There’s a seventh circle of hell…

…reserved for those who create poor diagrams.

I am a big fan of a nicely put together diagram, something that brings to life the richness of data, or the complex interplay between ideas. Unfortunately, one consequence of this is a sensitivity to a diagram that not only fails to add to what it portrays, but introduces extraneous and confusing elements. ‘Global Perspectives: A framework for global education in Australian Schools’ is a resource for educators that aims to improve the quality of ‘globally aware’ teaching across a range of disciplines. On page 5, it includes the following diagram to provide a context to the sections in the remainder of the document.

Let’s take a moment to examine some of the semiotic messages within the diagrams;

  • big lovely circle-y-ness speaks the the global and holistic nature of the content, that’s fine
  • lots of colours (and the jigsaw motif) draw on the ‘multicultural’ themes and are reflected in the rest of the design of the document, no issue there
  • the distinct colours of the lower half are at odds with the ‘integrated’ rainbow of the upper half, which seems to suggest a philosophical distinction that isn’t really there
  • the five concepts in the top half are shown in a fashion that suggests one is somehow ‘core’ with the others sequentially wrapped around it – this is not the case, and there is no reason that one should be ‘inside’ of another, nor that they have any strict order
  • the ‘temporal/spatial dimension’ does indeed run right across the five top ideas, but it in no way ‘separates’ them from the four ideas at the bottom, as the diagram suggests
  • the jigsaw pieces show that the lower concepts are interrelated (which they are), but not in the sequence inferred by their positions – I would also suggest that the idea of interrelation is more critical to the ideas at the top than the bottom
  • the top/bottom dichotomy also suggests that the four ideas below are somehow ‘foundations’ which the top ideas emerge from – this is not particularly the case

Beyond the various semiotic elements that are misleading in the diagram, there is also the lost opportunity to build meaning into the diagram using these types of tools. Where is the flow of causality or process (something diagrams are good at showing), what is contingent on what? Are there any relationships between items in the top half or within items in the bottom half that are worth showing?

Diagrams are hard. Complex diagrams are really hard. But they can be incredibly powerful teaching tools if used well. Check out some Edward Tufte, or Nancy Duarte’s Slideology for some inspiration.

One thought on “There’s a seventh circle of hell…

  1. Ben Rolfe

    That felt good, didn’t it? 😀
    For my own catharsis, can I just say that the (all too common) inclusion of “temporal dimension / spatial dimension” (or similar) annoys the hell out of me?
    Yeah, time and space are important, but we all know this, so why tell us? Are they more relevant to the framework for global education than they are to, y’know, existence?
    Anything else in this space would have given shape and direction to the argument: Community? Education? Communication? Technology? Understanding? Stable Food Supply? Superior Firepower?
    By choosing time and space as their overarching/linking concept, they’re making an active choice to say nothing meaningful about what links all these concepts.
    If you don’t have anything (in the temporal and spatial dimensions) to say, don’t say anything at all.


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