Book Review: Blah Blah Blah
March 13, 2023
This 2011 book by Dan Roam is subtitled “What to do when words won’t work.” It’s essentially a primer, a justification, and a tutorial for incorporating sketching into your notes and presentations. For the purpose of increasing clarity, improving focus, and utilizing “both halves” of your brain.
It’s a big book; about 350 pages. And while the design and illustrations are very engaging and unique, most of the large-format pages are, inevitably, filled with words. Ironically, too many words. There are a lot of redundant and tangential paragraphs that an editor should have pared down or eliminated.
I was given this book by a friend. And I enjoyed it. I also learned a few things, and I thought quite a bit about its methods and arguments. But those of you who know me professionally will attest that I am an avowed minimalist when it comes to instructional design and writing. This book uses, almost literally, the proverbial “thousand words” to describe the “pictures” it prescribes. I had a hard time not slipping into critique mode as I read its meandering and overwritten advice.
That said, there are a few points of particular interest:
- Words have become our default thinking tool but cannot alone “detect, describe, and defuse the multifaceted problems of today.”
- “Words can be used to describe anything, but that does not mean words are the best way to describe everything.” (The author should consider using “depict” in this sentence for clarity and snappiness.)
- Dr. Suess wrote Green Eggs and Ham to win a $50 bet from his publisher. The challenge was to write a book using only 50 words, including “Sam,” “Ham,” and “am.” (Constraints breed creativity!)
- “Language is the single most sophisticated, finely developed, and important technology humanity has ever created. Using words is what makes us human. … it is also our easiest technology to mess up.”
- School children spend year after year learning how to express themselves using words. But visual education stops at the preschool level, and for most, never develops past that.
- Too much emphasis on words and language has reduced most thinking to using just “halve our minds” — our visual thinking side takes a back seat too often. The author includes a useful chart that relates simple drawing methods to common categories of information. For example, when dealing with a list, try a map instead.
Despite its length, this book can be a quick read. That’s because pretty much all the salient points are covered in the first three chapters and the two appendices. (One of which is based on the author’s Back of the Napkin business book.)
I recommend this book as a tool for exploring a different way of presenting information. I just wish it were more focused and not quite so gimmicky. You can get a copy from Amazon, of course, or borrow it from the library and skim the front and back portions — after that you’ll know if you want to dive into the blah blah blah of the middle sections.