How to Create Diagrams


Diagrams are visual representations of ideas. A good diagram can condense complex ideas and information into a simple form. As many educators have found, even when describing literature, a diagram can explain very briefly a concept that might otherwise occupy many paragraphs of text. Diagrams are a glimpse of how our brains conceptualize the world around us. With practice, creating a diagram usually comes to us as naturally as thinking about something.

Things You'll Need

  • Pen or pencil
  • Paper
  • Computer graphics software (optional)
  • Determine specifically what sort of concept your diagram will describe. A process through time, the relationships between individual things that act together (like parts of a machine), and the movement or flow of something through a system are all common examples of ideas to be diagrammed. Pinpoint one idea to convey, and generally avoid combining such examples into a single diagram.

  • Draw rectangles or circles on the paper to represent major pieces of the concept. For a diagram of time, try to isolate the most important moments in the process, and draw a shape for each one. For a relationship diagram, draw a shape for each thing that relates to the others. If trying to describe flow, make a shape for each feature or element that might affect the course of the movement. Leave space between the shapes, and if possible at this stage arrange them on the paper in an ordered way, like from left to right, top to bottom, or in a circle.

  • Label each shape as simply as possible, ideally using only one to three words. Write the labels inside the shapes for clarity.

  • Connect the shapes with arrows to show the passage of time, relationships, or the direction of flow. You can use both one and two-sided arrows, and arrows that split in two or combine together. Label the arrows as well if it is necessary, but remember that a good diagram should express itself primarily through graphics, not text, and keep the labels as terse as possible.

  • Use color, shape, relative size, and line types to depict the relative importance of the pieces of your concept. For example, you might use a dotted line when drawing the shape of something less important, and a solid line for a more essential piece. Larger shapes should represent more important pieces of the concept. Experiment with different schemes, and find a style that will enable someone to get the gist of your concept with only a glance.

  • Use computer software to prototype, edit and publish your diagrams. It is far easier to modify and prototype diagrams in a computer, and can save you a lot of time and paper. See the Resources section for more information on some helpful software tools.

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  • Photo Credit Process Flow image by Christopher Hall from
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