Daily question: How much is that stick-figure drawing worth?

Dan Roam’s recent book, The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures, has a great website with stick figure animations to explain how visual thinking can be employed to understand problems and communicate solutions:


In an interview at Metropolis magazine, Roam mentions:

A lot of your work involves basic information design. Are you a fan of Edward Tufte or Richard Saul Wurman?

Absolutely. Tufte and Wurman are certainly the grandfathers of information visualization, no doubt about it, and we must bow to our elders who have been there before and cut through the swamp. That said, I’m not always a huge fan of Tufte. His books have been given awards for being the most beautiful books of the 20th century. But every time I walk into an office and see them on someone’s desk, I ask, “Have you read the books?” And I have yet to meet anyone who’s actually read them. From my take in the hard and fast world of business, his approach is dry and academic. In his own work I find that he drains the blood out of the visual.

Maybe it’s not “designed” enough for you?

I had an interesting conversation with Missy Cummings, director of the Humans and Automation Lab at MIT. She’s an ex-Navy fighter pilot, who’s taken her understanding of how people in high-pressure situations understand complex data, and thought about how that data can be presented in intuitive ways. The topic of Tufte came up. Missy said she appreciates his ideas, but where she disagrees with him is: if you’re in a high-pressure situation and have multiple sources of data coming at you and one of them is off, you want chart junk yelling, “Pay attention to this piece of data over here!” You want flashing red lights, drop shadows, three-dimensional effects—all the stuff Tufte tells you to avoid. You’re supposed to take time to really look at and understand his charts. That is a lovely luxury that you almost never have in business, and certainly don’t have when you’re flying a plane.

Is your copy of Tufte’s work serving as coffee-table adornment or dog-eared work aid?

11 thoughts on “Daily question: How much is that stick-figure drawing worth?

  1. Deanston:“…no doubt intending to exceed it inevitably fails.”

    At 7.2 x 7.2 inches the The Back of the Napkin book is diminutive when compared to the Tufte books. Oddly enough, the graphics are smaller and more cramped than I would have expected. So, in comparison, the stick-figure animations at the website do a better introduction to the visualization concepts than a quick parsing of the book at a bookstore, for example. If you think of the website as marketing collateral :-) the book itself should be OK.

    Frankly, I’d love to see a book just on this subject being mandated at middle/high schools and especially at colleges. It should be part of general literacy.

  2. Kontra: In checking out the links you mentioned, it seems to me that the overall quality of site design on the Web has simply steadily gone downhill. It’s no wonder when these brilliant minds set out to first imitate the simplicity of stick drawing and then no doubt intending to exceed it inevitably fails. The Napkin, it turns out, cannot be improved or outdone.

  3. Deanston: “If Apple or anyone can create a purely graphical programming software it will eat up the world.”

    Apple’s answer to that has been the Interface Builder. Being roughly 20 years old, it sorely needs a re-think.

    There have been a number of visual programming languages and IDEs in the past, even for kids, Alice and Scratch. Unfortunately, they have been overly geeky and marginalized.

    Microsoft’s Oslo initiative is its march towards modeling based programming. The BizTalk modeling environment is supposed to run on the Surface multi-touch thingy.

  4. Ziad, Jared, thanks for your kind words. Out of many hundreds of comments so far, I’ve had to delete (for usage of profanity) just a handful. You guys rock.

  5. Yet it’s 2008 and the napkin still serves as a better, faster, more convenient tool (for me anyway) than any desktop drawing or (where are they) web-based diagram tool. What does that say about people (how we think as our hands work) and the state of graphic designing software? I mention this because Roam’s website, although looks simple, has turned stick drawings into yet another dreadfully bloated Flash media site. Does is it just me who finds that ironic?

    If Apple or anyone can create a purely graphical programming software it will eat up the world.

  6. +1 to what Ziad says. Keep up the great Daily Questions. I love digestible, bite-sized articles in my RSS feeds, carefully selected for maximum interest. Thanks for your effort!

  7. Kontra, may I compliment you and your comment contributors on their considered and thoughtful contributions to your blog. I hope I do not jinx this by saying so, but the internet is soiled with blogs with specious or rude comments; counternotions is a breath of fresh air from them.

    Let’s keep it up.

  8. Fine, Mr. Roam is a visual thinker. But saying Tufte is “dry and academic” and “drains the blood out of the visual” simply indicates that Tufte’s approach is not sufficiently visual for his taste, which is more a statement about Mr. Roam than Mr. Tufte. The abundance of quirky and stylish graphics in Mr. Roam’s book and site might make them more palatable to a mass audience but add little to his content. Indeed, they come across like an adulterated version of Tufte.

    And the quote from the ex-Navy fighter pilot is absurd. It begins with the false premise that Tufte’s ideas about data presentation fail to account for context, then misrepresents Tufte’s ideas themselves. Put simply, Tufte says data presentations should minimize gratuitous elements which detract more than they aid. In the jet fighter HUD context, if flashing lights is what it takes to distinguish crucial data in the heat of battle, then flashing lights are no longer gratuitous.

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