Find out more about The Open University's Computing and IT courses and qualifications
What are rich pictures?
How to draw rich pictures
Using the Working for Water Programme (WWP) case study...
Rich pictures were originally developed as part of Peter Checkland’s Soft Systems Methodology (Checkland, 1981; Checkland and Scholes, 1990; Checkland and Poulter, 2020). Their purpose is to gather in one place, on one sheet of paper, all the data about a complex messy situation that you have collected. Using pictures or drawings is helpful in being able to collect it all together on one piece of paper, so that you can see everything together. Using pictures or drawings to think about issues is common to several problem-solving or creative-thinking methods (including therapy). Drawings can both evoke and record insight into a situation.
Draw a rich picture before you have a clear understanding of the situation you are interested in and use it as a jumping off point for developing understanding.
Rich pictures are situation summaries. They are an attempt to encapsulate the real situation through a no holds barred, cartoon representation of things that you perceive in the situation – objects, layout, connections, relationships, influences, cause and effect, structures, processes, issues, arguments, and so on. They should also, as far as possible, depict subjective elements, such as character and characteristics, the different points of view, prejudices, and spirit of those involved. Remember particularly that the picture you construct is your picture, constructed from your perspective on the situation from the data that you have been able to collect. Inevitably, in a complex situation you will not have been able to collect data from all those involved.
- A title describing the purpose of the diagram.
- Pictorial symbols representing things in the complex messy situation – these can be cartoon representations, sketches, or symbols (e.g. crossed swords representing an argument).
- Keywords or phrases (e.g. speech bubble to convey attitude).
To help interpret a situation, choose symbols, scenes or images that represent the situation. Use as many colours as necessary and draw the symbols on a large piece of paper. Try not to get too carried away with the fun and challenge to your ingenuity in finding pictorial symbols.
Put in whatever connections you see between your pictorial symbols – avoid producing merely an unconnected set. But beware of trying to make the whole picture a coherent entity – places where connections are lacking may later prove significant. A mess by its very nature is not a coherent entity.
Avoid too much writing, either as commentary or as speech bubbles, although some will help explain the diagram to other people.
A rich picture is an attempt to assemble everything that might be relevant to a complex situation. You should somehow represent every observation that occurs to you or that you gleaned from your initial exploration.
Fall back on words only where ideas fail you for a sketch that encapsulates your meaning.
You should not seek to impose any style or structure on your picture. Place everything on your sheet wherever your instinct prompts. At a later stage, you may find that the placement itself was significant.
If you don’t know where to begin, then the following sequence may help to get you started:
- First look for the structures in the situation – these are the parts of the situation that change relatively slowly over time and are relatively stable (i.e. the people, the set-ups, the command hierarchy, etc.).
- Next look for processes within the situation – the activities that are going on and the things that are in a state of change.
- Then look for the ways in which the structure and the processes relate to each other.
At this stage, avoid thinking in systems terms – using ideas like ‘well, the situation is made up of a marketing system and a production system and a quality control system’. The word ‘system’ implies organised interconnections. However, it may be precisely the absence of such organised interconnectedness that lies at the heart of any problem, so by assuming its existence you may be missing the point.
Seek challenges to your initial assessment of the situation. Avoid being channelled down any particular line of thought as far as possible in your collection of data and drawing. Often people start with the presumption that what is required is to search for ways of making these systems more efficient.
Make sure that your picture includes not only the factual (or ‘hard’) data about the situation, but also the subjective (or ‘soft’) information.
Look at the social roles of those within the situation, and at the kinds of behaviour expected from people in those roles. If you see any conflicts, indicate them.
Finally, include yourself (or the group if you are drawing it as a communal activity) in the picture. Make sure that your roles and relationships in the situation are clear. Remember that you are not an objective observer, but someone with a set of values, beliefs and norms that colour your perceptions.
Checkland, P. (1981) Systems thinking, systems practice, Chichester, UK, John Wiley & Sons.
Checkland, P. and Scholes, J. (1990) Soft systems in action, Chichester, UK, John Wiley & Sons.
Checkland, P., & Poulter, J. (2020). Soft systems methodology. In M. Reynolds and S. Holwell (eds.) Systems approaches to making change: A practical guide (pp. 201-253). Springer, London.