Notebooks, Napkins and Felt-Tipped Pens

Returning to a theme, here.  The research process is not just about looking for information, it is also about looking at information — analyzing it and making connections between ideas.  Looking at information by making one’s ideas or new found knowledge visual is something that many artists and designers have always done during in the process of creating their art.  It is also, however, a useful exercise for anyone who is starting, or who is in the middle of research project.  Sketching one’s ideas, concept mapping, and jotting down observations are all great ways to get ready to do research or to get the juices flowing again when faced with writer’s block.

I promised in an earlier entry that I would post some pictures of the beautiful artists’ workbooks that are in our collection.  The gallery below contains images from Cecil Beaton’s scrapbooks, Franco Moschino’s collages, and notebooks filled with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s sketches and griffonage.

While we might not all be artists, we all could learning from this practice and I am not the only one who thinks so.  A recent bestseller among business titles, On The Back of a Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas With Pictures by Dan Roam, is just the latest work suggesting that business leaders could get more done if they could learn to express their ideas visually.   Librarians and other educators have long understood the value of having students visualize (or at least jot down by hand) their information needs, especially when teaching textual research skills to students in the visual arts.

Concept mapping (aka mind mapping) is probably the most useful visualization technique for research that involves textual sources or text-based search tools (although I suppose there are cases where moodboards, or storyboards could do the trick).  As an example of how some academic librarians are making this work, here is a presentation that was given at the 2010 ARLIS/NA conference by Ellen Petraits of the Rhodes Island School of Design – Mapping a Research Topic: Using Concept Mapping to Visualize Research.  It contains some brilliant examples of students’ concept maps for an Art History Research project.  More research in the field can be found here (FIT username and password required).  I have used concept mapping when teaching the research workshop for FIT’s Photography Research for Senior Design Project (PH491) class with Professor Anne Hall.

While all you really need to create a concept map is paper and something with which to write or draw, there are a number of online tools out there that can help with the process.  Here’s a list of a few of my favorites.

  • – Basic, easy to use, collaborate and share
  • Mindomo– collaborate, incorporate media files, can be used for presentations
  • Spiderscribe – incorporate media files, calendars, maps, collaborate and share
  • Prezi  – while this is a presentation tool, its templates can easily be re-purposed for concept mapping

I want to emphasize, however, that as great as these tools are, sometimes it might be more effective to step away from the computer and pick up a felt-tipped pen (or some scissors and rubber cement).  The temptation to copy and paste from the web is pretty powerful, and it can impeded our abilities to observe, create and analyze information.


Basquiat, Jean Michel. Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Notebooks. New York: Art + Knowledge : Available through Distributed Art Publishers, 1993. Print.
Beaton, Cecil, and James Danziger. Cecil Beaton: The Art of the Scrapbook. Assouline, 2010. Print.
Moschino, Franco. X Anni Di Kaos, 1983-1993 = X Years of Kaos, 1983-1993. Milano: Edizioni Lybra Immagine, 1993. Print.
Roam, Dan. The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures. Expanded ed., 1st ed. New York: Portfolio, 2009. Print.

One thought on “Notebooks, Napkins and Felt-Tipped Pens

  1. I had the opportunity to participate in some concept mapping sessions this past summer and fall and loved it. We do a thing called a “design studio” where we get clients to sit down with sharpies and paper and we stick figure out how we think a user flow should go.

    It’s pretty amazing to see PhD’s and CEOs getting all flustered because they think they aren’t “artists.” But some of the best ideas come out of this.

    I also find that when I’m having trouble coming up with ideas, taking out one of the kid’s sketchbooks and some markers and drawing is incredibly helpful.

    Great post. I love getting a peek inside the designer’s notebooks!

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