The Overview Effect And Design

Dennis Hambeukers
Mar 3 · 5 min read

Most astronauts that go into space experience a profound mind-shift. When they go up in space and look back at the earth, they see the earth as a whole, as one organism. They see the interconnectedness instead of the separation. They see something that we all know but don’t experience: that all things are connected, that the earth is one system. Astronauts that experience this effect, that has been named the overview effect, come back to earth as changed people. Most become environmentalists or human rights activists. Research shows that this effect is lasting. Wubbo Ockels, the Dutch astronaut, spread the message of human responsibility for the earth until his death bed. He speaks if the mind-shift that is necessary to save the earth. In the end, this mind-shift must result in a change of behavior. We must do things differently if we want to save the earth.


I think the same goes for systems of every size. What goes for the earth, also goes for our own bodies and, what is relevant for design, for our organizations. The earth can be unhealthy, our bodies can be unhealthy and our organizations can be unhealthy. And in all cases, health must come from a different mindset that must lead to different behavior. In projects, I have seen the overview effect at work. The overview effect is what I want to accomplish when I do customer journey workshops. By showing people how touchpoints, departments, tasks, systems, processes are connected, I want to create an overview effect. I want the people in the organization to shift their perspective. I want them to see the big picture. I want them to see the connectedness. I want the mind-shift.

See the whole

I think the most important realization for organizations today is seeing the whole. Ever since Frederick Taylor and his Scientific Management determined the dominant way of seeing organizations at the end of the 19th century, things have been split up into pieces. This approach of specialization, management, and bureaucracy has brought us great progress. The standards of living have increased dramatically since the time of Taylor. But it has created a fragmented system in most organizations that is not able to deal with the complexity of the challenges it produced. To create excellent services in organizations today, you need to work across disciplines, systems, and specializations. You have to see the big picture.

Art, design and the whole

The same illness that is threatening our planet, is threatening our organizations. The silo’s and the bureaucracy have created unhealthy environments. There is one group of people that haven’t suffered from the disease of thinking in boxes and that are artists and designers. They also haven’t reaped the benefits as much as other people for they are not valued as highly in the labor market as box-thinking-left-brain-specialists. But they are the ones who have kept the holistic-connectedness-thinking alive. For it is impossible to think in boxes and parts if you want to create art. They had no choice. That is the group of people we have to turn to to start seeing the whole again, to start seeing the connections again, to start thinking outside the boxes again.

Help people see

I believe that making people see is the greatest value a designer can bring to a business project. If we can show people how things are connected, how they can re-connect things, what the impact on the whole is, that the big picture is the only way to solve complex problems, we can help create the overview effect. For the services we design to work well, organizations need that mind-shift. The aesthetic powers of a designer can help here. In the story of the astronauts, the overview effect is created by an aesthetic experience. Seeing the earth, the blue marble, in space is a profound aesthetic experience. It’s an emotional experience. It’s an eye-opening experience. The astronauts that go into space already know that the earth is a whole. They already know it’s one connected system. The only thing that changes when they go up in space, is that they see, that they experience the beauty of it. This is why creating a beautiful whole is such a powerful tool that the designer can bring to organizations. If people see the beauty of the whole, they are able to shift their minds. The astronaut’s experience shows us that there is a huge difference between knowing something mentally and knowing because you see. The latter is much more powerful. Astronauts are convinced that if we could send everybody up in space to see the earth from space, all our problems would be solved.

See the fragility

Another thing the astronauts see is the fragility. If you see the whole system, you also see how the system can break down. Depending on the variables, any system can break down. If you just look at a small part, you are not going to see this. That is why we don’t see the danger that is threatening the earth. That is why we don’t see how our organizations can fall. Just like the earth is seeing its share of disruptions that are signs of bigger things to come on a systemic level, organizations are also being disrupted. Organizations that have existed for decades suddenly fall down. The main reason for extinction is the failure to adapt. And the failure to adapt comes from the failure to see what is happening, the failure to see what needs to change, the failure to see how things can be changed. Astronauts that see the whole, see how dysfunctional the boxed-specialist mindset is. They see how the only way to survive is to start thinking in connections instead of differences, in oneness instead of separation. We have to start acting as one to survive. We have to take care of the earth so it can continue to take care of us. The same goes for organizations. The thinking in parts is a threat to its survival.

Two trump cards

If we, as designers, can help people see the whole, we can show them the fragility and the solution. Our holistic thinking and visual power are the two biggest trump cards we hold. We should use them. A lot is riding on our ability to make people see.

Do yourself a favor and watch this short documentary on the overview effect:

And this emotional appeal from his death bed from Wubbo Ockels:

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn.

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

Dennis Hambeukers

Written by

Design Thinker Thinking About Design — Strategic Design Consultant @zuiderlicht.

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

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