Systemic design: examples of current practice

Cat Drew
Cat Drew
Jan 2 · 10 min read

At the beginning of December, Design Council worked with The Point People to host an event on systemic design. Jennie Winhall and Cassie Robinson spoke about their work to create and move towards new systems, and Alistair Parvin, Ilishio Lovejoy and Nick Stanhope spoke about specific elements of their work to design systemically. We had 120 people sign up in less than 24 hours and a large waitlist. There is interest and intrigue. What is systemic design and why is it important?

There is a longer version of this blog here and the slides are here.

Summary of some of the component practices explored at the event

Introduction and why we convened the event.

There are a few definitions and writings around about systemic design, design for systems, systems transformation, transition design etc. But if we start with what we’re trying to address… The issues that we are facing at the moment are complex, messy and interconnected. We need to dig deep to find the root causes, which can be things that are said, and unsaid — like unequal power or the way we think about an issue. There is no one fix. Things are interconnected, so we do one thing over here and it pops up over there. And sometimes we need to design a new system entirely rather than just patching up or improving the current one. As Buckminster-Fuller said “You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.” (Quinn, 1999, p.137)

We believe that design can hold some of the answers. And people in the systems change world have increasingly been using design methods in order to bring about desired change.

But this is an emerging practice. It might be simply the intersection between design and systems theory. But it might be something a bit different. So we are conducting a loose enquiry into how this has and is evolving — and doing this by listening to designers who have been working systemically. And because we know people are interested in working in this way, we are sharing this as we go, and inviting others to experiment and add in their own practice.

We all live in and are part of various systems, and so designers naturally work in systems already. Systems are made up of different elements that are connected together. A system can be biological (forest), social (a neighbourhood), organisational (the health system) or technological (a computer system).

And designers are good at it because they practice synthesis (seeing how elements fit together into a bigger whole, for example designing a fridge that needs to fit into a kitchen or a joining letter that fits into a wider employment service); reflexivity (discovering what works by making something, seeing what happens as a result, and using that to decide what to do next, for example role-playing a homelessness assessment which reveals the unbalance of power, which needs addressing next); and creation (imagining what could be, seeing the potential and then making it happen, for example designing new materials which mimic nature, which is shifting demand).

Designing for a new system

Jennie Winhall and Cassie Robinson both talked about ways in which they are designing new systems.

Jennie Winhall talks about designing for a new system, using her work in employment across three projects to bring it to life.

At Participle, they looked at the underlying patterns of behaviour and principles in the current welfare system: Most deliver a service, rather than supporting people to help themselves. They work with individuals rather than with family units. They are limited to public finance rather than the resources inherent in relationships and communities. By identifying and then flipping these principles (or the ‘system logic’), they created a very different welfare system, where people participate and create their own solutions.

At Rockwool in Denmark, they were trying to change some of the dominant norms in the youth employment system through a service called Nextwork. The new principles were around connecting young people and companies together in networks that build young people’s working identity. Systems often have what Rowan Conway calls a ‘system immune response’, where change is rejected. At first, the design team created a service blueprint showing staff how the new service works and trained them on delivering it. But it was a disaster — people couldn’t understand the purpose behind their new actions. So they threw away the blueprint. Instead they worked with theatre techniques to train staff in improvisation based on the new principles. This has been much more successful as staff now understand the purpose of acting in a new way.

ALT/Now, with the RSA and Mastercard’s Centre for Inclusive Growth have designed a programme to develop a new safety-net for 21st century work. The whole UK employment system is broken, and one innovation alone is not going to fix it, you need lots of interventions — new ways of brokering jobs, smoothing income, new insurance models, new types of unions and new models for ongoing learning. So the team brought together a cohort of entrepreneurs to create a new system of innovations to support people working in today’s gig economy. These discrete innovations can have much greater power if they see themselves as part of the new ecosystem: they can amplify each others’ efforts and define a new market that benefits them all.

Cassie Robinson spoke about her experience of designing the The Catalyst — which was originally set up as a way of building the digital capabilities for 40,000 charities and civil society organisation, but is now working to support the sector as a whole to continually adapt, become more accountable to communities and work together better for those it serves. It is operating at three different levels simultaneously drawing on the Berkana Two Loop Model and is funded by a mixture of Government and philanthropic funding.

Illustration by Cassie Robinson, model from the Berkana Institute.

The first area of work that the Catalyst is undertaking is field-building which means getting people interested in the overall concept and vision (‘the pioneers’), but also offering them something that meets their immediate needs, for example Open Backlog, which is a library of common digital patterns and standards which can be shared to reduce duplication of effort and also allow more common approaches going forward. This just one of 30 different projects underway, all using Catalyst assets to visibly mark themselves as being part of the Catalyst transition work.

Visuals to show different elements of the Catalyst work

The second area is around networks and narratives. Another part of building the field is to shine a light on other people and organisations that are doing work that aligns with Catalyst’s mission, to show people that they are part of something that is bigger than any of them individually. They have set up a Catalyst “News Room” which commissions stories from the wider network and which Catalyst projects use to create and share their own content. Alongside this, Catalyst projects are published on Ochre, a platform that shows the status of all the work that’s happening across Catalyst’s 30 (and growing) projects — which is important to reflect the system back to itself, share progress, and demonstrate momentum.

The collective intelligence gathered through this work help the Catalyst to understand the wider conditions — policies, regulations and governance — required for a renewed civil society to emerge.

If the field-building work was happening in isolation, and the narrative and network function was also only focussed on mapping and making visible the present, then Catalyst would simply be optimising the existing system (civil society). So the third area of work is called ‘Clusters’ which is about bringing together organisations to design and demonstrate new ways of working, for example bringing together civil society organisations who would not normally work together, but who are trying to deliver similar outcomes in a particular place, or around a similar function (e.g. helplines) or to reimagine a particular service (e.g. childrens care).

If you want more info or to be part of The Catalyst, reach out to Dan Sutch on Twitter.

Alistair Parvin, Ilishio Lovejoy and Nick Stanhope at the panel discussion

Three talks to highlight elements of systemic design: finding the root of the problem, providing information as feedback and knowing your role

Alastair Parvin leads an organisation called Open Systems Lab. He spoke about their mission to change the planning system. He argued that all systems have an operating model. They can be quite clear, (like postcodes or grid references), but sometimes more opaque (like time or our historical understanding of land rights). But you can’t change a system unless you find it, and disrupt it. He likens it to ‘following the white rabbit down the hole’.

He showed his maps of the system — of causes and effect — that spread out from rising house prices and the undersupply of homes, to increasing debt or lack of investment in construction innovation. So far, so normal (the top left image below). But then he flipped the map on its axis and looked at how lots of these causes and effects were all based on similar social values, knowledge models and methods of production. Such as manual paper based design methods, the way we think about money or — in red in the bottom left image below — freehold land ownership. So if you change that…you impact on many of the causes and effects.

Alistair Parvin’s system maps showing wide causes and effects, and the deep root cause that links them all

Ilishio Lovejoy is a policy manager for Fashion Revolution. In the fashion industry, one could argue that design is part of the problem — designers are designing clothes for a fast-fashion, consumer market which has a harmful impact on workers’ wellbeing in developing countries and environmental sustainability. Fashion Revolution was set up to challenge that.

One of their main campaigns is the Transparency Index, providing more information to consumers about which retailers are more ethical, as well as campaigns where clothes have large tags to show the provenance of their manufacture. They have designed a number of different initiatives, using different levers for change, and inspire or work with others as part of a movement, including Spindye (which removes the environmentally damaging dying process) or Rent the Runway (shifting behaviours away from owning and towards renting clothes).

Fashion Revolution’s I Made Your Clothes campaign

Nick Stanhope is the Chief Executive of Shift, which is a service and product innovation charity working a lot around children’s services. He talked about the need for everyone to find their own role. He described a common situation where many charities, and design agencies who support charities, are in effect competing with each other for funding to provide services that help support their own mission. Which means that the incentive is for everyone to ‘talk up’ their own work as the most important (and trying to get more of it), rather than seeing their work as a piece of a larger whole that needs to exist alongside other initiatives, which will also require funding.

Working in this way — as an innovation ecosystem or as a cluster mentioned by Jennie and Cassie earlier — also requires building relationships and making connections between organisations. This ‘invisible’ connective tissue needs designing. And a change of mindset, so that we don’t individually think we can ‘move a system’, but that we are ‘in service of a system’. He called for us to all be clear about our ‘role’ in the system, to be clear about the contribution we make, but how we have to work alongside others.


There are so many types of practice and elements to what they are doing, and there are different ways and words for describing what they are doing. But if we had to summarise the rich tips and discussions, we would say — that in order to design for today’s big challenges, designers need to:

  • Design deeply — Understand the wider context in which a person or idea sits, tackling the root cause of an issue — which might be things that are said or not said, patterns of behaviour or mindsets that frame the way we see opportunities.
  • Design hopefully — Imagine entirely new systems, and creating a clear narrative or vision that allows lots of people to design things that move us towards it.
  • Design disruptively — Creating something (and it can be small) that changes a behaviour, an interaction or a relationship — for example a new norm or a piece of information — and that can have a wider ripple effect.
  • Design collaboratively — Bring together a portfolio of innovations at different places across the system, and connecting to others striving for the same goal, working intentionally as an ecosystem rather than alone, with each knowing how to play their right role.

We hope the event inspired designers to consider how they can shift their practice to design more systemically — deeply, collaboratively, hopefully and disruptively. And to experiment with other methods (reaching out to other professions) and add to these practices. Please get in touch to share your work with us as we continue our enquiry.

Cat Drew

Written by

Cat Drew

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

Design Council

Making life better by design.

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