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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.

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