RoaBack 10-01-018

The Back of the Napkin

Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures


Dan Roam

Penguin Books, 2009, 281 pp.  ISBN 978-1-59184-306-1



Dan Roam is the president of Digital Roam Inc.  He has helped major corporations solve complex problems through visual thinking.  This is a two-color book showing – with many simple pictographs – how to develop and illustrate your ideas by using simple pictures.  He presents a fresh way of looking at problems and seeing solutions.  And you don’t have to be able to draw!   However, even though the drawings are simple, the book is complex.


“Any problem can be made clearer with a picture, and any picture can be created using the same set of tools and rules.” (12)  Immediately you think: What problems? What pictures? And Who?   He sorts problems into six categories: who and what, how much, when, where, how, and why problems. 


“The basics of visual thinking have nothing to do with creating charts on a computer.  Visual thinking is learning to think with our eyes, and it doesn’t require any advanced technology at all.” (19) 


Everything you need to draw can be categorized as basic shapes, lines and arrows, and people and things. ”The spontaneity and roughness of hand-drawn pictures make them less intimidating and more inviting….”  “In the end, visual thinking isn’t about how polished our presentations are, it is about how comfortable we are in thinking with our eyes.” (23)  Visual thinking is something that we already know how to do!


Visual thinking is a four-step process that uses three built-in tools (our eyes, our mind’s eye, and our hand-eye coordination), and six ways of seeing. 


Imagine a poker hand.  First we look at the cards.  Then we see them – the color, number, suit, etc.  Then we imagine how the patterns fit together as a hand.  These are the three ways of seeing.  We look, then see, then imagine.  And then we show with a picture. (35)


Looking = Collecting and screening.

Seeing = Selecting and clumping (recognizing patterns)

Imagining = Seeing what isn’t there, meaning

Showing = Making it clear.


Being able to draw well comes from being able to look well. The starting point isn’t learning to draw better but learning to look better. (45-6)


Rule 1.  Collecting everything possible at the beginning.

Rule 2.  Lay it all out where you can look at it.

Rule 3.  Establish the underlying information coordinates (how it fits in space)

      There are 6 coordinates: Who/what, How much, Where, When, How, Why

      These work for almost every thing and every idea.

Rule 4.  Practice visual triage.  Utilize your experiential intuition that makes instant judgments about what is important to look at and what is not.  Our minds are great at intuitive judgments about what to notice. 


“While looking is about collecting the raw visual information that is in front of us, seeing is about selecting what’s important.” (67)  “Seeing is selecting and identifying patterns.  And really good seeing is … problem recognition.” (68)


As things happen, our eyes see who/what and how many.  They also see where and when.  They often combine these things and deduce how.  And we begin to make rational arguments about why things happened. This is an intuitive problem-solving approach.  (77-79) 


We apply our imagination when, after seeing what is there, we close our eyes and let our mind’s eye take over and see what is not physically there.          


“The real goal of visual thinking is to make the complex understandable by making it visible.” (105) 


Well, it’s a long and complex book, made understandable by all the pictures.  But you get the idea.


* * * * * *

Your comments and book recommendations are welcome.

To discontinue receiving book notes, hit Reply and put Discontinue in the text.