People who work with me realise that a good way to get me to stop listening to any explanation is to draw me a diagram. Don’t get me wrong sometimes a diagram is a great way to explain stuff… but most of the diagrams I see to explain things in business drive me nuts.

Is this because I am not a “visual thinker”? Nope, that’s not it. In fact, I think I am a very visual thinker and I see more stuff in these diagrams than the authors intend. So their efforts to explain end up overwhelming me with superfluous data. For instance, people draw me pyramids with different coloured layers to indicate some kind of hierarchy. The bottom slice has much more surface area than the top… but usually, that is not actually relevant. They only mean that it’s at the bottom… but their picture is saying more than that. Then they colour those slices in… again firing off a whole set more nerons, usually without conveying anything useful.

The second thing I loathe are diagrams used to say little more than “there are five aspects to this, and they’re all related”. Which is illustrated by some kind of pentagram with loads of arrows joining the nodes in every possible combination. It’s a mess and it adds nothing to the core idea.

Kathy Sierra’s latest, typically thought-provoking post gets to this too:

Differences in an image are interpreted as meaningful information. If two things represent the same idea, make them the visually similar. Conversely, if two things represent different ideas, make them different!

Sometimes, the stimulation presented by visual ideas can work, like great writing, to evoke complex and varied reactions by the observer/reader. I don’t want to rule that out. I think the point is that there is some kind of distinction between intentionally creating complex and creative responses, and doing stuff that just gets in the way of making a simple point.


3 thoughts on “Diagrams

  1. Uncle Buck

    That’s two of my pet hates you’ve touched on in a week! Worst of all are those technology vendors’ diagrams which try to show an isomorphism between their infrastructure and the shape of your organisation or your business process. Presumably this is in order to show what a good ‘fit’ they are. In practice the effort of fitting the technology diagram ends up doing violence even to simple parameters such as the direction of a flow.

    But am I guilty of something similar? When I’m 1-to-1 (maybe 1-to-2) and having a genuinely open discussion I often talk with a blank sheet of paper in front of me. I’ll typically write down some idea and then start adding arrows to some other point. So it ends up being a bit of a mind map, but can sometimes edge into a process design or a plan of action. Depending on who the other person is they may add their own elements, or emphasise things.

    It gives us a ball of string to pay out behind us and recapture where we’ve been, in a way that verbal-only discussions can’t. But – given that the diagrams sometimes end up meaningless – I’m wondering if this habit falls to the same objections as you make for ‘pre-meditated’ diagrams? Maybe I’m imposing a structure, even if it is spontaneous…

  2. Johnnie Moore

    I’m trying not to sound too militant about all this. I think mindmapping can be great… and visual notetaking is, of course, fine. I think it’s important to recognise that what may work for one person to understand something for himself may not serve so well for explaining it to someone else…

  3. Matt Moore

    You are wrong and I have a 2 x 2 matrix to say why…

    Truth be told, most management consultants use diagrams coz they come from an engineering background & want to look “scientific”. Most marketing people put diagrams in brochures to break up the text.

    Do these diagrams produce meaning? No necessarily…

    On the other hand, can you think of any great diagrams you’ve seen?


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