The author Dan Roam is an unabashed enthusiast of using simple, hand-drawn pictures in the business context.  I picked up this book on the hope that the techniques illustrated (pun intended) in it could become part of our innovation arsenal and I think it does that but…

Book cover: Unfolding the Napkin In the very first page, the author makes it clear where he’s coming from,

Twenty-five years of helping business leaders around the world develop ideas have taught me three things:

  1. There is no more powerful way to discover a new idea than to draw a simple picture.
  2. There is no faster way to develop and test an idea than to draw a simple picture.
  3. There is no more effective way to share an idea with other people than to draw a simple picture.

Then, he charges right into it.

It’s a Workshop

The book is organized as a four-day “workshop” and he suggests that you go through it in four days (good advice).  Of course, this being a workshop on how to draw simple pictures, the reader is expected to draw along during the easy-to-follow exercises.

What’s Black and Yellow and Red?

Dan reports that over and over he’s found that people fall in one of three categories,

  • Black Pen–These are the people who can’t wait to grab a marker and start drawing.
  • Yellow Pen–The folks that get up to add to and “correct” what the Black Pen people drew on the board.
  • Red Pen–The ones that will only get to the board when they get sufficiently enough pissed off that they have to clean up the crap that the Black and Yellow people concocted on the board.

The book includes a questionnaire to help you determine “what color is your pen?”

If you are one of those people who shy away from a blank whiteboard because “I don’t know how to draw,” then I recommend you pick up this book and work through the exercises.  It will help you get over this mental block (i.e., you already know how to draw as well as you need to in order to communicate and this book will help you discover that latent talent).

Picture Alphabet

Dan offers a picture “alphabet,” so to speak, to help the reader apply the right type of picture in a given situation and how to combine them.

First he goes through six types of pictures that can be used to illustrate different aspects of a problem (who/what, how much, when, where, how, why).  He then introduces five ranges of pictures that you can use to address specific audiences (simple/elaborate, quality/quantity, vision/execution, individual/comparison, change/as-is).

He then combines these in a two-dimensional “codex” to help the reader pick and choose the right combination of pictures to lay out a problem in its simplest form.

I found this codex a pretty usefull tool in that it gives the reader 1) a palette of simple but expressive symbols and 2) a structured way to think about problems.

Unwritten Rules

According to Dan, there are four unwritten rules of visual thinking,

  1. Whoever is best at describing the problem is the person most likely to solve it.
  2. We can’t solve problems that overwhelm us.  To understand what we’re seeing, we need to break it down into bite-size pieces.
  3. Problems don’t get solved by the smartest or the fastest or the strongest.  They get solved by the one who sees the possibilities.
  4. The more human your pictures, the more human the response.

On that last point, he gives a great anecdote that took place at Microsoft.  On a big whiteboard, the team Dan lead had hand-drawned their view problem.  Then they walked the execs into the room and,

Immediately everybody ‘got’ what we were showing. … Nobody complained that we’ve used the wrong typeface, nobody questioned our choice of colors, and no one got caught in the weeds of the accuracy or the relevance of the data we’d selected.

Communication Stoppers

Polishing our pictures actually makes them worse in that they become an obstacle to collaboration.  If the picture looks finished, the audience will assume that there’s nothing for them to add (or, worse, that you don’t want them to add any more to it).

On the other hand, an unpolished picture draws people in to “finish” it.

And Here’s the “But”

While I agree with the premise of this book and I am a drawing enthusiast myself (i.e., definitely a Black Pen kinda guy), I also recognize that pictures are but one tool in the communication/collaboration arsenal.  The key is to use the right combination of tools that’s appropriate for the particular situation and audience.

As Dan says, “whoever is best at describing the problem is the person most likely to solve it.”  Depending on the people involved and the particular situation, the most effective form for describing the problem may be pictures, but it may also be words or music or mime or whatever.  I can imagine how in some cases, pictures may be the wrong tool for the task.  In fact, pictures can just as well obfuscate the problem instead of clarifying it.

I think Dan may underestimate how good he really is at capturing the essence of a situation in simple pictures.

To Be Clear

The techniques in this book are very much a welcome addition to the innovation arsenal.  And investing a few hours going through this workshop is well worth it.  You’ll learn a more structured and manageable way to utilize pictures for problem-solving and collaboration.  And it may even turn you into a Black Pen type. :)

I can see how this will play well with other techniques and tools we use at Nearsoft, like Innovation Games, for our own use and to help our clients.  Visualizing the simplest form of a problem is essential to expanding the realm of innovative solutions that can applied to it.

Further Reading

Unfolding is a follow up to The Back of the Napkin—Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures by Dan Roam. The Back is more on the what while Unfolding is more on the how

For Dan’s blog, tools and other goodies, you can visit his site.