FYou may have noticed that I’ve been experimenting with different types of feedback so that I can make The Data Are Alright more than just… alright!

I’ve been circulating a (fun!) survey about the first three months of TDAA.  Have you taken it?  I’m making a donation to support the Media Mobilizing Project in honor of the first 25 survey respondents.  (So far, I have 18 – YOU can help us get to 25!)

fb pollI also did a Facebook poll to solicit votes for upcoming blog content.  23 people voted and we have an almost even tie.  (I guess this means that I have more blogging ahead of me!)

There are SO many topics to cover on The Data Are Alright… from dialogue at recent conferences … to data solutions we’re uncovering at work … to your GoogleSheets FAQs (and more!)

Despite all of these themes gnawing for posts, I’ve been captivated by Venn Diagrams lately, so I want to dedicate this post to this strange and enduring data viz and design technique.  In this post:

  • Venn Diagrams Then and Now
  • Why Changemakers should (and kinda do) embrace “Venn Diagram Thinking”
  • Venn Diagrams as art and social commentary

Venn Diagrams Then and Now

What the heck are Venn Diagrams, where do they come from, and what do they have to do with data and changemaking?  Calm down, dear ones, I have a plan.

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Venn Diagrams are a data viz technique that show two (or more…) categories and how/if they overlap (click here for a more math-y AND still accessible definition).  When I was first introduced to VDs, I must have been in elementary school where we used them as a brainstorming technique.  (I made an example to the right).  Looking back, I don’t think this is the best or most proper use of a VD.  While the COLOR GREEN *is* an overlap of BLUE and YELLOW, green things in general are not an overlap of blue things and yellow things.  VDs like this can be confusing at best and misleading at worst.  Yikes!

Venn Diagrams have their origin in what-are-called Euler diagrams, which get into some higher-order math and logic thinking (stuff that I haven’t really encountered much except when I started researching for this post!).  Euler diagrams are a one-stop-shop for showing relationships between categories.  They’re a pretty modern mathematical/graphical invention, dating back to the 18th century (formally) but between you and me, I bet people were making circles around things WAY before then!  Later on (in the 1880s), John Venn came along and wrote a paper that expanded on Euler’s work.  Hence, the Venn Diagram!  Here are two examples of Eulers, one more concrete (British Isles) and the other more goofy.  You may want to keep in mind that all Venn Diagrams are Euler Diagrams, but all Eulers are not Venns.



You can see how these diagrams are really useful for showing relationships between things.  There’s a lot more to say about Eulers and how interesting they can become, but for now, I’ll close this section with a little circular joke.

Q: How do farmers make crop circles?

A: With a pro-tractor!

Why Changemakers should (and kinda do) embrace “Venn Diagram Thinking”

I think Venn Diagrams are an INCREDIBLY useful tool AND mindset for changemakers (you might use them already without even think about it!)

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You definitely use “VD thinking” if you pull reports from a database (see right for an example!) or handle any kind of sorting/filtering info in a twospreadsheet.

You might use “VD thinking” when you are talking about intersectionality and liberation.  See this link* for a great resource on intersectionality including a VD (*cw: discusses but doesn’t reinforce violence and transphobia/anti-sex work sentiments)

Finally, you might use “VD thinking” when you are demonstrating the overlap between things our society has deemed “unrelated” or “incidental” in order to make a larger point about justice, like how communities with high poverty rates tend to overlap with areas in flood planes or fossil fuel blast zones.  Even if you don’t make a “proper” VD, you are still using what I call “VD thinking.”  This is part of our changemaker toolkit for developing campaigns, strategies, infrastructure, and even making sense of the world and our place in it.  Venn Diagrams, when leveraged properly, can take “margins” and move them into the middle – and can also reveal intersections and challenge them in the name of justice and fairness.  Venn Diagrams are powerful!

Venn Diagrams as art and social commentary

vent.jpgOver the past few months, I’ve been following “Vent Diagrams” on Instagram and Twitter (you should, too, if you’re into that sort of thing!) where artists and other contributors have been posting overlaps and contradictions in social movement spaces in the form of VDs.  Here’s a recent favorite.

I think the mandate from this (and other Vent Diagrams) is really to find the overlap or live in the overlap, even when our surrounding culture and climate make two things seem mutually exclusive.  I guess sometimes you make VDs when you already know the overlap, and other times, you make them when you wish the overlap was more accessible and well understood.  For example, in this vent, which comes first, trust or honesty?  How can we build from a place of trust AND honesty, instead of sacrificing one for the other?

I don’t think this is exactly what good ‘ole John Venn had in mind when he created VDs, but that’s the great thing about changemakers!  We take matters into our own hands.  We take tools and re-position them so that we can make change and make meaning.

Something about the visual starkness of the VD, combined with the comfort of using such a well-loved visual form make reading Vents a particularly evocative experience for me, different than just reading the words.  I’ve started thinking of my own contradictions in terms of “vents,” too.  Follow along at @vent_diagrams on Instagram or Twitter.

william.PNGHere’s another example of an activist using VDs to make social commentary, from my dear friend @moodymerbae666 (shared with his permission).  This was a miraculous moment of “great minds think alike” when I saw his VDs in the middle of writing this post!!

I think he’s really captured the predicament young “professionals” face as we look for work and sustenance and meaning.  What better format than a Venn to ask such provocative questions?

Last, but not least, I want to lift up this stunning watercolor VD from artist, @britchida).  I absolutely LOVE this piece, and I’m sharing it as a screenshot to give all the credit in the world to the artist (they have lots more great data viz + social commentary art on their insta, too!)  For me, what makes this VD so special is how the insight in the middle unites such polarized feelings.  To quote the artist, “This piece is about letting go of outsized expectations of control, of ideas of ourselves as able to change anything if we only give anything.”   Amen!


3 thoughts on “Why I love Venn Diagrams

  1. I love this post!!! When I saw the first example of a VD (about the color things), I was scratching my head, thinking, “this isn’t exactly the info for a VD!” But of course, then I read on, and indeed, you proposed a quirky, a bit “off” example to show what VDs are NOT! So clever, and making your readers THINK HARD right from the start. That’s my Sam!!! The thoughtful, philosophical aspects of the post together with the social movement and activism relevance (oh, wait: is that a VD?) are what really make it so multifaceted and provocative! Now I want to make a lot of VDs!

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