An Interpretation from an engineer’s perspective

of “The Back of the Napkin” by Dan Roam


I am only one member in a mechanical design team of seven engineers, together we are neck deep in machine design and mechanical problem solving.  I started reading this book with hopes of picking up good ideas to apply in a group setting when we are at the whiteboard solving design issues. I have found the book to be somewhat interesting, but not enough to press my colleagues to read it.  The book has some good ideas in it, such as the SQVID method of imagining.  In summary, the SQVID method gives you five questions to ask and mentally process before drawing a picture.  These five questions are:

  • Simple or Elaborate?
  • Quality or Quantity?
  • Vision vs. Execution (do you want to depict where you’re going or how to get there?)
  • Individual attributes vs. Comparison?
  • Delta (change) or Status Quo?  (In Dan’s words: “The way things are versus the way they could be.”)

Dan is not simply suggesting “a few good ideas” in The Back of the Napkin. He has created a text book to guide you into learning a powerful and disciplined approach to visual problem solving that works well for Dan. Trying these ideas once isn’t difficult.  To implement these into your person, make them habit, and integrate them into your mental framework, and restructure your ability to solve problems may take years of self discipline. For example, the <6><6> rule: “For every one of the six ways of seeing, there is one corresponding way of showing. For each one of these six ways of showing, there is a single visual framework that serves as a starting point.” Email me when you’ve managed to get a good grip on that one.  Next, consider Dan’s Four Cardinal Rules for Better Looking:

  1. Collect everything you can
  2. Lay it all out where you can look at it
  3. Establish fundamental coordinates
  4. practice visual triage

These four things make perfect sense, but memorizing them in one day is not enough.  Carrying around index cards with notes to remind you how to do it is impractical.  The challenge of rebuilding your mental stairways to solve problems, to restructure your thought process and become fluid at this can be the challenge of a lifetime. The truth is, you probably already do these four things and just don’t realize it because it happens so fast.  But Dan did an excellent job of capturing this process on paper where you can read the steps and do a self evaluation.

Many times as I have pondered Dan’s ideas, the recurring message I get is – in summary: “You don’t think very efficiently, try my way, it’s better.”  If you consider yourself an efficient thinker, this book will make you reconsider because Dan illustrates how his methods can be applied universally.  The book is not compelling to the merely curious, there is nothing ground-breaking for the visual thinker, and the ideas are not easily accessible in many ways to the analytical thinker.  For example, the Bird Dog Drill on page 75.  If any analytical person makes it to page 75 of Dan’s book, they will find this drill to be a tall challenge because it’s an exercise in endurance and continuity of visual thinking.  That being said, I am about 75% through the book and still not sure if I have already passed the “meat & potatoes” of Dan Roams’ core message.  If I did . . . what was it? 

It’s almost like Dan is telling me: “This is so easy, if you could just be cleverer by using a bit of visual ingenuity, you could draw a picture and this complex problem would suddenly become clear.” Or “Why are you making this problem so difficult, just draw an efficient, well conceived, simple yet calculated, and well diagrammed picture.”  . . .  My thoughts exactly, “do what?”

To be honest, I don’t know if I will finish it anytime soon.  Not that the book isn’t good, it’s just not groundbreaking and easily applied. But it’s interesting if you are a visual thinker.  In reading this book I feel like I am being told that to be a good problem solver I must remove my old problem solving tool belt and strap on a new one that only has a single marker in it with instructions that simply say, “Think differently, and draw more efficiently.”