The value of thinking diagrammatically

The dictionary definitions of diagrams, they can be defined as pictures of language altered in a way that its components are put in non-linear associations with each other. And they kind of create asymmetric juxtapositions, which might then lead to a kind of an expanded version of an elaboration of a complex thought. And those diagrams have the force of protecting or preserving the complexity of that and visualising it at the same time.

Ustek and Gansterer discuss diagrams as a tool of ‘undisciplinary thinking’: making complex ideas tangible not by simplifying them, but by finding new or alternative complexities by which to describe them.

I am, as a strategist, a card-carrying subscriber to the Saatchi discipline of ‘brutal simplicity of thought’. There is a particular elegance, or, in a term I (pretentiously) like to use, grace, that comes from being able tor represent a complex concept in its purest form. At least, in theory.

Often what we’re actually doing is replacing one complexity with another. Dinner is a time for family; your car is your safe place; dirty clothes mean clean living. These are, inarguably, simple ideas - but they’re also, in their own ways, deeply complex. Often the task is about finding the most appealing parallel complexity. Clean clothes are boring; muddy kids are interesting. Cars are expensive and functional; safety is priceless and emotional. Dinner is stressful; family is rewarding.

Of course, family is also stressful, safety is functional, and muddy kids can be boring. But by swapping complexities, we bring a new perspective into the mix. It gives us a different angle, and different set of (new, attractive, interesting) challenges, and, perhaps, inspirational approaches.

Diagrams allow us to change perspectives. The act of taking a challenge, situation, or context and moving it around graphically allows us to get a different view on a challenge. By shifting to a new metaphor, you see things in a new way.

I would say that there are two predominant approaches to the diagram. One regards them more as servants or tools to explain complexity, as you said, and another regards them as kind of more free radicals that don't serve to transmit logic but are more anarchic structures that destabilise the conundrum of the status quo. So, that is where their diagrammatic logic that can create chaos starts to operate. And by doing so, they allow these inter-spaces or in-between spaces to emerge.

Diagrams are not neutral.

Every diagram contains a set of assumptions around how the world works. If you’re thinking in a pyramid, you’re assuming a hierarchy. If you’re setting out your problem as a funnel, you’re thinking in terms of relative value (positive or negative). Anything that's sequential assumes causality. These aren’t bad assumptions, but they’re often unchallenged. They are graphics that have biases; charts that are intrinsically ideological. SmartArt selection as an ideological buffet.

I have, because I am the most awkward human being on the planet, a tattoo of a Venn diagram. It is deeply nerdy, but it is also a statement of philosophical intent. I like to see where things overlap, and where ideas bleed into one another. By seeing things diagrammatically, and through this particular diagram, a Venn diagram represents a worldview based on seeking out what we have in common, not what divides us. It is a diagram that is intrinsically optimistic: the graphical belief that any two approaches, no matter how distinct, can find something they share.

Naff, but, hey. It is my skin, and I’ll diagram it however I want.

What I’m reading (screen edition):

What I’m reading (book edition):

  • The Big Book of Science Fiction reread hits Octavia Butler, Bruce Sterling, and multiple stories about how coercive bug sex will save humanity. (It was a weird week.) I’ve really enjoyed the pacing, and my regular dose of very strange fiction.

  • Lucy Score’s Things We Never Got Over has left me feeling a uncomfortable. Knox is the cranky, beardy small-town millionaire. Naomi is the big city girl on the run from a shit relationship. It is, like the others I’ve read by the author, very fun, very sweet, and, page-by-page, very enjoyable. The romance vibe is that she takes care of everyone else, and now needs someone to take care of her. Which is all… ok… except that a) Knox does things for her without consent (and often actively against her wishes) and b) Know doesn’t do these things for anyone else. The accidental message is not only that ‘he knows best, and she should just go with’, but also that he’s only doing this because he’s sexually attracted to her. If he didn’t have instalust, he wouldn’t have bothered. Add in your typical romance novel alpha bullshit, and it starts getting really uncomfortable. In the opening chapters, for example, Knox gets angry when someone grabs Naomi’s arm (they are not together at the time, she handles it herself; he declares that he’ll pummel anyone that ever touches her again). In the closing chapters, during the 80% break-up, he literally picks her up (against her will) and carries her, struggling, out of the room. But this is, according to the context and theme of the book, ‘ok’. Because Knox knows what’s best for Naomi. In conclusion: icky.

  • On the other end of the spectrum, Hannah Reynolds’ Eight Nights of Flirting is a YA romance about high-schooler Shira and her (former) crush Tyler. Tyler broke Shira’s heart when they were even younger, but now she’s turning to him for ‘flirting lessons’ so she can finally land the boyfriend of her dreams. Spoiler! Tyler is the boyfriend of her dreams! ZOMG. It is mega-cute, and very holiday romance, complete with quirky family and hijinks! a-plenty. Shira is hilariously-then-painfully oblivious of the carnage she is wreaking on Tyler, and her plot-forced naivete is actually quite cruel. She’s also the most hilariously privileged character I may have ever read in a romance novel (and I’ve read Sarah Dessen!): heiress to a Fox-like media empire, rich, beautiful, talented, and - of course - deeply insecure. If only she could believe that she’s as beautiful and talented as everyone tells her she is! There’s an absolutely irony-free side-plot around nepotism, with it presented as a unexamined and positive thing. This is amusingly … shaded… (not balanced) by the hilariously uber-progressive characters. Sure, this is Nantucket Old Money with a family that’s lived in this island mansion for centuries, but they’re Jewish! And the other Nantucket Old Money families are GAY and ASIAN. Anyway, very cute, and actually kind of a throwback to a more frivolous and unexamined school of YA fiction.

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