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What is a Back-Of-The-Napkin Idea?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 16, 2024
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A back-of-the-napkin idea is a concept that is normally created on the spur of the moment and is quickly captured by jotting down a few quick notes on the back of whatever type of paper happens to be available at the time. The term itself is indicative of how an idea may occur while dining with others, and the basics of the idea are quickly recorded on the back of a dinner or cocktail napkin while they are still fresh in the mind of the creator. The concept may be immediately shared with others, or put away until later when the concept can be refined and structured to a greater degree.

In most cases, a back-of-the-napkin idea is a spur of the moment flash of inspiration that may be triggered by a conversation that is taking place, or by something that is happening in the immediate area. Ideas of this type are usually rudimentary in nature, and form the basis for a detailed approach at a later date.

Depending on the setting, the back-of-the-napkin idea may be shared with others even as the originator is sketching out the basics of the inspiration on the back of a paper napkin. The scope of the idea can be just about anything, from sudden inspiration on how to adapt a given product to fit a new market, the creation of an ancillary product that will work well with existing products, or even a new way to restructure a business or department in order to maximize efficiency. The depth and detail of the back-of-the-napkin idea will vary, although it is not unusual for the inspiration to serve as the basis for a more detailed presentation at a later date.

In some cases, the back-of-the-napkin idea develops out of necessity. For example, an advertising executive who just found that his or her idea for a client is highly unlikely to be acceptable may suddenly get an idea for a completely different approach. At that juncture, the executive will quickly jot down the essentials of the idea and pitch the concept to the client. If the client is intrigued, arrangements are made for a more comprehensive presentation at a later date, giving the executive the opportunity to flesh out the inspiration.

The importance of back-of-the-napkin ideas cannot be underestimated. The creation of many different types of goods and services have come about due to this type of spur of the moment inspiration. As a tool for generating additional discussion, inspiring new ideas, and generally motivating the creative process, this approach offers a great deal and can easily be useful to salespeople, product developers, entertainers, and just about every other type of business professional.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum , Writer
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including SmartCapitalMind, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.

Discussion Comments

By ddljohn — On Apr 12, 2014

I had to write an idea on a napkin once. I literally had nothing to write on. In fact, I borrowed someone's pen and quickly wrote down the idea and put the napkin in my pocket. I'm glad I did. I'm now writing a film script based on that idea.

By candyquilt — On Apr 12, 2014

@Markerrag-- It sounds like a lot of brainstorming takes place over cocktails. Perhaps those who cannot agree with one another, or those experiencing writer's block should think it over cocktails and peanuts!

Jokes apart, inspiration can really come at any time. And accomplished writers always recommend jotting down ideas as soon as they occur so that they are not forgotten. Not everyone always carries a notepad with them. In those situations, a small piece of paper or a napkin will do the job. The idea is to get the idea on paper before one forgets about it. No one jots down ideas on the back of a napkin for fun, it's always out of necessity.

By turquoise — On Apr 11, 2014

One of the best examples of a back-of-the-napkin idea are the negotiations that took place at Wright Patterson Air Force Base for the Dayton Accords. Bosnian, Croat and Serbian leaders came together to decide on who would hold which areas of land. The negotiations were not going well and the leaders could not come to an agreement.

I read that on one evening when some of the leaders were spending time at the bar talking, some maps were drawn on the back of the cocktail napkins. The next day, they turned into real negotiations which were eventually approved. So back-of-the-napkin ideas can even determine the fate of a nation!

By Terrificli — On Apr 05, 2014

@Markerrag -- and don't forget that Francis Scott Key wrote down the lyrics for what is now the National Anthem on the back of an envelope while he was detained by the British prior to a battle in the Revolutionary War.

An envelope isn't a napkin, but the same idea applies.

By the way, that old tale about Abraham Lincoln composing the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope is a total myth. Drafts of that speech have been uncovered and one of those was on White House stationary.

By Markerrag — On Apr 05, 2014

More than just ideas for goods and services have come from those. For example, USC Economist Arthur Laffer sketched out the Laffer Curve on the back of a cocktail napkin while having a drink with Donald Rumsfeld in the 1970s. The Laffer Curve is based on the notion that higher taxes result in less revenue as people lose their motivation to make more money, engage in tax avoidance strategies, etc.

That became the basis for Ronald Regan's trickle down economics theory in the 1980s.

Malcolm Tatum

Malcolm Tatum


Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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