Writing on The Back of the Napkin

Every once in a while someone shows me a book that’s a little different. This one is about drawing pictures on napkins.

Well, that’s not quite right. It’s actually about drawing pictures on anything (paper, whiteboards, the back of your hand if you must). This book is aimed for primarily at business people, who aren’t necessarily known for great drawings, favouring “chartware” instead.

The Back of the Napkin”, by Dan Roam, argues that we spend too much time making charts that people don’t understand. When we make diagrams they are generally not as useful as they should be. Much of what we write isn’t read because much of it is presented in a way that we are not suited to understand. As a person who works for a multinational, multiethnic company, where much of the team does not share the same language, I know that words can cause problems. Also, adding more of them to clarify isn’t always the best solution. I often feel that if I could just draw a picture in the right way I might have a better chance of getting my idea across.

This is just the kind of problem The Back of the Napkin was written for. Roam proposes that all problems and ideas can be broken down into a few unique approaches. From those approaches you can use a straightforward system he calls the “Visual Thinking Codex” in order to select the type of information you want to convey. Better yet, you only need a few simple boxes and lines to pull it off. The author believes that it would be much better if you drew it rather than prepared elaborate charts. This is not to say that elaborate charts don’t have their place. Rather, they are overused and often prevent clarity.

As I was reading the book, I found that much of it wasn’t a surprise. For example, If you want to express “when” information, you use a timeline. I’ve been drawing Gantt charts for most of my career, so this wasn’t a revelation. Or if you want to show “how” you use a flowchart. Again, nothing new.

I noticed something interesting on the way to the last page, however.

The point behind all this wasn’t necessarily to tell you something new. The point was to frame the problem of drawing diagrams into a specific way of thinking about the diagrams. I could see over time that the Codex created by Roam became very useful to frame your thoughts about a particular diagram, based on the information you wanted to convey. Sometimes my thinking is sloppy in this area and I use a diagram that isn’t suited to the problem at hand. Then I have to spend far too much time explaining what I just misdrew.

With the Codex I can think about what to convey in advance and have pointers to what I should be drawing. Very helpful.

I’m sure others may get other things out of this book. I don’t need to be convinced to draw a diagram and I will readily take pen in hand and go at it. (That makes me a “Black Pen” person in the book.) Others need to be convinced of the power of diagrams, or that “they can’t draw” isn’t an issue because these are simple drawings to make.

All in all, I quite liked the book and have already started using it in my daily work.

As an interesting side note, I’ve noticed that I now start categorizing diagrams that I see in the newspaper based on the Codex. Sometimes they match and sometimes they don’t. The ones that don’t match make me look at them to see if they are really displaying information properly. So, the book has also provided me with an interesting diagnostic technique.