Why designers need systems thinking

As problems become more wicked than ever, the tools commonly used in design thinking need to be complemented by systems thinking.

At Namahn, we are probably not the only designers sensing that projects are, as Buchanan would say, becoming more “wicked” than ever. We increasingly feel that ordinary tools and techniques common to design thinking practice are not always enough to tackle problems like poverty, social integration, responsible food production and urban safety.

Over the past few years we have begun integrating design and system thinking in response. This is the first in a series of posts looking at what this emerging field looks like, and exploring where it is heading.

Design Thinking

Anyone who has recently spent any time with design consultants — particularly in the fields of User Experience/Interfaces (UX/UI) and service design — will have probably been taken through a maze of posters and whiteboards by their guide, armed with a blizzard of sticky notes, a quiver of felt-tip pins and a bible of ‘game rules’ to underpin their use.

These tools and techniques are used to establish a creative conversation between clients and designers, creating a common understanding around an issue and generating innovative solution paths together. In two words: design thinking.

“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”
Tim Brown, CEO, design company IDEO

Design thinking is an engaging path that moves from a problem to solutions that are meaningful for people. As designers take their clients down this path they listen, learn, conceptualise and make … and then iterate.

The process starts by establishing a profound and empathic understanding of the needs, perspectives and interests of the end users. It moves on to collectively generate ideas to conceive innovative solutions that are then iteratively tested and finally implemented.

When tackling complex challenges, crucially, everyone with a role in the problem is constantly involved in creating the solution — they, after all, are both the domain experts and the supporters of the future model.

Design thinking can add value to every business. A good design is able to anticipate and satisfy people’s needs — something which design thinking does in ways that are fresh and innovative, feasible and sustainable in the same time — whether we are designing a digital interface or an entire service experience.

“Design thinking can add value to every business… But projects are rarely linear”

But projects are rarely linear: evolving dynamics in technology and society mean we need to look at the bigger picture outside our project, and understand entire “systems”. For certain issues, common iterated solutions are simply ineffective: they might be part of a bigger problem, or just a temporary patch that does not directly address root causes.

Are we, as designers, prepared to look at the whole? Well, not exactly. That is why we need to borrow tools from systems thinking.

Systems Thinking

In the 1940s, a number of forward-thinking academics established a different mindset, and with it a way of looking at the whole, rather than just individual pieces. They saw the world as sets of interrelated components, and studied how they connected and related to each other. Unveiling these connections was, for them, the key to explaining how systems behave.

“Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static “snapshots.”
Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

Feedback loops. For example, the basic ingredient used to describe a system is the “feedback loop”. Imagine the loop as a circular diagram that tells a story of either escalation (positive feedback) or balance (negative feedback) . With all the stories identified, the author draws the connections between them, seeing how they influence each other, and writes the whole novel. If something happens in one story, it might affect other stories, taking the novel in new directions.

In the same way, a “system map” visualizes the interrelated components constituting a system, allowing us to predict how a local change in one “feedback loop” can be simply irrelevant or create a ripple effect throughout the system.

This is not so intuitive for designers, trained to break down complexity into individual components and investigate them separately. While intervening on single components in the system changes the “emergent behaviour” of the whole system, designers cannot currently predict these changes.

Leverage points. Another relevant concept in systems thinking is the “leverage point”. Donella Meadows, a renowned systems thinker, referred to twelve generic areas where interventions are fruitful, creating significant impact on overall system behaviour.

If you change “numbers” as subsidies or taxes, for example, you cannot expect as much impact as changing the information flows or even the system goal.

Indeed, Meadows provided useful guidelines to deal with complex challenges, though they highlight how systems thinking still lacks practicality and appears circumscribed in an analytical and strategic level. Also, the difficult vocabulary makes it unfriendly for non-experts or even designers.

Exploring Systemic Design

So on one hand, we have design thinking: as mastered by designers, this is a provably effective discipline which pleases customers with its hands-on, practical techniques and focus on concrete outcomes. And on the other hand, there is a promising way of thinking, with incredible analytical potential, unknown to designers.

The emergent discipline of Systemic Design merges tools and principles from both design thinking and systems thinking, and has already proved quite promising at Namahn.

For example, in a recent project for the Belgian Institute for Health Insurance, we needed to discover the factors preventing women in poverty from accessing care, and so discover new ways of engaging them in their healthcare. Namahn combined design thinking and systems thinking tools in an experimental project process.

Designers first established close contact with the women and various actors in the healthcare system. We used our classic design thinking techniques — field studies, based on empathic conversations and using inspiration cards — to uncover relevant insights. These were then elaborated in both personas and a system map.

“The system map revealed itself to be a powerful storytelling tool”

While personas are another design tool, the system map is a systems thinking technique, and revealed itself to be a powerful storytelling tool, creating shared understanding among the different organisations attending the co-creation workshop.

As a result, we created a consensus amongst all participants that the fragmentation in the system had to be overcome via greater collaboration and dialogue if they were to provide these women with the empathic, holistic care they need. A brainstorming session — inspired by Donella Meadows’ leverage points — then developed a solution path supported by all stakeholders.

Our early experiments indicate that Design thinking and Systems thinking complement each other. While it is not possible to design a system, it is possible to nudge it towards different behaviours. Designers can play a central, concrete role in this shift if they onboard systems thinking techniques and concepts into their approach.

That is why designers at Namahn are more than happy to open, iterate and experiment. As design thinkers, we are eager to do it concretely.