Dealing with Complexity

We are constantly dealing with incredibly complex systems in our daily lives. Simple questions like “What food is good for me?” are very hard to answer and those answers vary depending on who you ask. You want to live up to our ethical standards and buy “fair-trade chocolate” but you have no idea whether you are being lied to and what “fair” actually means… The same is true for your work. For instance, how does a designer — or anybody for that matter — get an understanding of whether his work is actually useful or ethically sound — in one word: good?

How can we get an understanding of extremely complex and interconnected situations — and maintain agency?

One way is to understand the world in systems. We examine the structure of something complex and how its components interact with each other. For instance we can draw maps to get an overview. Maps of software, of the economy, the internet, or the interplay of certain plant species — just like a map of the London Subway. But while the London Subway is a fairly stable, controlled system with relatively low complexity many other systems are not.

Having a map of a complex system does not necessarily mean that you know what your actions in this system will trigger because complex systems are non-linear and sometimes chaotic.

We often lack immediate feedback in our daily actions such as our work. And that can make us feel indifferent or powerless.

One reason why people like me discover crafts for themselves, such as pottery, woodworking or drawing might be rooted in the fact that you receive instant feedback: things work or they don’t. You have some amount of control over what you are doing.

But don’t kid yourself! These crafts are far from trivial. Let’s take pottery for example: It’s easy, right? You put a lump of clay on a spinning wheel and shape it into a pot.

Not really…

The system of a spinning wheel, the clay, its composition, and the movement of your hands is actually very complex. You can read a lot of books about pottery but the only way to actually understand that system is to actively participate in it. We speak of “learning with our hands” or “tacit knowledge” (M. Polanyi) when we refer to this kind of process. We employ our whole bodily system and connect it to the system of the clay and the spinning wheel.

And thus we understand how the quality and amount of this lump of clay, the wetness of our hands, our body posture, the speed of the wheel, the state of our mind, etc. all play together when shaping a bowl. We understand the system through mastery.

And while you are shaping that bowl your body and mind develop structures. And those structures help you understand the bigger picture.

I am not suggesting that you fully understand a large system by interacting with a micro system. You won’t be able to comprehend the complexity of Google’s data analysis in all its details simply by writing your own small pieces of software. But you will get a huge step closer.

Just imagine the different perspective that an amateur potter has when seeing a collection of splendid Song Dynasty ceramics compared to somebody who only read about pottery. The amateur potter can almost feel in his hands what the master potters did, he can read that masters’ “handwriting”, and connect to the great culture of Asian pottery in an intuitive manner. (You still might want to read Yanage’s “Unknown Craftsman” if you are interested in the subject.)

The interaction with small systems helps us understand larger systems.

John Ruskin pointed out in “The Elements of Drawing” that your active drawing practice will open the door to understanding the drawings and paintings of great masters. I couldn’t agree more.

So your urban garden may not feed you but it affords you a basic ecological understanding. And the interaction with plants and animals might reestablish connections lost in a world where you simply buy your food with money earned by time spent staring at computers.

And for some professions — like Design — mastering small systems to understand larger systems is crucial: Interaction designers come up with better ideas and solutions if they know how to code and work with electronics. Designers of wooden furniture should have basic woodworking skills even if they cooperate with gifted craftsmen. And it doen’t hurt an architect to actually interact with the materials he uses in his designs himself — even in a small scale.

And finally interaction with small manageable systems on a regular basis increases and enhances the connections in another highly complex and dynamic system: you.

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Ralph Ammer

Ralph Ammer


I love to draw and write about art, design, and the rest. Munich, Germany