Dan Roam: First interview, by Bob Morris

Dan Roam

Here are two of  Dan Roam’s core beliefs: “I believe that any problem can be solved with a picture. And that anybody can draw it.” That’s not a BS blurb from one of his books, articles, or speeches. He lives those beliefs every waking moment.

Dan is the author of two international bestsellers, The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures and Unfolding the Napkin: The Hands-On Method for Solving Complex Problems with Simple Pictures, both published by Portfolio Trade, a Penguin imprint.  The former was selected as BusinessWeek and Fast Company‘s best innovation book of the year, and Amazon’s #5 selling business book. The Back of the Napkin has been published in 25 languages and is a bestseller in Japan, South Korea, and China. His latest book is Blah-Blah-Blah: What To Do When Words Don’t Work, also published by Portfolio/Penguin Group (November, 2011).

Roam has helped leaders at Microsoft, eBay, Google, Wal-Mart, Boeing, Lucas Film, Gap, Kraft, Stanford University, The MIT Sloan School of Management, the US Navy, and the United States Senate solve complex problems through visual thinking. Dan and his whiteboard have been featured on CNN, MSNBC, ABC News, Fox News, and NPR. His visual explanation of American health care was selected by Business Week as “The World’s Best Presentation of 2009.” This inspired the White House Office of Communications to invite him in for a discussion on visual problem solving.

Roam is the founder of Digital Roam Inc, a management consulting company that helps business executives solve complex problems through visual thinking. Through lectures, workshops, books, and hands-on projects with many of the world’s most influential organizations, He as helped teams learn to solve complex problems by relearning how to see after discovering the power of pictures as a business problem-solving tool in the 1990’s when he founded the first marketing communications company in what was then the Soviet Union. With no Russian language skills, he quickly realized that his business pictures transcended the language barrier. Since that eye-opening experience, Dan has been fine-tuning the visual thinking tools he introduces in his books.

Roam received two degrees at the University of California, Santa Cruz: fine art and biology. This combination of art and science kicked off Dan’s cross-disciplinary approach to problem solving. Dan is a licensed pilot, a skill that demands constant practice in understanding complex visual information displays. He has applied his business-oriented visual thinking skills while working in Switzerland, Russia, Thailand, France, Holland, and the US. He lives in San Francisco.

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Morris: Before discussing either of your  books, a few general questions. First, to what extent (if any) have you had any formal training in the creative arts such as painting, drawing, and sculpting?

Roam: I have drawn all my life. My earliest memories are of drawing pictures on my parents’ kitchen table. In school I attended the same basic art classes as everyone else. But while I showed talent and loved drawing, I didn’t like the way art was taught. It was too wishy-washy; too much about “being creative” and “expressing myself” at the expense of actually learning anything.

By the time I entered the University of California at Santa Cruz, I had no interest in pursuing art. I signed up for the Pre-Med track and studied biology, chemistry, physics, and environmental studies. But in my junior year at the university, two events occurred which were to have a profound impact on my perception of “creativity.”

The first was that I unexpectedly fell in love with organic chemistry; it turned out to be completely visual. Remember those plastic “ball and stick” models of molecules? I spent hours building shapes with them, and excelled at chemistry. The second was that I discovered that “art” could be taught as a rigorous discipline with rules and tools. Those rules had nothing to do with applying paint; they were about how people THINK — and that was exactly what I was looking for. Before long, I realized that painting was every bit as intellectually challenging as science and that the same fundamental ways of thinking applied to both.

In the end, I extended my undergraduate career by another year so that I could complete degrees in both biology and painting. I never went on to medical school, instead finding my call helping businesspeople see for themselves the connections between planning, science, finance, communications, and “art”.

Morris: I have a large family and Pictionary is one of our favorite games to play. One son is a highly-renowned professional illustrator. Whenever we play, his team never wins because his drawings are elaborate and consume so much time. I thought about that as I read your two books. Chip and Dan Heath assert that the “stickiest” ideas are always the simplest. Why is it also true that, when communicating ideas, the simplest drawings (i.e. those involving circles, squares, arrows, and stick figures) are most effective?

Roam: Without a doubt, the simplest, fastest drawings are the most effective for communicating an idea. I understand well your son’s Pictionary challenge; I suffered the same fate as I always tried to make my drawings “better”, inevitably destroying their essential character along the way. Now I realize that I’ve actually spent the last thirty years learning how to “draw badly really well.”

Morris: With all due respect to your response to the previous question, I think one of the greatest benefits of your approach to communication is that it requires people to have a solid, crystal clear understanding of what they want to communicate and how they plan to organize their ideas before they begin to draw. Is that a fair assessment?

Roam: I believe that we do not truly know something until we can clearly explain it to someone else – and the younger the person we can explain it to, the better we know it. I’m not alone in this belief, of course. Einstein himself said, “All physical theories, their mathematical expressions notwithstanding, ought to lend themselves to so simple a description that even a child could understand them.” Since an effective picture of an idea must by definition account for the essentials, being able to draw a simple picture of your idea is just about the best test I can think of to prove that you really do understand it yourself. It’s far harder to fake a simple picture than it is a wordy essay. The picture you create is your mind standing there for all to see, unprotected by verbiage. If you can’t draw it, you don’t get it.

Morris: The creative and performing arts are often referred to as “international languages.” Having lived and worked in so many different countries, have you found that to be true?

Roam: The creative and performing arts clearly transcend language and cultural barriers, which is what makes painting and music in particular so enchanting regardless of origin. But the cognitive power of what we call “art” goes far deeper than that. When I first moved to Moscow in 1990, it was still the days of the Soviet Union. Here I suddenly found myself in a strange land, surrounded by people whose language I didn’t understand – and I was supposed to be running an advertising agency! That was crazy: in those days it was still illegal to earn a profit. In that environment, nobody – not my colleagues, employees, or clients – had a clue what “business planning” was. It was drawings that saved the day. I found that if I could map out an idea graphically (what is “profit,” for example, and why it might be a good thing), then we could begin to understand each other.

Morris: Was there a single “Aha!” or “Eureka!” moment when you realized the potential power and value of simple drawings, whether or not they are drawn on a napkin? Please explain.

Roam: The story I tell in the beginning of The Back of the Napkin remains my favorite. In a nutshell, I was flown from New York to London to replace an ill colleague who had to give an important presentation. I didn’t know the audience, my co-presenters, or even the subject of the talk until I was met at Heathrow by my UK colleagues. On the train to the lecture hall, we pulled out the dining-car napkins and drew out our entire presentation on them. (Luckily, the waiter had paper napkins; drawing on the linen would have gotten us in serious trouble.) It worked: we gave a great presentation during which I drew out everything live on a chalkboard. Unscripted, unrehearsed, completely “naked,” it was probably the best talk I’ve ever given. On the plane home, I captured as much I as could remember on my laptop, which eventually became my entire book.

Morris: Now please focus on your first book. When and why did you decide to write it?

Roam: After countless adventures while drawing during successful brainstorming sessions, presentations, and sales meetings, enough people told me I had a unique approach and that I “should write a book,” I decided that they must be right. One day in 2004 after a particularly difficult meeting with a sales colleague (one of the few who did not like my approach), I literally walked away from my day job and started writing.

Morris: How difficult was it to get it published? For example, did you use simple drawings to convince a literary agent and/or a publisher?

Roam: Either I knew more about what I was doing than I thought I did or the gods must have been smiling (or both) because my first proposal was accepted on first pass by the highly recommended agent Ted Weinstein. I put a lot of drawings in my proposal and I know they helped Ted immediately understand the appeal of my approach. Ted got me in front of all the big-name publishers in New York, and it was Adrian Zackheim at Portfolio who most loved the drawings I made during the pitch. My proposal went into auction and Adrian made the best deal. For a first-time author, it was an incredibly exciting time.

Morris: To what extent (if any) were you surprised by how well it was initially received and how many copies of it have since been sold throughout the world?

Roam: I’ve been completely blown away by the response to The Back of the Napkin. Not that I didn’t think it would sell well; I just never anticipated the degree to which such broad and diverse audiences would embrace the ideas in the book. I don’t have the exact numbers, but I know that the book has sold many hundreds of thousands of copies in multiple languages. I’d always believed it was a rare day when the “unusual” way you do things aligns with the way most people turn out to want to do things. Since “The Back of the Napkin” broke out, I don’t believe that any more.

Morris: The subtitle of The Back of the Napkin refers to “solving problems and selling ideas.” More often than not, any solution to a problem that we may wish to recommend must be “sold” to others. Why are presentations with illustrations more convincing than are than presentations without them? Is there a neurological explanation?

Roam: As humans, we are essentially walking, talking “vision” machines. Three-quarters of all the sensory neurons in our brain are dedicated to processing vision, and in the first four months after we’re born almost all brain development in takes place in those areas that process vision and movement. From the time we are infants, we know how important sight is to understanding the world around us and guiding us safely through it.

What strikes me as completely absurd is that in our education system (and in the way most of us do business) nobody ever shows us how to take advantage of the incredible vision system we have. We spend years perfecting the tools of spoken grammar (which is great; don’t get me wrong, verbal communication is critical) but we don’t spend two days learning to understand how we SEE.

The essential point is this: if you really want someone to understand what you’re talking about, stop talking so much and just draw them the picture.

Morris: What are the six problem “clumps” and why is each so troublesome?

Roam: Neurobiologically, we don’t “see” the world all at once. That would require more processing horsepower than even our remarkably sophisticated vision system can muster. Instead, what our root-level processing system does is to break the whole picture down into discrete elements that can be processed separately. Only then, after we’ve identified the “whos and whats” and “wheres and whens” do we stitch it all together to grasp the big picture.

The important point here is that at the deepest level of cognition, we really do see the world according to six elemental conceptual clumps: who-and-what, how much, where, when, how, and why. Once we understand that, all we need to do to break down any problem is follow the same path. If we can separate out and identify the elemental clumps, the whole image will become shockingly clear to us when we put it all back together.

Morris: You provide a four-step guide to visual thinking. For those who have not as yet read the book, please briefly explain this process.

Roam: Mine is a business book, which among other things means that if I present a new concept, I’d better be able to back it up with a tested and repeatable process. The process I’d been using for years was simple: LOOK – SEE – IMAGINE – SHOW. First comes LOOK; we need to simply open our eyes and look at what is in front of us. It’s a passive process that requires no conscious effort at all; just scan the raw info so we have a rough idea of what we’re looking at. Next we need to SEE; that’s the active process in which we try to identify common patterns woven throughout the whole picture. Third, we need to IMAGINE; that’s the process of taking those patterns inside our mind where we can shake them and combine them and turn them upside-down to see what new things emerge. Once we’ve done all that (and I make the steps highly specific in the book; far more so than this conceptual summary), the last step is simply to SHOW; we take the things we’ve seen and make them visible to someone else.

The reason this process is so important is because in my years of consulting, I’d constantly been told by businesspeople that they “weren’t visual” because they believed they “couldn’t draw.” That’s crazy; that’s like saying I’m not verbal because I can’t write War and Peace. I realized that this debilitating misinterpretation of capability had a simple antidote: just put the “looking” before the “drawing.” If we first take a little time to become acquainted with how we look, see, and imagine, the drawing part comes together easily.

Morris: What does S-Q-V-I-D stand for and how to use it effectively?

Roam: The SQVID is a thinking tool that helps us expand our visual mind’s capacity to easily conjure up multiple views of a single idea. SQVID is a simple mnemonic that reminds us of the five “flavors” of explanatory pictures. S is for “Simple vs. Elaborate,” Q is for “Qualitative vs. Quantitative,” V is for “Vision or Execution,” I is for “Individual or Comparison,” and D is for “Different or As-is.” By asking ourselves these five questions – in particular by asking which “flavors” our audience is most likely to be interested in – we can select the type of picture we need to create.

For example, if we want to explain a new technology to a group of experts, we might create an Elaborate and Quantitative picture; a multi-axis schematic diagram with intricate detail. On the other hand, if we want to explain the same technology to a group of first-graders, we might create a Simple and Qualitative view; a basic component diagram showing only the essentials.

In both cases we’re illustrating the same idea. The difference is that we’ve used the SQVID to help us identify the appropriate visual expression.

Morris: In this book, you affirm and then reaffirm three core principles:

1. There is no more powerful way to discover a new idea than to draw a simple picture.

2. There is no faster way to develop and test an idea than to draw a simple picture.

3. There is no more effective way to share an idea with other people than to draw a simple picture.

Are there any situations (i.e. those in which there is a problem to be solved or in which there is an idea to be sold) for which these principles are inappropriate?

Roam: If God is in the details, then the devil is in the concept – and simple pictures help clarify both. I come from a business background where the problems we’re trying to solve range from the strategic (“Should we move into a new market?”) to the most intensely tactical (“Should this button default to ‘On’ or ‘Off’?). In all cases there are many things to consider, and many people doing the considering. It has always been my experience that the faster we move to the picture, the faster we’re all likely to understand each other, and the better informed our decisions will be.

Morris: In Appendix A, you provide what you call “The Ten (and a Half) Commandments of Visual Thinking.” Based on what you have observed yourself and have been told by others who attempted to follow these “commandments,” which one seems to pose the greatest challenges? Why?

Roam: Without a doubt, the most important of the Ten Commandments is “Start with a circle and give it a name.” The biggest hurdle that exists in visual thinking is simply getting people to start. We have learned to become so resistant to drawing our ideas that most people freeze when faced with a question and a blank whiteboard. The best way to get over it is to stop asking “what should I draw” and just draw a circle. That’s it. Get that circle up there, THEN think, “Given the problem I’m contemplating, what should I name this first circle?” Invariably, whatever is top of mind is the right name: “our company” or “today” or simply “me.” With one circle drawn, the second is easy – and once two circles drawn, guaranteed an entire picture will begin to evolve. The only part harder than starting is stopping.

Morris: Please explain the reasons for the expanded edition, published in 2009.

Roam: We designed the original Back of the Napkin book to be the size and shape of a lunch napkin. It was a great marketing idea and the book sold like hotcakes – but many of the pictures were too small. After a year in which sales continued to increase, Adrian and I decided to release the book in a larger format and with the addition of a second call-out color. Now the original is a collector’s item. If you have a copy, keep it.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Unfolding the Napkin and explain to what the word “unfolding” refers.

Roam: With the success of  The Back of the Napkin it was clear that there was a market for business-oriented visual thinking books. Through my website, email, blog, and countless events, the consistent feedback to me was “We want to know more.” Rather than introduce a new set of tools, I thought it better to provide more details and examples on the application of those already covered (the same tools we’ve discussed in this interview). So “Unfolding” refers less to the overall concept and theory of visual thinking and more to getting deeply involved in the step-by-step process of thinking through and creating the actual pictures.

I like to think of The Back of the Napkin as the menu and Unfolding the Napkin as the cookbook; the same ingredients and the same meal, just seen from different sides of the kitchen.

Morris: My own opinion is that, given a choice, it is better to read The Back of the Napkin first but doing so is preferable, not necessary. What do you think?

Roam: For someone who is uncertain about how appropriate a picture might be in a board room discussion or in an important presentation, I recommend first reading The Back of the Napkin, It provides an overview of the concepts and gives dozens of real-world examples of pictures being used to solve real problems. For someone already convinced and who wants to know exactly what to do, Unfolding the Napkin is a better place to start. The entire book is a series of self-guided exercises, so right from the opening page you’ll find yourself putting the tools into action.

Morris: In this book you devote a great deal of attention to the importance of getting to the simplicity that can be found on what Oliver Wendell Holmes once described as “the other side of complexity.” That’s not easy. Pablo Picasso once claimed that he spent most of his adult life struggling to see the world again as a child. Here’s my question: How best to get to “the other side of complexity” in our thinking before attempting to portray it with “simple pictures”?

Roam: Yes: the world is complex. That’s a fact and there’s nothing we can do to change it. The best we can do is to make the complexity as CLEAR as possible, because only then can we begin to see how all the pieces fit together. For me, the only way to get to the essence of clarity is to let my visual mind engage. Because my visual mind isn’t encumbered by the strict linearity of verbal thought and communication, drawing lets me see the whole much more clearly than a verbal description. Without a doubt there are times when a linear description of an idea is exactly what we need, but even in those cases I find it easier to write A-B-C-D if I’ve first made a visual map of the pieces and can literally see the best way to fit them together.

Morris: You identify what you call “Unwritten Rule #1: Whoever is best able to describe the problem is the person most likely to solve it.” Why is that usually true?

Roam: Chicken Little was never taken seriously, in large part because all he did was yell about the symptoms: “The sky is falling!” So what? (Also he was a chicken, which didn’t help his case.) Had he said, “I have looked at the problem and identified the players, how they interact, and how that interaction is causing the sky to fall” he would have been a lot more influential. The fact is the only person capable of really solving a problem is the person who has looked at the pieces and seen the possibilities. Mapping out “what we know” and “what we don’t know” about a problem before screaming about “patching symptoms” is always the better way to go.

Morris: You insert exercises throughout the book that are designed to strengthen drawing skills. Why are there no exercises that can help to strengthen reasoning skills such as deduction and induction, for example?

Roam: On the contrary, nearly every exercise is designed to engage our deeper reasoning and logic skills. “Why is this bigger than that?” “What is most important in this picture according to this criteria?” “If I put these two things together, what is likely to happen?” I intentionally didn’t focus on nomenclature like “inductive” vs. “deductive” because in my experience such terms are of little value in business. (And frankly, I can never remember which is which anyway. 🙂 What businesspeople care about is what makes sense, what can be remembered, and what works. We have to remember: creating pictures of our ideas activates cognitive and reasoning centers that frequently lay dormant when we only rely on words. That opens up entirely new realms of problem-solving possibility.

Morris: Why a four-day program rather than, say, a four-week or four-month program?

Roam: Although visual thinking rapidly becomes instinctual and intuitive with practice, it is still a new enough concept that it initially takes a little time to sink in. Ideally, businesspeople would have four free days to dedicate to testing out the tools and working through the lessons. It makes for one intense week, but the lessons stick. So I wrote Unfolding the Napkin that way. The reality is that nobody in business has four days to dedicate to anything other than getting their job done, so when I offer my own and corporate workshops, I fast-track everything into two days. We get through all the material and have time to do lots of real-world examples, and then the book serves as a more detailed refresher.

Morris: What will your next book be?

Roam: I’ve just completed Blah-Blah-Blah: What To Do When Words Don’t Work. It will be published by Portfolio Nov. 1, 2011. Although it is clearly a sibling to “The Back of the Napkin,” it is a very different book. Where my first book focused solely on our visual mind, “Blah-Blah-Blah” presents a brand new “whole-mind” approach to thinking, teaching, communicating, selling, and leading. I call this approach “Vivid Thinking,” where “Vivid” stands for “Visual-Verbal-Interdependent” thinking. In essence, it says that if you’re a good talker, there are simple ways you can improve your visual mind – and if you’re a good drawer, there are simple ways you can improve your verbal mind. Either way, the only way for us to cut out the blah-blah-blah and get on with solving the complex problems of the day is to rediscover the power of words plus pictures. And that’s what Blah-Blah-Blah is all about.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Roam: First, I want to thank you, Bob, for the most well thought-through and thorough set of interview questions I have ever been presented with. (And I’m honored to say I’ve enjoyed a lot of interviews these past few years.)

The one question I thought you might ask is this, “If I’m already a successful businessperson, why should I ever try this new ‘visual thinking’ thing?” I get asked this from time-to-time by people who (I assume) are already successful. I find it an interesting question because it strikes me a bit like asking, “If I’m already smart, why would I want to be any smarter?” No matter how successful we are, we rarely use our full capacity for thought, discovery, and insight. Over the past 3,000 years pictures for the most part have been relegated to the third-class steerage quarters in education and business. That is an extraordinary shame, since pictures really are the way most of us think most of the time. Visual thinking in its present form is only the beginning of a timely and necessary rediscovery of the power of our own minds – our whole mind.

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  1. Randal Hack on March 27, 2012 at 6:52 pm

    whoah this blog is wonderful i love reading your articles. Keep up the good work! You know, lots of people are looking around for this info, you could aid them greatl

    • bobmorris on March 27, 2012 at 7:12 pm

      Thank you for your comments, Randal.

      They are deeply appreciated.

      Best regards, Bob

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