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Lessons from the back of the napkin

Tuesday’s event with Dan Roam was a lot of fun. He joined us at Adaptive Path to speak about his book The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures. Dan is a warm, funny speaker with a wealth of stories about using pictures to solve complex problems ranging from business strategy to product design. You can see some of the photos from the event on Flickr.

Back of the Napkin sketchnotes, p.1 I sketchnoted Dan’s talk to capture many of the ideas that he talked about. There was a lot of great info, but the phrase that stuck with me most was “The more human the picture, the more human the response.”

I think this is a wildly compelling idea. By making pictures by hand, we open up the minds of the people we are communicating with, so that they can share in these ideas. Hand-drawn images are imperfect, gestural and natural. And it’s these human qualities that make them so engaging and accessible to others.

I hear designers and strategists talk about communicating design concepts, and one theme that comes up again and again is to match the fidelity of the artifact with the nature of the feedback you are looking for. The general rule of thumb is:

  • Low fidelity = High-level feedback
  • High fidelity = detailed/low-level feedback

If you’ve ever presented a well-rendered, detailed illustration to communicate a rough concept and been frustrated that the feedback is more along the lines of “that’s not a good typeface” or “that data is incorrect,” then sketching may be just the tool you need.

Simple, hand-drawn pictures can’t escape their low-fi quality. Yet I think their appeal is about more than just being low-fi. People are messy and complex. Perfection may be an aspiration, but when we actually encounter things that seem “perfect” we often suspect they’re fake. Hand-crafted objects feel more authentic than manufactured ones. As human beings, we respond to natural, imperfect things with more empathy that we do to polished perfection.

Authentic, imperfect, natural, gestural. That’s a great list of design criteria. I’m all for making more human pictures that invite a more human response.


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