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Book review: Diagrams: Innovative Solutions for Graphic Designers

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2011. Book review: Diagrams: Innovative Solutions for Graphic Designers. Technical Communication 58(1):79–80.

Knight, C.; Glaser, J. 2009. Diagrams: Innovative Solutions for Graphic Designers. Rotovision, Mies, Switzerland. [ISBN 978-2-88893-061-7. 223 pages, including index and CD-ROM. US$40.00 (softcover).]

Knight and Glaser present a visual buffet by the world’s designers to stimulate your creative juices. In this high-quality, colorful book, printed on thick and luscious paper, they mostly succeed.

Several excellent diagrams combine both visual interest and successful communication. A Nike ad cleverly compares the features of different shoes. Maps of England and attendees at cultural events attractively and clearly present variations in cultural investment and interest, respectively, by region; other maps clearly and elegantly help you discover where you are and where you’re going. Peter Grundy provides superb infographics that make data accessible while remaining playfully and visually interesting. A board game lets the public playfully offer their opinions on how to design future Olympic facilities, and “radiation” diagrams dramatize the unpleasant side effects of pig farming.

Two faulty assumptions, however, weaken the book. The authors consider text boringly ineffective: “[Diagrams are] not only more easily understood, but are also more interesting and enjoyable to read than text alone.” Say what? Further, they make the assumption that designers “can generally rely on readers wanting to understand the information being presented to them” (p. 4) and rely on this assumption to justify complex designs. These assumptions lead to three flaws.

First, most technical communicators know that few audiences will accept complexity; they want messages delivered quickly and efficiently. This misunderstanding of audiences informs poor design choices such as using miniscule sans serif type even where there’s plenty of room for more readable text, and reproducing many images too small for the details to be comprehensible. Many are not in English, exacerbating the comprehension problem.

Second, the book generally fails to discuss design principles, objectives, and how to reconcile them to meet audiences’ needs. As a result, it won’t teach you how to analyze graphics problems, identify the visual challenges that arise from audience characteristics, or bridge the gap between designer and audience. If you persevere and find diagrams in the category of problem you’re trying to solve, you’ll often find effective, visually interesting solutions. But this takes more effort than should be required.

The third flaw is that the authors relied on submissions from designers rather than seeking out excellent diagrams that illustrated key visual communication strategies. This means you won’t (for example) see three excellent maps presented side by side to compare and contrast and reveal what works. You won’t find contributions by luminaries such as Edward Tufte, Richard Saul Wurman, or John McWade—designers who understand both aesthetics and the need to acknowledge their audience's needs.

If you’re seeking a coffee table book with a breadth of innovative graphical thought, Diagrams is a good choice. But if you want someone to teach you how to create effective diagrams and how to seek a balance between visuals that will be gazed at and visuals that will be used, McWade’s Before and After (Peachpit Press, 2005; reviewed in the May 2006 issue of Technical Communication) is a superior choice.

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