Manuel Carrión: Diagrammatica Question 5

[This is the fifth 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: Based on your experience and the work you have been developing. Is there a specific diagram you would suggest to look at to be analyzed?

I’ll answer this question in three stages: (1) There are too few studies exploring specific diagrams and their communicative function. Thus, any study examining a particular diagram would offer a useful model. Such study would entail aesthetic, design, cultural, and semiotic considerations in relation to the role or purpose of the diagram. An important distinction should also be drawn between families of visual tools.  The theoretical or conceptual diagram operates as the abstract machine postulated by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. This plays a different function than genealogical trees, classification grids, coordinate systems, blueprints, computer science flowcharts, etc. Other related studies might explore notational systems for the representation of social and cultural facts: the sociogram of Jacob Moreno, the kinship notation of anthropology, and specialized transcription systems such as stenography and the International Phonetic Alphabet.  Like diagrams, these tools stretch the space of written communication outside (or alongside) linguistic text.  Specific studies could identify what differentiates the diagram from these other written and spatial tools.

(2) Since diagrams are tools for the production of expression rather than direct expressions themselves, analyzing a specific diagram might be the wrong approach.  Diagrammatic studies could employ the diagram as a tool rather than analyze it as an expression. To return to the hammer example of a previous post, the wonder of a hammer rests with what it can build, not its specific structure. Could we make a better hammer? Perhaps, for more particular tasks. But it’s the products of the hammer that interest us. A similar approach can apply to diagrammatic tools. Rather than analyzing diagrams, I suggest putting them to use: what can diagrams build? Does a diagram provide new insights or open new discussions? If so, the diagram is powerful. If not, it may be more limited. Using diagrams analytically, and reflecting on that use, might teach us more about diagrammatic thought than looking at diagram design from a purely aesthetic perspective.

It might be incredibly interesting, for example, to take diagrams from Diagrammatica or elsewhere and switch out the terms. Maintain the diagrammatic layout but replace the terms. And see if we can arrive at new insights. We often tie diagrams too closely with a specific expression. But the diagrammatic aspect arises from the spatial relations, not the precise terminology.  Some diagrams, such as the semiotic square of A.J. Greimas, are designed to do just this.  Greimas, and a host of other scholars, have employed the square as an analytic tool. The elements labelled S, s1, s2, ~S etc. are replaced with specific terms depending on the object of investigation.  The result is a collection of analyses that cover a wide range of topics.  But that range of topics overlap in their diagrammatic structure: they are all built upon the semiotic square.

What’s to say that other diagrams cannot be used similarly? Douglas Engelbart’s H-LAM/T diagram offers a specific presentation of a "Humans using Language, Artifacts, Methodology, in which he is Trained":
What would happen if we replace Engelbart's terms and focus the structure on another topic? For example, we might use the same diagrammatic structure to explore A-SRL/G: Automobiles following the Signs, Roads, Laws by which they are Governed.

(3) My final answer is “design diagrams rather than study them.” We commonly express ourselves through spoken and written language. This blog is a good example.  I’ve answered Manuel Carrión’s five questions on diagrams with blocks of text.  The few diagrams that appear are simply present as illustrations or examples. But what if I answered the questions with diagrams in instead? What is the questions themselves were a diagram?  Discussion would be very different. To answer these questions diagrammatically, I would need to choose precise terminology and design their relations.  Initially, I might struggle with this.  I might find the process limiting in terms of my particular perspective.  But a reader might find the answers more open, more suggestive.  The resulting diagrams could be read as tools, rather than explanations.

We can draw a useful analogy from the history of art: Scholars are trained to translate their concepts into linear blocks of text, much as Renaissance artists learned to translate a world of depth onto a flat canvas. But artists began to experiment with perspective and to break its formal rules. Artistic practice became more abstract and more expressive in its use of materials, spatial relations, layering, etc. These are all traits that also influence the diagram. So rather than simply studying and analysing diagrams, let’s break the formal rules of layout and written language. Let’s design more diagram and cultivate diagrammatic thought as a form of expression.