Wendy MacNaughton on Drawing and Paying Attention

In her 2021 TED Talk, Wendy MacNaughton encourages us to slow down and look at the world more closely, using drawing as the activity to get us there.

As a graphic journalist, MacNaughton draws what she sees and writes what she hears. The result is sometimes an individual portrait with a single phrase alongside it. Other times, it looks more like a one-page sketchnote:

Don’t be intimidated by MacNaughton’s drawing skills. Instead appreciate the merger of drawing and writing to share a story.

In the context of visual note-taking, the work of MacNaughton falls far to one side of the abstract-to-realistic spectrum of drawing, with the combination of realistic drawings and precise quotes.

As sketchnoters we often go with simpler drawers and shorter phrases, but I think that MacNaughton’s point about the benefits of drawing applies to us as well.

“See, drawing slows us down. It keeps our hands moving so we can pay attention to things that we usually overlook or that we ignore. Studies show that drawing is one of the most effective ways for kids to process their emotions, and that includes trauma. It helps us talk about hard things.”

That ability of drawing to help us talk about hard things extends beyond the realm of childhood trauma. It applies to difficult conversations at work or challenging situations in our personal lives. Creating a drawing or a diagram that serves as an external reference point allows us to view a situation from a new perspective, and to talk about it with others in a new way.

If you’d like to heed MacNaughton’s advice to move away from iconography and toward realistic drawing, you might enjoy exploring the world of urban sketching.

As the mantra for MacNaughton’s pandemic-inspired DrawTogether project goes: “Drawing is looking, and looking is loving.

That sense of love can be directed toward your immediate environment as in the case of MacNaughton’s work, but it can also be applied to the subjects that you’re studying, the problems you’re solving, or the ideas that you’re sharing with others.

To me, that’s what visual note-taking is all about: making marks and making meaning.