Manuel Carrión: Diagrammatica Question 3

[This is the third of five questions about the the Diagrammatica ProjectThe questions were provided by Manuel Antonio Carrión Lira of the Design School at the University of Valparaiso, Chile (  An abstract of Manuel's research and the full set of questions can be viewed here.]

  •  Manuel Carrión: In your paper ‘Theory Pictures as Trails: Diagrams and the Navigation of Theoretical Narratives’ you define diagrams as cultural objects and also as tools for navigating ecologies of information.  I can understand that if they are tools it is because they have a function, an objective.  The importance of a methodology to build diagrams then is crucial. If we understand design practice as a discipline that shapes matter into form, where would you place design practice in the discussion of constructing diagrams?

A diagram operates as a pedagogical tool, an abstract machine.  It helps readers build new conceptual structures, new landscapes of imagination and awareness.  C.S. Peirce lists the diagram as a particular type of icon.  Like any icon, the diagram presents a direct likeness of its content.  But the diagram is not iconic of any particular element; it’s an icon of relationships. The diagram iconically represents the relations between elements.  And by contemplating these relationships, we attain deeper insight into the constituent elements.

A few analogies: (1) A diagram operates much like a map. The conceptual landscape represented by a diagram resembles the physical landscape represented in a geographical map.  A map instructs the reader how to get from point A to point B.  But most maps do not prioritize points A or B as any more significant than any other arbitrary point.  A map can just as easily instruct us how to move from point A to point C, or point B to point C, or point C to point D.  The route is more important than the destination.  A diagram works the same way: it provides a route for shifting our thought from consideration A to consideration B.  The elements are important (e.g. we want to arrive at a bookshop rather than a park) but the purpose of the map is to tell us how to get there, not what to do once we arrive.  A diagram represents a journey across elements rather than a final destination.

(2) Another tool analogy is the blueprint of a machine.  A blueprint shows us how various elements fit together.  And examining the blueprint often teaches us more about the individual elements than the final product does.  For example, a blueprint shows us that we need to twist a particular screw into a particular hole.  In the final machine, however, the threads of the screw are invisible.  A conceptual diagram works much the same way.  A block of conceptual text fits together smoothly, much like a finished machine.  The diagram opens up that machine to display the threads and connections that hold it together.

(3) My third analogy would be the hammer.  A hammer is a tool and it has a particular objective: it is designed to drive nails into wood.  But our interest often falls on the final product, not the hammer itself.  What a carpenter makes with a hammer is much more significant than the simple act of hitting a nail.  Moreover, hammers can do all sorts of work other than hitting nails.  Some hammers can be reversed to remove nails, or they can be used to smash glass, or they can strike oil drums and make music. A diagram is similar: how we use the diagram is often more interesting than the particular objective of the diagram itself.

So what do these analogies mean for design practice? Is there a methodology of diagrammatic practice? First, there are a number of considerations regarding the diagram’s purpose.  What will the diagram help us do? What type of tool is it?  In this regard, we can differentiate the conceptual diagram from other types of visual artifacts, such as infographics or data visualization.  Data visualization presents a picture of statistical data; infographics inform the reader about something.  These artifacts have a different purpose than the diagram, which provides a schematic map of elements and the routes that connect them.  The diagram helps us explore thoughts and discover new connections.  Information and data visualizations, on the other hand, summarize patterns that already exist.

The next step involves a decision about elements.  This is often a process of elimination.  For me, powerful diagrams are flexible.  They are open to multiple interpretations, multiple routes of exploration.  Too much text limits that openness.  We want a trail from one element to another, not a guided tour.  Once the elements are decided, a designer can embed additional significance through the development of visual codes and contrast: curved lines are perceived differently than straight lines; broken lines imply a different movement than solid lines; contrasting fonts indicate different types of elements.  I find the “Living in Line” and “Show and Tell” chapters of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics very useful in considering these choices.

Personally, I appreciate diagrams in which the contrasts are accessible, and they do not require additional information to decode.  Visual and aesthetic differences should signify meaningful differences. An interesting avenue of diagrammatic design might be the exploration of signs from different sign systems such as mathematical notation, logic symbols, musical notes, Isotype pictures, or the use of linguistic texts written in different scripts.  The question is whether or not those signs and symbols would be understandable to the reader.  Another option for individual designers is the construction of a diagrammatic lexicon or visual grammar.  But this often requires a key: a double line means this, a circle means this, a square means this, etc. This type of formalization begins to resemble a visual language or a notational system.  It can be very powerful, but I would not advocate it’s universal application.  The strength of the diagrammatic method rests in its openness.  A diagram consists of significant elements arranged in space.  The possible relations and layouts of these elements are endless.  The role of the designer is the decision as to which of these layouts is best suited to the problem at hand and/or which layout is most useful for readers.