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.
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.
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.