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The Back Of The Napkin: New Approaches To Visualizing And Communicating Ideas

From John Folk-Williams’s blog Cross Collaborate

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 <em data-lazy-src=

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.


John Folk-Williams

I’m John Folk-Williams, the publisher and editor of Cross Collaborate. Since the early 1980s, I’ve been a practitioner and writer in the field of public policy collaboration, interest-based negotiation, mediation and the involvement of citizens in the decisions that affect their lives. A site like this is itself a collaboration… MORE >

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