Thinking Visually

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011 0 comments

thinking-visuallyIt is difficult to know if I want to recommend this book for someone looking to improve their presentations. It does exactly what it sets out to do in laying out a very solid grounding in a wide variety of business diagrams, and does it very well; however in general these aren’t the sort of diagrams that you are going to want to use in your presentations. Instead diagrams have a different purpose – but one that is still really valuable.

Rather than providing you with a toolkit of diagrams you can slot directly into you presentation from the word go, Thinking Visually sets up the use of diagrams as a tool to be used in understanding, analysis and planning.  This aspect is definitely of use in building your presentations; although somewhat paradoxically it is of more use in helping with the non-diagram parts of your presentation such as flow, content and order of presentation. In this, Thinking Visually does a fantastic job, because it really takes the time to explain the diagrams and what their purpose is, as well as covering the more underlying concepts.

The only problem with this explanation is that it isn’t delivered in an engaging way. Instead there is a sense of a very methodical progression throughout the book that does make it a dry read. So in this review I intend to briefly cover the contents, and then focus in on the diagramming principles discussed, rather than the fourteen ‘Core Diagrams’ as the understanding of the diagramming principles is where the real values lies for the presenter.


Thinking Visually breaks down into three sections. The introduction that covers the what, why and how of diagramming in a very useful way; then the second section, the largest part of the book, is the breakdown of the fourteen diagrams. Finally the book finishes with some brief advice concerning how to use the diagrams in specific scenarios. The diagram toolkit is very exhaustive in its coverage of the core diagrams, and groups them into six themes and applications. Each diagram is well described with an explanation of how it should work, as well as a description of the business applications and conventions in drawing the diagram. The book successfully accomplishes what it sets out to do with this section; just don’t expect it to be a page turner.

The introduction, in contrast, is much more engaging and interesting. Malcolm Craig starts the book by saying that he believes that the purpose of diagramming is more important than the diagram itself. In order to make the most of diagrams and using diagrams, you need to understand what diagrams are, what they do best, and how to best use them to that end.

The first question to answer is ‘What is a diagram?’ There is the saying that a picture paints a thousand  words. A good diagram does allow you to convey a lot of information, however it is wrong to think of diagrams as merely a way of compressing large blocks of text into a size that would fit onto a sensible bit of paper. Craig presents the distinction between diagrams and written information as something like a left-brain/right-brain distinction, and whilst he does say that this is perhaps more of a metaphor than reality, the metaphor does highlight the key difference between text and diagrams.

London-Tube-MapThe Theory of Diagramming

Written information is by necessity presented in a one dimensional series, in which any one piece of information must come before or after another. In contrast to this, diagrams do not have an imposed serial order and points of information can appear in parallel, with more disorganised relationships than a strict linear order. This means that diagrams are better at capturing certain types of information – information that is chaotic, disorganised and messy – than any text based description could. For example, the tube map of the London underground is a brilliant diagram because it simply and effectively conveys a lot of relational information. Trying to do that with text alone would be nearly impossible.  So ‘what’ a diagram is, is a different method of representing information to serial text based information, and one that is better suited to certain types of information than others, which points to the next question of why you would want to use a diagram.

You should use a diagram to manipulate information that cannot be forced into a strict linear order. This covers situations such as mapping structure and understanding relationships, or analysing the flow of control or causation, but there are also a lot of different ways you might need to use this type of information. The first thing you will probably want to do with this sort of information is reduce its complexity. To return to the example of the London Underground map, we see that it takes the complex arrangement of tube stations and the connections between them, and gives the viewer a way to easily access that information and use it to plan a route. However, the use of diagrams is not limited to conveying complex relational information in a simple way. Diagramming can also be brought in a stage earlier and actually applied to problem solving.

Problem Solving with Diagrams

The process of working through a problem with a diagram can help you identify where the problem really lies, such as when you go to London over the weekend and then discover that one of the lines you need to use is closed for repairs. If you are standing at King’s Cross and you are told that the Central line is closed, is that a problem for you if you want to go to Oxford Circus to do some shopping? By having the diagram of the London Underground available it makes the process of identifying the problem and the solution much easier. In addition to this, the value of diagramming to problem solving extends further. A diagram can also help you solve the sub-problems that must also be addressed in order to reach the solution. Those sub-problems would not have  been apparent if you had approached the problem with the linear focus on problem-solution that language based information processing engenders, whereas they are with a diagram as a diagram can highlight the gaps where things are missing.

This feature of diagrams is valuable in other ways as well. Being able to see that big picture can help you understand a process, or similarly find important information by filtering it from the unimportant. Another use would be identifying gaps in order to find areas for improvement. These points demonstrate that the real benefit in constructing a diagram isn’t in the finished product, but rather in the thought process you must go through in order to come up with that diagram, as it is only by engaging in that thought process that you derive these benefits. This leads nicely to the final part of Craig’s introduction, the question of how to engage in the act of diagramming.

Drawing-DiagramThe Practice of Diagramming

The practical side of diagramming is fairly simple and Craig sets it out well. You need the right tools for the job, you need something to write with and a large enough piece of paper to develop your diagram without it being constrained. You could work on something small but you might artificially limit the expansion and exploration of your diagram. You should also remember that you’re not creating a masterpiece: the purpose of creating the diagram isn’t to reach some finished product that will look great in your presentation. You might occasionally create a diagram that would look good in a presentation, but you shouldn’t limit yourself to only producing that sort of diagram. A diagram is an effective tool for thought, and should be seen as such, as opposed to merely a way of creating visuals for your presentation.

Diagramming Language

When you engage in creating a diagram, you must make sure that you use the right diagramming ‘language’. When creating diagrams it is important to use a consistent visual schema; in the same way that a language, such as English, only works if everyone agrees that the little squiggle ‘a’ correlates with an ‘aaah’ sound, diagraming is only effective if there is agreement on what the symbols mean. A part of this consistent schema is the effective labelling of a diagram. Certain symbols will have a lot of overlap between different situations and contexts. For example, an arrow could indicate flow, influence, or a causal connection, and it is only by giving the diagram a specific context that you can be clear which of those interpretations should be used. It is the title that gives a diagram its context.

Reading Diagrams

Following these rules will allow someone to ‘read’ your diagrams successfully. If you link your diagram to a specific event, failure, problem or opportunity, then you will make that diagram even clearer. When it comes to reading a diagram, there are several steps to follow. You should read the title first, as this will set the scene. Then you should look for a start and end point in the diagram, since the presence or absence of these will tell you something of what the diagram depicts. After this you can focus on how the diagram is put together, and whilst doing so ask yourself two questions: Firstly, what is this diagram telling me? Secondly, what is this diagram missing?

By doing this you will get the most out of the process of diagramming, and be able to put it to the best use. It is for this reason that I see the first section of Thinking Visually as the most valuable. The second section gives you a lot of examples, but alone it does not give you the right approach to using them effectively – that only comes from understanding the nature and purpose of diagrams.

Should I buy it?

As I mentioned previously, it is this nature and purpose that makes the majority of diagrams unsuitable for inclusion in a presentation. Their purpose is primarily as a thinking tool, not as a presentation piece. So Thinking Visually does not have much to offer a presenter directly. However, the underlying principles it discusses are of value, as they can be applied in a variety of ways to improve a presentation. So ultimately it is worth reading Thinking Visually to improve your presentation creating skills; just make sure that you don’t skip straight to the diagram toolkit the book offers, and if you’re only going to read one part, read the first section.

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