Visual Explanatory Illustrations: “Back of a Napkin” methodology

[[* I reviewed the lists of tools, but understood that the selected tool does not need to be among the ones listed *]]

As a reaction to the access to huge amounts of information, we’ve seen a surge of explanatory media. is known for its tagline “Explain the news”, theSkimm has a set of guides to hot news topics, and the tool FOLD lets writers link media cards along with their writing to provide more context.

News and storytelling already rely on images, audio, maps, cards, data diagrams, and more, to support their arguments and provide context. There is, however, an underuse of illustrations that help explain how systems work. We are visual thinkers and most of us learn better with pictures. While glorified illustrations of data and aesthetically pleasing designs are appealing, I am now talking about pictures that enable understanding by for example showing how things are connected. Future news sources that leverage this tool of explanatory illustrations, and successfully satisfy readers’ demand for understanding the news, will be at an advantage.

Figure 1: Example of an explanatory illustration

A specific tool that teaches anyone to problem-solve and communicate with pictures is Dan Roam’s book The Back of a Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures. Dan Roam provides a methodology for discovering, developing, and selling ideas through pictures. He shows how to decompose a problem and come up with both simple pictures, as illustrated in Fig. 1, and more complex pictures.



Dan Roam describes the process of visual thinking as four steps, with separate chapters describing how to do each step:
1) looking, i.e. collecting and screening
2) seeing, i.e. selecting and clumping
3) imagining, i.e. seeing what is not there
4) showing, i.e. making it all clear

The book also includes concrete methodology charts, as shown in Figure 2, that can be useful starting points when determining how best to illustrate a topic or your ideas with pictures.

Figure 2: A chart to help determine how best to visualize a problem. The rows specify what type of problem it is (who/what, where, etc.) and the columns specify what should be highlighted (quality vs. quantity, vision vs. execution, etc.).




One thought on “Visual Explanatory Illustrations: “Back of a Napkin” methodology

  1. Ghost is an open source web publishing platform first launched in 2012 and funded as a Kickstarter campaign. Indivisible Somerville, a loosely organized advocacy group based on the Indivisible Guide, launched an “Indivisible Labs” blog on this using Ghost, which is how I found out about the platform. The company maintains its non-profit status and discloses its finances in an effort to maintain transparency. The lowest priced plan $19.00/month for 50,000 page views, which is more expensive than some other platforms. The company is attempting to identify revenue models that might assist content writers in funding their work and is also funding promising new publications via its journalism program.

    One frequent criticism of open source tools is that they “work” but many of them are not user friendly. Ghost avoids this pitfall. It would be nice to see this kind of intuitive usability in other tools such as PGP encryption products. Because the platform is open source, its code can altered (and scutinized) by users and programmers. It appears to be a stable, well-maintained publication system. In 2015, GitHub was targeted with distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, presumably by a state actor, seeking to force GitHub to remove certain content related to censorship from its servers. Ghost, while not intended to subvert internet censorship efforts, does provide a flexible platform that users can customize. It will be interesting to see what they rollout over the next year or so.

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