How to Use Pictures to Solve and to Sell: Dan Roam’s The Back of the Napkin

by Nathan Meffert on April 7, 2012


Dan Roam solves problems with pictures and closes multimillion dollar deals on doodles alone.

Me? As an eighth grader, I spent untold hours holed up in my room with pencil and sketch book when I should’ve been doing my homework. I did art photography through high school. I actually applied and was accepted to art school. I chose a different path but, every once in a while, I’ll become inspired and do some sketches.

The fact is, I frequently use whiteboards to illustrate what I’m talking about graphically. I’m one of Dan Roam’s “black pen people”, to be sure. But, The Back of the Napkin showed me just how far I could take it.

And it’s pretty exciting stuff.

The Back of the Napkin is intimidating in a good way. It’s one of those books that brings a complete revolution in thought. It provides a new way of thinking. That’s not a small accomplishment.

I’ll be unpacking the lessons over the next few months, but here’s the review.

Enter The Back of the Napkin

The Book in 3 Sentences or Less

Visual thinking is a whole other way of thinking. It helps us to engage more aspects of our brain in creating and sifting through information. Dan Roam codifies the process, and makes it possible for anyone to learn to use pictures to solve problems, discover and develop new ideas, and share their insights.


From the dust jacket:

Dan Roam is the founder and CEO of Digital Roam, Inc. a management-consulting firm that helps business executives solve complex problems through visual thinking. He has brought his unique approach to companies such as Google, eBay, General Electric, Wal-Mart, Well Fargo Bank, the United States Navy…

The lore of The Back of the Napkin is that Dan was unwittingly thrown into a presentation to a panel of British education experts on the role of the internet in public education. It being a last minute appointment, Dan wasn’t prepared. Forced to think on his toes, he used a drawing to develop and deliver his idea on the spot. The experts loved it. The presentation was successful, but Dan was hooked. Visual thinking was his new killer app.

Number One Takeaway: The Visual Thinking Swiss Army Knife

SQVIΔ/SQVID (you’ve got to read the book!)

Five questions to help focus our thinking and determine how to depict a certain idea or problem. When processing or presenting data ask, based on the nature of your problem and the audience, does the drawing need be/show:
  • Simple or elaborate?
  • Qualitative or quantitative?
  • Vision or execution?
  • Individual or comparison?
  • (Δ/D) Change or status quo/current state?
Six Ways We See/Six Ways to Show
  • Who/what?
  • How much?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • How?
  • Why?
In the Back of the Napkin system, these two frameworks work together to give us a map for how to generate, sort, sift, and present ideas visually. Thankfully, Dan Got uber-visual with his frameworks and created the “Visual Thinking Codex”. Use the image below to 1) ask the SQUID questions, then 2) ask the six ways we see questions:

Photo:; "The Visual Thinking Codex"

Key Leadership Lessons

Leadership in this context is simple enough: go there. Dan’s visual thinking strategies really do “make the invisible visible”. The problem will, as always, be that people will read the book and think “I got it”. Visual thinking gives you a new way to think. That’s not a small proposal. And, what you get out of it will be proportionate to the effort you put in.

I think that visual thinking really can mark a new chapter in any organization’s history. It will help you do what great communication is supposed to do: build and collaborate. But, like any new technology, it will require a champion.

Personally, I think I’ll start with a small challenge – a personal goal – to learn the frameworks and how to apply them.

Key Brand and Marketing Lessons

Although Dan’s book is focused on the internal end of problem solving and selling ideas, the lessons can be drawn out for marketing and brand. There is a natural bias to focus on visual thinking in the showing side of brand and marketing (that’s where the sale happens after all!). But bringing in the end user early in the process is the goal. And visual thinking is the perfect way to get general novices to our offering involved and engaged  in the process.

In Back of the Napkin terms, that means bringing customers/users in during the looking/seeing (research) and the imagining (ideation) phases of the visual thinking process. It will probably also mean skewing out presentations to the “warm”, or creative side of the twelve SQVID questions (in the Visual Thinking Codex, these are the top row filters: simple, quality, vision, individual, change), as opposed to the analytic side (which will be more useful for presentations to executives, etc.)

Key Strategic Lessons

You can solve problems and sell ideas with visual thinking. I love subtitles. You can learn everything you need to know about a book from its subtitle. The subtitle of The Back of the Napkin is “Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures”. So, we’re coming to this book to teach us to do both. The key point here is this: it’s a whole process. Choose any problem. Solve it. The solving it is the easy part. Any geeky kid with a garage and a dream can build a computer. It’s a trick to take it to the status of the most elegant piece of modern technology on the planet, and something that could simultaneously appear in an episode of the The Jetsons and  the MoMA.

But, again, this book will help you do both – and visual thinking is better suited to solving and selling modern problems (when solutions need to be strong in areas like empathy, story, and design) than its counterpart.

Most Challenging and Disruptive Ideas

Let’s start with a quote from the book:

Don’t get me wrong: There’s certainly nothing wrong with learning to read. But what happened to singing, dancing, and drawing? Once we believed that we know how to do those things – in fact, at kindergarten age, most of us practiced them happily every day – so why … do so many of us forget what we once knew? And by forgetting (or even just thinking we’ve forgotten), are we missing something fundamental in our innate problem-solving abilities that could be useful to us in the black-and-white, right-and-wrong, quantitative world of business?

It’s not a great leap to realize that an over reliance one way of processing information could lead to a certain kind of blindness.

Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences model shows us that there are, in fact, at least eight ways that we process information (1 Bodily-kinesthetic,  2 Interpersonal,  3 Verbal-linguistic,  4 Logical-mathematical,  5 Intrapersonal,  6 Visual-spatial,  7 Musical,  8 Naturalistic).

Funny thing is, as Dan Roam’s quote above attests, most kids do them all pretty naturally. Gardner’s model teaches us that when a 6-year-old is drawing, she isn’t just drawing. She’s processing information. And a dance isn’t just a dance. She’s learning to understand the world and her place in it. Hard for us to imagine perhaps, from our blinded positions – but nevertheless, disruptively, true.

Unique and Helpful Tools and Tactics

I’ve spent some time on specific tools and tactics above, so this will be short, but there is ONE final tool that will round out your first attempts at visual thinking.

The <6><6> Model

Think about Microsoft’s Excel. Think about the “Chart” function. Let’s be honest, it’s a visual thinking nightmare. Most of us don’t have any use for ninety-nine different charting choices out of the box. And, if it can’t be conveyed on the back of the napkin, it might not be quite developed enough for primetime.

<6><6> gives us a simple model for choosing the right way to tell the story. The first <6> = the six ways we see and the second <6> = the six different tools for showing.

  1. Want to show a “who or what” problem? Use a PORTRAIT.
  2. Want to show a “how much” problem? Use a CHART.
  3. Want to show a “where” problem? Use a MAP.
  4. Want to show a “when” problem? Use a TIMELINE.
  5. Want to show a “how” problem? Use a FLOWCHART.
  6. Want to show a “why” problem? Use a MULTIPLE VARIABLE PLOT.

Photo:; "The <6><6> Rule"

But Wait – There’s More!

What more business design and entrepreneurship book reviews? You’ve come to the right place. I’m in the middle of a marathon. Here are the links to a few more:

Also, be sure to check out Dan Roam’s website for more visual thinking resources.

And, here are a few more great resources:


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