Systemic design

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

Systemic design is distinguished from service or experience design in terms of scale, social complexity and integration – it is concerned with higher order systems that that entail multiple subsystems. By integrating systems thinking and its methods, systemic design brings human-centred design to complex, multi-stakeholder service systems. It adapts from known design 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. Several recent publications and websites have contributed to locating systemic design as a human-centred systems-oriented design practice.

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 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.

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.


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.