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Book review – The Back of the Napkin

Have you ever wrestled with a subject that was hard to understand or explain? Maybe it was a concept in school, a project at work, or even a matter of theology. Visual thinking may have been just the tool you needed.

Dan Roam introduces us to visual thinking in his excellent little book The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures. Say goodbye to clumsy PowerPoint slides, complicated spreadsheets, and endless bullet point lists. It’s time to return to the good old-fashioned pencil and paper or whiteboard.

In The Back of the Napkin, Roam opens with a series of intriguing questions…

What if there was a way to more quickly look at problems, more intuitively understand them, more confidently address them, and more rapidly convey to others what we’ve discovered? What if there was a way to make business problem solving more efficient, more effective, and – as much as I hate to say it – perhaps even a bit more fun? There is. It’s called visual thinking, and it’s what this book is all about: solving problems with pictures (p. 3).

The author spends the first half of his book introducing several important principles:

  • 3 Basic Visual Thinking Tools: your eyes, your mind’s eye, and hand-eye coordination.
  • 4 Steps in the Visual Thinking Process: look, see, imagine, and show.
  • 5 Questions that help open our mind’s eye: the SQVID method.
  • 6 Ways we see and show ideas: who/what, how much, where, when, how, and why.

Then, in the second half of his book, Roam gets practical. He applies all these principles to an extended case study of a fictitious software development company called SAX Inc. The book bogs down a little at this point, but it’s important for him to carry out the whole process from beginning to end.

For me, the most helpful part of the book was the SQVID (pronounced “squid”) method. It’s an acronym Roam created to show ten different ways of thinking about a subject: Simple vs. Elaborate; Qualitative vs. Quantitative; Vision vs. Execution; Individual vs. Comparison; and Change vs. As Is (The Greek letter Delta is the symbol for Change). Amazingly, by thinking of an idea in these ten different ways, your imagination is stretched and your mind’s eye is trained to look in whole new directions. Both the left and right hemisphere of your brain are exercised.

Let me give you a practical example. As I prepared last Sunday’s sermon on John 19, I decided to use the SQVID method to think about and sketch out different ways Christ shows His care to His disciples. This is what I came up with:


It may look like a bunch of gibberish at first, but it was actually quite helpful. Just taking time to think through these ten different aspects of Christ’s care caused me to look in a number of new directions, and then gradually narrow down how I wanted to illustrate and apply the passage I was preaching.

Visual thinking is a vital principle for both learning and teaching, and I can’t think of any better place to start learning about the subject than The Back of the Napkin.


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