Interview with Sunderland AFC commentator for BBC Newcastle Nick Barnes: when Notes blend Commentary and Art

We are inspired! We saw that Miles Kohrman interviewed BBC's Nick Barnes at Eight by Eight Magazine in the article Cheat Sheets I: The Art Of Commentary With BBC’s Nick Barnes.

Nick spends hours creating hand-drawn sketchnotes of the UK football (soccer) teams he will be announcing as a visual aid. We thought it would be cool to ask Nick detailed questions from a sketchnoter's perspective.

Mauro and I (Mike Rohde) teamed up to create questions for Nick about his approach and details of his style. We hope you enjoy this interview and learn some new ideas from Nick.


1.) First of all, can you tell us something about yourself?

I'm 52, and originally from Exeter in Devon, but moved to BBC Radio Cumbria in 1988 where for 7 years I became the Carlisle United commentator, before a 4 month move to BBC Radio Sport in London, from where I moved to become the Newcastle United commentator for BBC Newcastle for 5 years between 1998 and 2003, before becoming the Sunderland commentator and have been with Sunderland now for 12 years. 



2.) We understood that taking notes is a crucial activity for a commentator and we can imagine why. Our questions is about your personal graphic style of your notes. When did you start to take visual notes and why?

I've developed my style of note taking over my years as a commentator. When I began used individual sheets of paper and my notes were scruffy and disorganised. Over the years I've gravitated to using notebooks and a style which works for me while I'm commentating - notes I can easily read with visual markers - such as the flags of the players' nationalities for easy reference when I'm on air.

3.) Your visual notes are very popular and you generously share them to the world so is quite easy to find the on the web. We noticed they have a well defined structure. How does it work?

When my book is laid out open in front of me the left hand page is my reference page for the opposition with details of the club, the manager, club records and the players. I lay the players' out in the formation and team of the club's previous match so I can readily see any team changes and the formation used on the day I'm commentating. The right hand page is the 'match' page with the details of the match I'm commentating upon and as such is my 'live' page.



4.) Let we dive a little in "tech" details. Your go-to markers are Staedtler triplus fineliner, right? What about notebooks?

Yes - I like the Staedtler triplus fineliners for the colour work. I like the variety of colours and the quality of the pens. For the note taking during the match and written notes in black I use a Pilot V-ball 0.5, and my notebooks are Leuchtturm's. I'm using their master slim notebooks at the moment and I like the size as they are slightly larger than A4 and in the pages following the match pages I stick the team sheet and other paraphernalia associated with the day's match such as my press pass and a photocopy (reduced in size) of the match programme cover. Being slightly larger than A4 the team sheet sits snugly on the page.



5) Beyond the technical tools, tell us about your note structure. Players on the left and game action/story on the right - how does that structure help you as a game unfolds? I see a crest for one team in one of the notes - is that reserved for the home team?

I draw the crest of the opposition in the top left corner of the opposition page on the left as easy reference when I refer back to my notes. It's a good visual indicator for quick reference. Over the years I've found that colour icons such as the flags are a very good visual aid for swift identification during the match but also the artist in me likes the 'look' of the page. Critically during a live match one needs to get references quickly so the less time I have to look at the page is better. When writing notes on the match I try to keep them brief and mainly only note down the significant moments in the game ie goals, penalties, very near misses etc. 



6) In more detail, what about the structure of each element - for instance the structure, colors and icons for each player - how were those arrived at and how do they help you locate details about each player? Are they structured on the page by their positions on the field?

I will try to match the colours I use for my notes on each team to the colours of the opposition club. For instance say I was doing notes on Chelsea I will use a blue pen and with the players I lay them out in formation and 'box' in their names and numbers for quick recognition. I found that over they years it is a structure that works for me during a match and as I've got older and my eyesight has got worse I've been writing the names a little larger and more boldly!! The page starts at the top with club records, crest and the team strips. The middle part of the page is the last starting line up which as often as not is very close to the starting line up on the day of my match, and the lower part of the page is for the details of the rest of the squad/substitutes.  

7) How much time do you spend prepping your notebook ahead of a match? Obviously you feel this is a value for your work in the moment - can you tell us how that value plays itself out as you are watching the match unfold?

For each match ultimately it probably takes around 5 hours preparation but I value the notes and notebooks as an archive not only of the match itself but of my work. I like to take pride from producing what I would consider to be something artistic, taking football from the prosaic to something which can interest not only football fans but non-football fans. I try to keep my note taking in the match iteslf as neat as possible and I will tidy the page up afterwards if I feel it looks scruffy or jars on the eye. Working in radio means my commentary is 'in the moment' so my notebooks are a valuable record of the matches for me and as I love books and stationery and art it's the perfect combination for my aspirations.

8.) Here is a thorny question about digital note taking. Have you ever though to "migrate" on digital, meaning that you use tablets rather that pens and paper?

Funnily enough this season I began to hand draw the club crests which is a bit of a challenge but I wanted to try and produce a page without having to use any computer print-outs so if anything I'm moving further away from going digital!  I wouldn't dream of migrating as I'm too in love with pen and paper!!

Thanks so much for your time Nick! We love what you're doing!

How Splash and Dashes work: Guenter Hengsberg

A beautiful travel journal by Dennis Dawson