Book review: The Back of the Napkin

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If you think this book is about sketching: it’s not. If you’re looking for a book that will teach you how to draw pretty pictures, look further. However, if you’re looking for a book that will help you solve almost any problem, then The Back of The Napkin is the book for you. Yes, ANY problem.

Solving problems with pictures

Because, as Dan Roam quite convincingly argues: “Any problem can be made clearer with a picture, and any picture can be made using the same simple set of tools”. And it doesn’t require any special drawing skills at all. If you can draw boxes, arrows and smiley faces, you already have all the drawing skills you need. In fact, being able to draw lines on paper is least important. (Personally, I think designers should be able to do more, but when it comes to just problem solving, it’s okay). Solving problems with pictures is about understanding the visual thinking process: Look – See – Imagine – Show, and applying that. It starts with Looking: collecting and screening information. Seeing is where you become conscious of things. There are six ways of seeing (who/what, how many, where, when, how and why). If you are able to discern these aspects of a problem, the problem already becomes more clear. If you are then able to Imagine what is not there and Show your ideas, you are solving problems through visual thinking.

“Visual thinking is learning to think with our eyes, and it doesn’t require any advanced technology at all”

The hand is mightier than the mouse

As do other ‘drawing-evangelists’, so does Dan Roam argue that, if you want to think visually, leave your computer turned off. This is not to say you should never make pictures on a computer. But right now, the best graphics tablet and most sophisticated software are no match for a pen and, well, the back of a napkin, when it comes to ‘spontaneous, painless editing and instant sharing’. I really agree with him.

“Any problem can be made clearer with a picture, and any picture can be made using the same simple set of tools”

The <6><6> rule of visual thinking

According to Dan Roam, “the biggest and most useful insight in this book is the <6><6> rule of visual thinking.” This comes down to the following: for every one of the six ways of seeing (who/what, how many, where, when, how and why), there is one corresponding way of showing. So for instance, if you see a ‘where’ problem, you use a map. This can be a geographical map, but also a sitemap (where are the web pages located relative to each other?) If you see a ‘when’ problem, you use a timeline. To explain ‘how’ something works, use a flowchart, etcetera. Each type of problem has its own framework. That makes a lot of sense really, but it’s something I often see done incorrectly. An insight I would like to add to that is: don’t try to put everything into one picture. Designers will sometimes try to put too much information into graphs, resulting in sitemaps that require wall-sized paper to print, or combinations of sitemaps and flowcharts that have so many lines no one can make sense of it. Solving different problems with the same picture just doesn’t work.

Since I started reading this book, I’ve become more aware of the times when I use pictures to clearify problems, which, as it turns out, is something I do all the time. And sure enough, it helps every time, especially in meetings with other (non-designers).

Selling ideas

This book is not just about solving problems, it’s about selling your ideas too. The great thing is that for this, you use the same visual thinking process, but aloud: look aloud, see aloud, imagine aloud and show aloud. What I really liked about what Dan Roam says about presenting is this: drawing is like performing, which is what presenting should be. Live drawing captivates the audience like no bulleted list can ever do. We are so used to turn to powerpoint for presentations, that we tend to forget that our presence is the presentation, not the slides. Next to the fact that you don’t have to be an artist in order to create good pictures, a second relief this book offers is that a picture isn’t bad if it’s not self-explanatory. As long as it is explainable. Pictures are not about saving a thousand words, but about eliciting a thousand words.


As said, this book is about solving problems, and well, let that be the thing that us designers deal with every day. This book will give you a number of very hands-on tools to improve your visual thinking skills (not your drawing skills) and be more critical of the pictures you already made. I found the visual codex in particular to be a useful method, that I’m going to try and apply more in my daily work. But in the end, it’s not so much the methods and tools that are most useful, but the awareness that each type of problem requires a certain type of picture.

The book sometimes feels like a bit too much methods for a skill that you may already master as a designer. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting and fun read with plenty of amusing anecdotes. And Dan Roam really practices what he preaches. There are drawings on almost each page, telling and supporting his story, which showed me that even a lot of abstract things can be made visual.

I think good designers already understand the power of visual thinking. That’s why I think The Back of the Napkin is not so much a must read for designers, but for everyone else – especially people who deal with problem solving on a daily basis. Interaction designers can still learn plenty from this book too, though, if only this: have a pen and paper with you at all times.

Book details
The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures
author: Dan Roam
publisher: Portfolio, 2008
details: 278 pages, hardcover

Patrick Sanwikarja

Patrick Sanwikarja is an interaction designer at Fabrique Communication and Design in Delft, The Netherlands. He wants to make the future happen by designing it.

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