10 Tips for “Freestyle” Diagrams

May 24, 2012 |

We have made clear, and will continue to do so – in assorted blogs, tweets, and diatribes – the importance of consistent notations for diagrams. This was a significant driver behind our adoption of UML as our diagramming standard.

None-the-less, there do come times when we are forced to work “freestyle.” Our skill at our formal diagramming approach earns us a great diagramming reputation, and this often leads to requests to assist others with diagramming-based communication, inside and outside the architecture sphere. Most frequently these are requests to create some form of visual communication for an executive presentation or to provide feedback on another’s attempt at the same.

What’s a poor diagramming snob to do? Lead with the standard! If a proposed diagram fits in the scope for any of your standard notations, guide the supplicant to the holy land.

However, if it does not, then apply some of these diagramming tips. All will impact how the audience understands the message of the diagram:

  1. Set a goal and manage scope against that goal! Whether you are using a standard notation or not, scope is everything when it comes to creating clear diagrams. If it doesn’t contribute to the goal of the diagram, it is just a distraction!
  2. Group similar constructs. The grouping assists the viewer in comprehending a diagram in logical chunks.
  3. Use consistent shapes. Whether intended or not, shape choices imply meaning. Choosing the same shape for two constructs on a diagram implies similarity, and vice versa.
  4. Use consistent colors. Similar to shapes above, colors imply meaning.
  5. Size consistently. Shape sizes imply importance. A much larger shape seems more important that a smaller one. Don’t fall into the trap of making a shape whatever size is needed to fit the label.
  6. Choose a small set of colors from a matching palate. Clashing colors distracts from the viewing ease of your diagram. Your stakeholders won’t know why they don’t like it, but they won’t.
  7. Limit the use of fonts. It improves readability and will make your diagram seem more deliberate and less haphazard.
  8. Include ample whitespace. Without significant parts of the page that are not covered by the shapes in your diagram, the meaning becomes clouded and difficult for your viewer to parse.
  9. Align shapes. Things in vertical and horizontal alignment are more visually pleasing to view. Arbitrarily placing items on the page will definitely look sloppy. If you weren’t careful with the format, how does your audience know you were careful with the content…
  10. Use consistent spacing. This will make your diagram more visually pleasing. In addition, differences in spacing will imply that there is some message being communicated by the difference.

There are many more lessons from our core diagramming notations that can be applied – see our articles on diagramming for more. Also take a look at our UML articles to sharpen your skills at advocating for a standard diagramming approach.


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Dan Hughes

Was a principal consultant at Systems Flow, Inc.

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