If you’re anything like me, when you reach a complicated concept, or a convoluted process, you need someone to draw out what it is they want you to understand.

My father is this wildly creative genius, but quite often, I’ve got no idea what he’s trying to explain to me. That is, until he picks up a pen. What happens then feels like magic. He starts drawing at the beginning of the process, and continues towards the end. When I don’t understand something, I point my finger at the icon he’s created and between us we work out where the confusion rests.

Once upon a time…

Don’t those words settle you. Don’t they tell you that here is a beginning and something new is going to follow.

This idea of course is nothing new. When I first considered writing this paragraph, I thought, no, you can’t just reiterate that same wise advice that everyone already knows. But perhaps the reason I have heard this advice so often is that I worked in marketing. In marketing people are desperate to understand why some people connect with a product and service, and other people don’t. Even more, they want to know how to make potential customers connect with their product or service.

And the advice: tell a story.

But I’m not telling a story, I’m drawing a diagram!

Perhaps true. A diagram is just a pictorial representation of something. It might be something’s appearance, structure or how it works. In a simple diagram, this is enough. But as diagrams get more complex they become harder for the reader to recall.

Which brings us back to story. Because story gives the person looking at your diagram a context that allows them to attach it into their own personal narrative, and so store it in their memory. It’s not really all that surprising that in Benedict Carey’s book How We Learn the first chapter is called ‘The Story Maker’.

In a way, the brain’s modules are like specialists in a movie production crew. The cinematographer is framing shots, zooming in tight, dropping back, stockpiling footage. The sound engineer is recording, fiddling with volume, filtering background noise. There are editors and writers, a graphics person, a prop stylist, a composer working to supply tone, feeling – the emotional content […] And there’s a director, deciding which pieces go where, braiding all these elements together to tell a story that holds up. Not just any story, of course, but the one that best explains the ‘material’ pouring through the senses.

Benedict Carey, How We Learn

If new information doesn’t snuggle up comfortably with the story that’s already in our heads, then we reject it. So even if your diagram isn’t explicitly a story, you still need to be aware of how it fits within a story, and what that story looks like to your audience.

Waste less time, think before you act


View diagram as PDF

So now you know the questions, how do you go about answering them?

Who sits in your front row?

target audience

Who are you talking to?

If you’re speaking to a four-year-old, it’s helpful to crouch down to be their height.

If your idea is going to fit with your audience’s worldview, you probably need to know what that worldview looks like. It doesn’t matter whether your idea feels more academic, homely or salesy. The problem you solve for your reader has a context that depends on them and their perspectives.

An uncomfortable baby to birth

It’s not easy wrapping together story and audience.

The simplest example is to follow a narrative around one specific character who is effected by the process illustrated by the diagram. You can see how this is achieved in a diagram on European health standards. However, this character needn’t be a person. It could be a service or object. It could be the story of the birth of a coffee table.

Beginning: You are faced with many pieces

Middle: But by following the step by step construction

End: You manage to complete the building of a shiny new coffee table

The protagonist is the reader. The pictures are the mentor. The conflict is many pieces needing constructing.

Which may all seem like common sense. But imagine if the coffee table was presented as one picture, not a series of steps – like a puzzle that you had to work out for yourself. Or if the steps were not in chronological order. Or if a piece was missing. Or if there was no final picture of the coffee table. Or if you weren’t provided with a list of all the pieces you should have.

So where to begin?

Begin in your reader’s worry

Confused stick figure

What would your reader’s boggart be?

[Singular reader, because it’s much easier to imagine one face that you’re talking to than a thousand.]

… what problem is it that your audience need to solve?

Why a problem and not a solution?

The BBC this morning tells me that that local authorities are cutting services (and raising taxes), some politicians are arguing, armies are advancing, tube drivers are considering striking, people are dying from starvation and there’s an investigation into sexism.

What the BBC knows is that you’re going to give much more attention to problems than solutions. In psychology, this is called negativity bias.

Nobody likes the manipulator

However… scaring people isn’t nice. While in the short term it might be an effective way in which to get attention, in the long run, it’s not going to make you any friends.

… a man asked me afterwards: “What did you want to get out of him?”

What was I trying to get out of him!!! What was I trying to get out of him!!!

If we are so contemptibly selfish that we can’t radiate a little happiness and pass on a bit of honest appreciation without trying to get something out of the other person in return – if our souls are no bigger than sour crab apples, we shall meet with the failure we so richly deserve.

Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

I love this quote, with its six exclamation marks to demonstrate Mr Carnegie’s indignation that being nice requires a purpose.

So, let’s nicely tackle that problem your reader has, and make it a win-win end result.

End in that big breath before the action

Where the chest is full and the muscles tensed.

Because this is where you want your reader to be at the end of the story. Ready to act. Maybe it’s as simple as ready to build their coffee table. Or maybe it’s someone being able to begin their own research. Or maybe it’s a purchase that needs to be made.

You want your reader to be ready for the next step.

Problem to action: The process

How to make a cup of tea

Put the kettle on.

I once tried, and failed, to teach an Egyptian man to make me a proper cup of tea. I forgot to tell him to use water.

Can you give a step by step set of instructions on how to make the perfect cup of tea?

Or, a simpler version which I’ve done with children who are too young for boiling kettles, step by step instructions on how to wash your hands?

You’d be amazed how many people can’t. Their instructions would have us boil an empty kettle or leave the tap running. And this is exactly what a lot of diagrams do with their readers. They lose them because the assume too much knowledge. Knowledge which if you know the process from having done it before, seems intuitive. You might have knowledge, but your diagram isn’t for you, is it?

Intuition is drawn from experience. My grandmother didn’t know what a floppy disc is. Therefore, when asked to describe the ‘save’ icon in Microsoft Word she struggled and eventually told me it looked like a television. A television for saving makes no sense, but it’s what my grandmother sees. No wonder she forgets how to save her work.

As with almost everything in communication (and diagrams are just another form of communication) it comes down to knowing where your reader is, what they’re thinking.

Draw out the pattern of steps, the scenes in the story you need to tell, and then go test them. Make someone boil that empty kettle, forget to remove the teaspoon from the cup and leave the fridge door wide open. Test your steps and make sure your reader gets all the way from beginning to end.

How to go about drawing the journey

Structure Doodle

What’s your structure?

If you’re wondering how to structure your diagram, then a good starting point is to look at the familiar shapes of common diagrams. There’s a huge benefit that comes from using well-known structures, or playing on well-known ideas.

Familiarity makes a diagram easy to digest.

For those of us who read top to bottom, left to write, it’s also easier to keep to the way of reading.

To add a sense of chronology we like to see arrows, numbers or some other representation of time passing.

Perhaps you’ve got some imagery that reinforces your message?

  • Footprints / pawprints
  • Breadcrumbs (Hansel and Gretel)
  • Rising and falling sun
  • Clock hands
  • The trail of a piece of string (Hollow Tree House by Enid Blyton)
  • Seasons (Unless your audience lives on the equator)
  • Stages of maturity or evolution
  • Progress bar
  • Road or footpath
  • The 7 colours of the rainbow (only 5 if you’re Chinese)

Clean not murky

Magnifying glass doodle

If a magnifying glass is required, you’re going wrong somewhere.

Don’t trip up at the finish. Your diagram isn’t worth anything if it’s not clean to look at.

We’ve got tired eyes, they’ve been staring at the computer screen for hours. There’s a bombardment of information, glitzy graphics and shiny objects. Loud noises, humming fans and an ache in our muscles from sitting too long.

Make sure your design helps, not hinders.

A quick check list for clarity:

  • The words are readable
  • You have proofread
  • The pictures aren’t pixelated
  • You have consistency of perspective and style
  • There’s no clutter
  • Every use of colour has a purpose
  • You’ve not left space for ambiguity by forgetting labels
  • The title says what the diagram does
  • (And, although irrelevant to most, the scientist in me screams, “UNITS!”)

Ready to draw?

So where are you going to begin?

With the problem. With the audience. And with knowing what you want them to do after reading.

Once you know these three things, you can start to work out how you’re going to say what you want to say.

And once you’ve said it. You can test that it has the right effect.