The promise of sketchnoting on a tablet has been a tantalizing but elusive possibility during the last several years. The interaction between the stylus and screen wasn’t fast enough or accurate enough to make it effective.
But with the advent of the Apple iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil, all that has changed. These two devices have been designed to work as one. From increased pen accuracy to almost zero latency when drawing on the screen of the iPad Pro, digital sketchnoting has arrived at an amazing sweet spot.
Sketchnoting guru Mike Rohde recently took a few minutes to chat about his digital sketchnoting journey, the tools he uses to make it work and what the future of this remarkable technology looks like.
What initially intrigued you about the idea of sketchnoting on the iPad Pro?
With the iPad Pro release, I saw something different. A stylus designed to create fine lines. The control I’d hoped for with the very first iPad. Then I tried one at a local Apple Store and it was as amazing as I’d hoped it might be.
I think the most intriguing part of the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil was being able to create sketchnotes with the ability to modify and change, to undo mistakes.
The 12.9 inch version was still too large for me though, so I decided to wait and see if a smaller version might release according to rumors—and in March it happened. So I bought a 9.7 inch iPad Pro and an Apple Pencil, and have been using it ever since.
(Editor’s note: I don’t travel like Mike does, and would probably opt for the iPad Pro with the 12.9 inch screen).
Getting started with digital sketchnoting
How did you get started? What did you experiment with?
Rohde: It’s been a while now, but I started with Paper by FiftyThree, because that was the tool I was already using to present with for Sketchnote Workshops. I am most comfortable with that app, so it made sense to start there.
I mainly started drawing and fiddling around on a canvas, trying to get a feel for how the tools I knew reacted using the finely detailed Apple Pencil—and I loved what I saw.
I think my first real Sketchnote happened a fee weeks later. Here is what I think that first sketchnote was:
For context, here is a recent sketchnote:
What early challenges did you have to overcome? How did you do so?
Rohde: So much of the challenges with the iPad and Pencil were little things, and mainly with incorporating the software tools. Knowing how to hide and show menus, controlling line widths, and all that sort of thing—but it came with time experimenting with the tools.
Which size of iPad Pro are you using? How do you like its screen size?
Rohde: I chose the 9.7” iPad Pro, mainly for traveling with ease. The 12.9” always seemed a bit too large for me. But with the new 10.5” iPad Pro and whatever might come this year, I’m looking at one of those now.
Is the Apple Pencil really all that?
What capabilities does the Apple Pencil bring to the table? What makes it superior to other styli?
Rohde: The Pencil is all about detail. In fact, the screen of the iPad Pro is key to the pencil working as well as it does, which some people may not know. The resolution of the iPad Pro is much higher, which works in tandem with the Apple Pencil. It’s far and away the best stylus I’ve used and it’s portable with the iPad Pro.
You mentioned in your review of the Apple Pencil that there’s no latency between drawing a line and having it appear on screen. How important is that?
Rohde: I think that’s critical. To get the Pencil to feel like real pen or pencil it must have very little if no latency. You wouldn’t think a few micro seconds would matter, but you notice! That was one of the reasons, along with lack of detail, that the original iPad and any stylus prior to the Apple Pencil just didn’t work well for real sketchnoting or illustration work.
You also talk about “fine control of line quality.” Is this something that other styli didn’t deliver before? What was the experience of drawing on an iPad like prior to the advent of the Apple Pencil?
Rohde: Every other stylus felt like a hack. Mainly because the system was never really designed for the stylus—it was always a third party add-on. So, when the Apple Pencil came on the scene with a screen designed for it, it was night and day better.
I’ve heard the Apple Pencil has a few shortcomings, such as the weird dongle and the end cap that keeps falling off. Do you think Apple will ever launch an Apple Pencil 2.0 that addresses these shortcomings?
Rohde: I sure hope they come up with a 2.0 to complete the design. I’ve already lost one cap, and I never feel good about charging the Pencil directly in the iPad Lightning port.
Personally, I would prefer a shorter pencil length, mainly so I could carry it more easily in a pocket.
Digital sketchnoting: There are apps for that
Which drawing app do you use for your digital sketchnotes now? What makes it the best in your mind?
Rohde: I’m a big fan of Paper by FiftyThree for my sketchnotes, and also really love Concepts for illustration work since it’s based on vectors. Vectors are great for making adjustments to illustrations. I also like Procreate, but just have not invested time with the tool to really know what it’s capable of.
What other drawing apps have you experimented with?
Rohde: Sketches from Tayasui is a great tool I’ve played a bit with, along with some notes apps like Notability and GoodNotes. With Paper by FiftyThree, I’ve focused there mostly, so I’ve not spent a ton of time time with other apps.
What are the advantages of sketchnoting on the iPad Pro?
Rohde: Changeability. Having the ability to undo, to move, to scale is big. That’s the main reason I use the iPad Pro and the Pencil. Paper by FiftyThree has a pretty unique interface, in that it allows some changeability where you need it, and some limitations that force you to make decisions.
Having an unlimited stack of “paper” to draw on, in any size you might like is a big advantage, along with the ability to share your work immediately with network access.
What about disadvantages?
Rohde: I think sometimes devices can lead you to create what they limit you by. Let me explain that a little bit. When you use software for anything, you immediately assume whatever limitations the developers of that software baked into the app.
Other things that I see as disadvantages from good ol’ paper and pen: iPad battery goes dead and it doesn’t matter how much storage you have. Apple Pencil battery goes dead and it doesn’t matter how great the latency of the stylus is.
Digital sketchnoting vs. hand-drawn sketchnotes
You’ve noted that “They won’t replace pen, pencil, and paper in my arsenal of visualization tools. Instead, I have more options to choose from.” How do you decide between sketchnoting with pen and notebook vs. these high-tech tools?
Rohde: It really depends on my goal. There are times when I need the digital power of the iPad Pro and Pencil for sketchnoting commissions, so that I can make changes, send the art to the client, or maybe I’m doing precise illustration work that might change with client needs.
Other times I want to travel light, and will only take a sketchbook and a few pens in my pocket. The constraints make for interesting output, especially if there’s no pressure to deliver an end product, where I can experiment with the medium.
You’ve said that digital tools will never act exactly like pen and paper. What differences do people starting out with these digital tools need to be prepared for?
Rohde: I think it’s subtle and probably getting better for digital tools every day. First of all, the feel of the Pencil on the iPad screen can seem strange if you’re used to paper with a tooth. I’ve found that matte screen protectors for the iPad Pro really help with this, giving the screen less of a sticky, plastic feel and similar to that of paper.
It might also feel strange to not feel pencil graphite or ink from a pen on the page. In some ways this could be a good thing, since you won’t smear your ink or pencil!
Finally, it’s a little different working with software if you are used to a completely physical experience. Menus and layers, pen widths and such add some overhead at first, so be ready for that when you get started on an iPad Pro and Pencil.
Based on what you’ve experienced with the iPad Pro, Apple Pencil and your favorite drawing app, what do you foresee as the future of drawing on digital tablets?
Rohde: I think it will continue to expand to more people and the tools will get ever better on the platform. Already we see a more basic iPad that works with the Pencil for education, starting around $300, so eventually this technology will trickle down into regular tools, and other device makers will try and copy the features for their own devices.
I still think there will always be a place for analog tools however. There is something unique about that experience, even if it has limitations vs. a digital one, that make the things we create with analog tools different than digital.
And never having to worry if you have enough battery to sketch is always a nice plus with a notebook and pen.
Mike Rohde is a designer, author, illustrator and sketchnoter, living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He has a passion for simple and usable design solutions. He believes it’s important to share thoughts, ideas and process, so others can draw insight from my experiences. This commitment led to his development of sketchnoting, a visual note-taking methodology that combines text with simple illustrations. He written two books on sketchnoting: The Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking and The Sketchnote Workbook: Advanced Techniques for Taking Visual Notes You Can Use Anywhere.