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UNPACKING "Urban Ecology: Types of Systemic Relations”

Updated: Feb 10, 2021

Peer Review Series: Review #1 of 10

In this new SenseMakers Alliance, series we will be including several visualizations related to the subject of complexity, this diagram being one of them. With complexity of many organizational and societal challenges rising, the interest in visualizing complexity continues to rise.

The purpose of this SenseMakers Alliance series is not to present unified views but rather to share the diversity of perspectives of Peer Reviewers, spanning theory and practice in order to provide an authentic window into this complex subject.

The question the Reviewers are addressing in this series is this one:

Is this an example of effective Visual SenseMaking today?

You can view the original diagram here:

Peer Review Contributors: Geoff Elliott, Roger James, Elizabeth Pastor, Rob Waller, GK VanPatter.


Geoff Elliott:

An interesting diagram. From my perspective, quite noisy. It is what I would call a level 2 diagram. Is there a need for a series of diagrams. Eg,

Level 0 overall context

Level 1......

Level 2...........

Plus a series of breakout diagram which explore the different “systems in focus” from different perspectives.

Roger James:

To summarize: Attractive and seemingly informative but I find it challenging to use for the inevitable ‘what next’ question. How does it focus toward the reality of intervention?

It is so representative of this sort of output. As a graphic this has a nice appearance and likely to be the ‘attention magnet’ often required as an output of forums & workshops. The layout is clean and it makes use of colours. I might speculate it is also the summary of a significant amount of research likely to include input from a number of people. As an artefact and summary of such an event it has value and as a talking point it could trigger many conversations.

The challenge I feel is in the utility of the graphic for further analysis or future action. For analysis the value lies in the format of the underlying data (is it a picture, a graphic based on some underlying structure or the output of a database?). For further action the question is can this artefact display quantities, priorities, possibilities, probabilities and practicalities as the basis of a plan of action. These are a general comment commonly made, why spend considerable time and effort in collecting and collating data if the returns from the work simply lock the information into the specific layout? Can the information be filtered, sorted and collected by feature (such as all the blues - associative relationships)?

From the cartographic point of view the colour coding is not particularly effective for its use in categorical distinctions - such as the use of blue for different associations and yellow for social relationships. Symbols would be more powerful and more ‘dimensional’, the classic works of Edward Tufte or John Tukey cover this in depth.

The rigour required for a plan of action or basic sensemaking will demand something more than imagery. The situation is obviously heterogeneous and a suggestion here would be to use Ackoff’s typology as a starting point (deterministic, animate, social, ecological) which could then form the basis of different approaches. Some further balancing of the detail would also be required - for example industry is identified as contributing to pollution but not other human activity and the economy is connected to fines and politics. It is not easy to develop this into the causal and feedback loops necessary for informed action.

Elizabeth Pastor:

This piece reminds me of Paolo Ciuccareli’s recent post where he states that if companies are complex organizations, visualizations of those companies should also be complex.

Well, if the purpose was to show the complexity embedded in Urban Habitat Design, then I think this is a very successful piece. We see a complex (or wicked) system, full of arrows supposedly showing interdependencies, connections and relationships. The complexity of the diagram is the message itself.

However, if the purpose of this piece is for us to do something about it or with it, then that might be problematic. It is obvious that there is a lot of valuable information and knowledge which someone has taken an extensive amount of time to research and visualize, so it feels unfair (and maybe even mean) to be critical. However, as I encounter it, I am quite overwhelmed. Where to look? How to navigate? What does it all mean? I struggle to find meaning.

Getting back to Paolo’s recent post, how can we show the inherent complexity of an issue/company/organization/…? In our work at Humantific, we consider the intended purpose of a diagram to help us make decisions about how to show that complexity. One approach is creating a bird’s eye view or more abstract ecosystem picture as a first step, and then additional visuals that zoom into the detail with all the elements and components. This helps do an initial skimming on the topic, to then go deep into detail to the desired elements.

To be able to create this bird’s eye view diagram we need to show the main elements/components and how they relate to each other, something which is also not apparent presently. I see many words, details, arrows and colors though I don’t have a sense of how many main elements make up this ecosystem, and how they relate to each other.

As I am writing this, I realize that I am not clear on the title of this diagram. We see the larger type (Urban Habitat Design, Urban Ecology) and visual in the center, though it is not clear that it is the title. To me, it looks more like a symbol or a logo. As well, there is a header on the left side (Types of Systemic Relations) which is a place commonly used for titles, however it is not clear that it is a title. Upon closer look, it seems that it is the key to the diagram, showing 4 types of relations symbolized as arrows in 4 main colors (greens, blues, yellow and reds). Unfortunately, the large amount of color variations within each category make it hard to distinguish and create understanding. This is especially prevalent as the arrows on the diagram are thin making similar hues hard to distinguish.

We could probably continue analyzing lots of details but as I stand back and think about the whole piece, I think this is a good working diagram. The kind of diagram that you are developing as you are researching a topic to understand it. Now that all the information is there, it’s time to make it create meaning that others will understand. To do so, I would probably start by drawing a few bubbles/highlights on the diagram, over certain areas, that encapsulate what those clusters are about. Once I do that, I will have a better sense of what it’s about and how to best diagram it. So let’s take advantage of all this detailed research and let’s get that bird’s eye view diagram ready!

Rob Waller:

What you say and how you say it are inseparable, but here I’m going to focus on the means of expression. Because until I’m confident about what is being said, I can’t begin to critique the content.

I am hoping this group’s purpose will include working together to develop a critical method for diagrams/charts/visualisations. So I’ll be trying to find generalisable principles we can learn from.

This example is a graphic design disaster – here are a few reasons why it’s so hard to read:

  • The chart’s creator wishes to articulate a lot of subtly different relationships but uses limited semiotic resources: coloured arrows, acronyms and words. Icons, textures and shapes (for example, for the cartouches in which concepts sit) are not used, and nor is layout. There seems to be some kind of zoning going on, but it’s not declared (top left is political/philosophical, climate is bottom left, industry and technology top right, and the natural world bottom right.

  • Everything is corralled into a rectangle, with lines constrained to right angles, so we have little hope of reading this at a meta-level. Text is linear and once a page is full you move to a new one, but graphic formats need to account for canvas constraints (the term used by multimodal scholars such as John Bateman). In other words, if you start your diagram with ideal sizing and spacing of elements (that is, with enough air to be able to form meaningful groupings, and a meaningful overall shape) once the available space (the canvas) is filled it is tempting to just cram more in. It is rare to find canvasses with no constraints. One example is meeting rooms where the entire room is a whiteboard. Another is Jock Kinneir’s classic system for UK road signs – there is no standard size for these, but the content is drawn out according to rules of spacing, and the sign is made to fit the content. GENERALISABLE CONCLUSION: diagram content may need to be chunked or layered to take account of canvas constraints. Not to do this is to risk illegibility and to lose control of gestalt principles based on the use the space, such as proximity and closure.

  • I called it a chart just now, but I’m not sure what word is best. Is this in fact a diagram, or just a network? In other words, is the graphic shape itself meaningful, or is the utility to be achieved only by following connections (in which case it could take any shape at all. This is a problem we sometimes overlook when discussing graphic formats. GENERALISABLE CONCLUSION: it needs to be clear whether we should read shape as significant or merely the connections.

  • Every colour line is defined except black, the dominant colour, and grey. And there are two types of dotted black line. Both the grey and the dotted lines could be seen as diluted forms of black. GENERALISABLE CONCLUSION: if you have to use a key, make it complete. If readers have to guess at your coding, they cannot have confidence that they have understood you.

  • If a relationship flows both ways, sometimes there are two arrows (see ‘asr’ arrows in the screen grab below) and sometimes there are double-headed arrows. GENERALISABLE CONCLUSION: graphic design needs proof-reading for consistency just as much as text does.

  • The key shows big chunky arrows. This gives the graphic designer a satisfying effect of chiaroscuro but: they are different from the arrowheads in the chart itself; our perception of colour changes with scale and background; our memory for colour is poor – without the labels, we would find it hard to distinguish ‘fhs’ from ‘fns’ in the chart itself. GENERALISABLE CONCLUSION: keys need to be consistent with what is keyed.

  • The colour coding system has 16 shades. Together with acronyms this is a massive memory load (or cross-checking load). GENERALISABLE CONCLUSION: use colour coding sparingly and with an understanding of colour perception.

  • Miscellaneous problems: Some things aren’t connected at all. Examples are ‘privacy’, ‘balance’, and ‘gardening allotment’. But they are floating near other relevant components. So they are seemingly related but not systemically? Why are ‘ar’ and ‘it’ so prominent – are we supposed to start reading there? The large Urban Habitat Design logo – is this the title centrally placed, or is it part of the chart’s content? Nothing connects to it, so I assume it’s the title. Why does food web get an explanatory picture, but nothing else? What is the large question mark on the left doing? Isn’t the dotted line already an expression of hesitation or doubt? GENERALISABLE CONCLUSION: remember that readers are seeking significance in your design so don’t leave them in doubt. Help readers understand the rules of your game.

  • Charts like this classically suffer from a figure-ground problem – the spaces between boxes form new boxes because the connecting lines are vertical and horizontal. This is compounded by the dotted line cartouches which have missing corners: a graphic designer making themselves heard? There’s no meaning to it, and while the gestalt principle of closure should help, here it just causes leakage between active white space (that defines the cartouche) and passive white space. And arrows sometimes join the cartouche at the point where the dotted border is missing. Very occasionally, an arrow just meets another arrow (in the screen grab shown, ‘crt’ meets the ‘asr’ arrow). GENERALISABLE CONCLUSION: designers: follow the basic rules you were taught at design school, about perception, gestalt principles and affordances.

  • An electrical engineer would have left gaps where lines cross, to help us read them as lines not boxes. GENERALISABLE CONCLUSION: there is something to be said for standards and conventions, and for learning from professions that use visualisation with no aesthetic goals.

Having said all this, the effort to read leads to numerous questions about how these concepts are related – so a form of sense-making has happened in my

head. Perhaps that is the real point.

GK VanPatter:

At the 2012 international competition: “OUT OF BALANCE – CRITIQUE OF THE PRESENT, Information Design after Otto Neurath” it was notable to everyone involved, especially the judges, that a new generation of information designers (amateur and professional) was arriving with a technology driven fascination for making the complicated into rather cool looking digital art. It was something that the seasoned judges wrestled with then in heated discussions. Suffice it to say, this remains a rather contentious wave in the industry. Since then, many coffee-table sized books have been published containing such specimens.

Happy to make 10 Comments on this Diagram:


To begin with I am rather puzzled by the overnight celebritization of this particular diagram type. I have already posted comments on that subject; A Long not Short History, and the lack of historical acknowledgement/recognition seen in some of the new claims around "Visualizing Complexity". Some of those claims are extremely aggressive. Lets not lose our sense of humor folks. Since the foundational pioneers of "Visualizing Complexity" are well known in the information design community (Joseph Priestly, William Playfair, Christophe de Savigny, Willard Brinton, Otto Neurath, etc. etc. ) that is probably not the best way to approach entry into the subject..:-) Truth be told: There is nothing particularly new about visualizing what has, for many years in the *Visual SenseMaking community been called a Universe Diagram. The notion that we are all of a sudden visualizing systems that are complex and large in scale is a false narrative, more related to marketing than to actualities. *Visual SenseMakers have historically taken on many types of large systems including organizations, cities, states, countries and the world as a whole. Social media directed at a young audience seems to be playing a large part in driving the diagram celebritization narrative, untethered to information design history.


In most information design projects there is the question of what is going to drive the train; graphic aesthetics, or information design principles…i.e.: making it look cool or making it understandable. Striking a balance is difficult with most diagrams leaning towards one side or the other. Many completely abandon the understanding part and fully embrace the coolness factor. Richard Wurman pointed this out for decades in the context of the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) and its various competitions and conferences. It was a hard fought battle and Richard did a lot to raise awareness of what he called “the understanding business”. I would say in the context of this diagram that the coolness factor over-shadowed the pursuit of understanding. Graphic decisions seemed to be based, not on considerations related to human sensemaking but rather to aesthetics. If I had to put numbers on it for this diagram I would say it was driven 90% by cool factor considerations and 10% by sensemaking considerations. The overall diagram signals information design but its actual execution is more like a cool poster.


Since in our practice we think of sensemaking as informing changemaking we always want to know, when looking at diagrams: When are we looking at? Is this a picture of yesterday, or today (a problem condition) or is this a picture of tomorrow (a speculative solution)? Without that basic time-line knowledge, up front, it is difficult for readers to get much value from such pictures. In this diagram, complicated by a lot of graphic noise, I am not sure when this is intended to be. I am guessing that this is a picture of conditions today. Since we know that humans find it easier to understand something by comparison it seems likely that a comparative picture would have helped here too. If this is yesterday, what does today look like? If it is today what then does tomorrow look like? Comparisons are an often used handy device in information design. In some of the historical literature on this subject where the Isotype Institute team was involved you can find yesterday/today comparisons between the UK and the USA as examples.


As long time practitioners of Visual SenseMaking we look at what probably amounts to thousands of poorly created diagrams every year, being generated by well-meaning adults operating in the context of organizational and societal changemaking. One thing we have noticed is that among the most common missteps is an absence of humans. Often seen in engineering driven diagrams it's a common error visible in plain sight. Common is heavy use of squares, rectangles, triangles, circles and various abstract shapes to represent anything and everything with the humans absent. A very simple question to ask is: Where are the humans? In this diagram I have no idea where the humans are other than I see two small icons within the unconnected logo-like device in the center. In the diagram itself I see some words that seem to imply human but they are drawn the same as everything else. Clarifying what is human and what is not typically adds an immediate layer of clarity. There is considerable irony here in that this diagram, created within a human-centered design paradigm, contains so few humans:-)


The question of ordering system is always key in any diagram creation. A visual sensemaking team typically wants to know where the knowledge to be visualized is coming from? Is it coming from one or more communities? The team will typically ask if there is a recognized official ordering system for that subject within that knowledge community. Sometimes there are such principles and sometimes not. If not, then the information design team carefully constructs a new, never-before-seen organizing principle. Being new and never before encountered can add a layer of complexity if it is not thoughtfully depicted. In this diagram the key, the organizing principle, occupies a lot of space and plays an important role but is in itself rather problematic. This seems to be a four-part color coded ordering system with subparts of varying quantity for each section from 3 to 6. It seems unlikely that this rather odd acronym-based ordering system is a well-known industry standard. As a first time presented system I would say it needs considerable work. As a form of coded language the key itself places a considerable cognitive load on readers. The organizing principle text reads like an academic instructional lecture. In the key it is never really explained why all the coded language is needed. An oddity often encountered by information designers in professional practice is that subject matter experts (clients, authors, content experts) often have no idea how to visually explain their work. I can see some shades of that here in this diagram. A strong design team working with the subject matter experts would have, I think ended up in a different place with the key. This appears to be the subject matter experts driving the information design train, rather than the information designers.


If the purpose of the diagram is to play a role in informing potential change (“Systemic Design”) it is likely that folks from many disciplines would be involved in that adventure. In our Humantific world, this is where sensemaking and changemaking intersect. As we enable teams from a multitude of disciplines to tackle complex challenges together with the aid of information tools we try to move away from the heavy use of tribal acronyms. The very practical reason is that if all the tribes present are using their tribal acronyms it slows down the comprehension process, the sensemaking process and therefore the changemaking process. Who has time for all those tribal acronyms? Nobody I know.

A big part of the information design role in the broader context of innovation enabling is to marshal an inclusive visual logic and away from tribal codes. The often seen tribal machoism effect of “I created this code system. I know what all these acronyms mean and you don't” does not fit well within the human-centered information design paradigm.

A quick count would suggest there are 16 acronyms in the key at the primary navigation level, with the added complexity that many of the acronyms differ from the explanatory words beneath. Underneath the acronym “crt” is the word “tools”. Underneath the acronym “pcr” are the words “positive relations”, while underneath the acronym “asr” is the word “action”. As if that wasn't enough a quick count reveals that the 16 different acronyms are used 70 times, with some acronyms in the key used many times and others not appearing at all in the actual diagram. (the “fhs” acronym appears in the diagram 19 times, “str”: 10 times, and “msr”, “misr”, “fns”, 0 times).

All of that makes for difficult and time consuming comprehension. Well executed information visualization can act as a comprehension accelerator. Poorly executed visualizations can become time consuming obstacles that are painful for diverse disciplines to engage with. Encountering too much of that noise in one diagram and the reader will, in the real world, abandon the exercise. In a business setting, multiple examples of that in the room could endanger the entire initiative.


It might not be apparent to those arriving into the subject but considerations of cognitive load, time required, etc. are part of how an information designer thinks. This is human-centered systems thinking in the context of information design. The team would think about the load of not just this one diagram but the entire story of whatever system is being explained. Unless the expectation is for this diagram to be a drive-by atmospheric picture, more for effect than actual detailed content absorption, most humans I know would be taxed deciphering it. Suffice it to say the load there in just one diagram is off-the-charts. Cognitive load is one of the more complicated considerations in the context of rising complexity of challenges as the need to show visually what the thing is often conflicts with the present capacity of humans to grasp and remember. Not everything is presently crystal clear within the subject of information design and cognitive load is one of those issues. As complexity of various situational messes continues to rise, cognitive load as a subject, continues to rise in importance.


Universe diagrams are typically not thought to be a holy grail type one-off that stands by itself. Systems stories at the scale of organizations and societies typically contain many views. Those views would ideally be tied together in one visual language but there would be multiple views and no one celebrity. Someone might point out the irony of suggesting we need to move away from simplicity and towards embracing complexity while suggesting one drawing type is the new holy grail…:-)


Clearly it is possible to use information to create anything from cool wallpaper, to decorative posters to museum exhibitions to working information tools. Although there is a general awareness of this in the information design industry there are not formal hard and fast rules for how to do one or the other presently. I would not categorize this diagram as a working information tool. I think it could become one if additional views were present keyed to this overview. Of course creating coffee table books full of complex visualizations that are fun to look at but are not really working diagrams is also an industry option with many in pursuit of that avenue. So be it. Lots of diversity is inevitable. To me the issue is not so much one or the other, but rather when one is being sold as the other..:-)


Last but not least, to be fair to the diagram creators, lets acknowledge that it is disadvantaged when appearing at such a small scale. Being a static one view, poster-like picture is also limiting. If this diagram was six feet high and people could interact with it, draw on it, fixing, adding or subtracting a few things by hand, as part of their own sensemaking this might help with its digestion and usability. If the content within was interactive and could be viewed via different ways of organizing the information that would also provide more ways for understanding it. Enabling so-called distributed cognition calls for the consideration of bigness.

Here we are looking at only one way, organized by someone who understood the content, probably too well. To be fair, how the diagram is intended to be used, at what scale, by whom exactly is not clear.

In closing somewhat difficult to express is the notion that part of what a skilled information design team is doing is using systems thinking to create a visual language system that explains the client’s system. The basic information design paradigm logic would be that just creating a bunch of graphic layers on top of each other is not really creating a system, at least not one that is comprehensible…:-)

There is considerable irony in this absence: Without the considerations of cognitive load, etc. it is not really possible to create what are now considered to be human-centered information tools. Here in this diagram example we did not see much of that. How that fits with the notion of moving towards “Systemic Design” remains unclear to me at the moment.

At the end of this day my guess is that this diagram is coming from a place where there was not a lot of senior information design educated professional information designers present. Numerous, quite straight-forward information design battles were lost in this diagram creation. This becomes part of its story.

On the question we are being asked to address here: “Is this an example of effective Visual SenseMaking today?” I would say it is a particular type of graphic communication that makes some effort in the direction of sensemaking, signalling that intent, but significantly falls short and could be much improved. A lot of quite basic information design principles were missed or avoided here.

It is one of those projects where I would like to have seen an Option 2 and Option 3 created by an information design team as Option 1 is not working so well and has so many issues within. A completely different approach would probably reveal more about what this diagram is actually supposed to be communicating. Hope this is helpful.


*Visual SenseMaking & Visual SenseMakers: For terminology explanation go here:


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