Book Review: Back of the Napkin

By | 2011/12/18

I tend to have a reputation for being anti-graphics in technical communication. I’m not. I think graphics can be very powerful, if used appropriately. But I also think that graphics are very often used badly, and that a bad graphic is even worse than bad text.

The problem, it seems to me, is that graphics have no inherent grammar. Unless a paragraph is truly butchered, you can usually puzzle out its meaning, because a language has only one grammar, one way of putting words together to make meaning. But what is the consistent and agreed meaning of a thick arrow versus a thin, a circle next to a triangle, or a broken line versus a solid one? When a graphic fails, therefore, it fails utterly.

But in Back of the Napkin, Dan Roam suggests that there may in fact be a natural relationship between certain graphics, the way we see, and the way we envision certain kinds of problems.

Of course, there are any number of graphic languages out there that have a grammar of their own. UML defines not one, but multiple types of graphs, but unless both writer and reader are trained in UML, the diagrams are likely to be obscure at best.

Even common flow charts actually have definite meanings for a wide collections of symbols and a set if rules about what the lines mean and how to connect things. But I think few people who draw flow charts know all those rules, and fewer still of those who read them. In short, it seems to me, it can be very much hit and miss if a graphic is going to be interpreted as the author intended.

Roam disagrees. He proposes that there are six basic ways of seeing — ways founded in how the human visual system actually works — and a type of graphic that corresponds to each one:

  • Who/What — Portrait
  • How much — Chart
  • Where — Map
  • When — Timeline
  • How — Flowchart
  • Why — Multiple variable plot

Pretty basic stuff, but Roam then identifies a set of contrasts that he calls the SQVID:

  • Simple vs. Elaborate
  • Quality vs. Quantity
  • Vision vs. Execution
  • Individual vs. Comparison
  • Change (Delta) vs. As-is

He then creates a grid in which he shows how each of the contrasts in the SQVID is used with each of the six ways of seeing to create a grid of sixty graphic types which he calls the Visual Thinking Codex.

Nothing in the Visual Thinking Codex is remotely as complex or specific as a UML diagram, but unlike UML, Roam claims, the viewer does not have to be trained in the Visual Thinking Codex. The graphics are all founded in our natural way of seeing and so the graphics work without our having to learn any abstract symbol systems. In short, the Visual Thinking Codex is a natural graphical grammar (my words, not his).

If true, this could be very useful. Now, I’m not convinced that the Visual Thinking Codex is actually going to work in remote jungles for people who have never seen a PowerPoint presentation. There is a fair amount that seems culturally conditioned about the Visual Thinking Codex. But that doesn’t really matter for the class of business problems that Roam is using it for, nor for the class of technical communication problems that we have to solve every day.

What is also appealing about Back of the Napkin and the codex is that it demonstrates the power of very simple graphics. Part of the problem with the use of graphics in technical communication is the cost of producing complex polished graphics. Back of the Napkin says that we can get powerful results with very simple hand drawn graphics that anyone can sketch out in a few minutes. Good luck getting such sketches past your standards committee, but if we could use simple hand-drawn graphics based on a visual language that all of our readers would readily understand, that could solve a lot of tech comm problems. This prospect definitely makes Back of the Napkin worth a read.

One other thing — and this is actually my favorite thing in the book because it expresses so well something I have struggled to express for a long time:

When the first person said, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” he or she permanently warped our understanding of pictures. The point of a good picture isn’t to eliminate words; it’s to replace as many as possible so that the words we do use are the important ones. (Rather than spending time verbally describing coordinates, positions, percentages, qualities, and quantities, if we simply show them, we have more time to talk about what they mean.)

What he said. ↑


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About Mark Baker

I am an aspiring novelist and former technical writer and content strategist. On the technical side, I am the author of Every Page is Page One: Topic-based Writing for Technical Communication and the Web and Structured Writing: Rhetoric and Process. I blog at and tweet as @mbakeranalecta.

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