Systemic design

Systemic design diagram
Systemic design: Integrating the mindsets and toolsets of systems thinking and design thinking to encourage innovative systems change

Collaborative and multi-stakeholder processes take time, and designing them differs from that involved in a single meeting or workshop. Processes need to be flexible to deal with an emergent learning process that may run for months – or longer, while still providing an indication of desired and feasible sequential outcomes as a guide for those tasked with managing it. Systemic design differs from more traditional service or experience design in terms of scale, social complexity and integration – it is concerned with higher order social systems that that entail multiple subsystems. By integrating systems thinking (and its methods) with design thinking, systemic design brings social-centered design to complex, multi-stakeholder service systems. It builds on design and systems competencies – form and process reasoning, social and generative research methods, and sketching and visualization practices – to describe, map, propose and reconfigure complex services and systems. This next page links to more specific resources around systems thinking tools and methodologies.

Systems thinking can just be used to help understand or analyse a situation. However, multiple stakeholder groups can be involved in a systemic design process – which is outcome focused, and can be seen to cover a number of different phases. For example key functions in a typical adaptive management/policy setting process may include:

  • Understanding the issue and the wider context in which it is sited. This needs to include inquiring into how the different stakeholders involved experience things.
  • Developing action plans. Needs to engage stakeholders around aims, assumptions and implications – and collectively identify constructive leverage points.
  • Learning and refining over time. Involving stakeholders in learning-based adaptive management – “so what?” and “what now?” discussions.

Several recent publications and websites have contributed to locating systemic design as a social-centred systems-oriented design practice, such as the ones set out below:

Follow the Rabbit: A Field Guide to Systemic Design. This 2017 field guide by Roya Damabi is designed to support budding systemic designers to facilitate and lead systemic design projects. It’s designed for systemic designers who have basic familiarity with SD concepts and are looking for some practical tips and tools to put theory into action. The Guide goes through a systemic design project from concept to implementation. It takes you through the workshop planning process, and discusses workshop roles and client relations. In the FAQs, you’ll find explanations to some commonly asked questions about systemic design concepts to help you introduce others to SD and bring them along with you.

Whole in one: Designing for empathy in complex systems.  This 2017 paper by Helena Sustar and Tuuliu Maki investigates the role of empathy and the use of service design tools in the context of (governmental) systems and organisational services. They propose that  – rather than dealing with emotions and mental states –  the empathic design approach aims to assist and scaffold people in a system, to understand how the system works from another perspective and to reflect their own viewpoints on a better whole. The paper also examines existing systemic and empathic design tools through which empathy is applied in design processes.

Systems Approaches to Public Sector Challenges – Working with Change. This 2017 report, produced by the OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation, explores how systems approaches can be used in the public sector to solve complex or “wicked” problems . Consisting of three parts, the report discusses the need for systems thinking in the public sector; identifies tactics that can be employed by government agencies to work towards systems change; and provides an in-depth examination of how systems approaches have been applied in practice.

Systems thinking and design thinking: Complementary approaches? Design Thinking (DT) and Systems Thinking (ST) came about through totally different and unrelated processes. In this 2015 blog Grace Mugadza reminds us that the philosophies of both can be traced back hundreds of years, but there has been a recent resurgence in their application. DT as popularized today has its initial roots in business, especially in product design where innovative products are designed to meet people’s needs and thereby understand how to facilitate innovation. DT was extended and applied to management and soon it assumed the concepts of Systems Thinking, which, as she shows has been more established and developed over a longer period of time.

A framework for systemic design. This 2014 paper by Alex Ryan  presents a framework for systemic design as a mindset, methodology, and set of methods that together enable teams to learn, innovate, and adapt to a complex and dynamic environment. The author proposes a systemic design methodology composed of six main activities: framing, formulating, generating, reflecting, inquiring, and facilitating. In this view systemic design methods are seen as a flexible and open-ended set of procedures for facilitating group collaboration that are both systemic and designerly.

Systemic design principles for complex social systems. This 2014 (preprint) paper by Peter Jones shows how systems theory and design thinking both share a common orientation to the desired outcomes of complex problems, which is to effect highly-leveraged, well-reasoned, and preferred changes in situations of concern. Systems thinking (resulting from its theoretical bias) promotes the understanding of complex problem situations independently of solutions, and demonstrates an analytical bias. Design disciplines demonstrate an action-oriented or generative bias toward creative solutions, but design often ignores deep understanding as irrelevant to future- oriented change.  This work presents a reasoned attempt to reconcile the shared essential principles common to both fundamental systems theories and design theories. While primarily oriented to complex social systems, the shared systemic design principles apply to all complex design outcomes, product and service systems, information systems, and social organizational systems. Also see another of the author’s 2014 papers – Design Research Methods in Systemic Design.

Integrating systems thinking and design thinking. This web paper by John Pourdehnad, Erica Wexler and Dennis Wilson usefully links systems thinking and design thinking. They acknowledge that the two approaches complement each other and each incorporates components of the other implicitly. Importantly, they remind us that the most valuable principle that systems thinking can add to design thinking is the need to bring the whole system to the discussion from the beginning. The stakeholders within the system must plan for themselves. If problem formulation is the first step in the design process, then adopting a systems mindset can help with framing and especially reframing the problems.

Schön: Design as a reflective practice. this 2011 paper by Willemien Visser presents Schön’s approach to design. For Schön, design was one of a series of activities in domains that involve reflective practice: City planning, engineering, management, and law, but also education, psychotherapy, and medicine. As he says it, “the designer constructs the design world within which he/she sets the dimensions of his/her problem space, and invents the moves by which he/she attempts to find solutions.

Lessons learned – Why the failure of systems thinking should inform the future of design thinking. This 2009 FC blog by Fred Collopy reminds us that systems thinking, as written about and practiced by Russell Ackoff, C. West Churchman, Peter Checkland and others, contained within it many of the impulses that motivate the application of design ideas to strategy, organization, society, and management. Ideas such as engaging a broad set of stakeholders, moving beyond simple metrics and calculations, considering idealized options and using scenarios to explore them, shifting boundaries to reframe problems, iteration, the liberal use of diagrams and rich pictures, and tirelessly searching for a better set of alternatives were all there. However, trying to define systems thinking to academically does tend to reduce its uptake by managers, accordingly this piece points out that we must be careful not to constrain the concept of design thinking in the same way.

Concept & Systems Learning for Design. CSL4D is an informal, private initiative by Sjon van ’t Hof. He has developed this wordpress site and blog for exploring the combined use of concept mapping and systems thinking for learning in business, development, and education.

Adopt-Adapt-Expand-Respond: a framework for managing and measuring systemic change processes. As Daniel Nippard, and colleagues remind us, those who implement them are tasked with ‘facilitating systemic change’ – but what does the term ‘systemic change’ means – and the ‘facilitation’ implicit in its implementation – is often not clearly defined. This Briefing Paper formally introduces this framework as one contribution to  promoting greater precision in how practitioners and funders understand and operationalise ‘systemic change’.


Framing design as conversations about systems. This 2016 presentation by Hugh Dubberly outlines how design has evolved to address and work with complexity.  Design and thinking in terms of whole systems means thinking about relationships, continuous change and feedback loops.

Systemic design: Systems as a theory for complex design.  A 2015 slideshare presentation by Peter Jones. Covers new approaches to design thinking, design methods and principles.

Towards a Systemic Design Toolkit: A Practical Workshop.  A 2016 slideshare presentation by Koen Peters. Provides an introduction to a systemic design toolkit, along with underlying principles. It then provides an overview of the tools, and illustrates these using a case study example around managing child obesity.


Systemic Design Research Network.  The Systemic Design Research Network is a cooperative educational group founded in 2012 whose aims are: i) to advance the practice of systemic design as an integrated discipline of systems thinking and systems-oriented design; ii) to convene an annual international symposium, Relating Systems Thinking to Design (RSD); and iii)  to advance the knowledge, theory, and publications in the domains of systems-oriented design and industrial and social systems design methods in systemic practice. Procedings of the 2016 symposium can be found at RSD5 2016. A set of process innovation papers and presentations are also included.

Systemic Design eXchange.  SDX is an Edmonton-based community of practice that convenes individuals interested in learning about Systemic Design as a methodology for addressing complex, real world issues. With a bias towards learning by doing, SDX aims to be a watering hole where multiple sectors can come together, learn together, and act together. Together, SDX explores systems thinking, design thinking, and change lab approaches.


More information on approaches, tools and methodologies related to systemic design can be found through the linked LfS pages  on systems thinking, design thinking and systems thinking tools. Other related pages point to resources on  related topics such as guides to help initiate and manage multi-stakeholder processesmanaging participation – including marginalized voices,  facilitation tools  and reflective practice. Allied topics include  supporting constructive practice changestrategic planning and scenario development.