Cavemen Drawings to Board Rooms: The Power of the Diagram


Many people know the instant confusion that sets in when you visit a new country and can't speak the language. But even if you can't read the signs posted around the airport, there are a few symbols you can instantly recognize. If you're hungry you may find yourself gravitating towards this symbol.

Or if you need the restroom, this symbol is your saviour.

Even though these are very simple diagrams, they're powerful.

Despite language barriers or cultural differences, a simple diagram can help express what you mean without the need for words. From the beginning of time, diagrams and drawings have been a universally powerful method of communication.

Diagrams have gone through an interesting journey to become the digital versions that we can create with software today. In this article we'll take a look at how diagrams in their current form have evolved. We'll talk about what they've helped people accomplish, and why they're the cleanest way to present ideas.


A Picture Has Always Been Worth a Thousand Words

Before we can talk about how diagrams are used today, we need to take a look at how diagrams have evolved throughout history. As diagrams changed, so did visual thinking; evolving interpretations gave way to increasingly different uses for diagrams.

Chauvet Cave Paintings were Some of the First Recordings of Diagrams

The Chauvet Cave in southern France contains some of the oldest and best preserved figurative cave paintings in the world.

These paintings from 30,000 BC depict a range of wild animals including what resembles modern day horses, lions and bears. Experts believe, these drawings were used to show young males in the community the types of animals they may encounter and would likely hunt.

[Source: Brain Pickings]

No matter who drew them or when, images are universally recognized. These cave drawings represent ancient information which has withstood the test of space, language barriers and time.

Astrological Diagrams Transcend Language Barriers

Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, an Iranian scholar and polymath from Khwarezm, (which has since been split into modern day Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan), is regarded by many as one of the greatest scholars of the medieval Islamic era.

In 1019 he published his Kitab al-Tafhim (Book of Instruction on the Principles of the Art of Astrology), where he included a figure depicting the different phases of the moon and a lunar eclipse.

[Source: Brain Pickings]

Even if we hadn't spelled out what the figure above shows, it's very likely that you would've been able to figure it out simply by looking at the diagram. While we can't read any of the original Persian or Arabic surrounding the diagram, we can figure out that the circle on the right represents the sun and the circles on the left represent the different lunar phases.

Tree Diagrams Have Been a Fad for Centuries

With the current craze of BuzzFeed and flowchart quizzes, it may seem like infographics have just blown up recently.

But in actuality, there's a 12th century precedent for the popularity of tree diagrams. From as early as 800-900 years ago, tree diagrams have been used to track things like genealogy.

[Source: Wired]

What's interesting is that while Big Data is a hot word today, according to Wired, the Middle Ages were the original age of Big Data. Scholars needed to find ways to process the flood of information coming from the ancient world-Greece and Rome into Medieval Europe in the 12th century. Inspired by nature, they created tree diagrams as a way to organize a lot of information.

Raymond Llull, a thirteenth-century Spanish philosopher, started incorporating tree representations in his work. In 1296 he published Arbor scientiae, a collection of tree-based diagrams depicting scientific and general other knowledge.

Centuries later, the tree model became more and more abstract and evolved into complex organization charts like those seen in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, in 1859.

[Source: Phys. org]

Economics Introduced Graphs as We Know Them Today

Charts and graphs as we see them today were first introduced by William Playfair, a political economist, in 1759 during the Enlightenment. He wanted to find a way to present mass amounts of data to a large audience. He began to publish many different graphs including this chart of the national debt of England.

[Source: Seeing Complexity]

At the time, his innovation in data presentation failed to land. He was accused of fabricating his data because there wasn't a clear table spelling out every one of his data points. While it took a while for his method to catch on, it has strongly influenced how we use graphs to present data today.


Interpretation Plays an Important Role in Understanding

Of course, it's important to note that not all diagrams are as straightforward as they might seem. When you look at the picture below, what is your first impression?

[Source: Words, Lines, Diagrams, Images: Towards a History of Scientific Imagery]

It seems like an etching of a knight defending a girl from a growing fire, right? But in reality, it was meant to be a personification of the volatile ancient Roman god Mercury. In a paper titled “Words, Lines, Diagrams, Images: Towards a History of Scientific Imagery” by Christoph Lüthy & Alexis Smets, the picture is described like this:

To those acquainted with this particular mercurial personification, [this figure] may indeed have illustrated the limited resistance of this metal to the action of fire. Similarly, the knight would have alluded to the fact that when allied with another substance, mercury could avoid evaporation in the face of fire.

The figure shows that mercury (the woman) would quickly evaporate in the fire, but when combined with another substance (the knight), has more staying power.

But to those without the relevant background knowledge or contextual evidence, there is no way to have reached that interpretation.

Let's look at another example. These four diagrams may seem morphologically similar, but actually describe four completely different ideas.

[Source: Words, Lines, Diagrams, Images: Towards a History of Scientific Imagery]

Described in the paper (from left to right):

  • The first figure demonstrates the perfection of the number '6' and of the circle.
  • The second explains the numeric logic of the six days of creation.
  • The third shows us 7 worlds touching.
  • The fourth documents how atoms aggregate to form larger globules.

This example shows how easy it is to misconstrue seemingly obvious diagrams without the right context.


Diagrams Can (Hopefully) Transcend Even the Largest of Barriers

Diagrams can transcend language and cultural barriers. But in 1972, an effort to bridge the largest communication barrier possible: that between humans and aliens, put the power of diagrams to the test.

Carl Sagan, astronomer and author best known for his scientific contributions in research on extraterrestrial life spearheaded the project to add a plaque to the Pioneer 10 spacecraft. The intention here was to provide information about humanity to anyone in space who might find the Pioneer 10, without the need for human language.

[Source: Planetary]

Working with a few team members, Sagan designed the above plaque to provide details of:

  • Earth's location in the solar system
  • The scale of the human body
  • The trajectory of the spacecraft

All in pictoral form.

The ability of Sagan and his team to portray such fundamental information in such simplified terms shows how diagrams, when designed correctly, can communicate a lot of information in just six-by nine-inches.


Adapting Diagrams for the Modern Workplace

While scrutinized during the Enlightenment, the types of diagrams Playfair used are everywhere today. These days, we have countless diagram types and design tools at our disposal for presenting information. Open up just about any design software. You'll see a range of templates to spark inspiration and help you find the best format to organize information.

But people are still not using diagrams to their full capacity. Ideas that can easily be shown are often instead described in long, confusing paragraphs, making for messy, painful presentations.

Imagine trying to walk your marketing team through the content marketing conversion funnel. You want to show them the steps it takes to successfully use content marketing to bring in and convert new leads. So you write this up:

The Content Marketing Conversion Funnel consists of three steps. Follow them to refine the number of leads until you're left with high quality people who are mostly likely to convert.

1. The first step is to find and understand your new audience. This means publishing blog posts and sending out email content, which attracts potential new leads and allows you to move to the next step.

2. The next step is to educate potential leads. Now that you've peaked your reader's interest, you need to really show them what your product can do. That means sending out whitepapers and holding webinars to give an in-depth look at your company.

3. The final step is to convert leads with a call-to-action. This is the real moment of truth. Well-designed product pages convince leads that your product is right for them and get them to convert.


Let's see that in diagram form:

This diagram presents the same information as above, but with a few key benefits:

  • It's much cleaner and easier on the eyes.
  • It will keep your audience's focus during a presentation by minimizing the amount of words they have to read.
  • It utilizes colors and arrows to draw focus to certain areas.

Using diagrams effectively will make your presentations memorable and easy-to-digest.


Diagrams, a Tried and True Solution

Since 30,000 BC people have been turning to diagrams to convey information in a way that words simply can't. Though the types of diagrams have grown and evolved over time, there's no way to deny how powerful they are.

Let's take a page from the book of our predecessors and make sure we're communicating our most important ideas clearly and succinctly. Using diagrams in the workplace can help present any idea, no matter how complicated, in a way that anyone can understand.