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Dan Roam’s The Back of the Napkin April 14, 2010

Posted by Pear-Shaped Comics in Uncategorized.

The Back of the Napkin, by Dan Roam, is a book about visual thinking frameworks and how they can improve one’s ability to see, process, and show information. Visual thinking is becoming somewhat of a banal topic in design courses, but Roam does a good job of showing the real power of simple pictures. He achieves this using examples from his own experience, exercises for the reader to practice, and clear-cut frameworks for guidance.

Predictably, Roam begins by dispelling myths about needing to be “visual” to learn visual thinking or being a good enough artist to communicate information through pictures. With the right guidance, anyone can do it! All right! He proceeds to dig himself into a deeper hole of triteness by reciting the six problem clumps: who/what, how much, when, where, how, and why. It takes several chapters, but Roam does make good use of these clumps in the <6><6> rule, which states that for each type of problem we see, there is a visual framework that serves as a starting point for communicating the problem visually. A “who/what” problem is shown as a portrait, a “how many” problem is a chart, a “how” problem is a flowchart, etc. Although I feel that one could arrive at the outcome of the <6><6> rule simply by adopting the basic principles Roam had already covered, it is still nice to have the rule laid out in an organized fashion. In fact, many of Roam’s ideas are similarly non-revolutionary, but are communicated visually in a way that proves the effectiveness of his methods.

What I found most interesting is Roam’s statement that effective showing “happens at the end of the visual thinking process.” He emphasizes the application of visual thinking to absorbing rather than conveying ideas. When one looks, sees, and imagines properly, the ability to communicate these ideas will allegedly follow naturally, with help from the author’s frameworks. Most lessons in visual thinking (that I have experienced) focus heavily on the “showing” part of visual thinking, which is why Roam’s point was intriguing to me.

Overall, The Back of the Napkin was an enjoyable book with some great ideas and frameworks for which I hope to find uses in my career and life in general. I expect that his lessons will “stick” in my mind better than most that I have read, thanks of course to Roam’s expert use of visual thinking.

Venn Diagram - Books



1. Sara Beckman - April 18, 2010

Thanks for including a visual with your report on the book! You may be interested to look at the other “reviews” of Roam’s book on this site. How have you changed how you work after reading the book? Do you sketch more? Does it help when you are working alone, or in groups?

Kevin Kuramura - April 18, 2010

I did actually look through all of them prior to posting mine. I was a little surprised to see so much negative feedback!

Admittedly I haven’t made too much use of what I’ve learned yet, but I think I’m prepared to do so next time an opportunity arises (which, I’m beginning to realize, is nearly always). As I mentioned, the difficult part for me to wrap my head around is the importance of absorbing information using more visual thinking. I hope to apply that to a paper I have due this Wednesday… we’ll see how it works out.

2. Jon Pittman - April 22, 2010

Roam has produced a follow-on handbook called Unfolding the Napkin – which is more of a step-by-step process. I have not yet used it, but it might help address some of the “I did not learn how to think visually” feedback in some of the blog posting.

It is also the case that you always get better at something through practice – and visual communication is one of those things. There are no easy fixes.

3. Jon Pittman - April 22, 2010

In your book report you were surprised that the idea of visual thinking is about absorbing rather than conveying ideas.

In my view, that is the essence of a prototype. The goal of a prototype is less to present your idea to someone else (although that is a fine use of a prototype) and more to explore your idea by making it concrete.

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