The Power Of Diagrams
There is an inherent beauty in diagrams that has been recognised by many people in the history of human existence. One of the key functions of diagrams is that they enable people to more easily understand new concepts and communicate these concepts with others.
Modern humans are thought to have developed only 50,000 to 70,000 years ago, in terms of both their anatomy and behaviour. Part of the key distinction between modern humans and earlier forms, is the ability to communicate and express cultural creativity, which is directly linked to the development of language. Language was a key part of this change and was expressed in many forms, including vocal expression and storytelling, visual art and diagrams, games, jokes and personal decoration. While there is thought to have been older forms of communication used by human ancestors before this time, it is likely to have been far more primitive and potentially similar to the communication used today by other members of the great ape species (chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans).
It is not clear precisely how the first modern human language developed. Some believe that it was based on learned vocalisations, while others believe that it was a form of sign language based on gesticulation. Although the precise origin of this language will almost certainly never by fully agreed, what is interesting is the fact that something visual-based was probably amongst the earliest forms of communication and is one that has evolved with humans as we have developed. Another point to support this is the fact that 20% of the human brain is dedicated to processing vision – far more than any other sensory modality, again demonstrating the power that visuals have within humans.
Some of the earliest examples of the use of diagrams comes from Australian Aboriginal rock art featuring local animals such as kangaroos, dingoes and emus, with examples from the Pilbara region dating back over 40,000 years. 35,000 years ago, the Aurignacians were drawing diagrams of reindeer in cave paintings in Chauvet, France, and are found extensively across both France and Spain. This was developed over the generations into the next stage of the evolution of visual language to petroglyphs (carvings in rocks), to pictograms (symbols that use illustration to represent objects, activities or events) and then ideograms (graphical symbols that convey an idea). As humans became more adept at using visuals to communicate with over thousands of years, the visuals themselves became more complex and allowed more information to be conveyed more quickly.
Contrast this to written language. Writing or text was established far more recently (relatively speaking) and is thought to have been created about 6,000 years ago. The Chinese, Sumerians and Egyptians were amongst the first to develop a written language, all of which was done well after the near full development of modern humans. In fact, biologically speaking, there is really nothing to separate these ancient peoples from those of today, whereas those pre-historic peoples that first started to develop a language that relied more on visual imagery were still developing (albeit in very fine detail) into modern humans.
The fact that visual-based communication has been with humans for as long as there have been humans speaks volumes (example of a visual metaphor) about the way in which we have evolved to process information. In the far more recent past and even today, visual communication is one of the most powerful ways of communicating information. In today’s modern world, it can also be the most efficient and effective, which drives all sorts of benefits, for both the communicator (i.e. presenter) and the recipient (i.e. audience).
For example, Nicolaus Copernicus is famous for two things. One was spending over 30 years making careful observations and taking accurate readings to produce 404 hand written pages of text and 101 pages of hand written data tables, all of which conveyed a huge amount of information. The other was to produce one simple diagram that would help billions of people to understand the other 500 pages in his book, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, and change the way that science viewed space and the Earth’s place in it. He gave us a diagram that literally changed the world and clearly demonstrates the power that a diagram can have to convey any message and any amount of information, no matter how in depth or complex. His diagram of the solar system, with the planets orbiting the Sun is something that even those with very little knowledge or understanding of astrophysics can understand. Critically, many of those people could also use the diagram to explain to others how the solar system is laid out and how it works. Rather than needing advanced knowledge, this simple diagram enables a huge number of people to understand the environment in which they live.
Next time you are tempted to use bullet points in your presentation, think about whether your audience are more likely to engage well with a visual representation of your message, or whether text heavy content is the best way forward. The beauty of a diagram is its power to communicate.
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