Forum: Author Dan Roam taps brain's visual powers
Best-selling author Dan Roam.
Posted: October 27, 2010
LEWISBURG, Pa. — In 1974, two senior aides to President Ford got together with economist Arthur Laffer at a bar to talk about taxation.
Laffer grabbed a cocktail napkin and drew a picture with two arrows, one horizontal and one vertical and connected the corners of the bottom arrow with a semi-circle. Laffer used the drawing, later known as the Laffer Curve, to show that imposing an income tax too high or too low would cost the government money.
The senior aides, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, brought the napkin drawing to President Ford, who passed it on to the Republican National Committee and eventually to President Ronald Reagan.
"That napkin sketch became the basis of Reaganomics, or supply-side economics," Dan Roam told a Bucknell University audience Tuesday night. "Laffer explained that if the government charges a 0 percent income tax, it will collect no money. If the government charges 100 percent, the government collects no money. Who says a sketch on a napkin doesn't have any power?"
Roam, author of the international best-seller The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures, spoke as part of the Bucknell Forum series, "Creativity: Beyond the Box." The national speakers series, launched this fall with a talk by celebrated choreographer Twyla Tharp, features individuals from a wide range of fields who can provide thoughtful and insightful commentary or interactive experiences on new ways of being creative.
Roam has received international acclaim for his work in visual problem-solving, working as a consultant and advisor for Boeing, Microsoft, Ebay and the Gap, U.S. Navy, Stanford University and the White House, among others. He also has served as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, NPR and numerous other media outlets.
Roam argues that the human brain is designed to understand things visually. As he put it, if we can draw a square and an arrow and a circle connecting them, we can explain ourselves in pictures.
"Whatever our problems may be, I believe we can solve our problems with pictures," he said. "I know this to be true. In thousands of meetings, when people are trying to figure something out, if someone draws a picture, someone starts to articulate a solution."
Pictures say it all
Roam gave several examples of how pictures can be used to explain a complex problem or solution. The aviation company Boeing, for instance, when it started to build the 787 airplane two years ago, used pictures to transcend the language barrier as parts were manufactured in 15 countries in as many languages.
"How is this possible that all of them can build these parts and have them all assemble and fit together?" he asked. "Every single part is delivered through pictures."
President Obama and the U.S. Senate policy committee, on the other hand, which Roam also advised, could have benefitted from using pictures to explain healthcare reform. During his talk, Roam displayed images of the 1,447-page health care reform act, which, he described as a bulleted list with no pictures, "impossible for any living human being to comprehend."
Roam suggested that a few pictures showing the relationship between doctors, insurers and patients, would have given critics and supporters a better idea of how health care works and of what was being reformed. Roam developed a Power Point explaining health care reform with pictures and posted it on the web. It was downloaded more than 300,000 times and picked up by the Huffington Post.
Fox News later invited Roam to explain the concepts on their network, and BusinessWeek named the visual explanation of the American health care system "The World's Best Presentation of 2009." Then, the White House called. The result: WhiteHouse.gov/WhiteBoard, which now is used to explain tough concepts.
Back of the napkin
Roam guided the audience through the basics of problem solving on the back of a napkin, asking people to first draw a small circle in the corner and label it "me," then draw a larger circle and label it, "my problem." Next he asked the audience to divide the circle into six parts and answer the questions who or what, how much, where, when, how and why. The process, Roam said, would allow the audience to see all of the aspects of their problems at once.
The founder of Digital Roam Inc., a management consulting company, Roam lectures, leads workshops and manages hands-on projects with some of the world's largest organizations.
He discovered the power of pictures as a problem-solving tool in the 1990s, when he founded the first marketing communications company in what was then the Soviet Union. With no Russian language skills, he realized that pictures transcended the language barrier. Since then, Roam has been fine-tuning the visual thinking tools he introduced in his books, including his latest, Unfolding the Napkin: The Hands-On Method for Solving Complex Problems with Simple Pictures, a companion workbook to The Back of the Napkin.
Roam, who received his degrees in fine arts and biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, has said it was the combination of his arts and science education that spurred his cross-disciplinary approach to problem-solving.
The Bucknell Forum
Since 2007, the Bucknell Forum speakers series has featured nationally renowned leaders, scholars and commentators who have examined various issues from multi-disciplinary perspectives and a diversity of viewpoints. || Previous series events
The "Creativity: Beyond the Box" series' task force comprises faculty members Carmen Gillespie, Beth Capaldi Evans, Paula Davis, Joe Tranquillo, Margot Vigeant and Zhiqun Zhu; students Michael Davis, Class of '13, and Lindsay Machen, Class of '11; and administrators Rob Springall and Pete Mackey, chair.
Contact: Division of Communications
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