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Some Future Paths for Design Professionals: DesignX and Systemic Design

Design professionals were attracted at the RSD5 (Relating Systems Thinking and Design) Symposium to a preconference workshop on October 13 at OCADU in Toronto, with the following abstract:

Since 2014, an international collaborative of design leaders has been exploring ways in which methods can be augmented, transitioning from the heritage legacy focus on products and services towards a broad range of complex sociotechnical systems and contemporary societal problems issues. At last year’s RSD4 Symposium, DesignX founder Don Norman presented a keynote talk on the frontiers of design practice and necessity for advanced design education for highly complex sociotechnical problems. He identified the qualities of these systems as relevant to DesignX problems, and called for systemics, transdisciplinarity and the need for high-quality observations (or evidence) in design problems.   Initial directions found were proposed in the first DesignX workshop in October 2015, which have been published in the new design journal She Ji.  In October 2016, another DesignX workshop will be held at Tongji University in Shanghai, overlapping with the timing of the RSD5 Symposium.

We propose to sustain the relationships between RSD and DesignX with this RSD5 half-day workshop, to explore the relationships between systemic design, existing educational programs and the DesignX agenda. We invite RSD participants engaged in both of these contexts to join in a collaborative discussion aimed at further developing the design and education agendas in these discourse communities. We aim to capture experiences and insights from design leaders, educators and practitioners in Toronto, as input, validation and/or suggestions for further development of the DesignX direction.

The morning started with 26 participants, who were briefed on the context for discussion, and given some instructions on a suggested approach.


The participants broke up into 5 groups for an open discussion over 90 minutes, and then gave brief verbal recaps supported by flipcharts on which that had collaborated.  For the impatient, here are some initial summaries expressing voices on emergent issues, that may serve as a basis for further inquiry.

Group 1‘s discussion centered on social designers:

  • For a design professional, what can a community of practice do to develop our roles as social leaders on multidisciplinary teams for change?

Group 2‘s discussion centered on design educators:

  • For a design educator, what specialized expertise requires preparatory knowledge and practices enable participants (citizens) to engage and lead transformations extended from the lab and studio to the arena and agora?

Group 3‘s discussion centered on designers working in policy:

  • For designers working in policy, what can and should they do that others can’t do?

Group 4‘s discussion centered on designers engaged with stakeholders:

  • For designers engaged with stakeholders (customers to planet), what are the value(s) associated with the products and services cocreated in the bigger system?

Group 5‘s discussion centered on design learners:

  • For design learners, what is the best way to continue ongoing learning with real life that includes learning by failing?

Comments on refining these questions are welcomed at the foot of this post, or through private communications.


Susu Nousala chaired the workshop.  The agenda was to explore together what people know, think, feel and experience about the field of design in relation to the DesignX and Systemic Design initiatives.  On the wall was a shrub (initially envisioned as a tree) of quotations on DesignX, published in She Ji.


Some excerpts were read out, and participants were welcomed to come up to refer to the text during the discussion period.

Ken Friedman, Yongqi Lou, Jin Ma, “Editorial“, Shè Jì: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, Volume 1, Issue 1, Autumn 2015, Pages 1–4

Twenty years ago, the design field had only a handful of scholarly and scientific journals. Visible Language was the first in the field, forty years old in 2017. Design Studies came next in 1979, and Design Issues followed in 1984.  [….]

Some journals cover such specialist fields as engineering design, ergonomics, and design history. Others are general design journals. Nevertheless, a gap remains, an interdisciplinary gap where professional fields and research disciplines should meet.

In this interdisciplinary gap, we will examine the intersection of design, economics, and innovation in various combinations, from various perspectives, and using the methods and methodological frameworks of the many disciplines that contribute to the necessarily interdisciplinary design field.  [….]

Journals in other fields have managed to bridge the gap. Harvard Business Review is an example: leaders in business and industry as well as management scholars and economists read HBR.  [….]

Design … is now both an art and a science.  [….]

… Herbert Simon defined design where he wrote that everyone designs who works to “[devise] courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” But Simon wanted to know more—he wanted to understand better how we could change existing situations to preferred situations in a reasoned, reliable way. This, in turn, calls for science—a field that Simon defines as understanding “things: how they are and how they work.” Simon spoke of design as a science of the artificial, that is, a science of things that humans conceive, design, and create. And he limited his concept of the design sciences, recognizing, wisely, that anything involving human action will never achieve the reliability or certainty of physics.

… Richard Buchanan [in this issue, discusses] range as the four orders of design: moving from the traditional artifacts of graphic design and product design to the larger range of systems and services, as well as organizations, societies, and cultures.

Visions …

In an era of globalization, designers from the East and the West have a duty to put forward their views as “critical regionalists.”  […]

… wicked problems in social, cultural, and economic systems, as well as organizational and industrial development …

“Shè” means set-up or planning. “Jì” means strategy or calculating. Putting these two characters together, “shè jì” means to “establish a strategy.  [….]

… we must reinvigorate the concept of “shè jì” at the level of science and technology, and at systemic and strategic levels.

Richard Buchanan, “Worlds in the Making: Design, Management, and the Reform of Organizational Culture“, She Ji, Volume 1, Issue 1, Autumn 2015, Pages 5–21

It is worth noting again that each of the major theories of management in the twentieth century can be regarded as a theory of design, explaining the actions that may be taken by managers in their work and the various states and kinds of organizations that have been created by the action (or inaction) of managers.  [….]

As Nelson suggests, we do not yet understand the full effect of organizations on our lives ….

… the Four Orders of Design, a matrix of the arts of design thinking and the problems toward which those arts have been applied.

  • Communication (symbols)
  • Construction (things)
  • Interaction (action)
  • Integration (thought)

… In the 1990s design thinking as a practice in management was somewhat a novelty, but since 2000 it has become an emergent practice ….

… Raymond Williams speaks of “emergent” … may lead down unsustainable pathways that, in the long run, could undermine the new design movement. Excessive emphasis on methods, skills, and techniques sometimes makes it appear that design thinking is an easy practice that anyone can master.  [….]

It is an ongoing search for what can be done to support and strengthen the dignity of human beings as they act out their lives in variety social, economic, political, and cultural circumstances.

Kees Dorst, “Frame Creation and Design in the Expanded Field“, She Ji, Volume 1, Issue 1, Autumn 2015, Pages 22–33

Design-trained people have access to a very broad range of professions. Yet there is something paradoxical about this development: ostensibly, many of these highly successful people have moved out of the field of “design.” This phenomenon deserves deeper consideration: how do design practices spread across society?

… frame creation allows practitioners to approach today’s open, complex, dynamic, networked problems in new and fruitful ways. [….] the practice of frame creation is still part and parcel of the domain of design, and explores how design can develop into an expanded field of practice.

… multifaceted professional fields like design are held together by a common discussion, and the challenge for design is to keep redefining and broadening the discussion to include these new developments. Otherwise it loses out, by misunderstanding or ignoring its own offspring. Design schools should take pains to include the in-depth practices of “ex-designers,” showing … how design is expanding ….

Eventually, we will have to move to a new, dynamic definition of design as an expanded field.

Victor Margolin, “The Good City: Design for Sustainability“, She Ji, Volume 1, Issue 1, Autumn 2015, Pages 34–43

Today, we are faced with many problems to which designers can contribute solutions. Action can take place at three levels: the micro level, that of individual action; the meso level is the level of groups where the individual may still have some influence; and the macro level includes governments, international organizations, and large companies. At the outer limits of the meso level is the city, which is still potentially capable of adopting coherent policies for change. There are many good ideas about urban design although it is rare to find a city that has integrated a large number of them into a holistic system.  [….]

… three points.

First, the design professions are changing and designers are taking up new challenges that are very different from those of the past. … we currently have no set definition of what a designer is or what he or she does. That’s why the term “design thinking” seems to be so popular at the present moment.  [….]

Second, I made the point that design training enables designers to imagine possibilities for the future in ways that others are not likely to do.

And third, I have laid out some of the myriad problems that we face as a species and have claimed that designers may have some ways to think about those problems that will provide better or at least different solutions than those we have now.  [….]

In any city, there are already activities that could become part of a sustainable system. Such a system could provide goods, services, and jobs for many people while also serving many valuable ecological functions ….

Sharon Helmer Poggenpohl, “Communities of Practice in Design Research“, She JiVolume 1, Issue 1, Autumn 2015, Pages 44–57

Based on observed changes in design focus largely due to the widespread availability of technology, design research and its role in education and practice need to be newly situated. Design itself is taking on new challenges. [….] Research, theory, and practice are interrelated design elements; they are not isolated; together they can form the basis for developing more useful and specific communities of practice.  [….]

Design is many things depending on its context. We need to realize this and tailor attention and interaction to the design community within which we work. The vehicles we count on for information and networking go against this because the economics of design journals and conferences need to be ecumenical to attract sufficient people and financial support. This serves to muddy recognition of the various contexts, whether economical, philosophical, regional, educational or practical within which we work. This lack of recognition makes design appear to be not only disorderly but also chaotic ….

Designers, whether teacher or practitioner or both, need to be interested in not only a focus, but also in a domain ….

Because design is practiced within so many different contexts as described by Ken Friedman … it is clear that there is no one way to practice design or to consider research needs.  [….]

Communities form around ideas, key people, institutions, programs, books and journals. They provide the context and glue from which we can build without having to begin from scratch.  [….]

The communities I envision are not dogmatic, looking for followers, but critically supportive of development within a domain of interest. They provide a critical network and a forum with which to engage.

Donald A. Norman and Pieter Jan Stappers, “DesignX: Complex Sociotechnical Systems“, She Ji, Volume 1, Issue 2, Winter 2015, Pages 83–106

This paper is a follow up to DesignX, a position paper written in 2014, which introduced the design challenges of complex sociotechnical systems such as healthcare, transportation, governmental policy, and environmental protection. We conclude that the major challenges presented by DesignX problems stem not from trying to understand or address the issues, but rather arise during implementation, when political, economic, cultural, organizational, and structural problems overwhelm all else. We suggest that designers cannot stop at the design stage: they must play an active role in implementation, and develop solutions through small, incremental steps—minimizing budgets and the resources required for each step— to reduce political, social, and cultural disruptions. This approach requires tolerance for existing constraints and trade-offs, and a modularity that allows for measures that do not compromise the whole. These designs satisfice rather than optimize and are related to the technique of making progress by “muddling through,” a form of incrementalism championed by Lindblom.  [….]

What Makes a Design Problem DesignX?

… The Psychology of Human Behavior and Cognition …

… Human Cognition: The Human Tendency to Want Simple Answers, Decomposable Systems, and Straightforward Linear Causality …

… Multiple Disciplines and Perspectives …

… Mutually Incompatible Constraints …

… Non-Independence of Elements  …

… Non-Linear Causal Relations: Feedback …

… Long and Unpredictable Latencies  …

… Multiple Scale Sizes …

… Dynamically Changing Operating Characteristics …

Designing for Difficulties in Implementation

… First, one should try for modularity …

Large, complex problems will always require a combination of deep analysis, incremental “muddling through,” and satisficing. For these reasons, designers must also focus upon the practical, cultural, social, economic, and political issues that will delay, impair, and compromise the implementation.

John M. Flach, Commentary on Norman and Stapper’s paper: “Supporting Self-Designing Organizations”

While I don’t fully disagree with Norman and Stappers’ characterization of human limitations with respect to managing complexity, and while I realize that they appreciate the important and essential contributions of smart humans in solving complex problems, I do think it is unfortunate that they single out the local rationality of humans as a special problem with respect to DesignX. […]

One theme that I would like to see associated with the DesignX initiative is the recognition that all agents—including the smartest humans and the most powerful automatons—are bounded relative to the complexities of many work domains such as healthcare. Rationality is always local, especially in a rapidly changing world.

Jeremy Myerson, Commentary on Norman and Stapper’s paper: “Small Modular Steps Versus Giant Creative Leaps”

Advice from Norman and Stappers that designers should avert their gaze from the sprawling imperfections of big systems, and “‘muddle through’” by taking small, modular steps rather than big leaps of creative faith is probably sensible. But it goes against the grain of more than 50 years of project-based design education in which designers have been taught to think big and bold outside the constraints of any system, and to learn through trying, making, and failing.

Donald A. Norman and Pieter Jan Stappers, Authors’ Response: “DesignX: For Complex Sociotechnical Problems, Design Is Not Limited to One Person, One Phase, or One Solution”

The problems of working in these complex systems stem from the diversity of actors present in the arena; very few are aware of all the relevant work. We called for a different kind of design education, but [Peter] Jones warns us that “Because it’s unlikely that graduate design education will sufficiently touch on these perspectives and their case studies, we risk ignorance of this extraordinary developed knowledge….

… Design education will have to prepare future professionals for this dimension of collaboration. As Jones says, “we might ask: if ‘we’ across the design disciplines are not designing for complex sociotechnical systems, then who is?

Maria Camacho, In Conversation: “David Kelley: From Design to Design Thinking at Stanford and IDEO“, She Ji, Volume 2, Issue 1, Spring 2016, Pages 88–101

For us at the, we think of ourselves as “ground zero” for design thinking. We started using the term in our world because our students were saying, “I’m not an expert in anything…” In this group, there were students who were experts in mechanical engineering, and others expert in computer science, and they were saying to me that they have trouble in the job market, trouble talking to their friends, because they are not experts at anything. I said, “Yes, you are expert at design methodology, at how you routinely come up with ideas.” I said that for many years … and then one year I started saying randomly, “No, you’re experts at a way of thinking, you’re experts at design thinking.” I said “a way of thinking,” and then they changed to say “design thinking” and that caught on for some reason.

All those years I said “You’re experts at design methodology,” nobody paid attention.

Ken Friedman, “The Second Issue of She Ji“, She Ji, Volume 1, Issue 2, Winter 2015, Pages 81–82

Several years ago, [M.P] Ranjan and I were at a conference on design for social business. Opened by Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, it was organized in Milan by Jürgen Faust. During one of our conversations, Ranjan said:

“I think we need to redefine what we are doing and think that design is not about making the object, but rather about defining what one shall make and in what context. The word ‘context’ for me is very important, and when we talk about context, we think about the globe, about climate change, and ecology, and so on. All these things emerge from that one square foot of land on which you are standing. Can you do something with that one square foot of land?”


Peter Jones gave a brief summary of the DesignX history.  He also touched on the intent of this workshop to act as a bridge between DesignX and the Systemic Design communities, towards continuing future discussion.


David Ing introduced a possible way for each group to frame their ideas and discussions, based on soon-forthcoming paper on pattern language.  As an alternative to the usual pattern as a “solution to a problem in context”, thinking could be structured as:

  • Who and What (voices on issues);
  • How and Why (affording values); and
  • Where and When (spatio-temporal frames).

In the discussion period of less than 2 hours, progress on just the first item (i.e. who and what) would be an achievement!

Group conversations

Participants were asked to move (i.e. sit in a seat different from that currently inhabited) and self-organize amongst common interests.  The tables were pulled apart.

Group 1 included Julie VanderKloet, Manuela Aguirre, Audrey Jun and Mieke van der Bijl-Brouwer.


Group 1 sketched on two sheets of flipchart paper.  Here’s the first


… and here’s the second for Group 1.


Group 1’s discussion centered on social designers:  For a design professional, what can a community of practice do to develop our roles as social leaders on multidisciplinary teams for change?

Group 2 included Rachel Troye, Ryan Murphy, Chris Arnold, Neal Halverson, Peter Jones and Fredrik Eive Refsli.


Group 2 wrote on a single sheet of flip chart paper.


Group 2’s discussion centered on design educators:  For a design educator, what specialized expertise requires preparatory knowledge and practices enable participants (citizens) to engage and lead transformations extended from the lab and studio to the arena and agora?

Group 3 included Russell Clement, Adrienne Pacini, Russell Gundry, Megan Durlak, Doug Stuart and Tim Thompson.


Group 3 sketched their conversation on a single sheet of flip chart paper.


Group 3’s discussion centered on designers working in policy:  For designers working in policy, what can and should they do that others can’t do?

Group 4 included Kelly Okamura, Scott Dailey, FABLES, Eleonora Fiore, and Jukka-Pekka Ovaska.


Group 4 sketched on a single sheet of flip chart paper.


Group 4’s discussion centered on designers engaged with stakeholders:  For designers engaged with stakeholders (customers to planet), what are the value(s) associated with the products and services cocreated in the bigger system?

Group 5 included Czeslaw Mesjasz, Allenna Leonard and Kristel van Ael.

Group 5 sketched out on three sheets of flip chart paper.   Here’s the first


… and the second


… and the third for Group 5.


Group 5‘s discussion centered on design learners:

  • For design learners, what is the best way to continue ongoing learning with real life that includes learning by failing?

This three-hour workshop produced a rich body of conversations that are only partially reflected in these artifacts.  We will be seeking future opportunities to expand to gain further insights into DesignX and Systemic Design.

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