Unfolding the Napkin: A book review by Bob Morris


Unfolding the Napkin: The Hands-On Method for Solving Complex Problems with Simple Pictures
Dan Roam
Portfolio/Penguin (2009)

In this sequel to his previous Napkin book, Dan Roam reaffirms many of the same core values and principles while developing them in greater depth with wider and deeper applications. They are:

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.

In this book and in its predecessor, On the Back of the Napkin, Dan Roam explains how to achieve these objectives by (you guessed it) drawing a series of simple pictures. “To complete the workshop, you’ll need three things…This book is your primary tool; please expect to draw in it and generally muck it up – that’s what it’s for. [Also,] please bring your own magic wand with you to class. My own favorites are a plain no. 2 pencil, a Sharpie, or a Pilot pen.” Although Roam encourages his reader to use the book as a workbook and add annotations throughout, he also suggests using something to draw on, everything from several pages of blank scratch paper provided at the back of the book to a small personal whiteboard (i.e. small “lap board”). My own preference is the “Original Marble Cover 50-Sheets” composition book that costs less than $2 each.

Roam provides various “tools” that are essential to the visual problem-solving process and explains how and when to use them. For example, he unfolds the material for Day #1 of what he suggests be a self-contained four-day course to master that process, with one day devoted to each of four components: Looking, Seeing, Imagining, and Showing. In the first, “Looking” (Pages 3-52), he includes these “Drawing Drill Exercises”:

• Name Three Problems (S,M,L)
• Draw “Me”
• Our First Napkin Sketch (Swiss Army Knife)
• How Much Is 75 Percent, Really?
• Which Color Is Your Pen?
• Active Looking, Exercise #1
• Active Looking, Exercise #2

He also includes “Unwritten Rule #1: Whoever is best able to describe the problem is the person most likely to solve it.”

Roam’s various illustrations and “Drawing Drill Exercises” complement the narrative but his primary focus is on rock-solid content that explains with lively eloquence HOW to draw simple pictures that help to “articulate problems.”

In fact, they articulate much more than problems: triangular relationships (e.g. product, consumer, and competition), juxtaposition of similarities and differences (e.g. upside and downside implications), and map segments (e.g. for process simplification initiatives). Those who can draw a square, a circle, a stick figure, and an arrow connecting them “can draw any picture in this book” and, more to the point, draw any other picture that may be needed to “articulate abundantly more clearly” whatever the given situation may be.

Whereas The Back of the Napkin introduces the core concepts of the visual problem-solving (or whatever-solving) process, Unfolding the Napkin develops and extends the same concepts to wider, deeper, and more valuable applications. Yes, Dan Roam really does take a “hands-on” approach…and the hands belong to his reader. Bravo!

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