Napkin Sketch | Matthew Mahon

The Napkin Sketch

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

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.


"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.


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.

Napkin Sketch | Matthew Mahon

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  • Yellowman kingkimson

    We're witnessing the emergence of a global, visual language that will allow us to communicate complex information faster and with greater clarity. Dan's book is a great contribution. Bravo Dan!

  • Anonymous

    As a B2B writer for marcom solutions, The Napkin Sketch concept is a tool I use to write copy for best readability and emphasis to tell the story. Being a visual writer is a value-add for clients because the first step in delivering targeted communications is getting the big picture. I always ask my clients, Are you really saying what you think you're saying? http://messagingwithapoint.com

  • Erick Mohr

    Visualising ideas is a very powerful tool to communicate. As a designer, I always use storyboards, illustrations or even movies to communicate concepts (that sometimes are quite intangible) to my clients.

    via: http://intuire.wordpress.com/

  • Ray Gardner

    I recently took over the duties of scheduling a manufacturing plant's operations. Long story short, what I inherited was chaos; priority lists that were 10+ pages of inaccuracy, multiple expediters giving operators conflicting instructions, and so on.
    The fix of course involved a number of things, but relative to this discussion, simplifying and visualizing was central to regaining control of the schedule on the floor, and helping everyone to buy into the new scheduling procedures.
    There's still hours and hours of mind numbing detail that I have to go through, but I convey this data to the rest of the plant visually. Every thing from bright orange cards on each machine for their next job priority to simple capacity charts for the owner.

  • Dave Gray

    The information age is just beginning and we're still trying to figure out how to process what Bob Horn calls "the fire hoses of information" that's now available to us.

    We're witnessing the emergence of a global, visual language that will allow us to communicate complex information faster and with greater clarity. Dan's book is a great contribution. Bravo Dan!

    The napkin sketch is the spark that generates ideas and starts the conversation that leads to more clear and collaborative work.

  • John Edelmann

    Bravo! I was wondering when the power of visual communication was going to go into the business mainstream. Since 80% of human experiences are filtered through our eyes (70% of our sensory receptors are in our eyeballs) it's clear that people "think" visually. As an innovation firm, we utilize verbal exercises as a vehicle for new thinking but the real power around innovation and gathering insights from key constituencies comes into play when using visual tools and stories. Visuals including photographs, illustrations, graphics, sketches and other visual stimuli provide a much more evocative means to stimulate thinking, tell stories and connect emotionally with people. They help tell a more complete story. Faster. Better. Simpler.

  • Shaun

    I recently picked up Dan Roam's book and am having a hard time putting it down. At the same time it's not a quick read as I'm constantly going back and forth with exercises and reviewing the framework.
    Another success story of simple visuals is http://commoncraft.com . Their tag line is "Our product is explanation". Simple visuals are their tools. Death by powerpoint is a simplification but it is accurate. Anyone with a ppt license is suddenly qualified to present. They have some great videos on complex ideas that have gone viral because of their ability to simplify and teach with humor.

  • Erin McCartan

    I am a firm believer in illustration--good or bad, and in my case bad--to connect with an audience. Serving as a Peace Corps Community Economic Development Volunteer for the past two years in a location where there was no power, PowerPoint was not an option! Drawing was. I found that my "drawings" were a way to bridge language barriers at the beginning of my service when my Spanish wasn't quite up to par; a way to break the ice and get us all on a level playing field (the best example of this being my drawing of a cow illustrating the different food sources in the Sates, which started a worried conversation that all cows in America were "vacas locas"--or had Mad Cow disease!); and at times the necessary medium as many participants could not read. The suceess of my trainings ranging from small business development, public speaking, and life skills--to name a few--shows just how effective this method can be. It is interesting to me how far away my Peace Corps "world" is compared to the "major league" worlds of the companies mentioned in the article--and how the basics can be tremendously effective in both!

  • Francisco Litardo

    As a media producer I am very interested in implementing these techniques with my client's projects. So often we over engineer our messages and fool ourselves into thinking our audiences get it. I just met a professional trainer yesterday that motivates and inspires creativity by asking highly paid executives to build strategy with Lego pieces.

  • Michael Daehn

    As a Web Strategist I'm a white board junkie. I'm convinced that people don't understand what I am saying, and I usually don't understand them, without a whiteboard we can both look at and agree upon. Pictures are a vital communication tool.

  • Marshall Makstein

    I'm so tired or hearing company executives talk about "Death by PowerPoint" as CEO Stephen Pratt says in this article. It's not death by PowerPoint, it is Death by BAD PowerPoint. It would be a lot faster and more effective to use the tools in PowerPoint to produce the "perfect pitch", than making child like sketches on a napkin. It is called effect design. Yes, it is easy to make ugly, complicated, distracting PowerPoint slides, but as this article points out, "Graphic expression and visual thinking are a central part of human cognition," says Neil Cohn. So, why do so many people choose to not use this powerful tool to produce "Powerful" points and effective visuals? Maybe I'll have to do a Napkin Sketch to make my point.

  • Karen McGrane

    I was lucky enough to work with Dan Roam a few years back, and especially lucky to get the benefit of some of his easy-to-understand and charming graphics to explain complex concepts to our clients. I hope everyone who liked this article will pick up a copy of his book.

  • Joshua Letourneau

    I couldn't agree more - I'm a huge believer that the ability to graphically convey complex points (or large amounts of data) with simple images is as much an art as a skill.
    In all sincerity, I'd love to see Business Schools incorporate an art class focusing on conveying points and data . . .
    or perhaps continuing education opportunities for those willing to invest in themselves.

  • Mark Zorro

    We are creative people and as creative people, a mistake is not the end of the world, indeed it is the beginning of wisdom. In that regard to rectify any problem is achievement, and I celebrate those people who can do that. We come here and get to see a magazine for absolutely free, there are dedicated people behind the scenes - life is about appreciation, not about telling the waiter what a terrible job he or she has done. So thankyou to the people back at FC for rectifying this, but one there is one tad little thing you can change, Kate doesn't use her middle name anymore, so it might be a nice touch to show Kate Flaim - this only means that we are improving our power of observance rather than demanding. This after all the oasis where ideas meet people, and I don't take that to just mean making six degree contacts and Linked-In type connections, I also take it to mean that ideas REALLY do meet people. Thanks again for updating this guys......M.

  • Pamela Kaiser

    Great article. I would like to emphasize Roam's point that "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." I work in such an environment, with collaborators who exist all over the globe and ideas that are constantly being "misinterpreted" due to language and cultural gaps. (And FYI the visuals are linked to the heading of each company's case description: the orange links.)

  • Rob Evans

    I want to reinforce the other reactions -- how short-sighted to NOT include the visuals that are the basis of this article! I signed up after seeing this article in my copy of the magazine and wanted to email it to a friend who is a graphic facilitator. This format helps me not at all. Is this indicative of the online version of the magazine content? Count me out.

  • Marshall Makstein

    An interesting article if you can see the visuals. It is kind of silly to have an article about the importance of visuals (hand drawn visuals on napkins in this case), but not show the visuals here online.

  • Mark Zorro

    I get the idea of the great power of utilizing visual mediums to communicate but I too would need to see those visual props that Ray and Meredith have already addressed to connect my own dots......M.

  • Ray Wilson

    Without the sketches this misses the point, i.e., "the power of images to digest complex ideas" doesn't it? Now this is worthless to me. I agree with Meredith.

  • Meredith Masse

    Where are the sketches? Would be nice for these to be included in the online version, please.