The Hawk, the Squirrel, and the Oak Tree: a Definition of Systems Thinking for Graphic Designers

Eric Benson
Jul 12, 2019 · 6 min read

What is systems thinking?

Imagine a food chain. That’s a system!

For a moment, try to remember back to your first semester in college. (It wasn’t that long ago, was it?) Think about the foundational art and design courses you took that term and the vocabulary your instructor covered in the first few weeks to help you better understand the worlds of art and design. Most likely you were introduced to the German word Gestalt meaning that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts” or a “unified whole.” Understanding the concept of Gestalt is a good starting point to explore how to think in systems. When we discuss “systems” in this book we are not necessarily referring to what you may already understand as systems like letterforms in an alphabet or the components of a branding campaign, but rather to the scientific methodology used in the natural sciences like biology and ecology. Environmental pioneer John Muir describes this concept most clearly: “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.” In other words, everything is connected on our planet and our natural systems depend on balance. So to think in systems, when it comes to our profession, it means we approach a design problem by being informed, aware of and influenced by the impacts that our material and vendor choices have on one another, the planet, and consequently on us.

The concept of systems thinking isn’t a new idea, but it is an emerging concept in the field of graphic design. For the unfamiliar, the description of systems thinking might seem unusual at first read and that is understandable since most of us have been trained to concentrate our attention on two things — how the design piece affects its intended audience and how it impacts the client’s revenues. To think in systems also includes those two aspects of the project, but additionally it considers how the work we do is demanding of our natural resources, where and how we get materials to produce our projects, who and what is affected by our decisions, and what will happen to the project after it’s handed off. It sounds a bit dizzying, but fret not, we’ll describe some practical ways to work in this method a bit later on in the chapter. One thing is for sure, this paradigm shift in your design process will require a time investment and some more careful and thoughtful planning and discussion with your team, vendors, and clients. However, the results of working this way will be greatly rewarding, and improve the work we do and the world we live on.

That is a pretty grand statement. Let’s investigate a small example to better explain how thinking in systems can improve the work we do. Historically, a graphic design problem is addressed in isolation as described above — considering mainly the audience and what we want the outcome to do — in the form of print or digital (and sometimes, more recently, services). In common design situations, the designer or design team is tasked with a pre-determined solution from a client like “design a direct mail piece to encourage voting.” Typically designers would then tackle the assignment by looking at a very small set of variables: text and image, paper, and a printer. The final format, already decided by the client, may have been chosen without first looking at the entire system of issues that cause the low voter turnout to begin with. With a systems thinking approach, defined by MIT scientist Donella Meadows, the designer and client would visually map out the design problem including the elements (people and resources), interconnections (relationships), and intended purpose (goal) and not solely focus on the tangible designed outcome. One would need to expand their view past the printer, paper, or mobile app to understand audience relationships, boundaries, values and then to natural resources, materials, vendors, distribution, and impacts. Solving the problem would require asking questions like: “What motivates citizens to vote?”, “Who are the current active voters?”, “How does socioeconomics impact the political system?”, and “Who do we need to collaborate with to gain better insight?” It might become clear after asking these questions and visualizing that system of interactions, that printing thousands of direct mail pieces is not the ideal solution for your client for various reasons. It is expensive, time-consuming, is damaging to the environment by adding a considerable amount of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, and may not even serve the target audience.

It’s worth noting in this example, that at a three to four percent response rate, direct mail is often not the most effective solution to most design problems. Understanding all the project variables, purposes, and impacts can lead to more effective targeted responsible design. After asking meaningful questions and collaborating with the right people, the solution to the voter turnout problem may instead involve advocating change to public policies, connecting with an initiative that a nonprofit already started in the community, and quite possibly developing an awareness campaign that includes alternative solutions such as digitally-led creative or social media marketing.

The above example may better explain how systems thinking can benefit your design process and be a catalyst to improving the triple bottom line, but as visual people, what does it look like? One way to better visualize how thinking in systems works would be to imagine a natural food chain from the world of ecology. As children we learned that there are predators and prey where, typically, the larger stronger animal will eat the smaller weaker one. For instance, a rattlesnake is nourishment for a red tailed hawk, which in turn could prey on a grey squirrel that relies on the acorns that drop from a nearby oak tree. The oak tree maintains its own health from the fallen leaves, insects, and mushrooms that decompose into the soil around the roots to provide nutrients. These plants and animals are not only affected by each other but they are also affected by the climate, weather, humans, or other animals. They are all interconnected, interdependent, and sustainable without negative human interaction like deforestation, urban sprawl, or pollution. They also compose two important facets of a living system — waste equals food (or natural materials that continuously help another part of the system) and a living cycle (a circular process that repeats.) In fact a food chain, like the one mentioned above, is part of a larger food web which is just one small section of a much larger network that makes up an ecosystem. The world is definitely complex. From cells to insects, from animals to plants, from humans to machines and everything in between is connected. When the same food chain analogy is applied to graphic design the potential and real impacts that certain decisions have on the world around us become clear. For instance, a more responsible choice in something as seemingly simple as a paper selection could prevent unneeded carbon emissions, keep jobs in a community, and even save cute furry animals.

— — —

This is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of my book “Design to Renourish: Sustainable Graphic Design in Practice” that I wrote with my business partner Yvette Perullo.

In the book we go further into helping you understand systems thinking and how to implement it daily as a professional designer or design student. We have an easy-to-follow four-step process (and connected case studies) that you can implement today to design creatively to renourish our world and make life better for us all.

We also feel it is great for design educators. Here is a case study on how it can be used in your classroom!

You can buy it direct from the publisher, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble. (But we prefer you find it at your local bookstore or even request it at your city library!)

“Design to Renourish: Sustainable Graphic Design in Practice”

Eric Benson

Written by

Associate Professor & Chair of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Co-founder of Re-nourish and Fresh Press Agri-Fiber Paper Lab.

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