Drawing Effective Technical Diagrams


As architects, we spend a good bit of time trying to get a very complicated set of ideas communicated in a clear, consistent, and understandable manner.  A simple diagram with a clear story can be very compelling.  A poor diagram can actively sink your efforts. 

A great example of a poor diagram appeared on the front page of the New York Times a few days ago.  This horrible diagram attempts to describe the complexity of the US Afghanistan Policy in the war we are fighting there.  The diagram didn’t have a clear message, metaphor, or organizational method that allowed key observations to be drawn from it.  (copied below)

About the only decision that this diagram supports is “simplify this.”  But there is no clear way recommendation on how to do that, the areas that need the focus first, or even the rationale for the complexity that has emerged. 

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So what can we do?  We live in a complex space.  We’ve all delivered complex diagrams before.

I got a note from another architect this morning pointing to a masters thesis produced in 2006 by Noah Iliinsky at the University of Washington.  This masters thesis, titled Generation of Complex Diagrams: How to Make Lasagna Instead of Spaghetti , provides a great deal of good information on how to tell if your diagram is any good, and how to develop a better diagram for the audience at hand.

Direct link to PDF: https://digital.lib.washington.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1773/3100/iliinsky_complex_diagrams.pdf?sequence=1

Reference: https://digital.lib.washington.edu/xmlui/handle/1773/3100

It’s a good paper, and worth a look for any architect wanting to learn to improve the kinds of diagrams that they produce, and best guide the decisions that need to be made.

Comments (7)

  1. RHWhite says:

    Hi Nick,

    Thanks for the post. You are right, this drawing is horrible. Worst yet, credence has been given to it by appearing in the New York times. No doubt we’ll see this copied.

    I have seen drawings similar to this and typically they are drawn in this manner because the person who has rendered the drawing doesn’t really understand their subject matter and has spatial issues. At least they tried to apply the Gesault method of grouping like objects.

    There is much they could have done with line patterns and weighting if they felt all concepts required representation.

    This would have been better rendered using lines running in parallel joined by the arrows. The flow would enable the readers eye to travel easily thorugh the information.They could have even grouped some of the items into boxes thereby reducing the amount of ‘directional’ arrows. Even grouping them according to the major concerns (e.g. priorties, governance and support) would simplify this.  This drawing causes eratic eye movents resulting in mental fatigue. The information will not be absorbed by the reader.

    The use of the boxes doesn’t make much sense either. Why boxes all of a sudden. Is this something special?

  2. Rob Singers says:

    There’s only one thing to say to you Nick http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/ 🙂

  3. How can you say it’s a poor diagram when the NYT story takes the diagram out of context? This is slide 22 from a presentation. I haven’t seen slides 21 or 23, and I guess you and RH White haven’t either, but at least some military commanders (according to NBC’s Richard Engel) regarded the analysis as "genius".

    Some people may look at this and conclude "simplify this". Others may look at this and conclude "don’t expect simplistic solutions to work".

    In my view, the real problem is not the quality or complexity of the diagram, but the kind of thinking and communication processes that are needed to support intelligent decision-making.

    See my post on Visualizing Complexity

    http://demandingchange.blogspot.com/2010/04/visualizing-complexity.html

  4. NickMalik says:

    Hello Richard,

    You said: "In my view, the real problem is not the quality or complexity of the diagram, but the kind of thinking and communication processes that are needed to support intelligent decision-making."

    Fascinating.  I agree with the need for clear communication needed for intelligent decision-making. That said, I find it very difficult to look at the diagram above and find a clear message, or support for a clear decision.

    The diagram contains text connected by arrows.  There is no clear meaning of an arrow.  In some cases, I think that an arrow means "influences" although an arrow with two strikes means "serious delay" (perhaps that made sense during the presentation).

    The text appears to be grouped in "areas" indicated by large text.  Perhaps not the most common metaphor for a key, but not bad on its face.  

    While the diagram illustrates the collection of a great deal of analysis, it is simply not rigorous enough to support any key insights.  

    Are there specific influencers that are more important for supporting the mission than others?  

    Are there specific "chains" of influence that form foundational requirements while others are more tertiary?

    You mention that you are not interested in the quality or complexity of the diagram, but I would challenge the creator of the diagram to create a view that was, in fact, less complex or of a higher level of quality (and rigor) that supports key insights.  

    In that context, the ONLY value of a diagram of that nature would be to show that a "source" analysis exists, from which specific views are drawn.  I would say that this is possible if some rigor were applied.

    I have a difficult time seeing evidence that it was.

    This is not to say that the rest of the presentation was bad.  It is entirely possible that the overall presentation was excellent and that the folks who saw it found tremendous value in it.  I cannot say.

    However, I can say, and will say, that the diagram from page 22 of the presentation is pretty terrible.

  5. Randolpho says:

    Nick,

    Although I agree with your general point wholeheartedly, and I’m looking forward to reading through that article, I’d like to point out that sometimes a complex, nearly incomprehensible diagram *can* be useful. I think perhaps (I’ve not read the NY Times article, so grain of salt, here) the article may have used the diagram appropriately in this context.

    An incomprehensibly complex diagram can be particularly useful when what you are trying to convey *is the complexity itself*. This is especially true if you can defend the diagram as accurate even as you present it.

    Complexity is something we frequently have to deal with as Devs and Engineers, and a diagram that says "holy crap, this system is way more complex than it needs to be" can be very effective indeed.

    Especially if your next "future state" diagram is simple and easy to read.

    I’m not saying we should always go out of our way to make a diagram complex, but we shouldn’t remove a complex diagram entirely from our repertoire. We just have to know when to use one effectively. 🙂

  6. NickMalik says:

    Hello Randolpho,

    I completely agree that a diagram that illustrates complexity can, of itself, be useful.  

    However, we would also want it to be rigorous so that we are not adding detail just for the sake of creating a diagram that is, in fact, an illusion of complexity.

    I did not see the rigor.

    There is clearly excellent analysis involved.  But the diagram should illustrate that level of careful analysis and directive illustration that allows the viewer to not only understand the situation but also IMPROVE it.  

    As I mentioned above, the illustration may have been an effective part of a larger discussion, where this step was useful for showing a larger picture, and where the careful directive illustrations were made in another slide.  Hard to say.

    — Nick

  7. chrishan says:

    Hi Nick,

    Nice topic you bring up here. Here's my two cents:

    These is a fine line between the complexity of the real world we are trying to model and the complicated illusion we created. The only way to judge whether a diagram is elegant is how close it's reflecting the fact. This diagram looks like a value chain to me (or influence in your words) which is used to show the enterprise land scape. And I believe it is meant to generate questions at the very beginning of modeling an enterprise and the operational environment.

    What you and others said are all correct. But it all depends on the level of abstraction you are at or who you are trying to present to – back to Zachman's stack again.

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