I think there are way too many really bad diagrams in the world of organisations.

Visual explanations can be extremely useful and effective. The famous London Underground map is a great example, though recent versions do seem to be getting more cluttered.

But a huge number of diagrams make use of shape and colour in ways that seem gratuitous. Visuals are powerful and when used clumsily seem to screw up the signal-to-noise ratio. I have a suspicion that this sometimes intentional: you can take a fairly simple idea and make is seem more important by turning into a diagram.

For example you often get a simple idea like “there are five aspects to this” that mysteriously becomes a brightly coloured pentagram. The big shape adds nothing relevant to the idea but introduces to my mind all sort of superfluous ideas about space and boundaries.

Here’s one I spotted today from Accenture relating to public service:

This seems to take four abstract concepts (outcomes, balance, engagement, accountability) and a few other words and throwing them at a series of shapes that might have been chosen at random. The result is – I find – ugly.

I think it visually suggests ideas that I suspect are entirely unintended. For instance, I’m sure there was no particular reason for “outcomes” to be placed visually more in the territory of government. Why would “engagement” be more in the territory of citizens? Perhaps this sounds pedantic but when you make a big picture you unwittingly shove chunks of additional ideas towards people’s brains.

It’s also linear, boxy and unnatural. Now in that sense, perhaps it does convey something very important for us to know about the story the authors wish to sell, oops I mean tell, us…

2 thoughts on “Diagrams

  1. Antony Mayfield

    It somehow means a lot and nothing at all in the same space. Maybe it’s actually a terrifying piece of art.

    Would love to hear about some examples of straightforward, everyday diagrams that you think are effective. I agree there’s a lot of abuse out there… My brain goes through the same series of small deaths when it sees a flow-chart that it does when some shows me a spreadsheet.


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