, if I'm open to them.

Here are four stories from my own life, were my being uncomfortable eventually led to great opportunities.

New City, New Life

When I was 15, our family moved from Chicago to Milwaukee. I left friends, my high school and a familiar neighborhood. In Milwaukee it was uncomfortable to start over again, in a new city, school, having to make new friends. But being uncomfortable in a new city provided opportunities to become outgoing and adaptable in new situations. Moving eventually led me to my beautiful wife, our children and relationships with many great friends and colleagues.

A Haircut Leads to Germany

One saturday morning, I walked into my local barbershop and found my barber speaking to a young man in German. I felt a bit uncomfortable, but stayed. I was curious about this guy, Matthias, which led to a great, long-term friendship. A haircut led me to visit Germany for pleasure and business, brought European friends to my life and formed me professionally as I worked 9+ years remotely for MakaluMedia, a web design & development firm in Germany.

From Printer to Designer

In college I was focused on printing, but my school, Milwaukee Area Technical College, required printing, design and photography students take classes in all three disciplines. It was uncomfortable being stretched in three directions, but through exposure to design I found a love for design as a career. I left the printing department for design, graduated and became a professional designer.

My Speaking Moment

Two years ago I was invited to speak on sketchnoting at Pecha Kucha Milwaukee. Back then I was uncomfortable speaking to crowds, but I accepted the challenge. At first, I was a bit freaked out, but worked hard to prepare. My talk was well-received, which gave me confidence. Now I love speaking to people and am excited for opportunities to share my passion with others.

When I remember these and other stories, I'm encouraged. Uncomfortable situations often turn into great, life-changing opportunities.

What uncomfortable situations am I in?

Is there opportunity under the surface?

Update June 2, 2012
Here's some very relevant discussion from Todd Henry: The Accidental Creative Podcast: Gaining Clarity Through Action. Don’t be paralyzed by fear of the unknown! Do what you’re qualified to do, and stop doing the things that only waste your focus, time and energy.


Building Credibility

BUILDING CREDIBILITY has been on my mind for a long time. With several hours of time to write as I travel, it seemed a good time to capture and share my thoughts after some reflection.

One of the things I've been fascinated about in design and social media circles I frequent is the subject of credibility. How does one develop credibility and gain authority? Can it be done quickly, or is it a long term practice that demands stamina and discipline?

While I'm far from an expert in this area, I have had years of experience building my own credibility and I'd like to share what I know. Hopefully these thoughts will help others and start an interesting discussion.

Spray-On Credibility vs. Investment in Credibility

There seems to be an idea floating about that says credibility can be gained quickly. You know, 157 crazy stunts to gain followers, bombarding social media streams with promotional items or launching hit and run business card raids at attendee-rich events.

This stuff may appear to work — briefly bumping your analytics numbers. Ultimately, many of these tactics serve to form a brittle structure that resembles an organic network, but really consists of followers who mostly tune out your constant stream of SEO-optimized personal press releases.

It's Spray-on credibility.

In my experience, the best, most lasting, and deeply satisfying way to gain credibility in any community is to approach it with the respect and discipline of a long-term investment. Every tweet, blog post or face to face meeting should be seen as an opportunity to invest by giving and sharing things of value with people who choose to follow you.

This includes lots of listening, sharing resources and information, answering questions, helping solve problems and giving away your wisdom to those who can benefit from it.

At the heart of this approach are people — those you admire and genuinely want to interact with. Take away the technology to focus on listening to people experiencing good days and bad days. Share their excitement, promote their wins and sympathize with their losses. It's a community, not direct marketing.

My ultimate goal is to meet every person I interact with online — in a face to face meeting if at all possible. I may never meet every person, but by maintaining this people-centric mindset, I'm reminded of the human reasons I choose to spend time listening and sharing in a community.

The REWORK Experience

When I look back at the path taken to get the REWORK illustration project with Jason and David at 37signals, I can clearly see this long-term investment approach appearing at every turn.

It all began with taking a chance: sketchnoting a 37signals SEED conference in Chicago, meeting some good friends in person at the event and then sharing my sketchnotes with the world.

My shared efforts got the attention of the 37signals community and ultimately, the attention of Jason and David, who featured my work on their Signal vs. Noise blog. That first set of sketchnotes started reaching thousands of SEED attendees and 37signals fans.

My efforts at SEED 1 led to sketchnoting SEED 3 one year later, but this time as as an invited guest of the presenters. This opened the door to being hired by SXSW Leadercast and An Event Apart to sketchnote their events, build credibility and invest in more communities.

Eventually, after continual efforts sharing my sketchnotes, I was to hired to illustrate REWORK, which has become a runaway bestseller. In each case there was investment and sharing that ultimately led to the big project, but without that investment, the big illustration gig probably never happens. I couldn't have imagined doing REWORK on that first sketchnote assignment — I simply had to invest and trust that my efforts would bear fruit in the future. They did.

The Long Haul

This approach will not build your follower count overnight. But I believe this slow, long-term approach to investing in your communities — online and off — creates a richer, more valuable and more human credibility for those who are willing to invest.

This also means forgoing anything that feels icky or cheesy. Once you flirt with get-famous-quick schemes there's a real chance of instantly damaging your credibility. Trust your gut to determine if what you're about to broadcast to the world benefits your long-term vision and credibility.

And if you screw up, admit to it immediately. I've stated opinions that have turned out to be wrong or mis-informed. Once I realize an error, I immediately own up to it.

Ultimately it's your character at stake. I highly respect those who know how to own up to mistakes and are open to considering other, often contrary ideas without flipping out or starting a flame war.

I think this whole topic can be summed up as just being a good human. Listen, share, provide value to others, be open, admit mistakes and know that by building great character, you're also building great credibility.