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Venn Diagrams

Updated on October 6, 2015
Simple Venn diagram showing two sets and their intersection.
Simple Venn diagram showing two sets and their intersection. | Source
3-set Venn diagram with 'empty' intersections.
3-set Venn diagram with 'empty' intersections. | Source
Fugure 3. This Venn diagram shows the names of the professions that have important skill intersections for internet marketing.
Fugure 3. This Venn diagram shows the names of the professions that have important skill intersections for internet marketing. | Source

A Venn diagram, sometimes referred to as a set diagram, is a diagramming style used to show all the possible logical relations between a finite amount of sets. In mathematical terms, a set is a collection of distinct objects gathered together into a group, which can then itself be termed as a single object. Venn diagrams represent these objects on a page as circles or ellipses, and their placement in relation to each other describes the relationships between them.

Commonly a Venn diagram will compare two sets with each other. In such a case, two circles will be used to represent the two sets, and they are placed on the page in such a way as that there is an overlap between them. This overlap, known as the intersection, represents the connection between sets — if for example the sets are 'mammals' and 'sea life', then the intersection will be 'marine mammals', e.g. dolphins or whales. Each set is taken to contain every instance possible of its class; everything outside the 'union' of sets (union is the term for the combined scope of all sets and intersections) is implicitly not any of those things — not a mammal, doesn't live underwater, etc.

The structure of this humble diagram was formally developed by the mathematician John Venn, but its roots go back as far as the 13th Century, and includes many stages of evolution dictated by a number of noted logicians and philosophers. The earliest indications of similar diagram theory came from the writer Ramon Llull, who's initial work would later inspire the German polymath Leibnez. Leibnez was exploring early ideas regarding computational sciences and diagrammatic reasoning, using a style of diagram that would eventually be formalized by another famous mathematician. This was Leonhard Euler, the creator of the Euler diagram.

Euler diagrams are similar to Venn diagrams, in that both compare distinct sets using logical connections. Where they differ is that a Venn diagram is bound to show every possible intersection between sets, whether objects fall into that class or not; a Euler diagram only shows actually possible intersections within the given context. Sets can exist entirely within another, termed as a subset, or as a separate circle on the page without any connections — this is known as a disjoint. Furthering the example outlined previously, if a new set was introduced — 'birds' — this would be shown as a circle entirely within the confines of the 'mammals' set (but not overlapping 'sea life'). A fourth set of 'trees' would be a disjoint — a circle without any connections or intersections.

Logician John Venn developed the Venn diagram in complement to Euler's concept. His diagram rules were more rigid than Euler's — each set must show its connection with all other sets within the union, even if no objects fall into this category. This is why Venn diagrams often only contain 2 or 3 sets, any more and the diagram can lose its symmetry and become overly complex. Venn made allowances for this by trading circles for ellipses and arcs, ensuring all connections are accounted for whilst maintaining the aesthetic of the diagram.

Usage for Venn diagrams has evolved somewhat since their inception. Both Euler and Venn diagrams were used to logically and visually frame a philosophical concept, taking phrases such as some of x is y, all of y is z and condensing that information into a diagram that can be summarized at a glance. They are used in, and indeed were formed as an extension of, set theory — a branch of mathematical logic that can describe object's relations through algebraic equation.

Now the Venn diagram is so ubiquitous and well ingrained a concept that you can see its use far outside mathematical confines. The form is so recognizable that it can shown through mediums such as advertising or news broadcast and the meaning will immediately be understood. They are used extensively in teaching environments — their generic functionality can apply to any subject and focus on my facet of it. Whether creating a business presentation, collating marketing data, or just visualizing a strategic concept, the Venn diagram is a quick, functional, and effective way of exploring logical relationships within a context.

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