How To Draw A Rich Picture – And Think About Why You Are Doing It


Monday, 8.11pm

Sheffield, U.K.

When you meet people, show real appreciation, then genuine curiosity. – Martha Beck

Before you can solve a problem you need to know what the problem actually is. This is harder to do than it seems. One technique for figuring out what the problem is in the first place is to draw a Rich Picture – one of the components of Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), developed by Peter Checkland.

In their 1992 paper, Towards an SSM toolkit: rich picture diagramming, Avison, Golder and Shah write that a rich picture may show processes and their relationships, clients, people involved, environmental features, problem owners, constraints, conflicts, flows of information and much else still. Rich pictures are complex to draw because they try and incorporate the richness that is unique to a particular situation.

A rich picture is often drawn on a whiteboard during a face to face meeting. Avison et al suggest that a way to start is by writing the name of the company in a box in the middle and then developing the picture from there, drawing people, things, processes, the relationships between them, thoughts that people might have and areas of conflict that suggest themselves. The picture is used to support a discussion and can be changed based on feedback and observations.

In my own practice and research I have been working on digital approaches to drawing rich pictures. I thought that is what I was doing in the examples described in this early description but now I realize I was doing something different. A rich picture, within the framework described by Peter Checkland, is much closer to something in the image that starts this post.

Some things are worth pointing out about this picture. First, it’s not well-drawn. Writing on a computer using a stylus is not the easiest thing to do. If you pretend you’re using a whiteboard and can’t zoom in and out of the picture it’s harder to make the fine movements needed to make good drawings or letter forms. But that’s ok. If you’re focusing on the visual aspect of the picture rather than its use as an object that supports a discussion you’re missing the point about a rich picture. It’s about appreciation, not art.

The second, less obvious aspect of a rich picture, is that it’s a window onto an inner world of someone’s mind – an image that looks to capture how things look from their point of view. Thinking about it like looking through windows is a useful metaphor. Let’s say you’re in a city and want to get a feel for the place – you look out of your hotel window and get one view. You get to your office and look out of that window and get another view. Both are views of the same city but both are different and both are partial. You know more than you did but you don’t know it all and what you know is limited by what you saw through the windows you had a chance to look through.

The third aspect of a rich picture is that what you see is not all there is. You can have a discussion with a group of people about their company and situation and all the other things and draw a rich picture but, as Avison et al point out, there are often politics involved, where “some facts about the organization cannot be acknowledged and cannot be published so that there is often a hidden agenda between the analyst and senior members of the organization”.

This last point is the one that really complicates things. A rich picture is a tool to help understand and improve situations. But it’s just a tool and it can also be used to do bad things, just like writing has done in the past.

I’m reading This is the canon: Decolonize your bookshelf in 50 books edited by Joan Anim-Addo, Deidre Osborne and Kadija Sesay. They write that “decolonizing insists on change regarding practices and responses that oppress others, notably those burdened by historical injustices…” In the 18th century writing was exalted as the “age of authors” but writing was also “a key tool of colonial domination”. At the stroke of a pen some people could own nothing, allowing those that could to take all they had, including the bodies of those no longer deemed human.

A rich picture is a tool, just like a hammer. And, just like a hammer, the results you get depend on how you wield it. It would be wise to do so carefully and thoughtfully.


Karthik Suresh


Avison, D.E, Golder, P.A, Shah, H.U. (1992), “Towards an SSM toolkit: Rich picture diagramming”, Eur. J. Inf. Systs. Vol. 1, No. 6, pp 397-407

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