Rich Pictures

Rich pictures are an unstructured way of mapping a system. Groups use visual thinking to show the actors, elements, and relationships that are important to understanding a situation. Because the approach is unstructured, almost anything goes in a rich picture. Participants should try to visualize multiple perspectives and include intangibles, like emotion and culture, not just the formal rational structures.

When to use it?
Frame: Rich pictures are useful at the start of framing when there is no map of the system. They can be used to map the current system, the legacy system, and the desired system. Rich pictures convey messiness, complexity, and interdependency, rather than imposing artificial order too early in a systemic design process.

How to do it?

  1. Sketch the actors and elements. Sometimes teams brainstorm a list of system components first if they are having difficulty getting started.

  2. Draw and label relationships. The connections between the parts are just as important as the parts themselves.

  3. Show abstract ideas metaphorically. It is difficult to draw abstract concepts, like policies and strategies, but tapping into metaphors and analogical reasoning can help to visualize the intangible.

  4. Include yourself in the picture. In trying to understand and intervene in the system, you are part of it.

  5. Tell the story. Write a paragraph that tells the story of your rich picture to someone who was not involved in drawing it. Focus on the “so whats.”

Rich pictures can be drawn individually, but adding more participants increases their richness. A maximum of 10 people can work comfortably together on one picture.

30 minutes - 1 hour to draw and cross-brief.

Pros and Cons

  • Very intuitive, which means you do not need a technical background to participate.
  • Highly robust – there are not many ways this activity can go wrong.


  • Some people refuse to draw pictures.
  • The end product will be highly meaningful to participants but may seem messy, complex, and amateur to outsiders.


  • Words to elaborate on the drawings are ok, and actors can have speech / thought bubbles, but the rich picture should not contain whole sentences or the visual element will be lost.
  • Participants tend to focus on the components – remind them to label the relationships and think about the structure of interdependencies.
  • Add a title and date to the rich picture for record keeping purposes. Often it is best to write the title last, or check at the end of the session if the title is still relevant.



Image Source: Government of Alberta internal systemic design course – May 2014

Additional Resources

De Montfort University Rich Picture Guide

Open University Rich Picture Summary