Resources for applying a systems lens to your work

Aly Blenkin
May 21, 2019 · 4 min read
Mapping cash aid delivery in an emergency response

When was the last time someone asked you ‘what are the unintended consequences of releasing this feature?’ Or ‘who else may be directly or indirectly affected by these product decisions?’ These questions are generally not considered or often hidden away in backlogs, as the briefs we are answering are asking us to innovate, disrupt and create the next big thing.

When everything is telling us to speed up, make faster decisions and release new iterations, we leave ourselves with less time to consider the potential negative effects our design choices may have. This product centric focus approach can be extremely detrimental. As designers and creators of new products and services, we need to be conscious of the decisions we make and be aware of the wider systems our products fit within.

My interpretation of human-design systems based on work by Donella Meadows

By zooming in and out between the micro and macro, we can start to analyse the connections and relationships with a systems lens. This allows us to unpack the root problems within a human-designed system, like healthcare or education. We often design products and services in response to the ‘events’ and ‘patterns’ (the visible behaviors and trends), rather than the ‘structures’ and ‘mental models’ (the institutions and beliefs) that underpin our society.

Based on my experience, I’ve collected a number of resources to help interdisciplinary teams use design-led methods, such as systems mapping, speculative scenarios and critical reflection, to challenge the ethical, cultural and social implications of the technology we design. This is not an exhaustive list but these are the resources that have had an influence on my work as a design practitioner.


Books

  • Dark Matter Trojan Horses by Dan Hill
  • Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows
  • Systems Thinking for Social Change by David Peter Stroh
  • The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward R. Tufte
  • How to Make Sense of Any Mess by Abby Covert
  • In The Bubble by John Thackara
  • Future Ethics by Cennydd Bowles
  • Emergence by Steven Johnson
  • Speculative Everything by Dunne and Raby
  • Designing the Invisible by Lara Penin
  • Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, L. Hunter Lovins
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  • Transformation Design by Wolfgang Jonas, Sarah Zerwas, Kristof von Anshelm
  • The Reflective Practitioner by Donald A. Schön
  • Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth by Buckminster Fuller
  • How to Thrive in The Next Economy by John Thackara
  • Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez
  • Design for the Real World by Victor Papanek
  • Dilemmas in General Theory of Planning by Horst Rittel & Webber
  • The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman
  • Intertwingled by Peter Morville

Articles

Videos

Influential systems thinkers

I hope these introductory resources to systems mapping, speculative design and critical reflection have been helpful for you to broaden your approach to designing products and services.

At the end of the day, we are all responsible for what we put into the world. My hope is that rather than creating environments that value speed and innovation, we start designing towards more collective ends. Creating a design culture that values critical reflection and systems thinking, to create more meaningful and impactful design choices.

If you want to learn more about these methods, you can check a talk I did recently here — unintended consequences of our design choices. Please let me know if I have missed anything, I’m always looking to update my list of resources.

Happy reading!

Aly Blenkin

I was introduced to Systems Thinking when I was doing my master’s program in Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons in New York. Certainly worthwhile checking out if you are interested in service-oriented design!

Aly Blenkin

Written by

Associate Director of Pivotal Act — Designing products and services for social impact @alyblenkin

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade