An initial review of “The Back of the Napkin”

Dan Roam has written an interesting book on visual thinking. I had posted a video on some of his thinking on this blog. I read Dan’s book on the plane as I flew from Seattle to Virginia Beach. This is an initial impression of his book. There will be more postings to come.

The book starts off by showing how to draw simple diagrams to illustrate ideas and points. The concept is very elegant and SIMPLE. Remember: simplicity = beauty. Half way into the book, Dan presents an MBA-like case study by applying his virutal thinking concepts to “real life” situation. This is where things start to go awry. His simple (and beautiful) diagrams in the case study evolve into some hand sketched diagrams that look like some organization charts from the federal government. And we all know how bad that can look. His diagrams are worse than those awful PowerPoint slides we see in Coca Cola’s presentation.

So instead of a bunch of PowerPoint bullet points, he ends up with a bunch of diagrams. When I get back to my office, I will scan a few examples of his virtual thinking diagrams and post them here.

One of my readers complained that I mixed typed text with hand sketches in my virtual thinking sldies. To go along this line of thinking, Dan should have written his entire book by hand. By the way, some of his sketches are so small that you almost have to have a magnifying glass to read. This is due to the fact that the fonts are small and the book measures about 4 by 4 inches instead of the usual size.

My take of this book? It is a mixture of simple elegance and awful clusters of almost unreadable diagrams. More later. Any comments from anyone? 

If people are turned off by clusters of bullet points (and they are), why would it be different with clusters of diagrams?

6 responses to “An initial review of “The Back of the Napkin”

  1. I liked the concept; however it proved to be impractical. It took a long time to create the initial diagrams, it was only very simple concepts they could relate and the presentation became disjointed switching back and forth between napkin concept and traditional powerpoint diagrams.
    I will probably give it another shot; however I am not very hopeful.

  2. John,

    I agree with you totally about the concept being somewhat impractical. The book does have some good ideas on how to draw simple sketches. At my last seminar, I used a “virtual thinking” page at the end of my Powerpoint presentation to recap everything. The audience liked it.

  3. Simplicity does not equal beauty. That is a dangerously facile belief. Clarity is what is beautiful. A *simple* idea can be just as bad as a complex idea; case it point, the invasion in 2003 of Iraq. It was a simple idea, but it was misguided because it failed to recognize the complexity of the real situation on the ground in that part of the world.

    I wish and hope that you’d take another careful read of the sections of the book you take exception to. Yes, some of the images are too small, and that is an unfortunate artifact of keeping the book to a portable size. (Not 4 x 4, BTW, but 7.5 x 7.5, for those interested in accuracy.)

    In my experience of thousands of business meetings, I have never found the concept of visual thinking impractical. I’m confused by that observation. Our brains naturally gravitate towards “getting” things visually. Drawing out an idea — whether simple or elaborate — is always a powerful way to help introduce clarity.

    Rather than diminishing the concept because it might appear imperfect, I’d ask you to use your innate visual abilities to map out the next challenge you come across or to convey an idea in your next presentation. If you walk your audience through the visual creation of an idea step-by-step, you’ll be amazed by the level of elaboration that people can “get”. (See Normwei’s last comment.)

    Thanks for the excellent comments.

    Dan Roam

  4. Dan,

    Thank you for your comments. I have to agree and disagree with you on your comment about clarity. Yes – clarity is beautiful. But a cluttered organizational chart is anything but clear. Nor is it simple.

    I think your virtual thinking concept works well in a brain storming session. But as a tool for making presentation (telling a stoy, selling an idea, etc), it has the danger of evolving into something that lacks clarity. I see them as bullet points disguised as complicated sketches.

    As for the difference between simplicity and clarity, I don’t think something can be called simple if it is not clear.

    Thanks again for your comments.


  5. Imran Nasrullah

    I found the book very useful and very interesting. At heart, I think many of us don’t get back to “everything you learned, you learned in show and tell”, and; Mark Twain’s 6 favorite friends, who, what, where, when, how, and why in every step our analysis. I think the diagrams are helpful about how to think about problems. Lastly, Roam even says that the diagrams are always a work in progress, subject to editing and re-editing, always striving for simplicity.

    I actually find Power Point mediocre, and recently I have come upon Smart Draw, which I find more useful for graphical representation.

    -Imran Nasrullah
    Mass Biotech Council

  6. Imran,

    Thank you for your comments. Roam does not believe in simplicity – according to his earlier comments. He believes in clarity. I disagree with him. You cannot have clarity without simplicity.

    I have a tablet PC and have taken to drawing SIMPLE diagrams (that are clear) as a recap during my seminars. Attendees seem to like it.


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