Why I Hate Symmetric Diagrams

I admit it, I have a problem. Every time I see a perfect symmetric diagram in a presentation, research paper or similar publication my faith in the whole thing takes a nose dive - hell I might even give up on it completely. You know the sort of thing, three interlocking circles, perhaps a series of triangles balanced on top of each other, or maybe four squares equally spaced. I see them and I smell trouble.

So what's the problem? Symmetry over reality. Real life is not as perfect as these creations, and any sort of complex thought and interaction that is a result of research is certainly not. I firmly believe that rather than adding clarity by making our diagrams so perfect we're actually removing information, making things much worse, by creating an aesthetically pleasing image.

That's why I was very happy to see this image recently in a post about Web Science, that emerging discipline that brings together some quite disparate areas, in order to create a science that really understands the web. Instead of going for perfection, they've created an aesthetically pleasing graphic that uses the space intelligently to convey the very complexity that a supposed 'perfect' image would break.


Great to see quality visualisation like this - I only wish it was more widespread!

My point might seem weak, and you could argue that by forcing things into a regular shape we are actually aiding understanding, but I still contend that we're just hiding complexity. I have a saying I use -"Simple problems need simple solutions, complex problems need complex solutions. Know the difference." Sometimes just by making something look simple, we don't simplify it, we just hide the complexity - dangerous.

There's an even deeper issue perhaps here - the fact that our tools are doing the thinking for us. It's easy to create a series of regular blocks or triangles with modern computer applications, it's very hard to create a diagram like that above. The level of embedded cognition is vastly different, and in the previous a large part of the embedded cognition is not that of the original creator but of the designer of the computer application itself. But that's another story ...

P.S. For a good example of some 'perfect' graphics, you could check out the infamous "Chicken chicken chicken" at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yL_-1d9OSdk

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