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  • GK VanPatter

Reflections on “Ways of Designing”

Two steps forward: One step back?

One step forward: Two steps back?

Welcome back NextD Journal readers. With interest in the subject of Design for Complexity continuing to rise we are this week posting here some reflections on noted progress and various perspective calibrations emerging. Something we learned when we published our first book is that most authors face the delightful prospect of having well-meaning others referencing their materials, their models, their work.

When it comes to referencing the numerous models seen in the 2020 Humantific book Rethinking Design Thinking: Making Sense of the Future that has Already Arrived we find that many doing the referencing / interpreting get it right, some get it half right and some maybe don’t want to get it..:-) Experiencing bumpy referencing terrain comes with the territory of being authors, whether one likes it or not. Most often we are happy to see others finding our sensemaking related NextD Journal materials useful, spanning a period from 2005 to 2023. The good folks over on keep track of the numbers of NextD Journal or Humantific references appearing in academic papers by others but as practitioners those numbers have never been our focus.

Occasionally problematics pop up when material gets reshaped or distorted by others, intended or not, into forms conveying messages not intended. Problems can arise, not in one distortion, but rather when an alteration with changed meaning cascades, and begins to become a generally accepted, but misleading representation, with the original source and intentions left behind.

Appreciating that many variations of the Rethinking Design models have been and will continue to be cited, recreated, "modified," we tend to not speak up unless we see a misrepresentation that has far reaching implications in the opposite direction to our original intention. In such situations we might be inclined to speak up in some way and so here we are today. To speak up or not is for us always a bit of a quandary.


What gets a little tricky is that the Rethinking book was not designed to reflect where the various graduate design academies are. It’s not a marketing book for current state design or design thinking education, just the opposite. By design it reflects where the puck is going, not where it presently is. It contains significant amounts of authentic design related problem finding. Gaps between stated philosophies and actual methods are pointed out, etc. No other book contains such detailed problem acknowledgement content. It depicts an emerging practice community, hard at work in forward motion, and not specific method prescriptions.

Bumps can surface when arriving folks suggest bending the NextD Geographies Framework, backwards to suit what they are still teaching or selling, often creatively redepicting methods. This makes for some no-go reactions to some creative "modifications"…:-) If fundamental meanings get "modified" without acknowledgment this can become problematic. NextD Geographies Framework emerged from years of community research, so to retain its sense of integrity, we do not have it blowing in the wind, changeable at the drop of a hat, to suit passing micro-community interests.

So here goes in relation to a post published last week by Design Council, authored by Bernard Herbert and Mani I at Royal College of Art, entitled “Ways of Designing: A Reflection on Strategic and Systemic Design”, which obliquely referenced as its sensemaking foundation the NextD Geographies Framework and related text "modified"..:-) We were made aware of the post when it appeared in public.


Hiccup #1:

To clarify for our readers, Design for Complexity and Systemic Design are not interchangeable notions. Systemic Design is one calibration of how to conduct design in the complexity arenas, ie: complex organizations and complex societies. As reflected in the Rethinking book, we don’t want to narrow or limit Design for Complexity to any one approach and that would include Systemic Design. In addition, other calibrations already exist and are active in real world practice. Those other, already existing calibrations are not referred to as Systemic Design. This was probably not understood by the Royal College article authors.

Hiccup #2:

As is pointed out in the Rethinking book, within the NextD Geographies Framework, Design Arena 4 is societal changemaking not Systemic Design. That narrowing alteration first appeared recently in a systemic design book and now appears in the Royal College article (without proper credit to the Rethinking book or the frameworks correct authors). When we created the NextD Geographies Framework the terminology within was researched, wrestled with and specifically designed to enable many variations within the arenas. This nuance was clearly not understood by the Royal College article authors. To clarify: There is no plan to change Design Arena 4 to Systemic Design.

Hiccup #3:

Likewise, there is no plan to change the descriptive language inside Design Arena 3, organizational changemaking. It is s specifically not called “business” as we recognized, years ago when the framework was created that many types of complex organizations exist, inside which are many types of challenges. In addition, early on in the Design for Complexity journey, it was recognized that a redesigned design is, or should be, capable of addressing more than business interests. Time for the big boy/girl pants! By 2005 we knew that Design for Complexity needed to be bigger than business interests so going backwards on that issue is not a proposition being considered. This was probably not funny appreciated by the Royal College article authors.

Hiccup #4:

Peter Jones PhD has been a long-time friend of Humantific and a discussion collaborator on several NextD Journal conversations over the years. Great guy, super smart, however, Peter had nothing to do with the creation of the NextD Geographies Framework. The history of how and why the framework was created appears in the Rethinking book and has been posted online for several years, being recently updated for short and long readers on the NextD Journal site. The creators the NextD Geographies Framework as well as all the other models in the Rethinking book are Humantific CoFounders; GK VanPatter and Elizabeth Pastor. This was clearly not understood by the Royal College article authors.

Hiccup #5:

Anyone who has read the Rethinking book will know that central to its prescient intention is conveying the message that the complexity arenas, ie: complex organizations and complex societies require a shifting away from the discipline-based, assumption-boxed methods of product, service and experience design and towards open-frame methods that begin without such assumptions. Widely known is that in complex organizational and societal contexts assuming one knows up front by osmosis what the challenges are is well known to make no sense. This message, very clearly communicated in the Rethinking book, attached to the Geographies Framework is abscent in the Royal College article. Instead out of the blue Service Design is oddly inserted as if it is an assumption-free methodology when it clearly is not. That picture flies in the exact opposite direction to all of the intentions behind NextD Geographies. Was that picture altered, narrowed to suit the interests of the Service Design community, the folks teaching Service Design? We will let readers decide. It’s a confused and confusing "modification" / alteration that distorts the degree of change already known to be required. Design for Complexity is moving away from Cross-Over, not back into it. Of the various Hiccups noted, it is this one that has the most far-reaching backwards moving implications. Redepicting Service Design to be more upstream and strategic is not something we will be doing in the context of NextD Geographies.

Hiccup #6:

We noted that the optimistic, one silver bullet fix that appears in the Royal College article adding systems thinking to design in order to make it more applicable to the complexity arenas differs significantly from the approach seen in the Rethinking book attached to the Geographies Framework where 12 additions are recommended inclusive of, but not limited to systems thinking. From years of research and writing in this subject in addition to decades of Humantific practice we already know that the one addition of systems thinking, is no-where near enough if the intention is to build changemaking capacities for the complexity arenas. It is not clear if this is understood by the Royal College article authors.

Hiccup #7:

A complexity that is not easy to communicate and not found in the Royal College article is that although many wicked problems have been known for generations, the truth is many challenges facing everyday practice leaders are not framed, thus underlining the need to advance beyond discipline-based framing. The two realizations fit together. Emphasizing known and already framed wicked problems the Royal College post seems to miss that important fork in the road. Since there are many, many unframed challenges floating around it’s safe to say that not everyone is going to be working on known, world-peace sized challenges. As we point out in the Rethinking book, with time flying by, and much of it squandered, there is now urgency regarding on-boarding the capacity to work in the arenas of unknown problems, fuzzy situations….not presumed to be product, service or experience related. This aspect of the complexity landscape appeared to be not understood by the Royal College article authors.

Hiccup #8:

In its summary the Royal College article states; “To tackle complex challenges, we are facing need to foster and practice strategic design and the emerging systemic design - they are key future skills.” That's a fully true partial picture. We only have to recognize that neither current state design / design thinking or systems thinking contains systemic Open Challenge Framing to understand that more firepower from diverse knowledge communities is already required. In addition, not everyone involved in the Design for Complexity movement subscribes to having systems thinking driving the train, thus many calibrations already exist regarding skill-shifts.

Hiccup #9:

Since we started writing into this Rethinking Design subject around 2005 via NextD Journal many large and small lessons have been learned. Early on, way back when, we came to understand that the term “Strategic Design” had, even then, already been highjacked by folks focused in Arena 2. That made it a not great terminology candidate for new approaches designed to operate in the Design 3 and Design 4 complexity arenas of organizational and societal changemaking. Let’s face it, the term “Meta Design” has similar issues…story for another day. Both would require significant renovation/redesign to be applicable to the complexity arenas. Such are the complexities of this rather mixed up, confusing and confused design subject. Recognizing it is difficult terrain, we would have been happy to share this learning with the Royal College authors prior to publishing. Whatever one chooses to call it, the fundamental key is to leave behind the discipline-based, assumption-boxed framing methods that are deeply embedded in many graduate design schools. That calls for difficult redesign, not the more palatable redepiction. This, another fork in the road not to be missed.

Hiccup #10:

Last, but not least we could not help but notice that although the Royal College article makes discombobulated use of the NextD Geographies Framework it does not reference the Rethinking book where it is found and explained in considerable detail. That presents a rather odd referencing picture that was just an oversight I am sure for folks working out of such an important graduate school as the Royal College of Art.


Certainly by 2020-2023 it was, it is clear that the emerging future of Design for Complexity transcends Service Design assumptions and is broader than Systemic Design. Progress has been made. Forward motion is underway. In order to maintain that momentum lets avoid taking two narrowing steps back to satisfy the interests of any one micro-community arriving at the Design for Complexity party.

Perhaps most difficult for some facing the complexity change wave is coming to terms with the realization that redepicting downstream assumption-boxed methods as upstream open frame methods does not make them so and only adds confusion to an already confused subject. Let's avoid those particular "modifications." Surely its our collective responsibility to take on the sensemaking, in our own subject terrain. The good news is the arriving generation see and have less tolerance for the disconnects, often being more ready to embrace needed change.

Many of our readers will know that we have presented NextD Geographies and Rethinking Design Thinking at numerous conferences and graduate schools around the world. In closing we extend an open invitation to any graduate school including Royal College of Art. We would be happy to be invited to present NextD Geographies and the Rethinking book to students and faculty.

Let’s keep emerging out there!

As we pointed out in the Rethinking book:

The Challenges: HUGE!


The Stakes: HIGH

The Opportunity: GIGANTIC!

Good night from a chilly New York City.


Note to Readers: If you are in any kind of designerly organization where you are finding it difficult to write about or talk about the need for your program, your school, your organization to move beyond product, service and experience assumptions feel free to give us a call. We are familiar with such dynamics and happy to help.

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