Rich pictures

Mind map

A rich picture is a way to explore, acknowledge and define a situation and express it through diagrams to create a preliminary mental model and can help to open discussion and come to a broad, shared understanding of a situation.

This method was originally developed as part of Peter Checkland’s Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) (2008). Developing a rich picture covers steps 1 & 2 of the SSM which describe the real world:

  1. Identify the issue you wish to address, and
  2. Develop an unstructured description of the situation where the issue lies – how it is

(Other steps in the SSM support systems thinking about the world as it might be. The tensions between the real world as it is, and as it might be and between different perspectives of the real world and how it might be provide sites for creative thing. Refer to “Systems Concepts in Action: A Practitioner's Toolkit” by Bob Williams and Richard Hummelbrunner – 2010 for a detailed guide to using systems thinking in evaluation).

In his original writing, Checkland refers to the ‘situation’, the situation may be a program, issue, initiative or other term used in evaluation. Checkland provides some guidelines as to what should be included in the description so that a rich understanding of the situation is developed:

  • Structures
  • Processes
  • Climate
  • People
  • Issues expressed by people
  • Conflict

The description of the situation is depicted as a picture using diagrams, symbols, cartoons and words, it can be drawn by hand or electronically. As Williams and Hummelbrunner point out "There are many ways that this can be done: mind-maps, conversation maps, sketching. However, it is important that the picture should not structure the situation (as in a logic model or process chain). The whole point of a rich picture is to reflect as much going on as possible without privileging, predetermining, or presuming a particular point of view."


Cartoon diagram with characters and steps connected by arrows forming the police statement request process

Advice for choosing this method

A rich picture helps to open discussion and come to a broad, shared understanding of a situation. It does not tell you what has changed, although this may come up in discussion, and therefore is best used as an initial exercise in an annual project review or when designing the M&E system with different stakeholders.

Think carefully about whom to include in a group. If you want to have a representative picture, then the composition of the group will be different than if you want to have focused perspectives to compare.

Advice for using this method

Guijt & Woodhill (2002) offer the following suggestions for creating a rich picture:

1. Using a large sheet of paper and symbols, pictures and words, draw a "rich picture" (or "mind map") of the situation (project/group) that you wish to evaluate. This is best done with about four to eight people and takes a half to two hours.

2. Start by asking people to note all the physical entities involved, for example, the critical people, organisations or aspects of the landscape.

3. Ask people to present their rich picture by describing the key elements and key linkages between them.

4. If there is more than one group, compare their pictures and cluster the ideas that are similar and those that diverge. In this way you can identify the most important issues to discuss, such as critical topics to focus on in an evaluation, possible indicators or key stakeholders to include in M&E.




  • You can also watch Judy Oakden's presentation 

     (Note: low quality audio).

Checkland P. (2000). Research Paper. Soft Systems Methodology: A Thirty Year Retrospective, in Systems Research and Behavioral Science Syst. Res. 17, S11–S58

elabor8 (n.d.) Rich Pictures and CATWOE: Simple yet Powerful Scope-Modelling Techniques. Retrieved July 2015 from

Guijt, I. and J. Woodhill (2002). Managing for Impact in Rural Development: A guide for project M & E. Rome, Italy: International Fund for Agricultural. Retrieved from:

Williams, B. and Hummelbrunner, R. (2010). Systems Concepts in Action: A Practitioner's Toolkit, Sanford Califonia, Stanford University Press.

Oakden, J. (2014). The use of Rich Pictures in Evaluation. [Video of slide presentation]. Retrieved from:

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