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How Diagrams Solve Problems

Three common problems that trip up your creative process, and how diagrams will help you solve them

If you clicked on an article with a title like this, you probably like diagrams. Heck, everybody likes a good diagram. They’re clever, fun, and sometimes downright beautiful. But here’s what I want to convince you of: Diagrams aren’t just for looking at.

Diagrams are tools for making your ideas better.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re working on an app, a treehouse, or a term paper, and you certainly don’t have to consider yourself a designer. Diagrams are a thinking tool, and if you’re putting some heavy thought into something, I’m willing to bet that drawing a diagram will help you.

Here are three common problems that can trip up your creative process, and how diagrams can solve them.

The problem: You sort of know what you’re trying to do, but every time you put pen to paper, you end up with a question mark.

The diagram hack: Draw a word-map of everything you can think of, then sort, connect, and redraw until you start to find a pattern.

The good news is, a diagram can begin with next to nothing. Here’s what has to be in a diagram: any dang thing you want.

Start with an inventory of vocabulary words. List your constraints, problems, questions, functions, features — anything you can think of. Start to sort them. Draw lines between some of them. Redraw them on Post-It notes and then reorganize them. Try starting small, building backwards from a detail to the whole. Then try starting big.

Not there yet? Try to think of your diagram as a design medium. Not a precious, final product that has to communicate something, but a space for brainstorming. Think of your diagram as a sandbox to play in or a sketchpad to fill with chicken-scratch. Treat your diagram as a tool for spreading out your ideas and putting them back together in different ways. And then:

Redraw, edit, redraw.

It might look like the work of a raving lunatic, but at least you’re getting something on paper.

Here’s a example of the kind of diagrams I’m talking about, drawn (pun!) from your author’s own life as a product designer at Wistia.

Over the last few weeks, Jeff and I have been brainstorming a better way to communicate with users while they’re logged in. We had tons of ideas of how it could work and what we could use it for, and every time we talked about it we came up with more. This was quite a bit of fun, but when we tried to decide what ought to be built, there was quite a bit more on the table than either of us could wrap our minds around.

To help make sense of it all, I drew a very messy diagram whose only goal was to get everything that seemed important down on the page.

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Don’t even try to make sense of this.

Once it was all on paper, it was a little easier to sort things out. After editing and redrawing a few times and focusing on the different pieces and types of content we’d like to convey, a structure started to emerge.

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From Flying Spaghetti Monster to Cthulhu?

Drawing all the potential uses helped me see that they exist along a spectrum, from urgent help to casual messages. Looking at this diagram, it’s clear that one of the biggest challenges will be designing an element that can accommodate such a wide range of information.

Perhaps, then, the best place to start is right in the middle? After talking through this diagram, we decided to begin by focusing on the onboarding experience of the app, the introduction every new user sees the first time they log in. From there, we can see how far in either conceptual direction the interface can reach, and how (and whether) it should change to reach farther.

Of course, that’s only the next step in what will inevitably be a long journey. But that’s okay. Diagrams aren’t a silver bullet that will solve all your problems, they’re just clever little hacks that help you move forward, one step closer to your goal.

The problem: You’ve got the rough ideas in place, but they’re sloppy and poorly organized.

The diagram hack: Drawing your idea helps you address its structure with a different part of your brain, and see it from a new angle.

A successful metaphor exposes the core of an idea by honing it down to its sharpest form. Once it’s reduced to a single, piercing point, it can pivot out of its literal context and into a new language. The language of a diagram is a language of lines and shapes, where complex relationships are described with things like dashes and arrows. Translating your idea into this intuitive shape-language forces you to rebuild your idea from scratch and look at it from a new angle.

Seeing your idea from a new perspective can reveal connections and alignments you hadn’t noticed before, which is a very awesome thing. If discovering new patterns of reason in your own ideas doesn’t give you the warm and fuzzies, you should check your pulse.

Bad metaphors, on the other hand, can’t stand up to that kind of scrutiny because they don’t really represent the subtleties of your idea. These subtleties come out in the smallest graphical choices.Which words should be in boxes? And which should be in circles? And should this particular line be dashed? Maybe it should be an arrow? Or a different color, maybe?

Sophisticated questions like these are exactly how you’re going to refine your idea. What is the fundamental structure? How do its parts relate as a whole? Bad metaphors can’t tell you that. Drawing a good diagram, like coming up with a good metaphor, forces you to sort it out.

The problem: Just as you think your work is done, someone sends it all the way back to the drawing board.

The design hack: Using a diagram to gather feedback and explain your concept gives other people an opportunity to respond to your reasoning, apart from your final design.

This is the best diagram hack of all. The trick here is to use your diagram to communicate your assumptions and approach, not just your solution. Once the reasoning behind your design has been explained to your client or team, its execution (the design’s) can be evaluated objectively. Your diagram is a blueprint of your intentions, so the question won’t be whether your work is good or bad, but how well it lives up to its goals.

The kicker is, you get to define those goals! Securing buy-in on a diagram essentially means establishing the criteria by which your final work will be judged. If you can control that process, you can stack the deck in your favor.

What’s more, when you involve other people in this process you show that you respect their intelligence and value their opinion. Not only will they be more likely to feel invested in your success, their feedback can actually make your project better! No kidding.

Only after you’ve laid out the conceptual structure of your solution and brought everyone on board should you move on to wowing them with your awesome design skills. If they think the diagram made sense, they’re probably going to love the final product.

Here’s another bonus: Any feedback they have can be focused on the details, since the overall structure has already been decided. And if someone has an issue that sends the whole thing back to the drawing board, you can use the diagram to talk about the structure without getting distracted by the details. Very awesome, right? Diagrams at it again, saving the day.


Treat your diagrams as a design tool. They can help you break a bad case of writers’ block, clear up your thinking, and communicate your great idea. Best of all, when you lead with a diagram, you bring your audience along your line of thinking so that your final design is not just successful, it appears inevitable.

Written by

Full-time designer at Wistia, part-time homeschool math teacher, all-time best gas-station-squeegee windshield washer

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