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The Napkin Sketch

How Wal-Mart, Microsoft, and others are using the power of images to digest complex ideas.

Napkin Sketch | Matthew Mahon
Napkin Sketch | Matthew Mahon

You ought to be in pictures. No, really. Companies are increasingly using simple pictures to distill complicated concepts into easily shared, easily remembered nuggets. "Graphic expression and visual thinking are a central part of human cognition," says Neil Cohn, a researcher in cognitive psychology and linguistics at Tufts University. These ideas are spreading from how companies sell what they do — as in UPS's "Whiteboard" ad campaign, featuring its agency's creative director sketching out what brown can do for you — to plotting strategy. For example, Mark Zuckerberg has said that Facebook is based on the "social graph," a visual model of how people interact.

"Between information overload, globalization, and the sheer complexity of modern business, we've got to be more visual and less language dependent in communicating ideas," says Dan Roam, a visual consultant who advises major organizations such as eBay, Wells Fargo, and the U.S. Navy. (His book about how to use pen-and-paper sketches to your benefit, The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures, was published in March.) Flip the page for four instances in which Roam's clients forced their thoughts into pictures with great success.

Infosys Consulting

The basic Infosys business model is simple. Bring work to the workers, instead of bringing workers to the work. But the company's communications were arcane. "We were guilty of death by PowerPoint," says CEO Stephen Pratt. "We struggled to get our messages through." So Infosys launched a program called "Perfect Pitch," aimed at simplifying presentations, both internally and to the outside world. It worked. "Our people are much more effective now," Pratt says. A before-and-after sketch of the contrast between the classic world economy and the Infosys system has been especially handy. (That's the "after" at right.) Pratt found himself using the sketch at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this year to help explain what the company does and how it works, instantly.

Peet's Coffee & Tea

About a year ago, the leadership at Peet's found itself facing a challenge: how to communicate its new vision, mission, and values to 3,500 employees. Unless workers bought into the "serve, manage, develop, inspire" concept, the plan would flop. "The task was to make this seemingly heady concept simple and fun," CEO Pat O'Dea says. "Everything we do in our store fits into one of our four tenets, and if people understand that, when we bring those four together we're creating fanatical customers." O'Dea wanted a visual guide that could be distributed to all the stores and throughout the company to get everyone from the guy cleaning the bathrooms to the execs back at headquarters on the same page. (See a simplified version at left.) "When we introduced it," O'Dea says, "it was like lightbulbs went off for people." In fact, he says many managers pull it out during job interviews to show candidates what they're signing up for: to be recruiters of "Peet's fanatics," not simply coffeemakers.

Wal-Mart

"You take just about anything we deal with related to sustainability," says Andy Ruben, VP of private brand strategy at Walmart and the former VP of corporate strategy and sustainability, "and it touches hundreds of other things." As the retail behemoth ramped up the PR around its sustainability initiative, the team needed a way to let the public know how Wal-Mart is paying attention to environmental issues. "As we've made moves, there have been intended consequences — such as saving energy — and unintended, both positive and negative," he says. Visually representing the complex ideas helped clarify the trade-offs. The team started with sketches showing aspects of the supply chain alongside the sustainability goals for each. (Pictured here are drafts of four parts of the chain — see the rest at walmartstores.com.) The sketches were then turned into computer-generated illustrations for the Web site.

Microsoft

When Microsoft CFO Chris Liddell realized that the financial reports he received internally were hard to reconcile, he set out to streamline the software giant's incredibly complex system. But first Microsoft needed to understand the connections within. So a team developed a series of sketches that explored how information was disseminated, then suggested smoother systems. (At right is a representation of the vicious cycle the team was trying to break and how it did so.) The final prototypes depict a financial dashboard that gives the CFO what he needs in a single view. "One thing that blew me away was that there's some emotional connection with hand-drawn things," says Joel Creekmore, Microsoft's finance group manager. "You wouldn't have the same connection to it if I did it on the computer with very, very straight lines." Quite an admission from Visio's creators.

A version of this article appeared in the April 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.