Diagrams – Do they stop readers thinking?

by | 5 Jul 2021

A picture is worth a thousand words.

Or, a picture closes off a thousand thoughts.

To use pictures or diagrams to accompany, explain or clarify complex ideas is something that people take for granted.

When Ivo Velitchkov came to me with the manuscript of Essential Balances: Stop Looking and Start Seeing What Makes Organizations Work for editing and I read the introduction where he explains why he wasn’t going to use diagrams, I had to call him for further explanation. Ivo gives five reasons, but we’ll explore the fifth one today.

Ivo writes:

Although diagrams can provide clarity, and it may be true that some pictures are worth more than a thousand words, pictures also fix the possible interpretations.

When we draw a diagram and include it in our book, we are fixing an image in our reader’s head. We are showing how we see something, how we prioritise the relationships, how we emphasise the labels, how we position the parts, how we link the sections, how we colour or shade the boxes and lines.

Are we imposing a view of the situation that the diagram depicts?

Just as in fiction, where we should only sketch a character just enough to give a feel for the way they look, in non-fiction we can over-describe, by using diagrams, the systems we are discussing.

Would it be better to let the reader paint their own picture, build their own model, link their own boxes, crucially, do their own thinking?

Using diagrams is not wrong, but…

I’d never say an author should not use an image, but perhaps we should stop and think before reflexively reaching for a diagram and unwittingly getting between the reader and them creating their own understanding.

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