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Diagrams Can Have Much More Value Than Documentation

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A video of the famed graphic designer Milton Glaser was floating around the web. The title and the topic were powerful: “Drawing is Thinking.”

The full clip is less than five minutes. Here is the direct link.

Glaser may not be well known outside artistic and design circles, but he is famous for the “I ‘heart’ New York” logo and several renown posters, logos and other creations. But it’s his commentary in this brief lecture that is most profound:

For me drawing has always been the most fundamental way of engaging the world. I’m convinced that it is only through drawing that I actually look at things carefully. The act of drawing makes me conscious of what I am looking at. If I wasn’t drawing, I get the sense that I wouldn’t be seeing.

This is good advice for anyone interested in art, but also for someone pursuing business process improvement. The single biggest factor in changing workflow and productivity is to favor diagrams over documentation. Writing down a sequence of steps or a plan of action is helpful. But unlike written documentation, pictures tend to communicate action and fluidity rather than rules and rigidity.

A study from Washington University further expanded on the benefits of  diagrams.

The study, by Mark A. McDaniel, a professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, and graduate student Dung C. Bui, found that college students who had visual aids given to them before a science lecture were better able to understand and remember the lecture, but illustrative diagrams helped more than outlines.

“Participants given illustrative diagrams likely engaged in deeper levels of processing while listening to the lecture,” the authors conclude.

Previous research has highlighted the benefits of note-taking for students, finding that students better retain information when writing it down. (And there have been subsequent studies about writing vs. typing notes.) But not all note-taking is made equal, leading researchers to question what cognitive processes involved in notetaking lead to better performance.

The McDaniel-Bui study, released online earlier this spring, included 144 undergraduate students.Participants listened to a 12-minute lecture about car brakes and pumps. Except for those in the control group, students got either outlines or illustrative diagrams. They were then tested to see what information they recalled and whether they understood it.

While the students who had any form of visual aid always did better than students in the control group, students with diagrams, on average, outperformed students with only outlines.

There are countless other studies online that highlight the ways that diagrams can improve comprehension. If topics are more complex, then maybe a longer, written form could be useful, but it’s always good to start with breaking down things to their most basic level in a visual way. Between the increased understanding, and the more casual tone, there’s really no reason not to bring this ideology into your daily workflow.

improving worker productivity

© Flickr user Victor1558

Whether you are trying to prepare for a new year, plotting organizational productivity, or understand the spread of disease and its effectiveness on worker productivity, pictures have power. According to Milton Glaser, perhaps the reason people are afraid of making sketches is based on an unfounded fear:

Curiously, people think that the difficulty of drawing is making things look accurate. But, accuracy is the least significant part of drawing.

Don’t be afraid to draw pictures because they won’t be flawless. Perfect is the enemy of good. An informal picture can be changed, improved, and understood by anyone. If you’re ready to learn how to diagram what you do, contact our consultants at AccelaWork. We help organizations put pen to paper and draw the future of their business.

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