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on April 3, 2010
Like many books, "Back of the Napkin" seems to have begun with a brilliant very short concept that someone (correctly) thought would sell like hotcakes if padded out into a full-length book. The author really does present significant insights, but the irony is that they would have been best summarized literally on the back of a napkin, rather than dragging them out into full book form. So it reads like a 300-slide PowerPoint presentation advocating brevity.

The sequel, "Unfolding the Napkin" (which I also read) is better thought out, serves more as a method, and contains more visual examples - but it still rehashes pretty much the same material as the first book in order to make its point, so reading both books was redundant in my opinion.
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VINE VOICEon April 1, 2008
I saw the book on the shelf at Borders and the cover caught my attention. I read the first few pages and knew I had to read the rest.

I am a technical trainer and writer and have been teaching classes for more than 10 years now. For the last 7 years I've been using a pen tablet in my classes to draw diagrams on-the-fly while lecturing about different technology concepts. The attendees have given phenomenally positive feedback about this learning method.

Now, I find this book that not only validates the process I've been using but helps me take it to the next level. The author reveals the four steps to visual thinking and the six problem categories that we all face. He shows you how to do it with case studies and examples that are practical.

One thing that I think many will find helpful is the way the author quickly removes any fear of drawing you may have. He gives the testimony of many attendees that he has helped overcome this fear of drawing in front of others. Personally, my family plays Pictionary very regularly because I want my children to be comfortable with this process.

My favorite part was the Appendix: The Science of Visual Thinking. I found it very interesting as it presents scientific research as it relates to this simple process.

If you want a great new way to solve problems and a great way to communicate ideas, I think you'll find this book very useful.

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on January 8, 2010
If money or portability are your primary considerations, then get a used copy of the first edition, as it communicates the central ideas in an almost identical fashion and is easier to carry around. However, if a few more dollars and a slightly-bigger book don't bother you, consider buying this new edition, as it's subtly-revised diagrams and improved explanation of key brain science concepts make it easier to understand on the first read. For more detail on the differences between this and the previous edition, read on...

Both books are hardcovers and much of the content (including, sadly, the Resources listed in the Appendix) is the same. However, there are a number of important differences between these editions:


At 8.2 x 8 x 1.3 inches, it is bigger than the first edition, which clocked in at 7.1 x 7.1 x 1 inches. While this does allow for the pictures to be bigger and slightly easier to see, it also means a larger, oddly-shaped book to carry around. This only matters if, like me, you like to schlepp your favorite books around and carry them on the bus.


Includes more pages at 304 pages, rather than the previous edition's 278, making it a mere 0.2 pounds heavier. 10 of those additional 26 pages are the new "Appendix A: The Ten (and a Half) Commandments of Visual Thinking." This is a very useful set of 11 rules of thumb to keep in mind when applying Roam's visual thinking technique. Most, if not all, of these rules are mentioned elsewhere in the book, so don't let this appendix be your only reason for purchasing the newest edition. In addition, these 11 rules are summarized nicely in a slideshow elsewhere on the internet ([...]/visual_think_map/the-10-12-commandments-of-visual-thinking-the-lost-chapter-from-the-back-of-the-napkin). Nonetheless, it is helpful to have them laid out, visually, in one place. Another 8 pages are the new Foreword, which explains Roam's experience of visually attempting to sell the idea for this book to the publishers at Penguin. While interesting and a good example, it is also not a reason to buy this edition.


Instead of just black text/pictures, red is now used to highlight chapter headings and subheadings, as well as help readers distinguish between parts of Roam's originally-all-black illustrations and diagrams. This is astonishingly helpful - as it is much easier to understand his diagrams at first glance. Given the table on page 66 (identical to that on page 72 in the first edition), it is no surprise that a small change in color makes it easier for our eyes to distinguish among the parts of his diagrams. In addition, he has added some additional sketches in the book to better visually explain some of his concepts. I was particularly impressed by his improvements to chapters 4 and 5 on how to look better and see sharper. Both his pictures and his text in this section have been revised to provide more clarity for potentially-confusing sections that are partially dependent on communicating a few key brain science concepts. His diagrams illustrating the 6 ways of seeing/showing are also a bit clearer than in the first edition.

For an outline of the major concepts in the book, see my blog post ([...]/blog/review-back-of-the-napkin-solving-problems-and-selling-ideas-with-pictures-expanded-edition-2009) for more details.
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on April 19, 2010
It must be great to be in the audience when Dan Roam gives a presentation and when you in the audience share the same kind of visual sense. On the other hand, if you do not share that sense, that way of structuring the topic under consideration, then you might well want to be beamed somewhere else.

This is a great book, extremely useful and thought provoking. The structuring of problem-solving into a six by five visual codex makes enormous sense; you can literally see the evolution of the thought processes and the development of the insights take shape through the pages. It is not the kind of book that you can dip into. There is a structure and that structure has to unfold and be assimilated by the reader before there can be any translation into action and effect. I think that there is no "quick fix" for someone who wants to animate or rejuvenate their presentations with a rapid read. The art of solving problems has to be developed through the acquisition of the skills protrayed in these pages. And that takes time and effort. And it also needs a sense of congruity between the visual sense of the author and that of the reader. Pictures can convey so much that words cannot evoke. But some pictures and representations succeed and others fail, otherwise there would be no evolution of art and expression.

Be wary of this book on face value. The editorial recommendations of the book do not necessarily reflect the content. Simply to say, as does one commentator, "So if you want to make a point, do it with images, pictures or graphics.", is true only to a point. It is not necessarily the case for all readers, all viewers and certainly not for all people who need to make a presentation. The person who gives the presentation with pictures that reflect their own representation of the topic without engaging the representation or ability of the audience will fail. The presentation must be expressive, not merely reflective.

But that aside, if after searching through this book you get a sense of affiliation with the ideas and concepts, then I have no doubt that you will gain enormously in quality of communication with your audiences. This book is a challenge that can lead to greater insight. But the dictum "caveat emptor" applies, as always. But also remember, books such as this always present the ideas as though they were tried and true. There is rarely evidence as to the efficacy of the methods in getting the message across, as against the satisfaction that an audience may gain. Roam does list references in an appendix to other works that are based on empirical evidence (for example Wainer's Graphic discovery and Tufte The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 2nd edition, but there is nothing about his own evidence. A reading of this excellent book benefits from a parallel reading, and reality check, of Tufte's little monograph on the dangers of Powerpoint (The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within, Second Edition.
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on March 16, 2008
If you have ever scribbled on the back of a napkin or for that matter any piece of paper while explaining something to a cohort, this book might help you. Mr. Roam's main premise is that pictures on the back of a napkin are a most effective way to solve problems and sell ideas. He takes you through his process in this quick read and convincing book.
His suggestion to solve business problems with simple drawings could raise a few doubts. Drawings are not business solutions is the common wisdom. Conventional tools such as spreadsheets, deep mathematical analysis are the norm. The book more than adequately addresses the doubts and other questions about drawing pictures to accomplish business objectives.
He resolves denials like "I can't draw or I don't carry napkins in my pocket ". This is accomplished by demonstrating how we all have the ability to draw within the system he has developed. He first drew a successful proposal on the back of a napkin while eating breakfast on a train in England. In the book we are taught by leading us through the development of the complete solving/selling process.
The book is written in an easy to read conversational style and is laced with the type of drawings he proposes that are most useful in attacking the most intractable of problems. While reading the book one finds themselves thinking things like "I can do that" or "I need to remember the steps in the process so I can do them whenever I have a problem and a napkin"
We are introduced to a group of problems that have been solved using the system. In those solutions the drawings were not only on napkins but white boards or just sheets of paper. The reader begins to understand that the system is a cleverly developed method to cause one to think not only outside the box but with pictures rather than words.
He also takes care in pointing out that timing and following a sequence of steps is most important. Pictures are often said to be worth a thousand words. He gives examples that explain when one is selling the idea one has to be sure the audience is led to the conclusions that the team found while developing the solution. Just flashing a picture and saying "this is the solution" is not usually the most effective way to convince those you are trying to convince. The book takes us from puzzle (the problem) to plan (the selling of the solution) in simple and easy to follow steps.
In these days we are constantly faced with solving complex problems. The Back of the Napkin presents a thought process and method that can help solve those problems. Using the method will help sell the solution. It becomes an arsenal one wants in his tool kit. When you couple that arsenal with an enjoyable read there is little to lose and much to gain. Now where are those napkins?
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I found this book refreshing, even relaxing, and recommend it as a gift item for any student or adult. Had I been the publisher I would have made the book larger and the visuals (by definition, handwriting and sketches) consequently larger and fresher, but what is offered suffices.

I have been immersed for the past several weeks in some of the most advanced technical automated multi-media, multi-dimensional, geospatially-grounded visualizations with time lines and cross-cutting cultural dimesions, and after all of that, this book not only stands the test of holding my attention, but proves itself equal to the task of challenging what is supposed to be "state of the art."

A few other books that come to mind that complement this one:
Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving with Grace
The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business
Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing
The Design of Dissent: Socially and Politically Driven Graphics
Information Design
Visual Interfaces to Digital Libraries (Lecture Notes in Computer Science)
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on August 26, 2008
Dan Roam's "Back of the Napkin" is an important first step in teaching business people how to compose problems visually. However, it's definitely a rookie effort, heavy on sizzle but light on steak.

Roam spends nearly half the book explaining how our minds process information. Okay, fine. Kind of like a book on how to build a house explaining what is a hammer, a saw, a drill. Then Roam proposes some different ways to draw the different ways the brain processes information. Kind of like showing that a hammer is good for nailing wood together, a saw is good for dividing wood in half, and a drill is good for drywall and screws. The reader cannot wait to see how this will all fit together - "This is going to be good!". Finally, Roam throws out an example of how to pull it all together to solve a problem.

Unfortunately, the example is overly-easy, explores many blind alleys, and finally arrives at a solution that is fundamentally flawed. Roam's case study shows flat sales for a proprietary software company for two years. Roam's analysis shows $78 million in proprietary software will be purchased next year vs. $48 million in open source. The solution - convert their software into open source. Huh? Leave a $78 million industry to a single competitor to compete with two other open-source vendors for a $48 million industry? What kind of solution is that? Will you fire all your developers and hire open source developers? Will you force your existing customers to move to open source too, or just abandon them?

In the end, after many chapters of "wait till you see this" type posturing, Dan Roam never delivers the goods. I don't doubt Roam's sincerity, and hope he will continue to iterate on his models until he comes back with something that actually works.
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on April 12, 2008
This book should be taught at the college level. It is an extremely well written book that captures the essence of business communication and what it should be. How many of us have sat through boring word wall presentations of list after list of speakers notes. The next time someone makes me sit through one I am going to send them this book.

The basic concepts of Visual Thinking: Look, See, Imagine, Show are helpful in providing a framework for developing your thoughts prior to starting any presentation. Then using the SQVID guide to understand what type of picture to use helps you think through the problem and finishing with the author's six ways we see and show of Who/what, how much, where, when, how, and why provides a guide for how to communicate your ideas.

I never read a business book twice but find myself studying this one. I have read over 50 business books in the last 18 months and this is at the very top of my list.
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on July 15, 2008
This review refers ONLY to the kindle version.

The way that the kindle converts the text to an e-format forces the images at a fixed size -- a size that too small to be able to see details.

You can resize the text, but not the pictures.

Obviously, this was more than a little annoying in a book that is all about using pictures to convey information.

Also, there were several places in the book where there was a caption for a picture but just a blank space where the picture (presumably) was supposed to appear.
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on July 17, 2008
i was really disappointed with this book. i tend to be a visual guy, and had a high level of expectancy about how fun this book would be to read, and how helpful it would be. but i was bored -- crazy bored. i could barely finish it.

there are some good ideas in the book, to be sure. but i found it horribly paradoxical that a book about using drawings would be so pickin' linear. there were three steps for this, and 6 rules for that. i felt like i was reading a john maxwell leadership book! the cute little drawings on every page even got really old. tons of repeated info, and `no duh' stuff also.

sorry, not a helpful book.
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