The Powerful Science Behind Visual Note-Taking

At Ink Factory, we use the term “Visual Note-taking” to describe our work. We’re practiced in real-time notetaking using hand-drawn images and text. There are two main ways to experience visual notetaking. You can be the visual note-taker, or, you can be an audience member witnessing live visual note-taking. Both can be beneficial to a person’s ability to process, retain, and recall information, but how much impact can it really have?



What is Visual Note-taking?

Visual notes are drawings that use a combination of text and imagery to convey key points from presentations, meetings, class lectures, or anything, really.

Visual notes are created in real-time while actively listening to content.  They are typically drawn using pen and marker and can also be drawn digitally. Their composition is non-linear.

Visual notes are not drawn left to right like traditional notes. They are developed by making connections between content. They use illustration as well as handwritten text to communicate information and represent concepts. This combination of text and simple illustrations create simple bookmarks in the brain.


4 Visual Notetaking Icons

How Does Visual Note-taking Influence Audiences?

In a world where PowerPoint presentations are considered too wordy, audiences are looking for ways to digest information. Visuals help to simplify the process, allowing information to be easily understood.  The process of hand-drawn visualization further drives engagement when drawn in real-time.


Computer with visual notetaking icons surrounding it


Visual Note-taking Has Power

Visual information “has increased 400% in literature, 9900% on the internet, and 142% in newspapers.” (Zacks, 2002). Combining visuals with text is simply more engaging!  Researchers have found that color visuals increase a person’s willingness to read by 80 percent.(Green, 1989). That’s probably because sixty-five percent of people simply learn better visually (Yapton, 1998).

Man looking at visual notetaking presentation notes


Visual Note-taking Helps People Remember Content

When combined with the audio of a presentation or speech, visuals have a powerful impact on memory. Graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that visuals are more effective than audio at achieving higher memory retention. Specifically, it seems that the use of visuals with text is easiest to remember. (Udomon, et al., 2013).

“Words are difficult for the brain to retain. Visuals are concrete and more easily remembered.”


People “remember 80 percent of what they see, 10 percent of what they hear, and 20 percent of what they read” (Lester, 2006). Words are abstract and difficult for the brain to retain. Visuals are concrete and more easily remembered. This concept in psychology is called the Picture Superiority Effect.



We’re not just talking about an increase in short-term recall.  Visuals stick in our long-term memory, unlike text. A study found that participants who viewed only text remembered 10 percent of what they read after three days.  Those who viewed text paired with visuals remembered 65 percent of the information three days later (Medina, 2008).

Visual Note-taking Improves Comprehension

Our eyes are constantly looking for concepts to latch onto – and we are much better at finding concepts in visuals than in text (Trafton, 2014). In fact, the brain processes visuals 60,000 times faster than text (Semetko & Scammell, 2012). When visual notes are used in a conference or meeting, most of the audience will be able to quickly understand the content.

“Using visuals during meetings creates more ideas, creates better ideas, and increases recall.”


Seeing content presented in visually helps people to connect ideas. Visual note-takers will draw physical connections (like arrows, lines, and paths) between related content to guide the viewer’s eye around the page. “These sorts of visuals are effective in brainstorming,” says Martin Eppler. “We’ve found in our experiments that using visuals during meetings creates more ideas, creates better ideas, and increases recall” (Averett, 2014).


Pill bottles in a row with visual notetaking


One study explored the way people interpret instructions on medicine packaging. Researchers found that people following directions with text and illustrations did much better than those following text only directions (Levie & Lentz, 1982). We often rely on visuals to process information, so picking up a marker and communication with a visual language makes sense.

Why Should You Start Taking Visual Notes?

Visual note-taking is similar to traditional note-taking: anyone can do it regardless of his or her drawing ability. Taking personal notes is easy. No one else will see them and they serve as great reference material.



Unlike traditional visual art forms, there is no pressure to make beautiful images.  Leave that to the professionals (us!). Visual note-taking goes beyond pretty pictures. It’s a tool anyone can use to improve their ability to retain information.

When you start utilizing visual notes, you start to process and reframe information in your own language. This leads to better information retention. In a study completed by Princeton and UCLA, professors discovered that students who took handwritten notes did better with memory recall than students who took notes with their laptops (Herbert, 2014).

“When you start taking visual notes you start to process and reframe information in your own language.”


Research suggests that even the simple act of doodling can help assuage boredom, keeping the brain from entering a daydreaming or “idling mode,” which helps individuals stay focused during an otherwise stimulating activity (Schott, 2011).


Visual Thinking and Communicating Skills


Previously maligned as a sign that students aren’t paying attention in class, a study found that a group who doodled during a monitoring task recalled 29 percent more information than the non-doodlers (Andrade, 2009).

“A group who doodled during a monitoring task recalled 29 percent more information than the non-doodlers.”


Letters themselves are a visual means of communication. Early language started with pictures.  Combining words with illustrations is a great way to communicate with others (Childers et al., 2013). When you consider the origins of visual language and communication, taking visual notes makes sense!

Learn visual note-taking

Interested in learning how to become a visual note-taker? We host full-day workshops that are a deep-dive into the fundamental skills behind taking visual notes. Our public workshops are now open for registration! We can’t wait to see you at our studio in Chicago, IL!





Andrade, J. (2010). What does doodling do? Applied Cognitive Psychology Appl. Cognit. Psychol., 24(1), 100-106. doi:10.1002/acp.1561

Averett, N. (2014, February). Science of the Creative Mind. Inc. Mag, 86-87.

Childers, P. B., Hobson, E., & Mullin, J. A. (1998). ARTiculating: Teaching writing in a visual world. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

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Mousavi, Seyed Yaghoub, Renae Low, and John Sweller. “Reducing Cognitive Load by Mixing Auditory and Visual Presentation Modes.” Journal of Educational Psychology 87.2 (1995): 319-34. Web.

Scammell, Margaret, and Holli Semetko. SAGE Handbook of Political Communication. London: SAGE Publications, 2012. Print.

Schott, G. (2011). Doodling and the default network of the brain. The Lancet, 378(9797), 1133-1134. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(11)61496-7

Udomon, I., Xiong, C., Berns, R., Best, K., & Vike, N. (2013). Visual, Audio and Kinesthetic Effects on Memory Retention and Recall. Journal of Advanced Student Science. Retrieved August 31, 2016.

Zacks, J., Tversky, B., & Schiano, D. (2002). Graphs in Print. Diagrammatic Representation and Reasoning, 187-206. Retrieved August 31, 2016, from Springer Link.