Article Category: Book Reviews, Visual Aids

Book Review:
The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures

The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures is a wonderful book packed with insights for translating ideas into visuals. It’s not a surprise to me that this book was listed in the Top 10 Business Books list for 2008.

Being a great speaker requires more than simply adopting the “more visuals, less bullet points” approach. You need to have effective visuals. The Back of the Napkin helps you figure out how by boosting your visual thinking skills.

This article is the latest of a series of public speaking book reviews here on Six Minutes.

What’s Inside?

Dan Roam’s bestseller stands out. The title is catchy, and the cover makes you want to grab it, thanks to the embossed “napkin” effect. But does it deliver on the hype?

Yes, it does. There are many original ideas here, and all will help you hone your visual communication skills. Roam makes a convincing case that you don’t need better artistic skills or better computer graphics. Instead, you need better visual thinking skills.

The Price

At the time of writing this review, you can get this hardcover book for only $15.92 from This is 45% off the list price. [Note that this price is for the expanded edition, while the copy in my hands is the original version.] When I started typing this review a few days ago, the discount was only 34%… act soon!

If you like workbooks, you may like the companion offering from the same author — Unfolding the Napkin: The Hands-On Method for Solving Complex Problems with Simple Pictures — which is currently just $13.60. You can get another discount if you buy both for $28.72.

3 Things I Love about The Back of the Napkin

The three things I liked most about The Back of the Napkin are the key insights that had my lightbulbs fireworks lighting up. These three insights (along with Roam’s explanations) are worth the price of the book alone:

1. Who/What? How Many? Where? When? How? Why?

Roam suggests that for any given problem, these six common questions provide the fundamental coordinate system in which all visuals can be framed:

  • Who/What → Portrait
  • How Many → Chart
  • Where → Map
  • When → Timeline
  • How → Flowchart
  • Why → Multivariable Plot

You like freebies? Me too! Download a free 1-page PDF from Dan Roam to show these six dimensions

2. The SQVID approach: questions to ask when designing any visual

Roam argues (quite correctly) that even when you know generally what you’d like to draw, there are numerous ways to draw it depending on what point you are trying to convey.

He illustrates this with a story about an apple. Suppose you wanted to communicate the idea of an apple to someone who didn’t know what apples are. Would you draw a picture of a single apple (simple) or an entire orchard (elaborate)? Would you draw an apple pie (vision) or the recipe and steps to prepare one (execution)?

He continues through other questions, eventually labeling it the SQVID approach which encourages you to consider the following qualities when communicating with a visual:

  • Simple vs. Elaborate
  • Quality vs. Quantity
  • Vision vs. Execution
  • Individual Attributes vs. Comparison
  • Delta (change) vs. Status Quo

Another freebie: Download a free 1-page PDF from Dan Roam to show the SQVID approach

3. Does a visual need to be self-explanatory to be effective?

Roam confronts this question near the end of the book and gives a forceful response which I agree with. He writes:

“All good pictures do not need to be self-explanatory, but they do need to be explainable. It’s a rare problem-solving picture of any sort that can carry a clear message, convey powerful meaning, and inspire deep insight without at least a caption. … the point isn’t to replace all the words; the point is to use the picture to replace those words that are more effectively conveyed, understood, and remembered visually.”

How could it be better?

1. More drawing tips

I had hoped that The Back of the Napkin would cover more rudimentary drawing tips. For example, what are easy ways to show motion in quick sketches? How can color be used effectively at the flip chart, or should you stick with a single color? How do you show emotion in stick figures?

To be fair, I don’t have a copy of the companion workbook, so perhaps Roam goes deeper into practical tips in that resource.

2. More about how to present with the visuals

Although Roam correctly asserts that it is fine if your visuals need some explanation, but he doesn’t explore this explanation process deep enough. He hints at this process in the book’s final example (where he advocates drawing your picture in real-time in front of your audience), but I think there is conceptual room for much more.

For example, many speakers would benefit from exploring these questions:

  • My final visual is going to be elaborate. Where do I start?
  • How should I chunk the drawing, revealing a bit at a time?
  • What advice do you have for narrating the story as you draw?
  • How should you refer back to a previously drawn visual later in the presentation? (Or should you?)

What Others Think

Brent Dykes, PowerPoint Ninja:

Even if you don’t struggle with visual thinking, I recommend The Back of the Napkin (four of five stars) as it provides a valuable set of processes and frameworks that can even benefit experienced visual thinkers, who probably operate more by intuition than methodology.

Beverly Feldt, Perdido Magazine:

Charts, testimonials, vision, detail–all of these poured out of my pencil. I still couldn’t draw, but I could see that I didn’t need to. This wasn’t about art; it was about thinking–visual thinking. I was hooked.

Patrick Sanwikarja, Johnny Holland Magazine:

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 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.

Connie Malamed, The eLearning Coach:

Although this book is oriented toward the solving and selling of ideas in business, most of the techniques and concepts can be easily transferred to the general notion of solving problems through visual thinking.


If you are afraid to sketch your own visuals at the whiteboard because you think you can’t draw, this book will convince you that your drawing skills are more than adequate.

If you aren’t afraid, but you have no idea how to sketch an effective visual, this book will provide a framework for you to build your skills.

The Back of the Napkin is a quick read, and a useful reference book. It will help you become a better presenter by converting your pointless bullet points and vague visuals into meaningful visuals.

Please share this...

Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures by Dan Roam Andrew Dlugan 3.5 June 2, 2010 Insightful and essential lessons for all communicators. Everyone can benefit by improving their visual thinking skills with the help of this book.

This article is one of a series of public speaking book reviews featured on Six Minutes.
Subscribe to Six Minutes for free to receive future book reviews.

Tweets iconRecent Tweets

Links icon2 Blog Links