Developing our new Systemic Design Framework

Cat Drew
Design Council
Published in
10 min readApr 27, 2021

I’m writing this as the back story about how our Systemic Design Framework came to be. This is not the press release, nor the formal description in the report on the website, but a look at the ‘invisible’ intelligence which is embedded in its design. I hope these learnings can be used by designers wanting to adopt a systemic design approach, as the challenges I encountered in creating the Framework may well be the same as you will encounter when using it.

What it is

The Systemic Design Framework is an evolution of Design Council’s design frameworks, starting with the globally renowned Double Diamond, and more recently the Framework for Innovation. It is our way of synthesising how we see people on our own programmes, and through research with other designers using design to address complex challenges. These challenges are systemic, require more than one organisation, and can probably never be entirely solved. You can read more about it here, but the framework:

1. Keeps the core premise of the Double Diamond (divergent and convergent thinking), but recognises that, in working on complex challenges, these ways of thinking are not linear. The Framework deliberately calls the phases different names to the original (explore, reframe, create, catalyse rather than discover, define, develop, deliver).

Overall elements of systemic design

2. Recognises the importance of the ‘invisible activities’ that sit around the design process: orientation and value setting, continuing the journey, collaboration and connection, and leadership and storytelling. These activities are rarely recognised, and therefore rarely resourced, and rarely done.

Orientation and value setting. So much about systemic design is about the values, beliefs and mindsets with which you enter a design phase. Some call this ‘meta design’. Making sure all your partners and commissioners are on the same page, value-wise, which requires relationship and trust building, which take time.

Connecting and convening. It’s also unlikely that one intervention will shift the system. But rather many designers coming together as a new ecosystem, which embodies new values and behaviours, from which further interventions will grow. As well as designing individual things, systemic designers need to design how they come together, connect and become dependent on (or mutually reinforce) each other.

Leadership and storytelling. Moving to a brave new world needs people who are visionary and can paint a hopeful picture that others want to be part of. And not just paint, but make, build, sketch, code. Designers who can propose what the future could be, as well as analysing what it should not.

Continuing the journey. It is a fallacy that a project will completely solve a complex challenge. It will set something in train, which sets off a new set of relationships. And as social or environmental designers well know, outcomes take time to see. So, designers need to be tenacious, and see the work as a longer mission over time.

3. Shows that four characteristics are important, which could be held by one individual, or by different people within a team. System thinker, designer/maker, connector/convenor and leader/storyteller.

Characteristics of systemic designers

4. Involves six principles to encompass nature and non-human beings; zoom in and out across time, scale and self; and embrace circularity, existing assets and re-use, rather than an emphasis on new.

Principles that guide the work

The right time

I feel we created it when the world was asking for it.

Design itself has been taking on bigger and bigger, complex challenges. We can see the rise of policy design, set out here in Anna Wincher’s excellent report. The UK Government’s Policy Lab has been recruiting policy designers, and I just heard that Camden Council has followed suit. Our Design in the Public Sector programme started seven years ago supporting teams to design more human-centred services. In the last few years, we’ve been helping them look at more complex challenges, such as place-based health and the climate crisis.

Over the last year at Design Council, we’ve brought our different design practices together into a single multi-disciplinary team. This has meant understanding the different scales at which our professions design — from infrastructure and urban planning at the scale of the region or city, to product and UX design at the scale of an individual user. We needed a framework that can apply to both.

‘Systems’ and ‘systemic’ have always been tricky words, as they mean different things to different people. Some people immediately think of technical systems (like airport control), some social systems (like a family unit), some natural systems (like a forest), and some dynamic systems (like a multiple cause diagram for obesity). In my last job, ‘systemic design’ just didn’t fly. But if 2020 taught us anything, it was that everything is connected, and there is systemic injustice. The word systemic feels slightly more like common parlance now.

Shot from Luke Blazejewski’s film on the Salford Wetlands, shared by Dr Olutayo Adebowale
Snook’s project with Safety Net Technologies, short film here

How we went about it

No-one asked us to create a Systemic Design Framework, it emerged.

We’re not the first designers to be talking about systemic design. There is a rich international community called the Systemic Design Association who run an annual conference (Relating Systems and Design Symposium) and a school of Transition Design at Carnegie Mellon University (great podcast here). There are designers and design academics who are working on addressing systemic injustice by promoting the worldviews of marginalised peoples, and disrupting the current power structures (for example Design Justice Network, Arturo Escobar’s Design for the Pluriverse and a collection of design writer brought together in Design Struggles by Claudia Mareis & Nina Paim). And the field of bio-design recognises nature’s role in design and returning to regenerative cultures (see UAL’s Living Systems Lab, Newcastle’s Centre for Biotechnology in the Built Environment, and Other Biological Futures by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg & Natsei Chieza). At Design Council, our role is to understand emerging design practice, and to translate it into a way that more designers and non-designers can understand it, and turn this into mainstream commissions.

We were carrying out two pieces of research, and the framework developed somewhere in between…

The first was an enquiry into future design practice, together with colleagues from The Point People, Jennie Winhall and Cassie Robinson, both esteemed social designers. We were interested in how design is used to deliberately shift systems to become more regenerative, just and healthy. This is emerging, ‘next practice’ rather than ‘best practice’, and we are using deliberately new language to provoke designers to think and act differently. It still needs some work before we can translate it to the mainstream.

The second was a piece of research into design for net zero. Nat Hunter, one of our amazing Design Council associates interviewed designers from across different disciplines (landscape design, product design, fashion design, service design, architecture, etc). She found that these designers were thinking beyond net zero, to sustainable or regenerative outcomes, and were not seeing environmental issues as separate from social ones, but entwined. They saw everything as connected. So rather than a list of technical solutions for design for net zero, we reframed the brief into creating a systemic framework for designers to use when working together with other professionals and commissioners.

Researching existing design frameworks around sustainability and transition

We’d also been trying it out on our programmes. As I mentioned, our Design in the Public Sector programme has evolved to tackle more complex challenges, the climate crisis being a case in point. And we’re working with the LGA and Health Foundation on a programme called Shaping Places for Healthy Lives, which is using design to tackle the wider determinants of health. We needed to evolve our Framework for Innovation to help the teams think more expansively. And we increasingly saw these cohort based programmes not just as an opportunity to help peers learn from each other about introducing design skills into their organisations, but also to create connections between their different interventions: so someone experimenting with a biodiversity scheme in Mid-Suffolk could learn from someone trialling a low carbon housing scheme in Chester, and visa versa.

The councils we are working with as part of our 2020/21 Design in the Public Sector programme focusing on the climate crisis

Surrounding my desk at home are hundreds of bits of paper and post-its with various diagrams of the framework on them. They have built up over time. Some are mega complicated, some are too simple. We’ve shared them internally with colleagues, with our Design Council associates, and externally at conferences. We ran a three-day sprint with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation who have a similar mission to make design tools (circular economy ones) easy to understand and use by designers. We set a brief to MA data visualisation students at LCC to get fresh perspectives on how to communicate this new framework. You can see their designs below, which helped inform our thinking.

Final outcome by LCC students Samantha Shannon, Jana Tauschinski & Elena Etta
Final outcome by LCC students Sicong Qiao & Yi Chen


Despite it seeming to me quite simple and distilled, it has been a challenging process.

Distilling complexity & providing space for different expertise

At Design Council, we work across the design economy, and — even though we have specialisms in architecture & the built environment, social innovation & business innovation — we have Experts whose design work goes well beyond that and our research and frameworks should be something all designers can use. We therefore have to play a translation role, as each design discipline will have its own specific technical approaches to making change — whether the materials are services, digital products, clothing, packaging, neighbourhood parks or transport infrastructure. Our job is to create frameworks and principles which allow those different disciplines to come together, so have to be high level and simple enough to guide a process that can then draw in deep technical expertise (as well as different non-design experiences and perspectives). So at times, it feels a bit ‘simple’ to be suggesting a high level framework with little technical detail can address huge issues like sea temperature rises and flooding, health inequalities through air pollution or food poverty. In T shaped design, our place is definitely at the intersection between breadth and depth — t for translation.

Creating mental space for new ideas, and allowing plurality of thought

It is incredibly difficult to design something new when you have such a strong mental frame which guides your thinking. For me, that was the Double Diamond. I wanted to start afresh, to question whether you really have to start with research rather than a proposition, to challenge whether things can be neatly finished in the way that the final diamond coming together in a point suggests. And of course, as Andrea Cooper reminded me with the original Design Council Method Bank, the Double Diamond was never intended to be just two diamonds, but many, in different configurations. But it is something people know, it is easy to understand, and in many ways it defines Design Council. It was really hard to break away from it! Of course this is because it is a powerful idea, and in many cases — for example around business innovation — it absolutely works. But it also serves as a reminder about how strong mental frames are, and how they can determine our thinking, which is something that systemic design tools need to help us climb out of.

In the end, we arrived at something that kept the divergent / convergent thinking at its heart, because ‘reframing the brief’ was what our designer interviewees said was most vital. But we’ve got a lot more nuance around it, in principles, characteristics and invisible ‘supporting’ activity. We’re going to have to be really clear about when you might use which framework, perhaps a bit like Dave Snowden does with his Cynefin framework.

But we also have to recognise that this is not the only way, there are plural design strategies, and we need to keep searching for alternatives, question our starting assumptions and look at things afresh. That is why the work research into future design practice is also so necessary, as well as our work on community design (‘Design, Differently’ with TNLCF & Local Trust) which is understanding how communities are using design, often without knowing it. We’ll also continue to learn from our recently refreshed expert network: more than 400 amazing built and natural environment experts with a rich and diverse set of backgrounds.

Good systemic designers know you have to work on twin tracks. Not to rip up the current entirely but to work with that and create something new that can replace the existing. Iteratively improve at the same time as radically reimagine.



Cat Drew
Design Council

Chief Design Officer at the Design Council, previously FutureGov and Uscreates. Member of The Point People.