This explains a lot… and it isn’t good.

The incomparable Maria Popova (whom you must follow on twitter @brainpicker) recently posted a review of the incredible book “This Explains Everything” from John Brockman. The book presents 150+ brilliant thinkers’ answers to the question:

“What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?”


A brilliant book with a fatal flaw.

With magnificent insights from Jared Diamond, Brian Eno, Steven Pinker, and Susan Blackmore, the book covers pretty much everything we know — or really should know — about the underlying order of the universe. (In other words, there is a lot to think about in this book.)

But there’s a big problem. A huge problem. A problem that makes me want to either cry or start shouting REALLY LOUD.

Out of 150 brilliant minds introducing their favorite theories, only one* used pictures.

WHAT?!This is crazy — especially since EVERY ONE of the entries I’ve read so far (just passed 50) would benefit enormously from the addition of a simple clarifying sketch.

And these pictures aren’t hard to draw. I got so mad while reading this book on the short flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I managed to draw the first three while sitting on the plane. Here they are:

1) Susan Blackmore on Evolution


2) Matt Ridley on DNA


3) Richard Dawkins on how we process patterns


The big takeaway: If we’re explaining a theory, why wouldn’t we use every means available to make that theory clear, memorable, and alive? If we’re going to use words to describe an image, why don’t we just draw the image we’re trying to describe?

It’s not that hard. I did these three in less that 30 minutes, using nothing but a pen and paper. Imagine what a true genius could do in a day.

When the smartest people we have reject the use of simple images to support their own theories, is it really any wonder that more people reject science?

This really upsets me. Come on, smart people: SHOW me what you’re talking about.

(*That one BTW, is Stewart Brand. My new hero.)


Join me this summer in London & Berlin


May 29 event update: I still have 5 seats available in London and 4 seats available in Berlin. I really want you to have one of those seats, so I’m offering a last-minute special savings of £/€ 150.

Enter the coupon code BLACKPEN when you register and pay only £/€ 645. (Regular £/€ 795.)

London June 13:

Berlin June 18:

See you there!

- Dan


London Dan Roam vidoe

Video intro to my London event.

Please join me on June 13, 2013 in London and June 18, 2013 in Berlin as I offer my full-day Back of the Napkin visual-thinking seminar. Register now for London or Berlin!

Drawings and smiles

Become a master visual-thinker!

  • Think faster.
  • Communicate more clearly.
  • Solve complex problems.
  • See the invisible.

I’ve trained thousands of businesspeople around the world to become master visual-thinkers. Following the sold-out success of my 2012 Amsterdam event, let’s continue the visual magic in Europe. Join me at London’s Novotel Paddington Hotel or Berlin’s Hotel Concorde for a full day of drawing, thinking, sharing, and inspiration.



The cost for the full day in London is £795 and Berlin is €795 . (Early bird special: Register for London before April 15, 2013 and save £100 OR Register for Berlin before April 15, 2013 and save €100! Only £/€695 for this limited time.) Your fee includes:

  • 8 hours of intense, hands-on visual training.
  • The Back of the Napkin Expanded Edition book.
  • Personal whiteboard, pen, & erasure.
  • Excellent lunch.
  • True insight, useful tools, & real-world exercises.

Your fee includes: a full day of training, my book, your own whiteboard, lunch.

In this fun, engaging, and inspiring seminar, we’ll cover:

  1. The essentials of visual-thinking.
  2. How to leverage visual cognition in business.
  3. Use the visual-thinking toolkit for discovery & decision-making.
  4. How to clarify and persuade with pictures.

This is what my last seminar looked like: total visual action!

This is the full-day version of the seminar I have delivered at Microsoft, Boeing, Google, Gap, Kraft, Philips, Siemens, Intel, the United States Senate, and the White House.

Seminar clients

This will be my only trip to Europe this year, so I’d love to see you there! Register here for London or Register here for Berlin!




Thank you Amsterdam!

I’m just back from delivering my first public Napkin Training in Amsterdam.

Thank you all who attended! It was fun, a great success, and I believe a wonderful learning experience for all — especially me.

For just over eight hours, seventy-five of us from thirteen countries shared visual-thinking lessons, stories, examples, and more pictures than we could count.

My top three lessons:

1) While local details are critical, business challenges are universal.

All participants, from small consultancies to medium-size businesses to major corporations, brought their own “problems” with them. While each problem was unique, we saw through our pictures that each is composed of the same essential visual elements: the who, what, how much, where, when, and how. By drawing these out, we found that we could clearly understand each others’ businesses quickly and clearly.

2) Europe needs — and is ready for — more visual thinking.

To an even greater degree than in the USA, visual thinking appears not to be actively encouraged in European education and business. I sensed a greater hesitation among participants to leap into drawing — with a correspondingly high sense of satisfaction and collective amazement when our pictures “worked.” Certainly there are countless historic and cultural issues at work, which will make for great thought exercises. Yet given the communication, innovation, competition, and growth challenges ahead for Europe, I strongly believe more visual thinking will become an asset.

3) Amsterdam is a great center for visual thinking.

Amsterdam is such a great city to begin with. Add in the intense visual and design culture, the openness of the city and its people, and the willingness among businesspeople to try new things, and you have a powerful mix. I can easily see Amsterdam becoming a true center of visual literacy for Europe. I can’t wait to come back and draw again.

Thanks again to all who joined me. If you weren’t able to make it, I promise to do it again.

Until then, keep drawing!


Draw with me in Amsterdam Nov. 20, 2012!

Europe: Let's get visual!

Please join me on Nov. 20 in Amsterdam as I offer my only full-day European Back of the Napkin seminar of 2012. Register now!

Drawings and smiles

Become a master visual-thinker!

  • Think faster.
  • Communicate more clearly.
  • Solve complex problems.
  • See the invisible.

I’ve trained thousands of businesspeople in the USA and Asia to become master visual-thinkers. Now I’d like to share the visual magic with you in Europe. Join me at Amsterdam’s magnificent Mövenpick Hotel City Centre for a full day of drawing, thinking, sharing, and inspiration.

Movenpick Amsterdam Hotel

The cost for the full day is €795. (Early bird special: Register before Sept 21 and save €100! Only €695 for this limited time.) Your fee includes:

  • 8 hours of intense, hands-on visual training.
  • The Back of the Napkin Expanded Edition book.
  • Personal whiteboard, pen, & erasure.
  • Excellent lunch.
  • True insight, useful tools, & real-world exercises.

(Please note that 21% Dutch VAT must be collected on all registrations.)

Your fee includes: a full day of training, my book, your own whiteboard, lunch.

In this fun, engaging, and inspiring seminar, we’ll cover:

  1. The essentials of visual-thinking.
  2. How to leverage visual cognition in business.
  3. Use the visual-thinking toolkit for discovery & decision-making.
  4. How to clarify and persuade with pictures.

This is what my last seminar looked like: total visual action!

This is the full-day version of the seminar I have delivered at Microsoft, Boeing, Google, Gap, Kraft, Philips, Siemens, Intel, the United States Senate, and the White House.

Seminar clients

This will be my only trip to Europe this year, so I’d love to see you there! Register now.

Coming to Amsterdam!



Honoring Neil and the Moon; From Russia with Love.

I’m not surprised how moved I am by the passing last week of Neil Armstrong. I was 5 years old when he and Buzz landed on the moon. My father was in the Strategic Air Command of the United States Air Force. We lived across the street from SAC HQ. We lived airplanes. To us, going to the moon was a really long airplane flight we could watch. And we watched every minute.

My parents bought me the special edition of Life magazine dedicated entirely to the Apollo 11 flight. I must have read every word and gazed at every picture one hundred times.

Many years later, I lived in Moscow, Russia, where I worked as a designer at an advertising agency. One day in 1993 I walked across the street to one of my favorite stores, the huge “Moscow Book Store” on Kalinin Prospekt. (I am happy that Google Street view shows me the store is still there — thank you, Sacha Arnoud and team Google.)

This is the Moscow Book Store where my adventure took place.

I went to the front desk behind which were kept the big color books and posters. A friend had told me he’d seen a copy of an original El Lissitzky “Red Wedge” poster there, and I was beside myself with the excitement of finding such a historic treasure.

The poster I was looking for: an original copy of El Lissitzky’s “Red Wedge” from 1919.

But as I gazed past the shopkeeper towards the shelf, I saw something even more surprising. There was a huge book with huge title MOON written in English. I was taken aback; what was that doing here?

In my third-grade Russian, I asked the shopkeeper if I might take a look. She put on gloves, gently pulled the book out of its place, and rested it on the glass counter. It was massive.

This is the book I saw on the shelf. When the shopkeeper handed it to me, I couldn’t believe the size — and the heft. (And what the hell was it doing in a Moscow bookstore?)

As I reverently opened the book, I was captivated: there were the same images I’d seen so long before in Life. “How much do you want for this?” I asked.

There were the same photos that had been seared into my visual memory as a kid 25 years before.

The shopkeeper took a look at the book then a look at me. Then another look at the book. “That’s one hundred thousand Rubles.” She said. At the official exchange rate that was just over $100 US. An enormous amount of money in those days, but then it was an enormous book. (And I was doing everything I could to keep the shopkeeper from seeing that my head was about to explode from the adrenaline rush of having found such a thing in such a place.)

“Can you hold it for me? I can get the money and be back in 10 minutes.”

“Can you pay one hundred twenty thousand?


“I can hold it for you.”

I ran to my apartment two blocks way, grabbed a stack of Rubles and Dollars, and ran back.

She was still there. The book was gone.

“Where is the book?”

“Where is the money?”

I counted out seventy thousand Rubles and fifty Dollars. She took the Rubles but held up a hand against the dollars. She thought twice. She took the dollars.

She pulled an enormous brown paper package out from under the counter. “I hope you enjoy this. It came from one of our own cosmonauts. It was a gift from one of yours.”

I thanked her. I ran back home. I tore open the paper to examine my prize. Imagine my surprise when I opened to the title page. It was signed.

It was signed by all three Apollo 11 astronauts. Oh, my.

Neil, Buzz, and Michael: I have no idea to whom you gave this incredible gift, and I am heartbroken that whoever it was felt compelled to hock it. That I could bring this gift back home and share it with my friends and family is a wonder.

That it still moves me to tears is the real gift.

Godspeed, Neil.



350,000 viewers. 7 minutes. Live TV. The ultimate “Napkin” challenge. (part 1)

Three weeks ago, I was asked by the Dylan Ratigan Show on MSNBC to come on-air and visually explain a “major political problem in America.” This would be a seven-minute live broadcast from the NBC studios at 30 Rockefeller in New York. The live audience would be about 350,000 people around the world, the topic would be complex, and — oh, yes: the host is known for his rants. In other words, it would be the ultimate back of the napkin test. So, of course, I had to say yes.

I flew to New York the next day (reading every news source I could find during the 5-hour flight; thank heavens for inflight wireless) and waited in the hotel until Dylan’s producers called with the final topic. With less than 12 hours to prepare, I got the word: I would draw out the failure of the US Debt Super Committee. (Luckily, I’ve been following the debt debate in detail since summer, so this was a subject I know well.)

With an iPad in one hand, my PC on the hotel desk, the NYT and WSJ spread across the bed, and twelve sheets of poster board from the nearest Staples store propped against the wall, I got to work. Here is how I did it.

Although the pressure was higher than for most typical presentations, the visual approach I used in preparation and delivery of my message is  guaranteed to help anyone who has a high-stakes presentation ahead. Let me take you step-by-step through the pictures I created. (In a second post, let’s walk through the strategies of extreme high-pressure presenting.)

To begin, I picked up my Sharpies, dug into the research, and used my own 6X6 Rule as the starting point.

If you’ve had a chance to read my book The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas With Pictures, you know that this simple, six-slice pie provides the visual guidelines to describe the essentials of any idea. I started at the top (who and what = a portrait) and made my way around, answering each question with a simple image.

When I was done, I added a title card to the beginning of the visual story. This would give me and Dylan something to look at as we chatted before diving into the meat of the discussion (Lesson: always include a title. You’d be amazed how much insightful conversation can be generated just from how we describe our approach.)

The Big PictureNext, I added a visual introductory graphic. I anticipated this slide would be a quick one, a visual diving board from which to say ‘Ready?’ before the leap into the details. In the video, you’ll see how I used this slide to actively engage Dylan in my pictures. After this slide, I knew his active participation in the presentation was assured — after all, this is where I gave him the pen and asked him to draw on the board! (Lesson: a quick visual kicker to jump-start your story is always a powerful way to draw in your audience; one last chance for everyone to take a breath before the dive.)

Super CommitteeThen we get to the real pictures. Since anything that has to do with the debt is about big numbers, I decided to reorder my pictures so that we would start with the HOW MUCH charts. The first shows the total US Federal debt compared to the amount the Super Committee was supposed to shave off. As the first slide of substance, I made this one the simplest: a single idea (how much money do we owe) illustrated with the simplest possible, instantly-understandable graphic. (Lesson: get your audience engaged up-front with a single picture that makes a single point. We don’t want anyone getting distracted or confused in any way at this early point. We can save the elaboration for later…)

Federal debt amountI followed that up with another HOW MUCH chart, this one showing WHEN (that means a timeline) the debt had accumulated over the last five presidential administrations. Since this was the second picture, I knew I could afford more elaboration; that’s why I chose this slide to introduce the concept of TIME.

Debt accumulationNext I created a more detailed WHEN timeline illustrating the series of recent congressional crises that prompted the creation of the Super Committee in the first place, followed with the steps of what the Committee was supposed to do — and when they were supposed to do it. Since the Committee failed, this became the central picture. Where do we go now? Mandatory cuts, that’s where. (Lesson: when we want to engage our audience in a complex series of steps, nothing draws people in as well as a linear A-B-D-C progression. No looping back, no parallel paths; just a single path we walk along together.)

Super Committee timelineThus far, my pictures showed HOW MUCH, WHEN, and HOW, but we hadn’t yet seen WHY. To show WHY, I felt it best to actually show WHO (a portrait) since it was the very composition of the Committee that assured its failure from day one. By literally drawing them out, I could show viscerally the Democrats who would not budge on cutting retirement and healthcare without some increase in taxes, and the Republicans who would not budge on any increase in taxes, period. (Lesson: make it personal. Show the real people and their motivations shift from the abstract to the real.)

Who is who on the debt Super CommitteeThe last picture shows why those two groups were doomed from the start: there is an election coming up next year — and in this polarized time, no one who wanted to keep their job would be caught dead “compromising.” So welcome 2013, the year of mandatory cuts. (Lesson: end with a summary ‘what next’ takeaway. Since we’ve kept the audience with us this long, we want to leave them with a bit of a cliff-hanger. That’s what will motivate them to go back and review everything one more time.)

2012 = elections 2013 = cutsThanks for the challenge Dylan. I knew the pictures would clarify. They always do.

Thanks DylanTo see these images as a slideshow, here is the same thing embedded from


Why Herman Cain’s 999 was the clearest idea in the campaign. (Until sex came along…)

There is no better example of the undeniable power of a “Vivid Idea” than the rapid rise of Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain. He came from the bottom of the pack and rose to the top position because of one wordless idea called 9-9-9.

Visually, here is what happened:

The rise of Cain and 999By creating a simple “Vivid” idea, Cain instantly drowned out all the blah-blah-blah.

The Rise

In August, Cain was languishing with 5% of the Republican vote. (Sources listed below.) During the Aug. 11 debate at Iowa State he said little of substance and was largely ignored in after-debate analyses.

At the September 7 debate held at the Reagan Library — the first debate in which Texas Governor Rick Perry participated — Cain promoted his idea of a “9-9-9 Tax Plan.” Although most post-debate analyses focused on the heated battles between leading candidate Mitt Romney and the pugnacious Perry, the shocking simplicity of Cain’s seemingly hair-brained 9-9-9 scheme stuck. By the end of the month, Cain had risen in the polls to 9%, putting him in position #3.

In October Cain hit it home. At the October 11 debate in Dartmouth, he hammered 9-9-9 hard, sucking all other air out of the room. By the October 18 debate in Las Vegas, Cain’s simple wordless plan had forced all other candidates to his turf — and the into the embarrassing position of desperately seeking equally simple number schemes. A week later, Cain hit 26% in the polls, taking the lead from Romney. Once prominent candidates Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich, and even Perry were left in the dust, scrambling to get attention again.

But there was no more attention to be had. The sheer audacity of a simple non-verbal image called 9-9-9 made everything else sound like so much blah-blah-blah.

The Point

Whether 9-9-9 makes any sense in the real world or could ever work as the actual tax code is irrelevant. Whether Herman Cain has what it takes to be President is beside the point. The issue is this: the guy is trying to get elected and he knows how to market an idea — and right now, in a political climate overwhelmed with meaningless blah-blah-blah, the clearest, most word-free idea gets heard the loudest. The Vivid idea wins.

The 6-point Vivid Analysis of 9-9-9

To me, a true Vivid Idea exhibits 6 clear attributes. I call them the Vivid FOREST:

The Vivid ForestF = Form. O = Only Essentials. R = Recognizable. E = Evolving. S = Spans Differences. T =Targeted. 

Let’s quickly run Cain’s 9-9-9 through the FOREST and see what makes it so powerful.

F = Form. A Vivid idea has shape.

9-9-9 has perfect visceral form. Its simplicity, symmetry, repetition, and visual nature give the concept an undeniable shape. That shape sticks in our mind in an unforgettable way. The lesson: If you can give your idea form, no one will be able to overlook it.

O = Only Essentials. A Vivid idea can be explained in a nutshell.

9-9-9 states an entire idea using only the essentials, the ultimate visual-verbal sound bite. We don’t have to know any more about it to know whether we are intrigued or not. The lesson: If you an state your entire idea with nothing more than the essentials, everyone will be drawn in for closer look.

R = Recognizable. A Vivid idea is one we have seen before.

We’ve all seen 9-9-9 before: it’s the price of a pizza. Every retailer knows that $9.99 may be only one cent less than a dollar, but it costs infinitely less in the mind of a stressed consumer. The lesson: If you can make your idea look like something we have seen before, we will know exactly how to think about it — even before we know exactly what it is.

E = Evolving. A Vivid idea is one that changes over time.

Here is where 9-9-9 gets shaky. 9-9-9 is so new that there hasn’t been time for it to sink in. We don’t know how it will stand up to economic scrutiny (although initial analyses indicate that in its regressive nature, 9-9-9 will actually cost most lower-and-middle-class taxpayers more) nor has Cain been effective in explaining how the plan replaces existing taxes. The lesson: If you can keep your idea flexible enough to account for ongoing changes without becoming undermined, we will come to believe in it more and more.

S = Spans Differences. A Vivid idea accounts for opposing perspectives.

9-9-9 fails in the spanning differences attribute. As a complete replacement for the existing tax code, 9-9-9 throws out the existing fiscal baby with the bathwater. Yes, everyone agrees that our tax code needs a serious rewrite, but until Cain shows how his plan would work with differing perspectives, it chokes on second bite.  The lesson: only if your idea can clearly illustrate how it accounts for opposing views — bypassing them, integrating them, or eviscerating them — does it become undeniable.

T =Targeted. A Vivid idea matters to me.

In targeting, 9-9-9 takes the cake. Cain recognizes better than any other Republican candidate the stress being felt by the average American and recognizes the people’s need to see action, not words. 9-9-9 is directly targeted to all who are fed up with the blah-blah-blah of candidates doing political business as usual. And for that reason alone, 9-9-9 feels like a winner. The lesson: know your audience.

The Vivid Score is…

On the Vivid FOREST scale, 9-9-9 scores a solid 4.5 out of 6. Probably good enough to get through the primaries. Not enough to win the Presidency.

If that is still even in the cards…

The Fall?

In late October, two separate allegations of sexual harassment surfaced from Cain’s past — and the conversation changed again. Since then, 9-9-9 has been forgotten as all focus has shifted to the unelectable issue of sexual misconduct and whether Cain can survive in the polls at all.

The Rise (and Fall?) of Herman Cain

Only one thing can trump the vivid power of a message like 9-9-9: sex. With allegations of sexual harassment arriving, even 9-9-9 is forgotten. Oops, Herman: not even the most vivid idea can beat our limbic brain.

Only the next few weeks will tell, but the lesson is clear: in the battle between blah-blah-blah and a Vivid idea, Vivid will always win. But in the battle between any idea and sex, sex will always win. Regardless of how smart we think we are, fighting off our limbic brain is never easy.


For more on Vivid Thinking, Vivid ideas, and the Vivid FOREST, see my new book, “Blah-Blah-Blah: What to Do When Words Don’t Work” at




5 ways a stick figure will help you keep your job. (ABC News)

While I was in New York last week, ABC News asked me to stop by their studio and share how the act of making simple drawings helps us think through scary issues in a non-scary way. The scariest business issue for most people today? How to keep your job. So that’s what I drew.

Check out my job-saving stick figures in this clip.

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