Classic Texts: UML Distilled

There are some texts that serve as a foundation stone for a field or technology; Kernighan & Ritchie’s “The C programing language” for C, Smith, Prabhu and Friedman’s “Establishing A Model-Based Design Culture” for MBD and for UML it is Martin Fowler’s “UML Distilled.” While the fields have moved beyond these three texts they all act as the common starting point of the discussion. With that in mind I want to talk about why reading UML Distilled will provide a significant boost to your system level modeling abilities.(1)

The third, and latest addition of UML Distilled was written in 2003. The usage of UML and the associated tool chains have evolved since then but the core principals of the book hold up.

A definition that holds up to the test of time

The difficulty in talking about UML is that it is an open standard; as a result, different tools and different groups have variants on the implementation of the language. That is why this book is so valuable, it lays out the core nature of the major types of UML diagrams.

When to use!

Perhaps most importantly the book lays out the cases of when to use each type of UML diagram, e.g. “Class Diagrams: When to use” & “Sequence Diagrams: When to use” and… While in my view the book recommends the usage of some diagrams when I do not think the are appropriate (specifically some of the recommendations for State Machine Diagrams and Communication Diagrams) it is admirable that he provides the trade-offs between different types of UML diagrams.

Object Oriented Classes and UML

One of the virtues of UML is the ability to graphically design Object Oriented models using Class Diagrams. Combined with Sequence Diagrams, the basics of a systems level modeling tool can be defined. However, what is often missed is that the Class and Sequence diagrams need to be combined with Package and Deployment diagrams to fully implement a system level model. Often the first two are used in system design and a less efficient implementation is created.(2)


  1. The primary issue surrounding UML is “when to stop.” UML diagrams are not intended for the final design of software but it is tempting to keep putting more information into the UML diagram. Fowler lays out a good case for how far to go.
  2. For smaller systems, Class and Sequence diagrams are sufficient; however, for larger system-of-systems the Package and Deployment diagrams are needed.

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