The Back of the Napkin (review: 3.5/5)

The Back of the Napkin
Dan Roam does a pretty good job with this one: The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures. One of Roam’s main arguments (sometimes belabored) is that we were all comfortable drawing when we were in kindergarten. Somehow we got frigid. We play visually dumb. We don’t need to.

Visual thinking is neglected, but luckily we’re hard-wired for it. When we see things, we instinctively begin to sort out the essentials and answer a few questions. We can’t help it:

  • who/what?
  • how much/many?
  • when?
  • where?
  • how?
  • why?

Visual thinking borrows from that natural process a bit more intentionally. It starts with looking (collecting & screening data), seeing (selecting & grouping), then imagining (reconfiguring, manipulating, analogizing), and finally showing (cleaning up, putting it all together). And, hey, what do you know… according to Roam’s model, the ways we see things and the questions we need to answer match up directly with the tools we have to show things:

  • who/what? = portraits
  • how much/many? = charts
  • when? = timelines
  • where? = maps
  • how? = flowcharts
  • why? = multi-variable plots

That’s one of the basic insights that’s really nice to be reminded of. We have specific tools to answer specific questions. Roam also has the SQVID, a framework that helps you figure out how to present the information in the most appropriate way for the intended audience, tracing your way through 5 choices:

Simple vs. elaborate
Quality vs. quantity
Vision vs. execution
Individual attributes vs. comparison
Delta (change) vs. status quo

And when you cross-reference the SQVID with the model, you get a codex that guides you to whatever pictures you need to make for the problems you need to solve. The acronyms and frameworks sound a bit confusing outside of the book, but Roam ties it together pretty nicely with lots of visuals throughout. And it’s actually kind of… practical. That doesn’t mean that the products of visual thinking are guaranteed to be easy or simple, no more than writing or talking about the ideas would be:

One of the most important virtues of visual thinking is its ability to clarify things so that the complex can be better understood, but that does not mean that all good visual thinking is about simplification. The real goal of visual thinking is to make the complex understandable by making it visible—not by making it simple.

An obvious weakness for the book: it’s really hard to learn something like this from a book. You can learn about it. But it’s one of those things that you have to DO, and more examples are always helpful. The long case study that takes up the last 40% of the book lets you see the different frameworks in action, but it’s also kind of boring to read about the same fictional software company and its fictional competitors and fictional customers for 100 pages. I imagine this was a tough part of the book to write as well.

I’d still recommend it. Heaven knows it’s refreshingly different from most of the other books in the business section, and there’s some real meat in there.

One thought on “The Back of the Napkin (review: 3.5/5)

  1. […] Roam has shared the “Napkin Tools” from his book. (I wrote a wee review of The Back of the Napkin a while ago). New offerings in PDF format include the Visual Thinking Codex, the SQVID, and the […]

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