Saturday, November 06, 2010

Visual Cliché in Architectural Discourse

@JohnCleese has made some great management training films, published by his company Video Arts. In the one I remember most vividly, he mocked the compulsive need for visual aids in corporate presentations by imagining what Hamlet's soliloquy would be like with slides. I just hope there isn't an excessively clever software engineer in the Powerpoint group at Microsoft working out a way to pick out the key words in a portion of text ("slings", "arrows") and paste in appropriate clipart automatically.

Architects are perhaps more fond than other people of the picture-tells-a-thousand-words principle, and some of them link this principle with what they call "right-brain" thinking, whatever that means. So surely we must be entitled to have high expectations of the power and clarity of diagrams in an architect's slide presentation?

Sadly, the visual language of architectural discourse, from enterprise to software, is surprisingly weak. Many diagrams look as if they may have started as meaningful sentences, but they have been transformed into diagrams by discarding most of the words and putting the remaining words into coloured shapes, arranged artistically on the page. This might give the audience something to stare at while the presenter is talking, but it's often difficult to see what such a diagram communicates over and above the words. There are some arrangements that I find particularly puzzling, and therefore distracting, because they hint vaguely at some logical or structural significance, and I am left wondering what exactly this diagram is trying to tell me.

The Venn Diagram

A popular graphic involves three words written in overlapping circles - for example "people", "process", "technology". Most people are familiar with the use of the Venn diagram in elementary set theory - this is nowadays taught in primary school. But in Powerpoint-ese, this graphic seems to mean either "here are three disparate things that might have to be considered together" or "here are three topics I'm going to talk about separately" and it's probably not worth trying to interpret the semantics of the diagram in terms of set theory.

If we compare a faux Venn diagram containing the words "people", "process", "technology" with a slide containing the same three words as bullet points, it is difficult to see how any additional meaning is conveyed by the diagram.

as if People Mattered

In order to show that architecture involves people, diagrams are decorated with little pictures of people that look as if they have been cut out of a magazine. Or even worse, the same set of cartoons we've seen hundreds of times before. The inclusion of these pictures seems to be little more than a token gesture to human-centred architecture, in the same way that corporate brochures often contain pictures of models (male and female) pretending to be office workers.

There is of course nothing wrong with including pictures of people in your presentation, but it becomes a cliché if the pictures are arbitrary or inauthentic, picked at random from a collection of clipart or stock photos. I've even seen presentations that were trying to tell a story involving different roles, where a small number of stock pictures were reused inconsistently from one slide to the next. (In one slide there's a picture of a black woman representing the programmer, in the next slide the same black woman represents the project manager, and by the end of the presentation she's been promoted to CEO. Is this intended to give me a rosy impression of the company's diversity policies, or is it just careless presentation design?)

This is not just an issue for enterprise architects - the people who design buildings suffer from the same tendency. See my post What if architects designed our communities?

I have myself become somewhat disillusioned with the picture-tells-a-thousand-words principle. I have sat through many presentations, as well as presenting material developed by other people, and been frequently frustrated by poor visual language. And I have myself produced many presentations containing many diagrams; I freely admit that some of these diagrams have been more successful than others, and I haven't always managed to avoid visual cliché. But at least I'm trying.

Update: In the new production of Don Giovanni at the ENO, Leporello uses a slide presentation to narrate his master's conquests [Classical Source]. But who would want to emulate Leporello?


Carl said...

Interesting conundrum. As a mind mapper I rely on a mixture of noun/verb combinations and sketches to capture a thought or idea. These trigger meaning for me and for colleagues, reducing the need for often long winded and ambiguous documents.

However, I also use formal modelling languages to add semantic and rigour to elements of my thoughts, ideas, designs etc. These are nearly always pictorial in nature. To those who understand the language they add value and depth to the ideas. To those who are not, they are just curious shapes offering little or incorrect insight.

So, as a visual thinker I am caught in the perpetual dilemma of illustration versus words. I prefer the latter where the semantic is clear, the latter ether it isn't. But I don't preclude the former and also consider moving images and studio as well. But it is a dilemma.

Richard Veryard said...

Thanks Carl.

The first comment I'd make is that diagrams of all kinds are incredibly useful to support individual and group thinking. But we shouldn't ever assume that these informal doodles are going to make sense to anyone else without a great deal of explanation, and it is a bit inconsiderate and lazy to display a diagram without making any effort to make it comprehensible to the audience.

I agree about the value of formal modelling languages, but some kind of entropy seems to set in as soon as a formal notation is rendered into Powerpoint. And what's the purpose of attempting to present formal diagrams in a Powerpoint presentation anyway, especially if the audience are only semi-familiar with the notation?

To my mind, the worst diagrams are ones that look as if they might have some formal meaning, but turn out to be merely rhetorical gestures. For a typical example, see the diagram from "Enterprise Architecture as Strategy" cited in my post on Differentiation and Integration, where the reader is forced to guess what the wiggly lines denote or connote.