Using Diagrams

Today I’d like to share a fantastic technique I’ve been using for some time now. This technique works great whether your aim is to increase your understanding and memory of a particular subject (say for studying a course). The technique can also be useful when creating complicated plans that don’t easily form concrete steps. Finally this technique works great when you need to brainstorm ideas.

The technique I am talking about is making use of visual diagrams. Using visual representations of information can take a fairly complex or abstract idea and make it concrete and tangible. Writing and meditating can be great to solve personal problems, but often a diagram can express relationships that a few sentences or linear conscious thought cannot.

The human brain is designed to reason through relationships. A picture is two dimensional and can communicate relationships much more efficiently than many other methods. By making a picture you can quickly identify the connection between various ideas and facts.

The power of using diagrams lies in its ease. All it takes is a notepad and a pen. No complex software or difficult approach is necessary. Just write out ideas and draw out the connections they make with each other.

Using Diagrams To Study

The best material to study for using diagrams are when you need to understand either a process or a set of relationships. Remembering how the brain transfers visual information from the eyes to the thalamus to the different parts of the cortex could be aided with a diagram. Similarly putting together a whole host of different historical figures into the proper context also helps.

Diagrams aren’t universally good for studying. Math equations or sets of unrelated facts don’t work as well in a diagram. But if there is ever a large set of ideas that are interrelated then visualizing that information can work wonders to improve your understanding.

Although creating a diagram is a pretty straightforward process, if you haven’t ever done so start by writing down the main idea in the center of the page. From this idea draw lines connecting it to related ideas. You may even want to label how they are related based on your arrows and lines.

For you diagramming masters, try setting up your diagram to express more information. Drawing a diagram of philosophers in history by their interrelation of ideas is helpful, but it would be even more helpful if the position they were located on the page corresponded to their time in history.

Since it is finals time for many a student (myself included), hopefully this can come in handy for those exams you are getting ready to write.

Don’t forget that this can also be used if you have an idea that you want to express but can’t put it into words. I recently tacked up a complex diagram of the process of personal growth I made a few days ago. There are about a hundred words relating the overall spiraling process along with the tools and barriers for each stage. If you ever had a problem that you wanted to completely understand, try a visual representation.

Here is a more basic version of that diagram I made on my computer:

Process of growth

Diagrams for Planning

I used diagrams extensively when I was planning out the stages of longer projects and goals I had. Although a simple to-do list can work well when a project is progressed in a linear fashion, a more elaborate diagram can work better for more complicated tasks. It can illustrate all the possible courses of action and make it easier to decide what to do next at any stage.

Silly Planning Diagram

Using diagrams for planning can be especially helpful if there are multiple people and delegation of tasks involved. Team projects and strategies can be represented in a diagram far more efficiently and immediately communicate understanding to the rest of the group.

Brainstorming with Pictures

I have come across various brainstorming/mindstorming activities in my research into creativity. One of my favorites is to simply create a picture of ideas and link them together. Using this picture you can then mix and match ideas you previously thought were unrelated to create completely new ideas.

Starting with a central idea and expanding outwards with related ideas is the first place to start. Following this by looking for potential connections between completely different elements can spawn new ideas.

If I wanted to use this technique to come up with a blog entry I might start with a very generic center image like growth and then expand outwards with more specific ideas like emotional states, frustration, discipline, relationships, health, finances, etc. This process itself may create new ideas but by finding unseen links in ideas that weren’t connected at all, the true power of this technique shows through.

Try adding diagrams to your arsenal of understanding, planning and creativity tools. Even if you are perfectly happy with your lists, journal entries or planning lists, try a more visual approach and see if you find it effective. Although no technique can be perfect, there are many times when this tool works wonders.


  • http://www.drorengel.com/blog Dror Engel

    Hi Scott,
    I would be more than happy to get some examples of you translate ideas into diagrams for specific issues like course study, todo planner
    also Please provide some links to good resources about this topic

    Keep on the good work!
    thank you
    Dror.

  • http://www.scotthyoung.com Scott Young

    Dror,

    Each diagram will vary a lot. To-Do lists often work better simply as lists, but more complex projects where there are multiple courses of action or multiple people involved, diagrams can work better. For studying start with just a simple idea and start connecting it to related ideas with arrows.

    Although I certainly won’t take personal credit for this idea, I didn’t really stumble upon a specific resource that taught me this, so I have nowhere to point you. Try a google search.

    -Scott

  • pablo

    Hello Dror,

    This technique is known as mind mapping. You can find more information on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind_map

    free software: http://freemind.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Main_Page

    commercial software:
    http://www.mindjet.com/

    Buena energia

  • Susan Swing

    Scott,
    What software did you use to create the diagrams in the blog? I totally agree with the premise. Thanks, SS

  • http://www.scotthyoung.com Scott Young

    Susan,

    I used the GIMP (http://www.gimp.org/) which is a freeware image editing program. It is good for making quality looking diagrams and pictures (such as for this blog). But it is exceedingly time consuming for hasty diagramming that I discussed in this entry.

    I haven’t tried that much software because I find there really isn’t much way for you to diagram faster than you can with pencil and paper. Perhaps if you wanted more polished images for later reference then software would be a good fit, but I’m staying low-tech.

  • http://www.judyofthewoods.net/slip1.html judyofthewoods

    One of the things that used to hold me back from diagramming was lack of confidence about where to place the individual components, especially as I prefer to work on paper. Using a flexible tool helps a lot in overcomming that resistance. Over at Flickr you can see some examples of how I use small slips of paper and small pictures to build up more complex diagrams. The linked example is a relationship diagram about all my major projects, which changed quite a lot from its original layout before I glued the slips into place. I have become a convert, though there are still plenty of times when lists are more expedient, but I also often build up my lists with slips.

  • http://www.scotthyoung.com Scott Young

    That’s a great example, Judy. Good luck with your diagramming.

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  • Raphael

    hi Scott. im 16 and i am fascinated by your “Holistic learning” process, along with other ones also.
    i already read halfway through your book, but i just dont know where to start. Like do you have a better suggestion for me. Please write to me at my email. thanks and keep up the great work!

  • http://zencontrol.net zencontrol.net

    I used to use mind-maps in exams and m still using them

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  • Deepak (India)

    Hi Scott,

    I have been thru to your blog and it is great on Holistic approach but i m a lawyer (just started) and in order to remeber sections, their minute details and fact i take many pains but still feel to be hitting against a wall and as u told that we must make connection to the things we alreay know, but in daily life i m not able to make connections with laws. can u help and if possible plz provide me with any example of a diagram related to any complex matter, which diagram makes easy to understand and remember.

    Thanks.

  • http://www.scotthyoung.com Scott Young

    Deepak,

    The connections don’t need to be wild. Just ask yourself questions such as, “what does this remind me of?”, “how would I explain this to a 10-year old?” etc. These triggering questions can usually help you come up with something. It doesn’t need to be perfect, just a connection.

    -Scott

  • Deepak(India)

    Thank U Scott for providing me with ur precious time in replying, i m enthusiastic about it and will try to implement it.

    Many Thanks

    Deepak chhabra

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  • Rohitha

    Really cool post, Scott. Just thought I would share with you and the rest of your readers that one of the tools that helped me is creately.com when it comes to drawings diagrams. Not only have I used it to facilitate my learning but also to sell my ideas to clients. Loved the article! :-)

  • Henrik

    Hi there Scott! I guess you’ve read the NYT article regarding the experiment done at Purdue University last year? If not, it’s quite an interesting read especially in regard to doing visualisations when learning. It would seem as it is a good thing to do if you’re doing it from memory (to make sense of things) but not if you’re copying from a textbook to make it EASIER to learn. The latter doesn’t work according to the study since the brain just thinks “hey that’s easy! now I don’t even have to remember it!”
    Any your thoughts on the article?
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/21/science/21memory.html?_r=4

  • Nick

    Scott I really have to ask. I’m trying to apply your holistic learning to my AP World history class, I’m in high school. You said to create constructs of abstract ideas and link them to other ideas, atleast I think that’s what you said. How do I retain all this raw information about wars and people? Do I make a diagram map of all the information and connect it to other related topics?

  • Dr Praveen

    Hi Scott
    I am a doctor and need a lot of studying. And lot of cramming new data. Mainly surgical topics. I find map too cumbersome and never helped me.do you have any suggestions for me?

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  • Tiago

    Mindomo is a nice app that can be synced to the cloud: http://www.mindomo.com. Scott, you keep being my role model when the topic is learning. Thank you for all your generosity.