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The Back of the Napkin March 12, 2011

Posted by dacsrgeorge in Back of the Napkin, [Books] Visualization & Presentation.

The Back of the Napkin is Dan Roam’s approach to bring visual thinking to the masses. Roam devotes plenty of page space systematically explaining the basics of visual thinking (Look, See, Imagine and Show) using simple ‘stick-figure’ drawings applied to problems both real and imagined. Beyond providing the reader with the tools and rules for good visual thinking, he introduces and applies the visual thinking framework to guide the reader’s thinking.

Roam attempts to win over his audience by proclaiming that it’s usually the most visually challenged person who ends up contributing the most, once they have been exposed to his methods. Regardless, of the clumsy attempts at trying to win over skeptical readers, Roam does have good and useful points. The basics of his approach are sound. The framework provided to supplement the approach is sound. The examples showing the use of the framework is both helpful and illustrative. However, it is unnecessary to have a prolonged tutorial on the basics of problem types. People reading his book will know the different problem types (who, what, where, when, why, how/many). Further, a good third of the book can be reduced to a single page, mapping problem type to visual tool. For ‘who/what’ problems select ‘portraits’, for ‘how many’ select ‘charts’, for ‘where’ select ‘map’, for ‘when’ select ‘timeline’, for ‘how’ select ‘flowchart’, and for ‘why’ select ‘multivariable plot’. Roam makes good use of examples throughout the book. It’s with the examples, particularly the real world ones, that he hooks the reader. We are taken through visual solutions of complex problems such as creating a comprehensive training doctrine for a company, and determining how to retain market share for a software company competing with the open source world. The book will be helpful to students and readers not exposed to the visual thinking process that pervades design programs, hci programs and creative agencies.

Certainly, I will use the tools that Roam provides, but, I caution the reader to keep in mind, that this kind of toolset is only valuable when applied to the right problem. Despite Roam’s proclamations that it can be applied to quantitative data sets, no one wants a visual that looks like a spaghetti explosion.

Example of Visual Thinking from the NYTimes website:



1. Jon Pittman - March 15, 2011

Rose – Did your impression of Back of the Napkin change after Tom Wujec’s presentation in class last night?

2. Dan Roam - March 17, 2011

Thank you for the review — I appreciate the time you took to read through my book and think about the lessons. I’m glad to hear that you found the tools useful.

Having just delivered my 235th corporate “back of the napkin” workshop yesterday, I can tell you that most business people have *not* yet discovered the power of breaking a problem down into its essential 6Ws. That — and combining that approach with the 6-simple-pictures, is to me the greatest breakthrough in visual problem solving.

I hope you find a way to keep applying my visual tools. Not surprisingly, they work better the more they are used.

dacsrgeorge - March 17, 2011

Thanks for the follow-up Dan. You are right that the more I use visual tools, the better I will get at it.

3. dacsrgeorge - March 17, 2011

Yes. I really enjoyed Tom’s presentation. Seeing visualization in practice is very different from reading about it. Definitely, I missed the tactile part of it as I read Back of the Napkin.

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