The Back of the Napkin: New Approaches to Visualizing and Communicating Ideas


As I discussed in the last post, effective visual presentation of technical data allows collaboration participants to understand and remember information quickly and efficiently. Visual explanation is just as important in conveying key concepts that guide a group in defining its goals and creating options for consensus agreements. In recent years, several masters of visual communication have published influential books offering new methods for ending the dominance of the bullet-point slide show.

Dan Roam, through his best-selling The Back of the Napkin, is one the most interesting innovators. His radical approach is not only readily put to use but is also more accessible to those of us lacking artistic talent and the eye of a designer.

The Back of the Napkin method puts aside the complex software tools used to create most presentations and relies instead on flipchart, whiteboard and marker. It is best known for using a few simple shapes to construct free-hand drawings. The above video on the health care debate illustrates at length how complex material can be summarized visually in easy-to-understand slides.

There’s a lot more to the method, though, than the simplified approach to drawing. Underlying this technique is a sophisticated model of visual thinking that Roam is able to present in quickly understandable terms. For example, he summarizes the visualization and communication process in four steps, and the book is structured around elaboration of each one. His discussion of the steps nicely illustrates the method itself. He selects the key ideas from a complex set of information, imagines how to organize them in an original way and then chooses the appropriate visual format and imagery to make the presentation as memorable as possible.

These are the four basic steps in this process.

  • Looking refers to perceiving the total field of information.

  • Seeing focuses on significant patterns and organizes selected information according to categories.

  • Imagining manipulates the material in new ways to clarify trends and reveal frameworks that add meaning.

  • Showing makes clear what you’ve imagined for effective visual communication.

Back of the Napkin 4 Ways of Seeing

From Dan Roam’s The Back of the Napkin Workshop on SlideShare

He identifies simple methods for carrying out each of these phases of the process. Seeing, for example, involves answering 6 questions: Who/What, How much, Where, When, How and Why.

An essential part of showing is to match the answers to these questions with an appropriate framework for display. Roam uses six basic visual frameworks from which, he believes, all the other possible representations are derived: portrait, chart, map, timeline, flowchart and multiple-variable plot. Here’s the way the questions match up with the frameworks.

Back of the Napkin <6><6>Rule

This and other images from The Back of the Napkin can be downloaded from Dan Roam’s website here.

These examples offer just a hint of the visual thinking model and Roam’s application of it throughout The Back of the Napkin. Whether or not you choose to use the hand-drawn picture approach in practice, there is a lot to be gained by regularly applying the steps of the visualization process.

While Roam’s methods are the most accessible, many other approaches have also introduced effective visual presentation techniques. Here are three other resources that have invaluable ideas, especially regarding the innovative use of the most commonly available software tools, such as PowerPoint. Each emphasizes the importance of conceptualizing what needs to be conveyed long before booting up a computer.

  • Cliff Atkinson, whose Beyond Bullet Points is now in its second edition, was one of the first to take aim at the text-based slide show that serves mostly as lecture notes (as well as a crutch for the speaker). His method transforms PowerPoint and Keynote into tools for telling stories with brief headlines and interpretive images that move an audience toward a few key conclusions. The use of a story board template is one of his distinctive techniques.

  • Nancy Duarte’s Slide:ology, a beautifully designed book, emphasizes thinking through key ideas before considering any presentation method. The use of images needs to be evocative and help build a connection between speaker and audience as well as convey explicit meaning. She offers excellent guidance on thinking like a designer to pare down the visual elements and avoiding razzle-dazzle that only distracts from the essential message.

  • Presentation Zen, by Garr Reynolds, is another book of extraordinary design, that provides guiding ideas to simplify imagery and match it carefully to content. The core message of a presentation has to be effective in a 35-40 second “elevator speech” and the larger sequence of images that conveys it to an audience has to be designed to support that level of forceful impact.

These writers have all helped revolutionize thinking about visualizing and presenting information. Hopefully, their ideas will become just as influential in the world of public policy as they have been in the business community (their main audience thus far). Concise and memorable presentations for collaborative policy groups are all too rare. Instead of experiencing information overload from detailed lectures, participants in these groups need to grasp the essential points of a subject in a short period of time. Information should be honed to the immediate task, and visualization is an essential tool for this purpose.


2 Responses to “ The Back of the Napkin: New Approaches to Visualizing and Communicating Ideas ”

  1. John,
    Nice synopsis on what I think is a totally underutilized aspect of communication; e.g., drawing and visualization. Well done. I’m going to check out the Napkin book.

  2. Thanks, Ben –

    It really is an underutilized tool. Hard as it is to break through the PowerPoint mindset, this is a priority for me. Visualizing ideas with simple tools is one way to focus stakeholders more precisely on exactly what they need to know. There are other methods I’ll talk about in the future.

    Thanks for your comment.