Shark Week and 5 Other Great Ideas Originally Sketched on Napkins

We’re halfway through America’s annual television obsession, Shark Week. Believe it or not, the whole idea originally came out of some impromptu brainstorming among several Discovery Channel executives hanging out at a bar after work. After an offhand remark invoking the now-infamous title for the first time, a producer told The Atlantic, “somebody in that nexus scribbled it down on a napkin. You know how that is. An idea in a bar comes from many fathers.”

It’s not the only famous creation that found its first inklings on an ordinary napkin. JK Rowling notably wrote her first ideas for Harry Potter on a napkin on a British train. Since you never know where and when inspiration will hit, or when it will strike again, it’s important to document these moments when they arrive, and at times, the humble napkin is the best available easel. Here’s a look at five other big companies, inventions, and ideas launched from some basic napkin art.

Compaq

Computer image by Everett Collection
Computer image by Everett Collection

Computer company Compaq dates back to 1982 and was bought by HP in 2002, but it had more humble beginnings. Three of the company’s founders, who worked together at Texas Instruments, “drew up plans for a new IBM-compatible portable computer on a napkin in a Houston restaurant,” according to legend. At its height in the ’90s, that computer was known as the affordable, sub-$1,000 option for cash-strapped individuals.

The Space Needle

Space Needle image by Matt Ragen
Space Needle image by Matt Ragen

Different accounts exist about whether Edward E. Carlson, the artist behind Seattle’s iconic Space Needle, put his vision on a placemat or a napkin in a coffee house in 1959. Either way, three years later, the building was finished in time for the 1962 World’s Fair in the city. Why did he do it? Carlson was also the president of Western International Hotels, and he wanted a more futuristic-looking World’s Fair for the “Century 21” theme.

Voyager

Airplane image by photobank.kiev.ua
Airplane image by photobank.kiev.ua

It was the first experimental airplane to complete a nonstop, around-the-world flight without refueling, and Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager were at the helm. As it turns out, Voyager came to them one day while they were out having lunch. Without anywhere else to put it, they sketched the design for the plane on a napkin. From there, it took five years to get the project off the ground and running. Rutan and Yeager flew for 9 days, 3 minutes, and 44 seconds, covering about 25,000 miles.

Fire nozzles

Hose image by akkaradech
Hose image by akkaradech

Clyde McMillan, who headed the Gary, Indiana Fire Task Force volunteer fire department in the 1960s, found fire hoses difficult to manage and hold because they had inconsistent flows of water. So he brainstormed a better way, based on attached nozzles. In 1968, McMillan drew a design on a napkin for a new nozzle that compensated for any drop in water pressure. Over time, McMillan’s nozzles became industry standard on all hoses.

The Citi logo

Citibank logo image by Gerry Boughan
Citibank logo image by Gerry Boughan

Sometimes the best solution is actually the simplest. Designer Paula Scher made a napkin sketch of the Citi logo during a client meeting. Citigroup was looking to reinvent itself as simply “Citi,” and a new logo and identity was in order. That’s when Scher swooped in: “How can it be that you talk to someone and it’s done in a second? But it is done in a second — it’s done in a second and 34 years. It’s done in a second and every experience, and every movie, and every thing in my life that’s in my head,” Scher said.

Have you had success with napkin sketches? What other odd times have you captured your ideas on paper? Share your stories in the comments below.

Top image: Illustration by Cori Stuhlmiller

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