The Back of the Napkin

Friday, January 9th, 2009 0 comments

back-of-the-napkin-thumbThe Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures by Dan Roam

Dan Roam defines visual thinking as ‘solving problems’ (and selling ideas) with pictures.

‘Visual thinking means taking advantage of our innate ability to see – both with our eyes and with our mind’s eye – in order to discover ideas that are otherwise invisible, develop those ideas quickly and intuitively, and then share those ideas with other people in a way they simply get’.

Visual thinking is powerful because pictures can ‘represent complex concepts and summarise vast sets of information that are easy to see and understand’. For Roam, visual thinking is democratic and accessible – pictures can be sketched messily by hand, or drawn carefully by wonderful artists. Visual thinking is accessible not only to those who think of themselves as visual, and drawing pictures can be done by those who always thought they couldn’t draw. For Roam, we all (nearly all?) have the ability to ‘look, see, imagine, and show’ – and that is all we need. Abilities can be used and improved, but there is a ‘learnable, repeatable, and useful process to visual thinking’.

In his this ambitious work Roam sets out both a clear process, and a complete framework for visual thinking. This book is in-part how-to guide, and in-part taxonomy, and so in reviewing the work we will answer a few essential questions:

  • Is Roam’s process easy to follow?
  • Does following Roam’s process for visual thinking lead to better results than would be obtained through some other process?
  • Does Roam’s typology for the kinds of thought that can be presented visually work?
  • Does Roam’s framework of image types work well for his typology of information?

In answering these questions we are trying to work out whether The Back of a Napkin is a great book – take as read that it does a good job as introduction to visual thinking for anyone who wants a start on the subject. It is in attempting to set out a complete framework for visual thinking that this work attempts to add the most value.

A written review of The Back of the Napkin can’t really do the book justice. The book looks great, and is full of simply 100s of hand-drawn sketches. Production values are high. The book is very accessible, and ideas are illustrated well – visually, verbally, and through the long case-study that makes up much of the second half of the book.

A Process for Visual Thinking

Roam’s process for visual thinking comprises four stages, roughly corresponding to a particular understanding of how human’s actually think. For Roam, the visual thinking process starts with Looking – ‘taking in the visual information around us’, then moves to Seeing – ‘selecting or clumping’ information, then involves Imagining – ‘seeing with our eyes closed, or the act of seeing something that isn’t there’, and then, as this book deals with sharing thoughts, comes Showing, where we must ‘summarise all that we’ve seen, find the best framework for visually representing our ideas, nail things down on paper, point out what we imagined, and then answer our audiences’ questions’. For Roam, this entire visual process is iterative, and thoughts are constantly re-evaluated and re-cast.

For Roam, this process involves the eyes, the mind’s eye, and then pen or paper (or some other visual tool). I would argue that not all visual thinking starts visually – I could see information to start the process off, but equally I could listen to information and then use my mind’s eye to sort and imagine this information. A small point – but relevant to what visual thinking is. Thought not be visual from beginning to end to be considered visual thinking.

Having described a process for visual thinking in outline, the rest of Roam’s book sets out (a) how to work through the process effectively and (b) how to apply visual thinking to a case study looking at a “typical” business situation.


For Roam, effective looking comes from (i) collecting as much relevant information as possible in one place (ii) defining a coordinate system to physically lay-out this information (using Post-Its, and measures such as time, price, location, or size), and (iii) discarding some information to leave the most relevant (‘visual triage’).

What’s interesting about this description of looking is how similar Roam’s process is to that recommended by other authors – Garr Reynolds, Nancy Duarte, and even the team here at m62 often recommend a similar starting point for collecting and refining content for a presentation.


‘While looking is about collecting the raw visual information that is in front of us, seeing is about selecting what’s important.’ For Roam, we see six types of information (which he rather too tidily abbreviates to the ‘6Ws’.

  • Who or What
  • How Much and How Many
  • Where
  • When
  • How
  • Why

As any journalist student will tell, these categories set out the essentials of any scene or story. Using the checklist ensures we describe a situation fully, and approaching a business situation with the 6Ws in mind will go much of the way to ensuring completeness. I’m not sure if this characterisation is insightful or obvious, but in any case it provides a good starting point for analysing information.


Nothing if not a fan of rather forced mnemonics, Roam introduces five pairs of categories that allow us to decide ‘what’s most important to us and what’s most important to our audience’. Roams SQVID (or squid, with a Roman ‘U’ and a ‘D’ for the Greek “delta”) asks us to consider what view of our information to focus on.

  • Simple vs. Elaborate
  • Quality vs. Quantity
  • Vision vs. Execution (or in other words, where we want to be vs. how we would get there)
  • Individual Attributes vs. Comparison
  • Delta vs. Status Quo (or in other words, how things might be if they change vs. how things are now)

Roam’s five pairs of categories are, of course, capable of characterising pretty much any information we might want to show. But are these characterisations particularly neat? Maybe not – from the start the possible overlap between categories such as ‘vision’ and ‘change’, or ‘individual attributes’ and ‘simple’ is apparent. This criticism is well founded, but not terribly important. What is useful here is what follows next – and how Roam combines these five pairs of categories with his ‘6Ws’ to provide what he describes as a ‘showing framework’.


The categories presented in the framework for showing presented in The Back of the Napkin must – if they are to be useful – ‘be comprehensive as a group and yet individually distinct enough so that we know when to call upon each’. To create his ‘Visual Thinking Codex’ Roam combines his 6Ws with his SQVID, to create a 6 by 5 matrix. Each entry (or cell) on the matrix corresponds to a type of visualisation. So, if we want to show a ‘when’ (from the 6Ws) in terms of Execution (from the V of SQVID) we look on Roam’s Codex to discover we ought to show a complex process chart. If we want to show a ‘who’ (from the 6Ws) in terms of comparison (from the I of SQVID) Roam’s Codex would recommend we show comparative portraits.

For Roam, once we know which ‘W’ we are answering, and what sort of focus we want (comparative, visionary or so on), the type of visual to use follows simply. All we have to do is use a simple table for guidance.

Roam’s Visual Thinking Codex is a great idea, but it is only partially successful on its own terms (of being comprehensive and having distinct categories). Categories in the Codex must be combined (for example, how much and when – two of the 6Ws are often required together), making use complex. Roam incorrectly characterises some pretty common visual information – so organisational charts and Venn diagrams for Roam are spatial – or about where. This is a linguistic trick, as these diagrams aren’t concerned with where things are in space – Roam’s third ‘W’.

These criticisms sound picky, and in a sense they are. For the casual reader, Roam’s work is a great starting point for generating visual ways of presenting information. As a full Visual Thinking Codex, it may not be completely successful. Most readers won’t care.


Once we have visual ideas, we need to show them. For Roam, this might be done through pen and paper. But software is also mentioned, and Roam sees PowerPoint as a relatively simple way of presenting information visually. Roam doesn’t discuss animation – but does suggest sketching ‘live’ in front of an audience. Here, PowerPoint’s animations may make things easier for the presenter, who can focus on presenting information as it builds, rather than trying to ‘sketch’ while presenting. Roam’s encouragement for all those who believe they aren’t great at drawing to give it a go is welcome, but perhaps giving an important presentation while sketching would be a bit too much for some.


Anyone who understands presentations knows that PowerPoint should be used visually. Yet visualisation – presenting complex ideas visually – is hard. Back of the Napkin presents a framework for visual thinking – a way anyone might be able to approach the task. It’s not clear whether following this framework is easier than simple trial-and-error, or indeed easier than imitation of existing visual material. The framework is imperfect. But, as a simple introduction to a complex field, Roam’s book represents a useful popularisation.

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