Six tips to create an effective napkin sketch

People tend to prefer the concrete to the abstract. After all, it’s easier to think about trucks than supply chains. And it’s easier to think about supply chains than value chains. So if you’re trying to explain a complex idea, abstractions may only take you so far. Instead of explaining your idea in words, make a napkin sketch. It’s a technique we use in almost every project.

Here’s a new technique to help hone your story

Creating a napkin sketch:

  • Helps you clarify your thinking by making abstractions concrete and
    forcing you to work out relationships.
  • Helps you share your ideas with peers to get further clarification and buy-in.
  • Makes ideas easier to remember. Do you want to draw people in, explain
    complex topics, or foster agreement?

Here are six tips for creating effective napkin sketches:


1. Napkin sketches require thought, not artistry.

Don’t feel that your drawing has to be museum-worthy. In fact, the more polished it appears, the less likely people will be to make useful suggestions. Several well-placed lines and squiggles will do. Try a whiteboard where you can erase as needed. When presenting your napkin sketches to others, you’ll find they naturally tend to critique your ideas, not your drawing skills.


2. Identify actors

Creating a napkin sketch is about thinking through a problem, so it’s okay if you don’t know what it’s going to look like before you start. Not sure where to begin? Start by listing what we call the “actors” — all the pieces that make up the story. This probably includes people, but actors may also include products, networks, software, money, stores, factories, or processes.


3. Use words and symbols.

Create a symbol that stands in for each actor — a stick figure for a person, a dollar sign for money, a square with a rectangle chimney and a smoke squiggle for a factory. It’s okay to label your symbols if there’s any question of what they are. Just remember to be consistent — your audience will get confused if you don’t represent the same actor with the same symbol each time it’s shown.


4. Figure out relationships.

One of the biggest benefits to using napkin sketches is the ability to show how things are related. Focus on the most important relationships between actors. Is the customer eating the pie or throwing the pie? Is the dog biting the man or is the man biting the dog? Be suspicious about parts that don’t connect to anything — they may not be necessary after all.


5. Let the structure grow naturally.

Many people have been taught to start with a triangle or a chain of parts. But starting with structure can force relationships instead of revealing them. Instead, start with the actors, draw their important relationships, and let the structure emerge from there. You may find that many of your drawings fall into classic business structures, like processes, timelines, or maps of responsibilities.


6. Don’t fall in love with your napkin sketch.

For an important story, be ready to draw two or three versions before you share it. Hitting a winner on the first try is expecting too much. Be prepared to make changes after you shop it around. This is the natural progression of collaborating with a group of people to come to a shared vision or conclusion. Your conversations about what to keep, what to cut, and how to explain it are all part of the process.

Read next: “Creating presentations to get permission from leadership”


First published in Design Goggles, our seven-part series in TEQ Magazine (pg. 44).