Back of the Napkin

Truth: We all relate to pictures.  Since our early days living in caves, pictures have been a wonderfully universal way to tell stories, simplify complex problems and share ideas.  In The Back of the Napkin, author Dan Roam reminds us not only of the value of using pictures to show our ideas, but teaches practical and applicable ways to use them – regardless of artistic talent.

We all used to express ourselves with pictures.  Kindergarten was full of artistic accomplishments; we visually explained our world through color, stick men and spatial relationships on a page.   Now we use spreadsheets.  So what happened?  While Roam doesn’t delve into the “Why” of our diminished artistic expression, I have a theory:  The world became complicated.  We learned what art was supposed to look like and most of us ruled out drawing as a reputable way to express our views on the world.  Which is too bad when you consider that we still experience the world visually.  It’s our most robust way of understanding the world around us.  It’s also the most universal.  Here’s what I mean:

Back of the Napkin

Back of the Napkin


Quick Test:

1.  Who’s closer to us – Bob or Ted?

2.  Who does  Ken report to?  Who runs the company?

3.  What is this?

4.  By roughly when do we need to have the manufacturing facility ready to go?


I am by no means an artist, and yet my messages can be shared quickly and easily with pictures.  We relate to pictures.  We understand them almost instantly.  Better still, the images last longer and have far more of an impact than if I’d simply told you the facts presented in picture form above.  So, how do we harness that?

In Back of the Napkin, Roam teaches us that visual representations don’t have to be scary, and shows us how to integrate visual thinking into our lives.

Golden Egg

Images –> Clarity –> Images

“Business people who try to start the process with showing – which is what happens 90 percent of the time – get so distracted by drawing skills, computer programs, and visual polish that they miss the real value of this step. “

Back of the Napkin, page 121

In The Back of the Napkin, Roam talks about the natural stages of visual thinking:

I say natural because this is the way we already interact with the world, thousands of times a day.

One of the reasons people struggle with explaining themselves visually is that they haven’t taking the time to consciously go through the first three stages of the natural process of visual thinking.  In abridged detail, the four stages are:

Look:Taking in all information, without filter.

See:Filter the information to select the relevant points.

Imagine:Fill in the blanks and make connections between the relevant points.

Show:THEN share your insights in a way that your audience will understand.

So often in business, we jump to the last point without doing our homework first.  Of course it’s difficult to share things visually when they’ve been abstract and text/numeric based through the learning process.  It’s also difficult for our audiences to jump to the end with us without having first gone through the process themselves.  Like we learned in the opening quote – we gain clarity when we lay out all the details like we’re having a garage sale.  “Showing” (sharing your ideas with others) is an important part of the visual thinking process, but it’s the last part.   Start at the beginning and take the time to understand a few key points:

GEM #1

What’s the Real Question?

“If the picture has been drawn according to the six ways we see and take advantage of precognitive attributes, our audience will almost always “get” it long before we’ve stopped explaining.”

Back of the Napkin, page 123

In any given situation, there are typically one of six distinct questions we are trying to answer:  What/Who, How Many, When, Where, How and/or Why.  Understanding and deciding on which question you’re trying to answer makes visual problem solving much more straight forward.  In The Back of the Napkin, Roam provides us with a basic template to follow depending on which question you’re trying to answer:

Once you know which question your trying to answer, use the appropriate template above as a foundation for your visual thinking process.

GEM #2

Start With a Circle

“A good way to start any picture is to draw a circle and give it a name.”

Back of the Napkin, p146

As mentioned, people get hung up on the “artistic” aspect of visual thinking.  They get overwhelmed by the potential complexity of images and freeze up.  A great way to move past the mental block is with a circle.  Take out a plain sheet of paper and draw a circle on it, anywhere.  Label the circle.  Is it you?  Your business?  Your client?  What other circles could you draw, and how are they connected?  It’s amazing how drawing that initial circle can immediately get your creative juices flowing.  Don’t get hung up on the details, your (supposed) lack of artistic ability or the potential complexity of your final puzzle.  For your own sake, start drawing circles and let your brain begin to connect the dots.

What I like about The Back of the Napkin is Dan Roam’s ability to simplify and make actionable the core elements of visual thinking.  He reminds us that there is nothing new about expressing ideas with pictures.  We’ve simply forgotten the value and ease of doing so.  With a few basic tools, and the logic behind his process, Roam teaches that we can all benefit from the power of visual thinking.  So long as we’re willing to let our inner kindergartener out.

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Chris Taylor

ABOUT Chris Taylor

Founder of Actionable Books, Chris Taylor is a writer, entrepreneur and speaker. He spends his daylight hours helping consultants and employees alike find meaning in their work and discover rich team relationships through his company, Actionablebooks...
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