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!