Mindset and Postures for Transition Design

Catherine Shen
May 8, 2016 · 6 min read

Positioning essay written for CMU Transition Design Seminar, Spring 2016

“Understanding how to act to change the systems we’re in is arguably the biggest meta-challenge of our age.” — Dan Lockton


Transition Design is a new frontier for designers to lead systems-level societal change towards a more sustainable future. As an emerging area of practice and study, it seeks to provide designers with tools and methods that enable them to be agents of change. It argues that for designers to be agents of change at the systems level, design work requires “a new way of ‘being’ in the world” — one that is based upon a specific mindset and posture that fosters new ways of interaction.

In this essay, I discuss mindsets and posture needed for transition design by analyzing the five principles for “systems doing” according to Cheryl Dahle, CEO of Flip Labs and Future of Fish, in her Designing for System Change workshop held through CMU’s Design Center on April 9th and 10th.

From ‘Systems Thinking’ to ‘Systems Doing’

Dahle’s long-time work on the wicked problem of sustainable fishing surfaced a key insight about the differences between designing for systems thinking and systems doing. Systems are created through complex relationships between people, ecologies, and artefacts. As designers and social scientists converge on the area of shaping current and future systems, the transition from thinking to doing at a systems level requires a fundamental shift in mindset and posture.

systems are made of people

As designers move from designing interactions through products and services to designing interactions of larger social and ecological systems, the materiality of their work changes. And Dahle emphasizes that often times designers forget that systems are first and foremost made of people — not products. Dahle jokes that what traditional org charts miss with their boxes is all the stuff that goes on between the boxes — the relationships and forces that shape how things get done.

by Mark Walsh from Integration Training

Because every individual has a complex set of incentives, values, and aspirations, the value of being able to navigate and shape relationships becomes a high priority. For the problem of sustainable fishing, Dahle comments that working to get things done often means working with people that you do not like, but whose cooperation and collaboration you need nonetheless. Therefore, when designing for systems change, much of the work takes place at not just end users, feedback loops, informational hierarchies, or material flows, but at the level of mindsets, paradigms, and power structures of the people that make up the system.

systems are messy

Secondly, not only are systems made of people, they are also messy. People have incentives not to change and thus systems — being made of people — themselves have inertia against change. Dahle spoke about how the global fishing industry is run on excel spreadsheets. For a multi-billionaire dollar industry, why have fancy technological systems not been implemented for things like ‘efficiencies’ and ‘optimization’? The real reason, says Dahle, is that excel spreadsheets allow back office dealing. Fish suppliers can put one order on the book that does not reflect the true fish supply and then respond to the real supply with changes in orders accompanied by discretionary discounts. This, Dahle presents is one of the key insights their team discovered, that the way fish is sold disguises scarcity.

When working in systems change then, designers need to be cognizant of these sometimes messy, oftentimes contradictory incentives. Thus, the mindset of transition designers needs to be one capable of dealing with uncertainty, ambiguity, chaos, and contradiction. This mindset is needed in order to let go of the notion of strong-arming design and pushing leverage points and instead, to find the shifting moments of aligned, overlapping self-interests across parties.

systems need embedded allies

Because of the messy nature of systems and the fact that they are made of people, trust and relationships within systems becomes a priority. The ability of designers to gain both access and credibility to parts of the system require a long-term commitment to working in the field. Rather than through a consultant model, systems need an ‘embedded ally’ model. For designers, this means a change in mindset from that of one-time engagements to longer-term investments in the communities at large. It moves designers’ mindsets away from problem-solving to effective and invested partnering.

systems change require more than just design thinking

Dahle argues that systems change requires designers who do more than design thinking. It requires a large outlay of affective and emotional work. Systems doing requires designers to provide both a container and a framework for working within. Providing a container means having the emotional and social capacity to ‘hold’ others anxieties, fears, insecurities in moments of need. For instance, Dahle discusses how an entrepreneur that she worked with was at the end of his rope — having exhausted his emotional and financial resources in working for sustainable fishing. At that moment when the entrepreneur was close to giving up, Dahle realized her role was to provide a fixed point of support and solidarity and she reached out to the stressed entrepreneur to offer more than professional support.

On the other hand, systems change designers also need to provide a framework for others to work within. Dahle uses the example of frameworks such as landscape analyses and a conceptual framework that articulate all the other similar projects happening within the space. For instance, for the problem of wealth inequality, Dahle proposed a framework for 1) rethinking models for housing, land, and real estate as they contribute to the issue, 2) conceptualizing the ‘squeezed middle’, and 3) proposing a vision of wealth for all and the future of work and good business. These frameworks allow many designers to work freely towards similar goals.

Thus the mindset of transition designers needs to be one that recognizes their role in emotional and affective labor in acting as a container for the people within the system and providing a framework that allows people to move towards a shared goal.


Transition Design proposes that designers are deeply embedded within the systems which they are part of it. It takes this notion a step further by arguing that the ecological system is intrinsic to the social and economic systems, thereby superseding these human-made systems. Although it is impossible to impose a solution upon a complex social system, designers can attune themselves to the inherent intelligence within a social system by internalizing the principles of systems doing and in turn, adopt mindsets and postures that will be more effective for their work.

Whether it is learning that designing for systems change involves understanding and shaping the mindsets, paradigms, and power structures of people that make up the system, or learning the limits of imposing wills and structures on the system, transition designers need to adopt a mindset that simultaneously strengthens their agency while grooming their ability to work with and within emergence, finding and augmenting the frequency of moments of alignment in incentives across different groups. Though working within systems may be hard, adopting these mindsets can help transition designers in their work.


Catherine Shen

Written by

designer. thinker. @CMUDesign masters. @NorthwesternU econ. catherine-shen.com.

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