Interview: Mike Rohde - Designer, Blogger, Sketchnote Artist


Today’s interview victim is Mike Rohde. I’ve followed Mike’s blog for a number of years, and I had the good fortune to meet him at the inaugural SEED conference (see his coverage here and mine here). Mike has gained fame recently for his Sketchnotes - notes and hand-drawn pictures from events such as An Event Apart, SEED, and the upcoming SXSW 2009, but apart from that he is a talented writer and designer with a large portfolio of websites, logos, and other impressive work.


Thanks for agreeing to do this interview Mike. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Thanks for the invitation Larry!

About me? I’m a kid from Chicago who loves to draw. I’ve managed to find a profession that allows for and encourages drawing and sketching skills.

I’m a designer and art director, with experience in print and the web, with a passion for usable, practical and good-looking design solutions. I’ve always had a technical side, being fascinated with computers and technology since I was a young kid.

Fortunately for me, web design and working with technical people in my work is a great fit, because I can share my design skills but also relate well to the technical nature of projects and technical people.

I’m also a blogger since 2003 at where I share my thoughts on life, design, technology, visual thinking, music, cycling and whatever else I feel is worth of sharing with the world.

I’m a husband and father, follower of Jesus and a coffee fan.


Until recently you worked as Art Director for MakaluMedia. For those of us not in that field, can you describe what an Art Director does?

Funny you should ask because your question reminded me of a A List Apart article on this very subject by Stephen Hay:

I liked this quote from the article, showing how subjective the role of an art director can be, based on the discipline they’re in:

“In the movies, art directors are usually responsible for creating the “look and feel” of the film. In advertising and print work, art directors (often teamed up with a copywriter) come up with “concepts,” the creative ideas which communicate with us on a gut level through such devices as theme, metaphor, and symbolism. Some art directors do little more than dream up these ideas and present them to clients, while some oversee almost all aspects of the design and production process. Surprisingly, art direction is seldom taught in schools and there is very little formal information on the subject; it is often learned in practice.”

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.

The art director is responsible for maintaining the vision of a design idea, as much as is possible (or reasonable), to achieve the final result. This means maintaining consistency in the project design, structure, usability, colors, brand or identity and anything else related to the design.

It also means working with the client to maintain these goals as well as any team members producing the work, in my case developers who would code the sites and back-ends for web applications. As an art director, I feel I represent the user. I’m responsible for making sure whatever I’m directing — a logo, an icon, a website or printed item — is communicating the message my client wishes to send, effectively and simply.

After many years as a senior designer I began to realize that while I enjoyed the design aspect (and still do), I especially enjoy guiding a project’s consistency between concept and completion, and continuity between multiple items a company produces (website, business cards, brochures, etc.). That’s when I felt comfortable calling myself an art director.

You have blogged about the process you follow to develop. Can you summarize what you do to get from a concept to a finished product?

First, I ask lots of questions, like “What are my client’s goals? What is my client trying to achieve with this project?” and so on. I want to know the ultimate reasons for what we’re about to do, because sometimes what a client proposes may not be the right solution for the underlying challenge.

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.

I’ve found sketches invaluable to solving problems before I ever get to the computer to produce my designs. Some designers may be afraid to show clients their conceptual sketches. I’ve found that showing my sketches to clients is an effective way to share my process, while leveraging my client’s knowledge in solving the problem. Showing sketches draws the client in, making them a part of the solution

What are the tools of the trade for you as a designer?

While computer tools like Adobe Illustrator, Fireworks and Photoshop are important, I feel my most important tools are my pens, pencils and sketchbooks. I have several sketchbooks I use to solve design challenges with pencil or pen, before I even get to the Mac.

On the Mac, I’m a big fan of Adobe Fireworks for web design and icon design, since it offers very useful vector tools. I’ve been an Adobe Illustrator user for many years as well, which I think makes Fireworks a natural choice.


Where do you look for inspiration? Do you have favorite sites or books, or do you just observe things around you?

I have lately been looking in a variety of places for inspiration. As a web and UI designer and art director by day, the applications and sites I use daily provide inspiration to me.

I’ve found friends on Twitter suggesting great articles and design inspiration, which is one of the reasons I find Twitter so valuable as a designer. I’m happy to see so many design professionals tweeting.

Even everyday items and design solutions provide insight and inspiration for me. I love hand-painted signs and am always aware of packaging in stores, and other design elements I encounter in my everyday life.

Some sites I enjoy checking out for inspiration include:

I find inspiration to be best when it’s random and not too planned. :-)


You’ve gained some fame lately for your Sketchnotes. 37Signals linked to your sketches of the Seed conference (which I covered as well, though not nearly as graphically), and your notes from SXSW have been ever more widely covered – including Boing Boing). Where did the idea for Sketchnotes originate?

They’ve been brewing for some years now. I’ve always been one who sketches and doodles, as well as being a long-time note taker, but back in 2007, I made a decision to intentionally combine the two at the Adaptive Path’s UX Intensive workshop in Chicago:


It was well received and I enjoyed the process — so I kept doing “sketchnotes” at other events like SEED 1 and 3, SXSW Interactive and An Event Apart just this past October. Sketchnotes seem to be very well received by attendees and non-attendees alike.

Now I’m being brought on at events as an official “sketchnoter” to capture the event from a different perspective. I’m very excited about this opportunity to become a resource. In fact I’ll be at SXSW Interactive 2009 as an official sketchnoter this March.

I’ve found that taking copious amounts of notes helps me stay engaged in whatever I’m listening to or else my mind tends to wander. Do the Sketchnotes serve a similar purpose for you?

Yes. 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.

However, because someone is actively listening, processing and selecting important ideas, sketchnotes have personality. What they maye lose in fine detail is replaced with a concise, personal way of capturing the moment.

Sketchnotes were intended for myself, but as I began posting them on Flickr, I found others who had attended the same event connecting with them. Even more surprising for me were those who hadn’t attended the events seemed to enjoy reading my sketchnotes. Very cool stuff.

You developed and sold a calendar of coffee-themed sketches this year (which I received as a Christmas gift from my wife, who apparently knows me too well). Will there be more products coming (ala Hugh McLeod’s prints and business cards) or was that a one time experiment?

Right now I’ve focused on the Sketchtoon Coffee Calendar, producing another edition of the same calendar for 2009:


I’m contemplating several different ideas that would create other products for my and sketchtoons, but I’ve been so busy with work and otheractivities, new product development has been on the backburner.

Thanks again for the opportunity to share about my work and thoughts Larry - I especially appreciate your interest in my sketchnotes and sketchtoons!

Interview: Geoffrey Grosenbach on PeepCode, Entrepreneurship, and Making Book Publishing Easier

This article is the second in a series of interviews that I will be conducting over the next few months. For the other interviews, please visit the archives

Thanks for agreeing to do this interview. Can you start by telling everyone a little bit about yourself?

I live in Seattle, home of the world’s most pretentious Ruby brigade. I’ve been doing professional development for almost 10 years.

Do you consider yourself a developer who happens to be an entrepreneur, or is it the other way around?

Definitely a developer first. I love solving problems and reading about other people’s approaches to software development. However, I’ve worked for many startups and it was probably inevitable that I would eventually ask the question “Could I run a business of my own?”

I had wanted to start my own business since high school but didn’t pursue it until recently. In 2002, I wrote a shareware RSS reader and started selling it for $15 online. Cory Doctorow even bought a copy and gave me some feedback, which I unfortunately never implemented.

I only sold a couple hundred copies, but it was a good lesson in developing a product, getting feedback, and advertising. One lesson I should have learned is that there are no overnight successes. Even a good idea often needs 6 months or a year of development and promotion to get off the ground. Unfortunately, I promoted the RSS reader for only a few months and then let it slowly die.

I also started an online todo list that has accidentally resulted in almost 10,000 signups. I haven’t figured out what to do with it yet, but it taught me a lot about deploying Rails applications.

When did you first discover Ruby on Rails?

I started working with it in January, 2005. There weren’t any books, so I started by reading the entire online documentation, method by method. Everything just seemed to fit together and I loved the way that common web development tasks were wrapped up into simple methods.

I still recommend reading through the entire API documentation. It’s the most thorough source available.

What was it about Rails that appealed to you?

At first, I appreciated the high-level completeness of the API. Most of the common things that a web developer would need to do were all there, from database relationship definition to form building. While reading through the documentation, I kept thinking “Yes…I could use that feature!” or “That’s so useful…why didn’t I think of that?” I had built my own MVC framework in Perl, but it was a chore to keep it consistent and bug-free. With Rails, I found a framework that was already capable and was also being constantly improved.

Currently, I appreciate the inventiveness of the Ruby community. Most of the software I rely on day to day isn’t part of the Rails framework at all. I use Haml templates exclusively (I hate having to type all those angle brackets and end tags!), Haml’s Sass templates for my CSS, and make_resourceful whenever I need a REST controller.

I received a copy of the Django book earlier this month (which was very well written), but I cringe at the thought of doing web development without Haml. I’ll probably need to write a few demo projects just to become familiar with it.

What does your development toolset look like? (editor, browser, etc)

I have a pretty standard Rails setup with a Mac, TextMate, FireFox with the web developer and FireBug plugins. For everyday browsing, I find Camino to be a bit faster.

I use the tcsh and the standard Apple terminal. MailPlane for email, though I’m probably going to switch back to mutt now that Gmail offers IMAP. I try to reduce distractions, so I run with a solid black desktop picture and the MenuShade utility to hide the menubar. Sometimes I also use Spirited Away to hide background applications.

I’ve got a great desk from Anthro Cart that can be used sitting down or standing up. Plus, there are attachments for all my audio gear, speakers, etc. A comfortable keyboard from TypeMatrix and the Freedom chair.

Do you have any must-have libraries or tools for Ruby?

autotest and rstakeout for running tests or other commands automatically. In addition to the Rails plugins mentioned above, I use memcached and acts_as_state_machine in most of my web applications. The Hodel logger is a must for viewing the real-world performance of a web application.

I’ve been experimenting with dtrace and hope to learn how to use it.

You started PeepCode several years ago. What drove you to do that?

I had wanted to do something with teaching and digital distribution. I read many books and they are often out of date by the time they hit the shelf. I saw how popular the original 10-minute Rails blog screencast was and I also noticed that many other people were doing screencasts. However, they often had distracting quirks, such as being shot fullscreen and delivered at gigantic resolutions. So I figured that I could do a really polished screencast that would be more informative than many books and cover timely topics. It started with one and has turned into a full time business not only for me, but also for a few other authors who are writing PDF books.

The PeepCode screencasts are very high quality. What tools do you use to put them together?

I’m currently using Final Cut Pro for editing and iShowU for screen capture. I also use OmniGraffle for diagrams and other utilities such as XScope and OmniDazzle.
In fact, I’m working on a screencast right now that shows how I create a screencast.

How long does it take to create one screencast?

Technically, it only takes about a week to film, dub, edit, and release. But often, I’ll do a few weeks of research about a new topic, or I’ll re-film a screencast after receiving feedback. For the git screencast, I created an entire hour-long screencast and then started again from scratch after receiving technical feedback from Junio Hamano, the maintainer of git.

Peepcode originally started as screencasts, but recently you’ve started branching out into publishing. What drove you to do that?

The information that developers need is increasingly time sensitive. I don’t scale very well as a single author, so I was looking for ways to work with other authors to produce relevant content on topics that developers want to learn about. PDFs are a great way to do that, and are even preferred by developers because of the ability to search the text or copy and paste code snippets.
A printed book usually takes 9 months or more to write, and authors often end up exhausted, discouraged, and poorly compensated.

So I built a system that works with standard Textile-formatted text. So far, authors have responded very favorably and it has even made translation very easy. I have a half-dozen authors working on some great topics that will be released over the next few months.

There are many important topics that aren’t very well documented. I want to make those topics accessible to developers at an affordable price.

Originally, PeepCode focused solely on Rails, but with the latest screencast on the Git SCM, you seem to be branching out a bit. Was this a one-time occurance, or will we be seeing more screencasts like this?

Rails developers have supported my business from the beginning, so I’ll definitely continue to publish Rails-related content.
But I hope to branch out into other topics, especially where it’s of interest to the Rails community as well as the greater web development community. The Prototype.js Javascript screencasts were quite popular but didn’t require knowledge of Ruby code. I’m hoping to do a series on CSS that will be useful to developers, no matter what framework they are using.

Your website says you are no longer doing consulting work, does that mean you are doing PeepCode full time?

I’ve been fortunate to have been working on PeepCode full-time since May, 2007. It was a big decision to make, but it has definitely been the right decision. Overall business has more than doubled since then and I’ve been able to collaborate with many intelligent developers.

The other thing you are well known for is the Ruby on Rails Podcast. You have been doing that for some time now, but I seem to recall that you weren’t the original host of that podcast. How did you come to be the voice of Ruby on Rails?

Scott Barron started it, thanks to encouragement from David Heinemeier Hansson. I contributed a few shaky interviews starting in July of 2005 and have done almost all of the subsequent 60+ shows.

I just bought a ticket to San Francisco for the sole purpose of interviewing Rails startups for the podcast. It will be right around the time of the MacWorld expo, and I hope to post the first interview almost as soon as it is recorded.

You seem to have a lot of irons in the fire, is there anything coming that you can talk about?

Right now it’s all PeepCode! There will be a book on ActiveMerchant that I’m excited to see published this spring. I also have an idea for a series that will compare Rails to other popular web frameworks.

Interview: Peter Cooper on Rails, Entrepreneurship, and Developing on Linux

Note: This is the first in a series of interviews I will be doing over the coming months.

Thanks for agreeing to do this interview. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I’m Peter Cooper, a Ruby developer and author from the wild, barren north of England. I’m probably best known in the Ruby community for being the author of Beginning Ruby, published by Apress, as well as the editor of Ruby Inside, the most popular Ruby related weblog.

Your website lists you as a serial entrepreneur. Do you consider yourself a developer who happens to be an entrepreneur, or is it the other way around?

It tends to vary year by year! I’ll go through periods where I’ll happen to be developing more for other people, and others when I focus on my own projects. Having made a successful exit with two businesses in 2007, however, I’ve been leaning towards doing more for myself. I’m likely to drop the “enterpreneur” stick soon though, as it tends to be that I merely follow my nose and the business side of it just falls into place by itself. I’m more of a curious bumbler by nature.

When did you first discover Ruby on Rails?

Rails first came onto my radar in October 2004. It was reasonably primitive then but will still appealing. As such a nascent technology based on a relatively unheard-of language, I was more interested in poaching the ideas for my favorite language of the time, Perl, and began developing my own equivalent. I developed a whole application on my framework, but it was shaky and I decided to give Rails a try, while promising not to get too bothered about learning Ruby itself.

My first Rails application was for a client and I developed a whole photography site for them in perhaps a quarter of the time it would have taken me with Perl. At that point I was hooked, and I also began to venture into the Ruby on Rails IRC channel on which, at the time, was great fun.

What was it about Rails that appealed to you?

The biggest selling points were the abstraction and the speed / ease of development. I pride simplicity and economy above all, so developing Web applications in Rails was an eye opener compared to the clumsiness of Perl (I mean, take a look at mod_perl sometime!).

What does your development toolset look like? (editor, browser, etc)

Up till now, my development environment has been under OS X. I’ve stuck with MySQL for a database engine throughout, merely because I know it so well by now. Firefox was my browser of choice on OS X until Leopard, but now I mostly use Safari as it’s come on in leaps and bounds. I use Textmate as my primary editor, although I don’t know how to use any of the macro / snippet features.. it’s really just a text editor with syntax coloring and a file list down the side for me. I like to keep things really simple with little to remember.

At the deployment end of the chain, I use Linux, nearly always Red Hat Enterprise or CentOS.

You recently announced (on Twitter) that you were switching to Linux for development work, while using OS X for everything else. Can you explain what led to that switch?

As with most Ruby and Rails developers, my applications all end up deployed on Linux machines. While open source technologies make it easy to jump between different flavors of UNIX, something about OS X’s “everything for everyone” approach irks me when it comes to doing development work. It’d be like taking my city car on the track or putting a race car on the streets.. you can do it, but it feels better to have separate cars for different situations. While I don’t find Linux particularly useful for graphics work and general day to day use, it feels like a more natural operating system for developing on at the command line level. With the minimalist dwm window manager, you can even get all of the GUI control at keyboard level, meaning you can focus on work rather than moving pretty windows about.

I’m also attracted by the ability to run a single X11 server in my house, then be able to access the same development environment from different machines around the house without needing to sync up. OS X can be used as an X client quite easily, so I can be developing in the same environment anywhere and on any machine. I’m still in the process of setting all of this up though and working out the pros and cons for day to day use.

Do you have any must-have libraries or tools for Ruby?

I don’t tend to have many libraries or tools installed. I’m a big fan of the command line clients for things like MySQL, Subversion, and Git, and I don’t run my IRB with any elaborations. The only gems I tend to install are Rails, Mongrel, Daemons, Hpricot, and RMagick, although installing OS X Leopard has updated this somewhat. Mongrel and Daemons are my “favorite” gems. Mongrel because it makes building super-fast HTTP daemons so easy, and Daemons because it means I can forget all of the dull process involved in daemonizing and controlling applications and services I build.

You recently stated (also on Twitter, I believe) that JRuby was going to be a big growth area in the next few years. Can you explain why you feel that way?

There’s no escaping the fact that big businesses move slowly. Their technology departments can be frighteningly conservative and there’s often only one “approved” way to do things. This is especially true of deployment. Even medium sized companies freak out when you talk about installing Linux and putting your own Ruby / Rails stack on top. They need everything documented, centralized, and consistent. As such, the Java platform has become a real bedrock for servers and application deployment in the enterprise, and JRuby gives us the opportunity to target all of those established enterprise ecosystems by making Rails applications easy to deploy on JBoss, Tomcat, and other Java application servers.

JRuby is definitely the key to getting Ruby and Rails applications deployed inside most major companies whose ecosystems have no time for alternatives just yet. JRuby is definitely the direction you should be heading for these sorts of deployments, and I think this area is going to become significant to most profit-driven Rails developers very soon.

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You wrote a book on Ruby (which I recently reviewed). What books on Ruby/Rails do you recommend, aside from your own of course :)

My book is for people who either have a reasonable understanding of programming, even if they’re not that good at it, or people who have experience with languages other than Ruby and want to move across. For people with absolutely zero programming experience I’d recommend Chris Pine’s Learn to Program. For already experienced Ruby developers who want to become real hotshots and delve into the deeper mechanics of the language, I’d recommend Hal Fulton’s The Ruby Way. Both of these books cover totally different ground than Beginning Ruby and even complement it, depending on your skill level.

Most programmers have a list of programming languages they want to learn. What is the next programming language you are hoping to learn?

I’m an opportunist developer who tries to use the right tool for the job in order to quickly capitalize on some untapped market or niche. As such, I don’t tend to learn languages for fun, at least not to a deep level. I’ve taken a look at languages like Erlang, Haskell, Io, and even written a little Lisp, but don’t see any immediate reasons to learn these languages to a professional level. It’s certainly worth understanding their paradigms and styles, however, to take something useful back to your more productive environments. Lisp has certainly given me a big appreciation for a lot of oblique programming techniques.

You’ve sold two of your sites this past year. Were those opportunistic sales, or was this something you had planned to do all along?

Opportunistic sales. In the first case, with Code Snippets, I was approached by a friend who was interested in buying the site, but after checking with my network of contacts it turned out Rick Ross of DZone was also interested and the site made a great fit with DZone, the “Digg for developers” as I call it.

Now that you’ve sold these sites, what’s next for you?

Ay, there’s the rub! Most of the projects I’ve had success with have been tools or services that I’ve desperately wanted to use myself, so I’ve had a lot of motivation to see them through. When you don’t have any nagging wants, however, you have to really dig deep to come up with the ideas. I’m currently in a bit of a low gear, with it being the end of the year, as well as having sold two businesses this year, but I hope to get back on the saddle really soon and release some more projects next year. For the meantime, however, I’m keeping Ruby Inside updated as best I can and keeping my nose to the ground!

Coming Soon: Interviews

Beginning tomorrow, I’m going to be publishing a series of interviews. I’m going to start with notable people from the Rails community, but over time I would like to branch out into other areas. The first interview will be with Peter Cooper, whose book Beginning Ruby I reviewed recently.

In the coming weeks I will be publishing interviews with Geoffrey Grosenbach and Robby Russell, with more to follow.

If you have suggestions for other people I should interview, please leave a comment or send me an email (my email address can be found on my about page: