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Entries in Sketchnotes (82)


SXSW Interactive '09 Tote Bag Design

In October 2008, I was honored when Shawn O'Keefe and the SXSW team asked me to design the 2009 SXSW Interactive canvas tote bag.

I know from my last year at SXSW Interactive that 8,000+ tote bags are given out to SXSW Interactive registrants — so I was driven to come up with an unique design.

In this post I'll explain the tote bag design process, including some of the challenges we faced through that process and how we came up with a winning solution.

Initial Specs and Feedback

In the initial briefing for the tote bag design project, Shawn had a few specs for the bag and a sense of the general direction the team at SXSW wanted to go in for the design. For specs, I had a 10" x 10" space and up to 7 colors to work with.

The SXSW team also mentioned that the past two bag designs had been hand-drawn in a cartoon style, with mostly darker colors. For the 2009 design they wanted something brighter and less cartoon oriented.

For creative direction, the SXSW team wanted to represent the most common tags generated by the Interactive Panel Picker in a creative way. Shawn shared a Wordle word cloud type treatment as a reference, using some of the tags they were seeing:


I wanted to explore some alternate ideas for Shawn to see, so I began by sketching pencil concepts in my trusty Miquelrius gridded sketchbook. I find this is a critical step to working out ideas. It's clear enough that clients can see direction, but open enough that there is still room for adjustment and iteration.

Concept Sketch v1

In the first round, I created a network tree, with SXSW 09 text at the center of the tree with panel picker tags branching out from the center to fill the space:

The SXSW team felt the very structured network idea was a bit too rigid. They wanted the design to have a more random, organic feel than a network structure could offer.

Concept Sketch v2

In my second sketch, you'll see I've returned to the general idea of a tag cloud, but making better use of the square shape I had to work with.

The upper sketch uses actual tags to form an arrow pointing to the SXSW tag in the lower right corner. The lower sketch features four arrows created with tags, point to the 4 corners that spell out S X S W:

We liked the second round of sketches, especially the idea with the single arrow pointing to SXSW in the lower right-hand corner of the design.

Black & White Concepts

At this point I moved to Adobe Illustrator on the Mac to build the tag cloud in black & white with real fonts, to see how actual tags would look in place:

This direction was good — the sizing of the letters, positioning and overall shape felt right. In fact, when I showed this to my friend Brian Artka, it reminded him of the state of Texas. I hadn't intended this, but I really liked the serendipity of it.

Shawn and the SXSW team wanted to see the arrow tags and SXSW pointing to the lower left, so I created a second version, emphasizing the Texas shape a bit more:

Notice the circle-star and AUSTIN text in the middle of the type treatment? I added it once the shape was tweaked to look more like Texas.

Color Concepts

With the structure worked out in black & white, it was time to explore color. I started adding colors to the tags, balancing their placement across the cloud. Then mocked up the color concept on a blank canvas tote bag photo for review:

The brightness of the design was great, but it needed something to separate the tag cloud from the canvas color. I used the type to create a halftone-edged shape in Photoshop, which formed the white shape under the typography in v2:

Facing & Solving Challenges

This design was shaping up! The tag cloud was working well, color was bright and cheerful and the overall feel was mostly positive. But there was a problem — the design was a bit too crisp and mechanical.

The SXSW team wanted a design that was more organic, and even though initially they didn't want another hand-drawn bag design, we started talking about using the Sketchnote style they really loved, mixed in with regular typography.

I replaced some of the tags in the cloud with hand-drawn sketchnote lettering:

It still wasn't noticeable enough, since the crisp typography dominated the design. The hand-drawn words were getting lost in the mix, and looked more like bad reproduction than intentionally hand-drawn typography.

Next I traced the bottom half of the tags in a sketchnote style, scanned and auto-traced the letters using Vector Magic (a wonderful service BTW).

I wanted show a transformation from sketchnote letters to real type — but it still felt wrong. It was too loose for actual type and too mechanical for hand-drawn type:

I was stumped, trying too hard to sneak organic hand-drawn letters into the type.

The Solution: Raw Sketchnote Typography

After a good discussion with Shawn about direction, we decided to shift radically and completely to a sketchnote style for the tag cloud typography. I changed my production method, using actual scans of the sketchnote type, rather than tracing the scans into vectors. The raw scans were much more human and organic:

Yes! This was what we were aiming for! Shawn and the SXSW team liked the new sketchnote direction and I did as well. I had my personality baked in and felt unified and organic — something we didn't feel with the clean typographic approach.

With the design approved, I finalized my Photoshop artwork for printing, and sent it to the SXSW team for production. That was November 17th, because printing 8,000+ canvas tote bags with 7 colors needed lots of lead time. :-)

Final Tote Bags

It was mid-February when Shawn sent word that the bags were back from production. He grabbed a camera and took a few shots of the bag design, so I could see how they turned out and for this blog post:

After having a few months away from the design, the human touch in the sketchnote lettering really feels right for this bag design. I'm very happy with how it's turned out.

I'm hoping attendees to SXSW Interactive for 2009 will enjoy the bags and the design. I'm honored knowing that these bags will be used for years to come, reminding SXSW attendees of their great experience in Austin.

Thank You

Thanks go to Shawn O'Keefe, Hugh Forrest and the entire SXSW team for choosing me to design the tote bag for 2009. Thanks for staying with me through the tough times in the process as we met the challenge together. It's been great fun.

I'm excited to see thousands of tote bags I've designed wandering around Austin!


Sketchnoting SXSW Interactive 2009

SXSWi 2008 Sketchnotes: First SpreadDoom and gloom. Meltdown of the global economy. Real estate prices dropping, layoffs, businesses closing and more bad news bombards us daily.

2008 was a rough year and 2009 is off to a rocky start. These are challenging times.

In spite of the bad news around us, I've decided to focus on the positive. To focus on the opportunities in this new year and not let the negativity dominate my outlook or perspective.

For me, this begins with SXSW interactive in Austin, Texas, March 13-18, 2009.

SXSW Interactive Official Sketchnoter

One hugely bright spot in 2009 is the honor of being the Official Sketchnoter to SXSW Interactive. In 2008, my first ever SXSW, I used my Moleskine pocket sketchbook and G2 pen to live capture several of the panels and sessions in sketchnote form.

At the time I was capturing the event for myself and the small band of followers who enjoyed my work from SEED 1 and SEED 3 conferences and other events I'd captured in 2007 and 2008. What surprised me was how popular the SXSW 2008 sketchnotes became. Just a week after posting the sketchnotes, they appeared on 80+ sites, including Daring Fireball, R.BIRD, FrogDesign, Jason Santa Maria and Boing Boing!

I'm very excited about working in an official capacity this year. I think the toughest challenge will be which panels to attend and capture. I have a list of panels I'm looking forward to, but I also know how panels often overlap. It should be fun. :-)

Get In Touch

I'd love to meet new people at SXSW, so if you're attending and would like to talk over coffee at the event, drop me a line with SXSW in the subject line and say hello, and if you like, follow me on Twitter.

I'm attending the 2009 Avalonstar Bowling Extravaganza on Saturday, March 15th, and my co-conspirator Brian Artka and I are organizing some kind of small gathering at an Austin location during SXSW Week, we'll announce soon.

Stay Positive!

Be thankful for what you have in your life. Be ready for opportunities. Circumstances can bring you down — don't let them ruin your outlook. Stay positive!

Related Links
SXSW interactive
SXSW Interactive 2008 Sketchnotes
SXSW Ning Group
2009 Avalonstar Bowling Extravaganza


8 Questions on Art Direction, Design & Sketchnotes

Mike Rohde Portrait: Cream BricksSeveral months ago, my friend Larry Wright asked if I'd be up for a detailed interview about design, art direction and sketchnotes. I loved the idea and agreed, responding to Larry's questions via email.

We met at the first SEED conference in 2007 and we've kept in contact since. As a developer, Larry is fascinated by design and after sitting next to me as I produced the SEED 1 sketchnotes, was curious about the sketchote process.

Here are some excerpts from the interview, first, my thoughts on art direction:

"In my view, an 'Art Director' is a designer with a 50,000 foot meta view of design projects they work on. They are involved all the way from listening to the client and stakeholders on a project, through the conception of an idea to the design, development and production the idea."

On my design process:

"Once I understand the challenge, I read my notes, and synthesize the goals for sketching. I use pencil sketches to help work out ideas that can solve the challenges I’m facing. These sketches are presented to clients with what I call “rationale notes” explaining the whys of my design concepts."

And on my sketchnotes:

"I find taking notes and sketching really reinforce what I’m capturing in my head as a speaker talks. Sketchnotes are not meant to be word-for-word stenographer notes, but interpretive. I capture what I feel is important, which makes sketchnotes personal."

The full interview: Mike Rohde - Designer, Blogger, Sketchnote Artist is available at Larry's site. Do check it out and consider following Larry Wright on Twitter!

Thanks Larry!


Spreenkler Sketchnotes: Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett

Spreenkler Sketchnotes Tryptych

Last night I had an opportunity to attend the Spreenkler January meeting, to hear Milwaukee's Mayor Tom Barrett speak about his vision for sustaining creativity and innovation and answer questions at The Residences at Hotel Polomar's sales office.

I wasn't intending on sketchnoting the event, as I'd left my blank Moleskine sketchbooks at home. However, I did have my Moleskine notebook and a G2 gel pen along, so I decided spur of the moment to see what would happen.

Turns out that Mayor Barrett had some great things to say, which I was able to capture in sketchote form, shown above.

Thanks go to Steve Glynn for starting up Spreenkler to give Milwaukeeans more opportunities to connect and generate excitement in the city and this area, and to Mayor Barrett for speaking and taking questions.


Coffee Achiever Interview at

cp-sketchtoon-calendar-2009.jpgI'm very honored to be interviewed and featured as Coffee Achiever for December 2008 issue of the iNeedCoffee newsletter.

I replied to questions from Alex Scofield, who crafted his article from my replies. It's fascinating to see how Alex's article compares with my interview replies. If you're curious, I've included my interview replies below.

Here's an excerpt from Alex's article:

"The coffee artwork in Rohde’s calendar is an outgrowth of his Sketchnotes. They’re a twist and a major upgrade on the margin doodles of a note-taking student – Sketchnotes capture an event utilizing visual elements and fonts that are as crucial as the text in the overall presentation."

You can read the entire interview and the other great articles at

Original Questions & Answers

Here are Alex's questions and my detailed replies, the basis of the final article.

Q: Can you say a little bit about where you grew up, where you went to school, and how you developed as an artist?

I grew up in Chicago, an area called Rogers Park, right on the border with Evanston, Illinois near Northwestern University. I went to school in that area through my Freshman year in high school, when our family moved to the Milwaukee area, where I still live today.

My elementary and high school years were very formative as an artist, because I drew all the time. That early experience of constantly drawing has been key to drawing and illustrating now that I'm older.

Q: How were SketchNotes born, or how did they evolve toward their present form?

They were born back in 2007 in a form clearly defined as "sketchnotes". I was attending a UX Intensive event put on by Adaptive Path in Chicago when I created the first set:

I decided to try intentionally including drawings and fonts in my notes to see if it was possible and how well I would be able to capture the event. It worked out so well, I've continued to take sketchnotes at other events:

Lately, I've been invited by organizers of several events like SEED 3, and An Event Apart to be the official 'sketchnoter' at those events, which has worked out quite well:

I'm scheduled to attend Word of Mouth Crash Course on December 10th, and SXSW Interactive in March 2009 as the official sketchnoter. I'm very excited about these and other future sketchnoting opportunities.

Q: Was there anything in particular that inspired the calendar’s coffee theme?

Our friend Kathy loves coffee and happens to have a coffee themed kitchen. We had a terrible time finding coffee calendars for her at Christmas, so we decided to create our own coffee calendar at Café Press.

A few years ago my wife and I created a coffee calendar with photography, which our friend loved. Then, as I had been sketching more in the past few years, I had the idea to do a calendar with an illustrated coffee theme.

So, I took my Moleskine pocket sketchbook to local cafes and began the illustration, which were scanned and colorized in the Mac and posted at Café Press as the calendar you can buy today:

It's been very popular as a gift, I think because there are so few good coffee calendars out there. Turns out I'm the top organic hit in Google search results for 'coffee calendar' along with my friend Ricardo Levins Morales' wonderful illustrated coffee calendar:

Q: Can you describe the “colorization” process used for the Sketchtoon calendars?

The art is all done in black and white in a pocket Moleskine sketchbook, scanned in and colorized in Photoshop.

I've found a few special brushes in Photoshop to created the mottled look for the dark brown, and the color for the coffee drinks was painted so it overprints the black artwork.

Q: The first time you colorized your art this way, was it a happy accident, or the expected result?

I've actually done similar colorizations in my career as a graphic designer, in particular some illustration work for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee years ago, with black and white art colorized in Photoshop.

I like this approach because I can easily change direction or colors by simply re-doing a layer of the Photoshop file.

Q: Do you ever do your coffee Sketchtoons while you’re drinking the beverage described?

Heh, great question! I've had most of these drinks, and a few while sketching the art at the local café.

Q: Do you remember when you first drank coffee?

When I was about 5 I spilled hot coffee on myself at my grandmother's house, but it hasn't deterred me! I recall starting to drink coffee regularly in college, when I worked as graphic editor for the Milwaukee Area Technical College Times. They had a coffee club I could afford, and during the cold winters, hot coffee was perfect.

Q: What is the café/coffee scene like around Brown Deer and Milwaukee? Any favorite places?

Of course we have the chains here, Starbucks and Caribou, but in Menomonee Falls where I live, we have an excellent local coffee shop called John Harbor's Main Street Coffee house. They feature great, locally roasted coffee, food, free WiFi, and live music:

Another Milwaukee area roaster and coffee chain called Alterra Coffee, with cafes all over the city in interesting and often historical buildings:

And there are all sorts of small, independent cafes and coffee shops around the city, too numerous to list.

Q: How big a part of your life is coffee these days?

Coffee is very important. I brew coffee in the morning for my wife and I to
start the day. At Northwoods Software where I work, I often pull shots of
espresso or make cappuccinos on the office DeLonghi Magnifica — which I have
to say is great to have around.

I also have a Krups espresso maker at home which takes pods as well as ground coffee, a French press and a handy moka pot.

Every now and then I like getting away to my local café for coffee to read,
or do a little sketching or design work in a relaxed environment.

Q: What is your favorite kind of coffee, or your favorite coffee-based beverage?

I like darker roast coffees and given a choice, I'll take a cappuccino or a well-pulled shot of espresso. For me coffee is all about taste.

Q: From the ‘Diner Coffee’ entry, I get the feeling that you appreciate high-end coffee, yet are okay with drinking diner coffee, too, depending on the situation. Am I right?

Yes, exactly! I like exploring a wide variety of coffee and surprisingly, some diner coffees aren't so bad. I think in the US there's been a positive effect of Starbucks and other coffee establishments improving the quality of coffee overall, which benefits we coffee fans in the end.

But I will say that when I encounter truly bad coffee I won't drink it. Life is just too short to torture my taste buds. :-)

Alex, thanks for the opportunity to interview with iNeedCoffee!

Check out the full interview at