A decade ago, Don Moyer, author and visual designer of graphics and stories for Harvard Business Review, self-published a little book, simply titled The Napkin Sketch Workbook. Available only through on-demand-printer Blurb, Moyer’s little masterpiece is one of these things that make you wonder how the strange world works: how is it that a book like that has NOT become an international best-seller? I usually get a few copies to have on hand as little gifts for friends who teach. I know it will be used until its pages fall apart… I know they’ll be grateful for the gift. It is a simple catalog of different types of sketches that you can use in the classroom to explain things (preview a few pages here). Moyer makes an elegantly brief, logical, solid case that you (or your students) do not need to be artists or have special superpowers to use simple sketches as a way to solve problems and communicate more effectively. And that sketches sometimes are way better than words when it comes to communication, persuasion, problem-solving… Moyer’s Lasagna Project activity (see p14 on the Blurb preview), is a very clever construct that makes self-evident how images – in some situations – are much more effective than words. I have adapted Moyer’s Lasagna Project to work as a warm-up/icebreaker activity at a conference several years ago, and on several occasions after that, and it always works extremely well – its only downside being that it’s such a show-stopper/jaw-dropper that having a follow-up activity that will awe audiences after that, is a tall-order. Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks this is an underestimated book: Caviglioli, in his excellent Double Coding (one of a few other recommended books), concurs – he borrows Moyer’s Lasagna Project fully and almost literally (but renames it Modern Europe Project, with credit to Moyer given, see image below); in the brief, but well-annotated bibliography, Caviglioli also agrees that “This is by far my most thumbed book. His diagrams – which all can emulate – are simply phenomenal in their simplicity and impact.[…] This should be a best-seller.” (Caviglioli 237).

Dan Roam’s original The Back of the Napkin is a little wordier, less concise, more repetitive, but it complements Moyer nicely. If I were to choose only ONE, my vote goes to Moyer, although both cover slightly different aspects and scenarios of visual thinking. Where Moyer focuses on how-to mechanics of making drawings, and offers a concise taxonomy-by-example, Roam is more focused on how to dynamically create images to explain something in the moment (a class, a meeting, a presentation). Roam’s success engendered a whole series of follow-up workbooks (like later Show and Tell), all useful, and slightly different, but none quite as good as the original.

Combine Moyer and roam with Caviglioli, who adds methodical approach, and solid research backing for using visuals in teaching, and with that set you will develop solid skills, and never run out of good ideas for effective, evidence-based class activities.

Moyer’s (left – p 15) and Caviglioli’s (right – p16) versions of the Lasagna Project, side by side:

Moyer/Roam: Napkin Sketches