The Ultimate Guide to Visual Journaling for Non-Artists

Ever see someone in a meeting with a notebook taking visual notes and think--I wish I could do that? Or maybe you've just seen visual journals on Pinterest and have found yourself a little bit jealous. 

Think you have to be an artist to keep a visual journal? You are dead wrong. 

This post covers the tips, tricks and techniques for keeping a visual journal in a way that doesn't care about artistic talent or sloppy handwriting. And it all starts with putting information on a page.


Get started.  Steal a layout technique.

If you've ever read a magazine, you've seen layout techniques. Magazines are a visual medium and they use devices like headlines, subheadings, callout boxes, columns and divider graphics to promote some pieces of information and demote other details on a page.

In visual journals (also called art journals, creative journals or graphic journals), you can leverage the same techniques. Here are some of the possibilities:


Headlines and Subheadings

In a magazine layout, a headline gives the overall topic that all of the rest of the information on the page is related to. That allows us to flip through multiple pages and either find the article we are looking for or browse topics to find where we want to stop and read.

The headline text is usually bigger and bolder than other elements on the page so that it is the first thing you see. In visual journaling, the headline serves the same purpose.  You simply use a few words (or a single word) to describe what the page, spread or next few pages will be about, then use techniques to make it stand out. Ways to make a headline pop:
  • Make it big. 
  • Write it with a thick pen or marker.
  • Write it in bubble letters.
  • Highlight it.
  • Write the letters first in black then outline it in a different color.
  • Embellish the letters with dots, serifs or other differentiators.
Like headings, subheadings are major points of information that usually have some smaller text beneath them. You can use the same techniques that you use for headers, but on a lesser scale. You might even choose to underline your subheads or add stars, arrows or bullet points to promote them over the general text on the page.

Block Quotes and Callout Boxes

Another magazine technique is to call attention to a small piece of information using block quotes and callout boxes. Both are short strings of text set in larger type than the rest of the page in order to attract attention and to add some visual interest to the page. Here are some approaches for creating block quotes and callout boxes:
  • Write the text outside of the flow of the rest of the text in larger letters. 
  • Write the text in all caps. 
  • Draw a thick line above and below the block quote text.
  • Draw large quote symbols around the block quote.
  • Use a different color to draw a box, circle, cloud or large brackets around the quote text. 
  • Draw a vertical line to the left of the called out text. 

Body text

While some graphic journals are made up only of headlines and some bullet points, others contain narrative or “body” text. This is the part that is going to be extremely personal. Don’t get hung up in the neatness of your handwriting or whether it is straight or not. Handwriting is as unique an identifier as a fingerprint. While you can work toward legibility if you like, the thing about a journal is that its text is for you—like writing a book for yourself.

Body text can flow across the full page like a letter or can be written in columns like in a magazine.

One technique that will make your body text consistently easy to follow is to use the same ink color for it throughout your visual journal. While headings, subheadings, block quotes and callout boxes may leverage different colors to make them pop, body text is the “steady Eddie” in the background. Make it constant so it is easy for your eye to track the flow.

Borders and Text Dividers

Borders and text dividers can give a page character. They can be as simple and unobtrusive as a couple of dashes on either side of a page number at the bottom of a page to as complex as a full graphic border running around the page.

The main function of borders and text dividers is to make a page more visually interesting. Here are some techniques for creating them:
  • Use a horizontal double line, bold line, dashed, hatched or dotted line to end an incomplete page before you start a new topic with a new headline. 
  • Use a vertical line to separate columns of body text. 
  • Purchase scrapbooking border tape and add to the edges of your pages. 
  • Do an image search for “page borders” to get inspiration.

Make it more visual—no art skill required.

Using the layout techniques above is enough to make your journal visual. However, if you want to take it to the next level, you can begin to add graphics. (And you don’t even have to be able to draw to create them.)

Leave room

If you are going to include graphics in your visual journal, you will need to create some space for them. It is likely that you will add the graphic embellishments after you capture the information. There are a few methods for leaving room for graphics:

Leave the facing page of the spread completely blank. Even if you don’t plan to fill it with a large graphic, a small graphic with a lot of white space around it can be really nice.
 
Incorporate an empty “box” into your layout.

Wrap your text. The easiest way to create wrap text while journaling is to lay a piece of cardboard (whatever is handy…business card, bar coaster, mason jar lid, etc) over a part of the page to block it when you are writing so that you have space later to come back and add a graphic. 

Where to get graphic content

Consider that magazines get their visual content from somewhere else—usually a photographer or illustrator. Since journals are for an audience of one, you don’t have to be super picky about where you get your content. Print or clip any image that inspires you and size it to fit the blank space. This can come from:
  • A magazine or newsletter.
  • Printout from an online image search.
  • Photo from your phone. 
  • Your kids drawings.
  • Ephemera like ticket stubs, fortunes from cookies, tea bag tags, wine bottle labels, cut out from a cereal box or envelope, etc.
  • Bad doodles.
  • Scrapbooking stickers. 
There are a wide variety of adhesives to fix your materials into the space.  Double stick tape is particularly effective and easy to find. Glue sticks don't often last over the long haul, unless you purchase one specifically made for scrapbooking. Other adhesives that can be fun to play with are photo corners and sticky dots.

Practice bad doodles

Anyone can draw basic shapes—even if they do it poorly. Stick figures and other simple lines and shapes can be used to communicate ideas. Remember that your journal is for you.

There is a website called TheNounProject.com that is a catalog of thousands of nouns represented as simple icons. Search for the idea you want to communicate and see what’s there. Then doodle it. Terribly. This is about creating a memory device—not something that will be auctioned at Sotheby’s.


Build in a Navigation System

One of the great ideas to come out of the Bullet Journal system is the technique of numbering all the pages in your journal before you start capturing information.  In the Bullet Journal system, you leave the first few pages of the journal blank so that you can create a table of contents as you go. The number of blank pages needed is dependent on the size of your writing and the number of pages in the journal. As you create new journal pages, list them in the table of contents and note the page number. It creates a fantastic reference when you are looking for “that page” later.


Pick a Notebook

Anything can become your visual journal notebook, a three ring binder, a spiral, a blank book… But there are companies that make blank books just for the purpose of journaling.  They can run from $12 - over $100 depending on the features such as leather covers, pockets, the type and weight of the paper...

Here is a look at some of the most popular brands of notebooks for visual journalers.

Moleskine. 

The Moleskine brand has been around since before Henry David Thoreau. There are five sizes from pocket to A4 and you can choose hardcover or soft, and lined, gridded or blank paper, writing or sketch paper. Some of the features that make the Moleskine particularly nice are the elastic band that holds the notebook shut, the ribbon page marker and that some versions come with a pocket to allow you to stash smaller pieces of paper. They are nice while being affordable (under $20) and depending on how prolific you are that can be a really good thing if you are purchasing multiple journals a year.  They are also widely available at major bookstore chains.

Midori Traveler’s Notebook. 

The Midori notebooks are designed to be carried with your passport or in a pocket. With the Midori notebook you choose a cover and then put customized inserts into them. The paper is luxurious and comes in blank, grid or lined. There are also preprinted planner inserts and sketch weight paper available along with bands or ties to hold the notebooks closed.

Field Notes. 

The Field Notes brand journals are designed to be pocket sized: 3.5 x 5.5 inches. Though simple in design, the notebooks are quality construction and come in a variety of colors and specialty cover designs. They also come in three packs.

Calepino. 

If you want some European flair, Calepino is like the French Field Notes. The simple notebooks have a heavy cover, distinctive branding and cleanly cut corners. Also made to be pocket sized, the Calepinos are easy to carry and often purchased in multi-packs.

Ciak. 

Another European brand is the Italian-made, Ciak. The Ciak has different “models” like the Classic, Diary, Duo, Golf, Pitti, and Travel. They come in a variety of cover colors and feature quality handmade construction.

Palomino Blackwing Slate. 

While Palomino makes journals in a wide variety of styles and sizes—some with deluxe leather covers—the Blackwing Slate is the companion to the Blackwing pencil and the paper is optimized for pencil writing or sketching. The 8.5 x 5 notebook features a loop to hold the pencil against the journal along the spine.

Oberon. 

Oberon journals are deluxe embossed leather covers into which you insert thick, diary-style, hardcover journal inserts. Of all of the brands listed here, these have the most personality in terms of cover design and while the initial journal purchase with a cover is expensive (between $50 to $100), the inserts run only $10.

Miquelrius.

Miquelrius has leather-look journals in two sizes and the price is less than $10 each. The bendable covers make this notebook a workhorse and it has a small grid patter making it perfect for writing and drawing.

Strathmore's Visual Journal. 

The Visual Journal is a simple spiral notebook of art paper with a thick cardboard cover. At less than $8, it is an incredibly affordable option for beginners.


Get some writing tools.

Black Pens and Markers.

Most permanent markers—like the Sharpie—will bleed through all but the thickest of journal paper. Here are some other pens you might consider:

Colored Pens and Pencils.

While many people keep monochromatic visual journals, adding color can really give it pop. Try some of these tools.
  • Prismacolor Colored Pencils. Once you’ve used them you know why they are worth the extra money. The pencils lay down a lot of color on the paper and unlike markers, won’t bleed through the page. 
  • Paper Mate’s Ink Joy Pens. These colored ink pens write thin colored lines effortlessly and are simply fun to play with. The best part? They are really affordable! 
  • Crayola Crayons. Remember the joy of a new box of crayons? You can experience it again. They are cheap and lay color on paper just as well as you remember. 
  • Tombow Brush Markers. If you are working with sketch weight paper in your journal, you may want to try Tombow brush markers. There are tons of YouTube videos demonstrating techniques and people love them for the way the inks blend and that the brush marker allows you to paint on the color or vary your stroke. 


So now that you have a journal, what do you use it for?

Journals get used for everything from:

  • writing down ideas.
  • keeping notes from meetings.
  • travel logs.
  • emotional processing
  • brain dumps.
  • praying in color.
  • managing tasks and to-do lists.
  • vision boarding & goal setting
  • day planning.
With visual journaling, the choice is up to you but one of the most effective ways to use it is to carry it with you everywhere and record anything that you want to remember later. With practice, creating layouts in real-time becomes easy. You learn the pages of your notebook and it becomes easy to record what you want you want to record.

Journaling is an adventure in imperfection and the more you contribute to your visual journal the more you will learn and improve your technique. Focus on quantity of entries rather than quality. And if you are truly nervous about it—start cheap. Get an inexpensive notebook and plan to throw it away once you are done. The process is fun no matter what the result.

Get inspired.

Want to look inside some other people’s journals? Check out the following links for inspiration.
Visual journals are as unique and varied as the people who write them.  Sound interesting? Get a journal and start your big experiment! 

© Random Cathy
Maira Gall