The visual representation of complexity: Definitions, examples and learning points

This visual overview was developed through a research process that identified, defined and illustrated 16 key features of complex systems.

The research addresses the need for images that are widely understood across different fields and sectors for researchers, policymakers, and design practitioners and contributes to an evolving visual language of complexity.

This resource and the following information was contributed by Patricia Rogers (BetterEvaluation).

Authors and their affiliation

Research and design by: Joanna Boehnert (CECAN)

Project mentors: Alex Penn, Peter Barbrook-Johnson, Martha Bicket, and Dione Hills (CECAN)

CECAN: Centre for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus.

Key features

This poster identifies, defines and illustrates 16 features of complex systems:

  • feedback
  • emergence
  • self-organisation
  • levers and hubs
  • non-linearity
  • domains of stability
  • adaptation
  • path dependency
  • tipping points
  • change over time
  • open system
  • unpredictability
  • unknowns
  • distributed control
  • nested systems
  • multiple scales and levels

For each item, it provides a brief definition, some examples and learning points.

The poster can be easily printed onto an A3 sheet of paper.

How have you used or intend on using this resource?

I have printed this out to display in my office to keep these ideas handy when writing, talking or thinking about complexity.  I plan to use this in my teaching and in discussions when planning evaluations that address complex aspects.

Why would you recommend it to other people?

There is increasing recognition that complexity has potential value for improving how we plan, manage and evaluate interventions.  However, many discussions of complexity in evaluation only address a few of the issues involved – particularly multiple scales and levels, and non-linearity.  

This document presents an informed summary of 16 different concepts that might need to be considered, enriching the discussions about complexity.  The visualisations and concise definitions have the potential to introduce new concepts to people who will find them useful and to improve communication between people who are using different definitions of complexity.


Boehnert, J. (2018). The visual representation of complexity: Definitions, examples and learning points. CECAN. Retrieved from: