Academic journal article Visible Language

Understanding Diagrams: A Pointer to the Development of Diagramming Software

Academic journal article Visible Language

Understanding Diagrams: A Pointer to the Development of Diagramming Software

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The richness of diagrams is a characteristic reflected in their continuous use by humans over millennia across many applications and disciplines. Discussion of this richness is often expressed in one of two ways: either in terms of the constraints of the particular application and/ or context within which diagrams are used, or through some meta and abstract formalism. Both approaches are grounded in traditional reductionist western scientific ways of understanding reality. The thinking behind such approaches has been instrumental in guiding the design and development of diagramming software. However, there is yet another level of richness of diagrams that could not be adequately accounted for by the constraints of the application or through any single formalism. Most real world diagrams often contain a mixed type of diagrams such as box and line, bar charts, surfaces, routes or shapes dotted around the drawing area. Each has its own distinct set of static and dynamic semantics. Both ways of discussing diagrams mentioned so far do not adequately capture this level of richness. The consequences of this inadequacy impact on the development of diagramming software. Existing diagramming software is either too specialized and therefore cumbersome and difficult to use, or too general, thus of little use in representing knowledge. In both cases the software becomes a hindrance to the user's activity and thinking rather than a help to it. In this paper a meta, non reductionist, framework for understanding diagrams based on symbolic and spatial mappings capable of accounting for this richness is proposed and discussed. The potential of the framework to guide the development of good diagramming software is demonstrated.

ON THE RICHNESS OF DIAGRAMS

The way people use diagrams, irrespective of the application, has been eloquently described by J. D. Watson, Nobel prize winner (1968), who discovered the structure of DNA: "...drawing and thinking are frequently so simultaneous that the graphic image appears almost an organic extension of the thinking process." Barkowsky and Freska (1997) argue that human interaction should be a fundamental approach to understanding maps. Godfrey (1998) acknowledges the richness of diagrams: "Drawing is not just a medium or a technique: it is a human activity with a rich and complicated history." Schön (1995) in the context of architectural drawing calls this the architect "holding a conversation with the drawing." Hetzeberger (1991) says that it must be one's own thoughts that determine a drawing and not the other way round. Norman (1990) argues for the need to move towards the point where the richness of human experience comes to the foreground and computing sits in the background. Bertin (1983) suggests similar viewpoints saying that a diagram ". . .is not 'drawn' once and for all; it is 'constructed' and 'reconstructed' until it reveals all the relationships constituted in the interplay of data. ..." "A graphic is never an end in itself, it is a moment in the process of decision making." In the context of their paper on creative design Neislon and Lee (1994) point out that "Design is a revolutionary process in which how a problem is defined in the mind of the designer changes dramatically over time." Schön (1991) characterizes this view of diagramming as the "reflective conversation with the materials" in his discussion of effective designs. Bishop (1994) states that a centuries held assumption that "a drawingis a drawing-is a drawing" is progressively shown to be invalid. Gombrich (1966) adds to this view by saying that "to see the shape apart from its interpretation is not possible." This ability is referred to in Gombrich's discussion of Leonardo's creative process, he suggested that "...in searching for a new solution Leonardo projected new meanings into the forms he saw in his old discarded sketches."

The above serves to demonstrate the richness of diagrams in the context of human functioning. …

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