Reading diagrams is an equally useful skill to that of drawing diagrams. Not only does it help you understand what other people are trying to convey, it also helps you be critical of the diagrams you draw yourself. In some cases diagrams are used to make the text look pretty or appealing and do not add to the understanding of the reader (hopefully not the case with the diagrams here!).
Even when they are used more effectively there is a need to be critical of what information is being conveyed. One approach I have used is to ask myself a series of questions (as with analyzing text, the choice of approach depends upon both the situation and your preferred style of working).
The first set of questions is straightforward and relates to the features of the diagram that are present:
• Is there a reference or an explanation of the diagram in the accompanying text?
• Is there a title or legend explaining what type of diagram it is and/or what the diagram is trying to represent?
• Are there labels on features shown in the diagram?
• What are the size and scale of the objects?
• Is there a key explaining the particular use of symbols in the diagram, e.g. what the lines/arrows and boxes/blobs represent?
• Is there an acknowledgement indicating where the diagram may be taken from?
The first thing that I noticed in tackling this activity was that two of the broad categories I listed earlier in the course are represented: a non-pictorial, conceptual and a partly pictorial, schematic diagram respectively.
The second thing is that both of the diagrams use a mix of words and lines. There are titles but no key, and since they have been taken from elsewhere I do not know if they were mentioned and/or discussed in the accompanying text. Despite this, does this initial analysis help us ‘read’ the diagram and extract the relevant ideas the ‘author’ wished to convey?
With each of these diagrams and others we are trying to read there is another set of more searching questions we can ask:
• What is the purpose of the diagram, i.e. what is it aiming to tell us?
• How is the information imparted?
• What assumptions does it make about our ability to understand it?
• What are we expected to remember from it?
• How successful is it in doing all of the above?
Look at the diagrams again and apply these questions to them. You may find this activity difficult until you have worked through more of this module but have a go now and come back to it again when you have completed the module.
My response to Figure 8
Purpose: The purpose is summed up by the caption or title (which should be a major function of the title). With no other indications we do not know if this is someone's summary notes for helping to write a paper or give a talk or what someone has produced after reading a book on the subject.
How imparted: The information is imparted in a clear manner through the use of words and interconnecting lines radiating from the original topic.
Assumptions: That these are notes, but whose notes is not clear.
Remember: That there are a lot of topics and activities relevant to a high-technology area such as mobile telephony and that these include social, legal and economic ones as well as the technological ones.
How successful: This diagram does successfully convey the message that there are many aspects to mobile telephony that need to be considered, but without knowing its purpose precisely it is hard to know how successful it has been in achieving that purpose.
My response to Figure 9
Purpose: To show that signals can take more than one path to a receiving mobile telephone and that these vary in length. The significance of this is not clear from the diagram and its caption alone and may have been mentioned in the accompanying text.
How imparted: The information is imparted through a mixture of realistic pictures and lines with arrows to indicate the paths of a mobile telephone signal.
Assumptions: That the length of the arrows is representative of the lengths of the signal's paths and that the mobile phone is being used in a moving car.
Remember: That mobile telephone signals take direct and indirect paths to the receiving phone.
Successful: This method of representation makes an immediate visual impact and gets the main message across quickly. The implicit message of the different lengths of signal path are less certain and does not say at all what the actual distances involved may be, nor the likely speed or position of the car and hence the phone.
I hope that this activity and my responses have made you think a bit harder about what diagrams are trying to communicate to you and how you can interpret them. This is not always easy. It can involve familiarity with the conventions.
It can involve moving between a diagram and some associated text. It can involve changing your ideas about a situation. It may require a different approach to the one I have used here. And sometimes, as with a difficult piece of text, you have to get what you can out of a diagram even if you have not fully grasped all its nuances. The best way of learning to read diagrams is to gain experience with a wide variety of diagrams over time so that you automatically question what they ‘say’ to you.
Diagrams can be helpful in:
• Understanding a situation;
• Analyzing a situation;
• Communicating with others about that analysis;
• Planning to deal with a situation, both logically and creatively; and
• Implementing, monitoring and evaluating those plans.
They are therefore used at different times and in different ways within the same investigation and many investigative methods involve these different phases.
Systems thinking is also about understanding situations for some purpose, usually to effect some changes. The key is that it does it by representing a chosen system of interest and that is often best done through diagrams.