SystemViz is a research project by Peter Stoyko exploring how visuals can enhance systems thinking, especially as it relates to inter-disciplinary, collaborative design. Findings are expressed as visual tools and detailed writings. There are three pillars to the project. The first involves surveying the systems literature across fragmented disciplines to develop unified frameworks for systems thinking. The codices below are the first outcomes of that research. A forthcoming book will turn some of those findings into practical advice for systems change. The second pillar surveys notation and diagraming methods for mapping systems. A new information-design framework for mapping systems will be proposed in the near future, among other outputs of that research. Finally, the project explores ways of adding motion and interaction into systems mapping activities. For e-mail updates on the SystemViz project, sign up using the form at the bottom of the page.


International Institute for Information Design Award 2023-Gold/Distinction

The Visual Vocabulary of Systems is a codex that corrals together the main elements and dynamics of systems. A codex is a formal collection of related items. A visual codex adds an illustrative icon to each item. The Visual Vocabulary was assembled from an extensive review of the literature of various disciplines within the natural science, social sciences, design disciplines, and managerial disciplines. Many aspects of systems go by different terms and are understood differently across disciplines. The intent is to provide a shared language for interdisciplinary teams to explore the detailed workings of both natural- and human-made systems. The Visual Vocabulary is free to use and modify. It is released under a Creative Commons Free Culture license that only requires attribution. The codex and additional documentation can be downloaded by clicking below.

Download Visual Vocabulary Poster

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Download Icon Design Specification

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ESCALADE is an information-design framework for improving system diagrams, maps, notations, and other graphics. Systems are a particularly challenging subject to visualize. Most system graphics are developed without any consideration to design criteria. The ESCALADE framework fills that gap with eight marquee criteria. These are explained in a series of slide-notes, which offer additional tips and considerations while exploring each criterion.

Download ESCALADE slide notes

Download ESCALADE summary handout

The Anatomy of System Notations is a comprehensive inventory (or codex) of graphical devices used in visual system notations. This stock-taking covers draws from 70 notations and identifies 65 graphical devices. At the very least, the codex provides a helpful list of options for anyone mapping or diagramming systems. However, the larger goal is to identify how existing notations depict system elements and dynamics in order to find biases and blind-spots when compared to the larger literature on systems.

Download Anatomy of System Notations slide notes

Download Anatomy of System Notations poster

Amalgams of systems (such as a society, economy, ecosystem or organization) can be thought of as complex, messy entanglements. The Pattern Atlas of System Vulnerabilities uses the tangle metaphor as a foil to explain the weaknesses inherent to elaborate, human-made systems. Some 30 types of systemic vulnerability are identified across four levels of scale. The Atlas sheds light on a number of challenges facing society. It explains why our increasingly systematized world is becoming more susceptible to break-downs, both large and small. It provides a framework for understanding how small faults can cascade into major disasters. That framework adds clarity to the paradox of why tangles of systems seem to be always changing, yet also staying the same in general. A poster provides a detailed version of the Atlas that is drawn from Peter Stoyko's forthcoming book, How Small Players Change Big Systems (2024). An open source version and other materials can also be downloaded by clicking below.

Download Pattern Atlas Poster

Download Open-source Atlas Poster

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ANATOMY VERSION 1.0.0 The Anatomy of System Notations is presented at the RSD12 Annual Symposium of the Systemic Design Association in Washington, DC, USA. [26.05.23]

ESCALADE VERSION 0.9.0 The ESCALADE Information-Design Framework is presented at the 19th International Institute for Information Design VisionPlus conference in Vienna, Austria. [19.10.23]

VV SYNTAX VERSION 1.0.0. The Icon Design: Visual Vocabulary Syntax Specifications guide is released, which explains the graphic-design thinking behind the Visual Vocabulary icons. [15.01.23]

ATLAS VERSION 1.0.0. The Pattern Atlas of System Vulnerabilities is released with posters and presentation at RSD11 Conference, University of Brighton, UK. The main Atlas poster contains tracts of text from the forthcoming SystemViz book How Small Players Change Big Systems and is subject to copyright. However, an open source version containing the basic elements is also available. [12.10.22]

VV VERSION 1.3.2. In anticipation of the release of the formal icon-syntax specifications, which applies to both SystemViz and CultureViz, several icons were updated: mutualism, commensalism, parasitism, (de)activation, auto-environment, and framing. Compatibility is changed to joints, with minor changes to the definition. Slight changing to wording of frames and signs. [12.10.22]

VV VERSION 1.3.1. Goal drift changed to goal shift to remove negative connotation, with boundary movement changed to boundary shift to add consistency. Reappropriation changed to (re)appropriation, affecting alphabetical order, with wording changes that broaden the concept slightly. Description of support structure expanded. These changes coincide with a presentation at the 65th meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences (slides). [02.07.21]

VV VERSION 1.3.0. The final expansion of Version 1 of the Visual Vocabulary, rounding out the set to 200 elements and dynamics. Future expansions will be labelled Version 2 (small modifications will all be under 1.3.X.). Additions include: turbulence, tolerance, translation, correspondence, observer influence, period, dissipation, and exaptation. A few icons have been revised to make more consistent with the icon composition rules: integration, reappropriation, and multi-function. Risk asymmetry has been turned into a more general asymmetry element that includes risk, among other things. Some rewording took place for instruction, disruptor, parallelism, lag, amplifier, (de)activation, trail, and equilibrium. Self-similarity was removed because it mostly referenced an overall system pattern and the core dynamic is contained within holon. [01.02.21]

VV VERSION 1.2.0. The largest expansion of elements to date: load balancing, expulsion, recursion, derivation, entrainment, objectile, and risk asymmetry. Peter Jones suggested recursion and "entailment," the latter of which is broken down into several elements depending on meaning (enabler, parallelism, and cascade, with derivation and entrainment rounding out the potential variations of the concept). [26.09.20]

VV VERSION 1.1.0. Addition of three elements: field, diversion, and check. Changes coincide with online workshops held for the United Nations Development Programme's Accelerator Labs. [09.06.20]

VV VERSION 1.0.0. Official launch of the public version, which includes a minor cleanup of working and the release of open source packages. [24.03.20]

VV VERSION 0.9.5. (Beta) Test workshops revealed the lack of a basic domain-space element is an oversight, so that element was added in anticipation of a virtual test session at OCADU, Toronto, Canada. [22.03.20]

VV VERSION 0.9.4. (Beta) Addition of three elements: reactivity, dynamic balance, and reappropriation. Changes coincide with lecture and test workshop held at Centro de diseño, cine y televisión, Mexico City, Mexico. Workshop exercise notes are available here (PDF). [08.03.20]

VV VERSION 0.9.3 (Beta). Addition of three elements: accumulation, dampener, and cross-domain risk, with added footnote. [02.12.19]

VV VERSION 0.9.2. (Beta) Minor clean-up of text to remove awkward grammar. [21.11.19]

VV VERSION 0.9.1. (Beta) Modifications: spelling corrections, colour adjustments to chips, and change of Symbolic Milieu icon. [06.11.19]

VV VERSION 0.9.0. (Beta) Pre-launch of the Visual Vocabulary poster at RSD8 Conference at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, USA, plus the first public trial of the chips in a conference workshop. [18.10.19]



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