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Diagramming for development 1: bounding realities
Diagramming for development 1: bounding realities

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3.1 Rich pictures


Rich pictures are a compilation of drawings, pictures, symbols and text that represent a particular situation or issue from the viewpoint(s) of the person or people who drew them.

Rich pictures can show relationships, connections, influences, cause and effect. They can also show more subjective elements such as character and characteristics as well as points of view, prejudices, spirit and human nature.

Rich pictures can both record and evoke insight into a situation. They can be regarded as pictorial 'summaries' of the physical, conceptual and emotional aspects of the situation at a given time.


Rich pictures are often used to depict complicated situations or issues. They are drawn prior to analysing a situation, when it is unclear which parts of a situation are particularly important. They help show which parts should be regarded as structure and which as process.

They are an attempt to encapsulate the real points of interest in a situation through words and imagery.

Rich pictures can be invaluable in communicating issues between groups of people where there are cultural or language differences. Drawings, pictures and text can provide the basis for the shared understandings needed to enable further dialogue (and perhaps further rich pictures).

A rich picture offers a great deal of scope for creative thinking and freedom in how you represent your ideas. A lack of drawing skill is no drawback as symbols, icons, photographs and/or text can be used to represent different elements.

Diagram components

Figure 1 A rich picture
Figure 1 A rich picture

A rich picture can include some or all of the following elements:

  • pictorial symbols
  • keywords
  • sketches
  • cartoons
  • symbols
  • arrows and other lines to show flows of resources and/or relationships
  • title.


  • Interpretation: Choose symbols, scenes or images that best represent the situation for you. Use as many colours as necessary and draw the symbols on a large piece of paper. (A3 is an ideal size; it can always be reduced down to A4 size for inclusion in any reports.
  • Connections: Put in whatever connections you see between your pictorial symbols; note where there are no obvious connections, as this might later prove significant.
  • Words: text can be part of any rich picture but be concise. Speech bubbles are quite a common device.
  • Boundaries: Don't worry too much about drawing boundaries around groups of components. They can be useful to include but aren't really the main focus of this technique. (Systems maps are used to establish and investigate boundaries.)


  • A rich picture is an attempt to assemble everything that might be relevant to a complex situation. (For example, as you gather data through interviews and other types of research, rich pictures might help you think about how best to represent the information.)
  • Use words only where you cannot represent your meaning in a sketch.
  • Place all elements on your sheet wherever it feels right to put them. Drawing elements on sticky notes can be very effective in the early stages of drawing a rich picture. You can move them around until the rich picture clearly represents the situation as you see it.
  • Include both factual data and the subjective information.
  • Look at the social roles that are regarded as meaningful by those involved, and look at the kinds of behaviour expected from people in those roles. If you see any conflicts, indicate them.
  • Include yourself in the picture. Make sure that your roles and relationships in the situation are clear. Your values, beliefs and norms are important.

If you don't know how to begin drawing a rich picture try the following.

  1. Look for the elements of structure in the situation; these would include parts of the situation that change relatively slowly over time and are relatively stable, e.g. the people, the set-ups, the hierarchy of authority.
  2. Look for elements of process within the situation (these are ongoing activities).
  3. Look at how the structure and the processes interact (or don't interact).

Activity 4 Animated tutorial 1

Watch the animated tutorial below (click on ‘View’ below) to see how I built up my rich picture of the WWP. If you are still a bit unsure about what a rich picture is you might like to view the optional animation, What is a rich picture?, before viewing the WWP example.

This element is no longer supported and cannot be used.

Click on rich picture [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] to see the description of the animated tutorial.