Monday, August 2, 2010

Discreditting by Diagram

When you are putting together a before and after diagram you want them to be as clean, and as similar to each other as possible. This means that the effect of any changes is clear, and unaffected areas are obvious.

Sometimes though you just want to make the diagram as complicated and ugly looking as possible to get a point across or make a sale. You can't make it look like it's just a bad diagram - you have to give the impression that the author has really tried to make it comprehensible it's just that the underlying idea is bad.

The classic use of this is the IT department trying to get money to do a systems consolidation or re-engineering. The architecture team will dutifully come up with the ugliest diagram of spaghetti known to man, that will get presented as proof of how bad things really are.

Turns out politicians know this trick too; as shown below:

This diagram published by the Republicans on the Joint economic Committee “explaining” Obamacare is a classic of the genre. Undoubtedly high-price (and worth it) consultants have been consulted to make this look so complicated.

High res version here

It has all the classic tools to over complicate something:

  • Mixing Domains: This shows organisation structure, regulation, stakeholders, responsibilities, impact, legislation, and everything else all on the one page. This lets you put hundreds on boxes on the page
  • Lots of Boxes: Goes without saying - put as much as you can in there. Go crazy.
  • Complicated Legend: By having so many domains you get to put an overly complex legend on the bottom that shows all the different sorts of things. This requires lots of different shapes and colour coding. Which leads me to:
  • Colour: Use at least 7 or 8 different colours. This makes it hard to concentrate on text, and as a bonus you can have them all as similar shades so that when you print it in black and white you can’t tell the difference.
  • Lot of lines: All blank space should have lots of lines running through it. This way you add a lot of visual complexity, but it’s so hard to see what’s connected to what that you don’t add any content.
  • Acronyms: Put tons of Acronyms in that way no one can understand it without a glossary, and once you put in a glossary that’s another box of dense text to add to the complexity.
  • Tiny-Text: Throwing in some boxes with minuscule text give the impression that there’s even more complexity going on under the surface.
  • Miss the point: Put a crucial stakeholder or system in some out of the way corner, and then put something ridiculous in the centre.

    Note: For the purposes of this article I don't particularly care about whether Obamacare is overly complicated or not, a good thing or not, it's just an interesting look at how the diagram designed can push messages.