Manuel Carrión: Diagrammatica Question 4

[This is the fourth 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: Diagrams as drawings need a surface; they need a vehicle to work through. How do you think the surface and technology affects diagram relations?

This is an interesting question as it addresses the materiality of the diagram: how is it traced? Where is it traced? With what is it traced?  And it actually points in two directions.  First, the surface, or substrate (the material object upon which the diagram is inscribed), influences the design.  And second, the tools of inscription play a role.  A blank sheet of paper can display a diagram.  But the design possibilities offered by a box of coloured markers are widely different than those offered by a single pencil or a collection of paint brushes.

Inscription tools provide the range of differences and contrasts that a designer might employ to significant effect.  And the material substrates offer a different set of affordances and constraints.  For carved stone, the depth of a line might be significant.  This same “depth” would need to be portrayed differently with pen on paper (e.g. the boldness or thickness of strokes).  On the other hand, paper is much more portable than stone.  Stone is much more permanent.

These considerations are not specific to diagrams.  They apply to all forms of writing.  My appreciation in diagrams stems from a wider interest in the visual possibilities of written communication.  Diagrams are a form of writing that communicate relations through layout and spatial organization.  Lines, shapes, and visual patterns replace the formalities of linguistic grammar.  In this regard, diagrams operate as “mythograms,” a form of writing that presents information non-linearly and multidimensionally.  The term mythogram was introduced by André Leroi-Gourhan to describe paleolithic cave paintings.  Later, Jacques Derrida adopted it as part of a general grammatology (the science of writing and graphic systems). The mythogram, like a diagram, can be read in multiple directions.

I like the mythogram concept because it reminds us that all writing begins in empty space.  Meaning arises as we trace lines across that space.  The lines carve shapes and the organization of shapes communicates with the reader. This material act approximates the appareil of Jean-Louis Déotte.  The diagrammatic line represents a physical technique for dividing space.  But it also represents the thinking process, which decides how to divide that space.  These considerations are particularly relevant in digital environments, where designers speak of data spaces and information architectures.  The digital screen opens vast new possibilities for the communicative design of visual space.  As a result, we are seeing a resurgence of diagrammatic thinking and diagrammatic design.  And the critical study of diagrams has much to offer the contemporary information landscape.

I often think of writing in general, and diagrams more specifically, as two-dimensional representations, but that is not necessarily the case.  The digital screen is very good at representing a 2.5 dimensional structure: a two-dimensional image built of overlapping layers.  I play with this idea in my unmixing project, but it has also haunted Diagrammatica. The crossed-out word is a good example.  For a long time, I couldn’t decide whether or not to include Martin Heidegger’s crossed out "Being" in Diagrammatica.  The concept is simple: whenever we talk about what something “is” we must use words and concepts that “are not” the thing itself.  Hence, Heidegger x’s out the term Being (the German Sein):The diagrammatic and material question arises since Heidegger uses an X rather than a simple line.  And as simple as this act is, it remains a very difficult thing to represent as text.  When you see Heidegger’s "Sein" online, the word is usually presented with an image (as I did above).  But more significantly, the crossed out word opens the material space of writing to a range of new possibilities.  Heidegger employs the spatial relation of above/below to significant ends: the word is below the X.  Derrida is especially fond of this mark and develops the concept as “sous rature” (under erasure).  For diagram design, the layering of lines opens another set of questions: whether a line of relation passes above, below, or through another line can be very significant. Lines signify routes of movement and thought and the paths of those routes inform how the diagrammatic tool can be used.

As a final note, the material construction of diagrams can be particularly useful in a global and multilingual world.  Diagrams communicate through minimal text and lines of connection.  In translating the diagram from one language to another, the lines remain the same.  Only the text elements require translation.  This can reduce problems that arise in attempting to translate the idiom of one language into another.  The key component of the diagram—its structure and spatial relation—can be preserved across linguistic translations.  And since the diagram is a tool for thought rather than an end in itself, the words can be easily swapped.  If one word or translation causes trouble, it can be replaced with another term without having to rewrite the entire diagram.