A note about diagramming systems

On explaining vs. understanding, cold vs. warm approaches, and design’s engagement with the life of systemic emergence

Marc Rettig
6 min readSep 27, 2018


“Gigamapping is super extensive mapping across multiple layers and scales with the goal of investigating relations between seemingly separate categories, hence providing boundary critiques on the conception and framing of systems.”
- Birger Sevaldson, on systemorienteddesign.net

I love you. No, wait… I hate you.

When I encounter a gigamap, I unfailingly experience a strong reaction. I look, stare, study, read about the process, and am at once attracted and repelled.

“I love you,” I think, “because you are so ambitiously and wonderfully trying to capture and communicate complexity.”

“I hate you,” I think, “because you so coldly and statically portray the ineffable and warmly human dance of life in these systems.”

Why these strong but conflicting emotions? I’ve not thoroughly studied gigamapping, and I haven’t worked on an effort that produced one. I’m not qualified to comment on the processes, results, and intentions of the people who produce these maps.

No, it’s more that for me they are archetypes, and archetypes touch us deep down in our giblets. An archetype resonates as a call or a warning about who we might become. In gigamaps I see some things that call me, to which I want to say “yes.” And other things, more things, that make me shout “No!”

Yes to…

Yes to visual representations of large-grained and relatively slow-changing aspects of the world we’d like to shift.

Yes to artifacts that externalize abstractions, so groups of people can have one conversation, and communicate through a common sense of their “geography.”

Yes to anything that helps manage the overwhelm so we can be thorough about questions like, “Who is being left out?” “What forces have we missed?”

And yes to diagrams that serve as mental prosthetics to help us hold vast tangles of flow and influence in our conversations — something our minds are unable to do without aid.

Yes to anything that contributes to an increase in systemic ways of looking at challenges, problems, and possibilities. Wholeheartedly yes, and much gratitude to the people who promote gigamapping for their advocacy, education, and contribution to growing this absolutely critical competency in the world.

No to…

No to anything that tempts us to believe we’ve “captured it.”

No to diagrams that represent emergent patterns of relationship, quality, and behavior as though they are “what’s going on.” What’s going on is mostly invisible: human relationships, stories and beliefs, aggregated in patterns, influenced by boundaries, dancing according to loose constraints.

No to the belief we can “design” emergent patterns directly. (I’m not saying gigamaps embody this belief; I’m reporting on my reaction to the archetype — what comes up for me when I look at a map and sense an implied invitation to simply redraw the bad parts.)

No to diagrams that create an in-crowd of people who understand it because they helped make it, leaving everyone else as outsider dependent on the insiders for explanation.

No to processes that reinforce a kind of “special forces” view of designers and teams of experts, viewing participants and contexts in these systems as fauna and flora to be visited and documented.

No to the belief that one point of view is sufficient for working in social complexity.

No to representations that afford only one of the essential conversations: understanding “what is,” or imagining the work of co-creation. The quality of those conversations is deeply tangled, and our artifacts need to help. It’s best when the picture of “what is” invites engagement with “what could be.”

Considering a scale of “cold” (distant, removed, high-altitude, disengaged, academic, large-scale, expert, interventionist, FOR) to “hot” (immersed, connected, personal, involved, WITH), no to either extreme exclusively, and may the current thermostat setting be raised a bit warmer, please.

No to emphasizing Explanation (“let me give you a tour of this map so you have a feel for the systems”) over Understanding (“the more time we spend together, the more we are able to see things through each other’s eyes.”).

No to making a static view of LIFE — dynamic, in process, always becoming by its essential definitions — and feeling anything but humble and inadequate about the result. In the same breath, no to systems work without soul. I wonder if anyone ever cried while making a gigamap.

For that reason and many others, no to “making diagrams” as the central pillar of any systemic approach.

Comparing apples to egg crates (and why I like egg crates)

I am about to mention approaches I find more inspiring and practically valuable than gigamapping, but it is important for me to say: I’m aware that what I’m about to offer are not really trying to tackle the same challenge as gigamaps, hence the “apples to egg crates” heading. If system diagramming is what you’re after, then gigamaps might be your go-to approach. But if engaging wisely and intentionally with a systemic shift is what you’re after, then there are other places I prefer to look for inspiration.

Future of Fish and FlipLabs

I am inspired by the work of FutureOfFish, and the FlipLab reports. One place to start is the first “Future of Wild Fish” report).

Cheryl Dahle and company turned full attention to the global fishing system — a system of systems of woven lives, policies, practices, histories, infrastructure, nations-to-families,… and did so with humility, intention, and a theory of change informed by both systemic and deeply human views. I have not seen their working documents, or photos of their walls-in-process. But I love and am inspired by the way they documented their understanding in a catalog of documents and diagrams, useful for different purposes and audiences. And even when they are dealing with technical descriptions of systemic qualities, the language has the warmth of the real human contact from which it came.

Here is a video of Cheryl Dahle talking about this work.

A preference for approaches of warm participatory emergence

As I have explored the strange and wild realities of social complexity, emergence, and social autopoiesis, I have felt ever more attracted to ways of seeing and working that are shaped by those realities. And I feel repelled by ways of seeing and working that reinforce a belief that mechanistic, reductionist, static, industrial views and approaches will have efficacy in social complexity.

In our course my colleague and I introduce students to the examples we have found so far of approaches that seem both effective and shaped by respect for complexity. We feature most prominently:

What of systemic design? What of design’s role in social complexity?

This article was sparked by a Twitter conversation among people who are excited by both the power of design and the revelations of a systems view of life. The conversation and global experimentation of the synergy between the two is necessary and wonderful, but far from its conclusion. We are blessed to live and work in a time in which so many are exploring for ways of working together that can help us leave behind destructive systems, and create equitable and sustainable systems together.

Here are a few resources I find valuable in pursuing that conversation. There are many many many more. These are some I value today.

  • Transitiondesign.net, especially the work of Terry Irwin, Gideon Kossoff, and Cameron Tonkinwise as they synthesize social practice theory, social scales, Max-Neef’s views on human needs, and design practices.
  • Dave Snowden’s blog
  • Reos Partners’ blog
  • The provocative work of Patricia Shaw (book 1 and book 2): she does not often reference design explicitly, but offers fresh views of what it might mean to work with emergence and participation)
  • Oh lord. I’ve done it now. I’ve started listing resources. I’d better stop before this grows too long….



Marc Rettig

Fit Associates, SVA Design for Social Innovation, Okay Then