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UNPACKING "System-Shifting Design"

Updated: Feb 25

Peer Review Series

Welcome back NextD Journal Readers. This week we are publishing a peer review of an important design community document related to the ever-evolving Design for Complexity Movement.

The review document: "System-Shifting Design, An Emergent Practice Explored”, authored by Cat Drew, Cassie Robinson and Jennie Winhall in collaboration with 40+ design experts was published by the Design Council in the United Kingdom in 2021.

This Design Council report was chosen for NextD Journal peer review as it is focused on the imagined and in-progress integration of design thinking with systems thinking. As some readers will know, this is the second peer review in this series.

The System-Shifting Design report paints a multi-dimensional picture that is looked at closely by the independent peer review contributors. Numerous diverse perspectives bubble-up. The purpose of this NextD Journal series is to help readers make sense of complex content on the subjects of design and design thinking, in this instance inclusive of the subject of systems thinking.

Invited Contributors: Alan Arnett (UK), Geoff Elliott (UK), Daniel Engelberg (Canada), Peter Jones (Canada), Roger James (UK), Arvind Lodaya (India), Sunil Malhotra (India), Pascal Wicht (Switzerland), GK VanPatter (USA)

Big thanks to all contributors for taking the time to share their thoughts on this bundle of complex subjects, not always an easy thing to do when everyone is so busy.

The review is lengthy! We are working on posting a downloadable PDF version soon.

There’s a lot to like in this Design Council, System-Shifting Design document. It feels well intentioned, thoughtful and a lot of useful time and energy has gone into it. I even agree with many of its inferences and conclusions...And there’s a ‘but’ coming.

As a practitioner I believe that all good design starts with some understanding of a need. Whether that’s a thing, a system or a planet, for something to be designed, there are questions. What needs designing? Who says? How do we know? And more.

And that’s where my first concern surfaces. The Design Council report mentions massive, societal and planet wide system challenges. It lists climate change, racial injustice, inequality, and more. It says we need to rethink systems from wealth, to wellbeing. All that is true, and the challenges are shared across nations, peoples and societies.

It’s a great start but then the report targets (separates out) designers. The 1.69m people in the design economy in the UK. That’s understandable – the document is co-written and co-sponsored by the Design Council. But when so much of the language in the paper talks about breaking down barriers and preconceived ways of doing things, limiting this discussion to what ‘designers’ should do seems a lost opportunity. If the challenges are system wide, why is the discussion not?


Here's why I think it’s a problem. I’ve been lucky enough to have practiced design in lots of different disciplines – engineering, creativity, innovation, change, leadership, learning and development, coaching and more. Without fail, the biggest mistake people made in all of those disciplines is this. They see the potential for a bigger impact. They want to change the world and help more people, and they start with an internal discussion about new ways of explaining and demonstrating their discipline, skills and tools.

Creating language and thinking they understand, but few people outside their domain do. And then they try to communicate, explain and teach their domain to others. It rarely works.

Getting people to change their perceptions of design and designers is itself a system change. We can’t just talk about it – we have to get on with it. As the report states, we have to be in the system to do it, not on the outside debating it from our own perspectives.

If designers want more impact, we have to get past our own maps and models, and the need to explain how good they are to others, and instead help people make a difference to things they care about.

As a client once said to me “I don’t care how shiny your models and tools are. I assume you know what you are doing. Use them, don’t talk about them. I don’t need to understand design – that’s why I’m paying you. Help me change things for the better”.

So how do we do that?

Well, I liked the text on Page 21 of the report so maybe thats a good place to start.

“…while we know how system transitions happen, we know much less about how to orchestrate deliberate or intentional shifts … in a way that doesn’t assume linear causality ...

So, an important question for design is how to contribute to accelerating deliberate transition (or intentional emergence), and doing so in a just and equitable way.

…for example how to design not only the products, services and operating models that exemplify a new system, but the supporting conditions and transitional activities that help a system to shift.”

Spot on. I’m not sure what the “emerging practice community” is but the good news would be there are practitioners already engaged in complex situations. If anyone wants to get better at doing just that, come and chat. It can be really fun, and much less complicated than this report implies.

My brief review comments here on the Design Council report are written from the perspective of someone who has “messed” around in Systems Thinking/Systems Practice (STSP) as a practitioner as opposed to an academic, although I have taught the subject at the graduate school level as well.

In the past few years I have certainly noted a renewed interest in systems thinking, not just from the design community but from other communities of practice as well. No doubt this is due in part to the rising acknowledgement that our planet is in trouble and needs help. The design community's interest in systems thinking as reflected in the Design Council document has good news and concerning news aspects to it from my perspective.



My primary concern is that most often missed is realization that systems thinking is a huge subject and not one small tidy thing. It’s not a method. It’s not just about looking at wholes. The design community, as expressed in Systemic Design seems to have settled on a tiny fraction of what systems thinking actually is so there is some confusion when that tiny piece is referred to as systems thinking. Foreshortened, reductionist interpretations of what systems thinking is and does are unfortunately widespread.

As a STSP practitioner, I have always found it useful to understand not only the scope and range of the different systems approaches – there are some 20 or so, but also the ideas of the key writers such as: Ackoff, Beer, Churchman, Vickers, Ashby, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Kenneth Boulding, Heinz von Foerster, Ilya Prigogine, Stuart Kauffman, Bateson et al, to name but a few. Above all STSP is a meta-discipline and also transdisciplinary drawing on ideas and concepts from all the sciences including philosophy and the social sciences.

What happens when systems thinking is evoked without this understanding? Where should the bar be set for understanding systems thinking? Of the many questions that are out there regarding the possible integration of systems thinking into design, for me these are among the most important. The version of Systemic Design being depicted in the Design Council report raises more questions than it answers in this regard.

Ironically the subject of Design Thinking has similar issues. Where should the bar be set for understanding Design Thinking?

The Design Council report reflects the a somewhat hodge-podge coming together of two forms of thinking with unclear, somewhat foggy bars of acceptable depth.


Reading the Design Council report wearing a STSP practitioner hat it is apparent the report authors have not reflected on and understood the origins of STSP and concepts and ideas of the key contributors, some of whom are mentioned above. Without that understanding how does the best parts of STSP become integrated into design? It appears to be a bit of a crap-shoot at the moment, as in building a new science based knowledge tool without having adequate science advisors on board. The signaling of lack of deep knowledge in the Design Council report would be of concern to any STSP practitioner.


Often the word “system” is used in everyday language very loosely. The System Shifting report is written from the perspective that systems are real and can be (re)engineered, skimming over STSP concepts and ideas. In reading the report it is not clear that the Systemic Design folks understand that is only one view of systems and that other views already exist within the systems thinking community. What constitutes a system is an entire conversation ongoing within the systems thinking community.


In STSP we ask: Who decides the boundaries of the system and its interrelationships? I do not see a lot of awareness in this regard within the Design Councils interpretation of Systemic Design.

Stafford Beer stated; “There is no doubt that what counts as a system is determined by the observer who demarcates its boundaries for his/her own purposes.” ‪ Sir Geoffrey Vickers, an eminent British Systems Thinker, talks about resisting our urge to view organizations/social systems in terms of “systems”.

The Design Council report contains statements such as:

“Designing for systems involves questioning the way that the boundaries of systems are perceived. As well as designing ‘parts’ of a system and the way they interact.”

We would want to be more clear about how boundary setting occurs. Churchman stated; "The selection of a definition of "system" is a design choice. That does not mean that setting is the exclusive activity of the “designer team”.

Systems thinking requires thinkers, and no one thinker is alike. Their versions of “systems” are unique to them. If we treat our “systems” as being real, it leads us to also assume that others are also seeing the same “system” and can understand what we mean by “system”. This is Mind Projection Fallacy. Lots of clarity is needed around who sets the boundaries of the system.

Heinz von Foerster once said; “You cannot hold a system responsible for anything – you cannot shake its hand, ask it to justify its actions – and you cannot enter into a dialogue with it; whereas I can speak with another self, a you!”

I will conclude with the wise words of the grand master of Systems Thinking, West Churchman: “The systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another.”

As a consulting practitioner I saw this Design Council report as containing a high-level sketch of how societal change practices – under the guidance of designers – might integrate systems thinking.

I believe systems principles should inform societal design, just as they reinforce many other fields, so from my perspective, the central thesis of this report is non-controversial.

Should we system-shift design practices for social change? Yes, of course. How should we do it? There are many possible ways. I’m fine with most of the general guidelines in this report as a starting point, but I do not consider it to be a full picture of what it will take to do that.

Will the Systemic Design approach make any difference? It seems to be early in that cycle so we do not yet know.

In my previous posts I’ve mentioned that systems thinking is based on scientific and mathematical principles that have been watered down for consumption by non-scientists.

It would be wonderful if Systemic Designers learned the scientific and mathematical underpinnings so as to better understand the “how” and “why” of systems change. I believe that would give the best chances of success to the goal of system-shifting design.


Some broader context to the report would have been useful. Outside of activities labeled as “design”, an extensive body of social and systemic transformation principles already exists under many different names. It would be useful to understand the relation of this Design Council report – and its contributors – to these existing practices. A partial list of related fields includes:

  • Socio-technical systems

  • Systemic design

  • Change-making

  • Mindset shift

  • Behavioural design

  • Social psychology

  • Organizational change

  • Adaptive systems

  • Upstream design thinking

It seems to me that there are already practitioners involved in this work from many different directions. This was not really acknowledged or made clear in the report.

The article seems to largely sidestep one of the biggest elephants in the room: Social change is notoriously difficult. For example, we already know that the majority of organizational change projects fail, even when guided by experienced practitioners. An arriving generation of Systemic Designers might ask practitioners from other fields what lessons have already been learned that can be applied to this organizational and societal context.

I believe that a good systemic approach can make it easier to succeed in social transformation. I’m optimistic about the potential of system-shifting design as an addition to an already populated arena.

The introductory critique within System-Shifting Design on the state of the world launches a cogent and accurate description on the nature of the current issues and the need for better thinking in how we address issues.

The rather empty slogans of some "Climate Activists"; “system change not climate change” is to simply cut-out the complexity of our interdependent lives, not a cut-through to the real issues. The purpose of the Systems-Shifting Design report is to help those involved in design respond to this complexity. It is also encouraging to see the emancipation of design practice from the expert to everyone.

The Design Council report unfortunaetly never defines what the authors and their study understand by ‘System’. The view of those versed in Systems Thinking maintain there is not one answer to this question but many. It is right to challenge the authors and question which already established paradigm(s) does the Design Council report adopt and which does it ignore?

As Systems Thinkers would claim; “We have no monopoly on good ideas” but by failing to embrace the rich variety of systems the authors of this report miss the opportunity to explore many good ideas.


The Design Council report is titled “Systems-Shifting Design”. I do belive the starting point is to first define the System type before you propose to shift it? In this we are questioning the common way these ideas are used, which unfortunately follows everyday language in assuming that ‘systems’ exist in the world, as when we casually speak of ‘the education system’ or ‘the legal system’.

Subject experts working on Design and Systems Thinking have tried different definitions:-

Buchanan (2019) defined Systems as: “A system is a relationship of parts in an organized manner to accomplish a common purpose”

Ashby defined Systems as: “A System is a set of variables sufficiently isolated to stay discussable while we discuss it”.

It is worth quoting another expert, Checkland (1999), here: “We found ourselves, in trying to make sense of our experiences, having to use the systems ideas in a radically new way. This entailed applying them to the process of inquiry itself. Never trust everyday language. Unfortunately, the not exactly correct, everyday language use of the word ‘system’ is deeply embedded in many disciplines, even in the thinking of some in the systems field, who should know better.”

Vickers made the point that if we think of systems as tangible (the Buchanan view) then efficiency, optimisation and decision making are legitimate targets for any intervention, if however we treat systems as a construct of an observer (the Ashby view) then effectiveness and judgement are the target.

The tricky issues introduced in the report are seen to be working on more than just naive goal setting and need an understanding through constructs from the observers. By failing to build on this distinction of system the reader is not guided as to the ‘type’ of ‘System’ and is therefore unsure about the expectations they can have from their interventions.

“You can control a car or a user interface but you have to learn how people will use, or abuse, them”.

Clarifying the system distinctions will prevent the designer from over-complicating the straightforward or playing pot luck with guessing games on complex issues.

The Design community is already aware of these distinctions and the process of working through the issues by iterating (designing) between the true and the real. Nelson expands on this - “The true, on the one hand, comes from patterns of accurate descriptions, and explanations, through controlled observation, such as William James’s “ tough-minded ”empiricism”- and the real “the result of particular actions, taken through specific judgments, and formed by distinct intentions”.

To quote Nelson: “It is design will and design intention, guided by design judgment, that transform the abstractness of relevant scientific knowledge and other forms of knowledge into a final unique design, the ultimate particular. The ultimate particular is that which “appears” in the world”.


The report on solution-focused suggests (Page 19) “the dynamic nature of social systems doesn’t lend itself to static solutions and the unfolding nature of a systemic opportunity means that design work is never ‘done’” - this hints at the intractability of Wicked Problems without introducing the well-established principles around Wicked Problems and the merit, on occasion, of timing interventions of even purposefully doing nothing (watchful waiting).

The material on Assemblages (Page 20) in the section ‘Secondly a need for design that drives transition’ introduces Assemblages as an alternative to ‘Systems’ - this simply echoes Checkland’s point on ‘everyday language’. The report does not provide any insight or clear instruction into what the required shift in thinking is and how do you achieve it?

For much of the report the issues and examples are equally explained by the role of narratives/paradigms to provide a coherence of thought and a boundary in scope. Perhaps a better insight could be simply delivered and explained through concepts in which the reader may already have some knowledge (such as paradigms).

The report draws on the ideas from Assemblage Theory but could lead the user to miss the caution in use and the advice provided by the originators (Deleuze & Guattari) of the concept (taken from Buchanan):

“Accordingly, any and every ‘thing’, or more precisely, any and every kind of collection of things has in recent times been called an assemblage. This constant and seemingly limitless expansion of the term’s range of applications begs the question, ever more insistently it seems to me, if any and every kind of collection of things is an assemblage, then what advantage is there in using this term and not some other term, or indeed no term at all? What makes an assemblage an assemblage and not some other kind of collection of things? If any apparently random ‘heap of fragments’, to use Jameson’s suggestive phrase for the ‘randomly heterogeneous and fragmentary and the aleatory’, is an assemblage then the concept serves only to say either that everything is more organized than it appears, or, on the contrary, that everything is ultimately less organized than it appears. Either the heap of fragments has a secret order we don’t see or the apparently ordered totality is really a heap of fragments if only we knew how to look properly. Either way, it does not move us much beyond a highly ambivalent baseline assumption, and we surely have a right to expect more from a new concept.”


The section in the report on impact and governance (Page 22) in the section ‘Thirdly underlying structures of current practice’ seems to be more a box ticking process to justify a design department. This has moved from the democratic ideal (everyone needs to be involved) to an exercise in departmental turf wars (cut marketing not design). If design is so important, and we believe it is, it merits a better positioning and justification than this.


I was puzzled by and reacted strongly to the random and out of context insertion of the Dan Hill material dismissing Systems Thinking (Page 25) “As much as systems thinking is a step forward from silos, it’s problematic. Because it comes originally from 1960s, cybernetic, technocratic theory, it has an unfortunate illusion of control … etc”.

The main text (Box 02 Page 26) then describes approaches which lie at the heart of Systems Thinking (boundaries, perspectives, relationships) as well as the concept those familiar with Systems Thinking use routinely (analysis and synthesis, parts and the whole, reflexivity). Why introduce the artificial put-down and schism introduced by Dan Hill?

Systems Thinking “does not claim the monopoly of good ideas” but by narrowing and balkanising valuable ideas from different fields this example of appropriation serves to diminish the value of Design Thinking. After all, for complex issues a trans-disciplinary approach is usually essential - Wicked Problems do not lie comfortably in any one box!


The examples in the report cite many examples of making probes & testing action and follows, but does not reference, Stephen Haeckel’s work on Sense and Respond.

The material on deep structure also covers ground well described and developed by the ecological community (especially TFH Allen). We should be wary and listen to the ecologists concerns over the invitations to tinker without a full understanding of the system - in many ecological examples the runaway impact of invasive species is the result of ‘little experiments with unintended consequences’. It took a small number of rabbits to overwhelm Australia (In 1859 grazier Thomas Austin released 12 pairs of wild rabbits on his property!).

The theme of the report is to push the boundaries where conventional approaches do not generate big shifts, but if we know so little then the hazards from unintended consequences are profound.

Practicing ecologists painstakingly review the situation to determine the underlying mechanism and when they experiment their caution is to find experiments that can be contained - a small size is no guarantee! Again a simple reading of the literature from ecology will show that many of the soundbites (such as Hollanek on agents) are erroneous, the popular view of ecology is species-centric but the professional view is much more process-centric. The question for designers is not only on the species [or DNA] but also on the environment [or cell] across which it is the entanglement of both elements that drives evolution.


The Design Council report suffers from heavy use of ‘jargon of the month’ concepts (Assemblage, Liminal, etc.) without references to the original work or their recent popular usage (Snowden in particular). As a result it misses the primary published work in Systems Thinking (Ackoff, Checkland, Churchman, Vickers), Architecture (Rittell, Alexander), Design (Nelson) and Business (Boisot, Hock).

Together these authors provide the foundational understanding and the approaches for the navigation of complexity - ideas that are rigorous, proven and simple. There is enough complexity in the subject and the literature already without introducing new jargon.

Peter Jones (Canada)

An ongoing design study sponsored by the Design Council has led to a series of frameworks and events, including the System-Shifting Design report, or more a manifesto led by Jennie Winhall, Cassie Robinson and Cat Drew, their Chief Design Officer. Some may know Jennie from her contribution to the Design Council’s development of the Transformation Design approach in 2005, with the RED team’s projects.

GK and I were among the US-based design leads for a North American movement toward Transformation Design. It’s worth recognizing this in the current document because of the continuity of aspiration between these earlier movements and the outcomes of systemic design in these different approaches. Also, the range of contributors in the report is worth noticing. Many are consistent and leading authors in the RSD Symposia and as well leading practitioners who also serve as academics (e.g. Lucy Kimbell, Daniel Wahl).

The level of support this stunning document has from its parent council is very apparent – the report is prominent in the materials on the website, and its focus on design contributions to large-scale systemic issues has led to the Design Council’s commitment on the Design for Planet Festival, now in its second year, to explore how the relationships between planetary health, social responsibility, and design for systems change might develop following these framing events.

It’s clear from this framing that a systemic design approach is being adopted to address the planetary crisis, which is the point of a discipline, to take on challenges that cannot be addressed by other practices. Design Thinking or industrial design practices are insufficient to address multi-stakeholder societal crisis contexts. One of the unique aspects in their System Shifting framing is the basic idea of designing for participants to “see the system they are in.” This is a central concept in Theory U and the emerging work published in the Journal of Awareness-Based Systems Change.


I find the “manifesto” part to be very well-conceived, taking into account current critical perspectives on the framing of social and complex systems, with illustrative quotes from their contributors that show the diversity of thought that went into this. They critique classical ideas of systems science more than I would, but these frames tend to confuse practitioners and positions in the document are, throughout, oriented toward using knowledge to co-produce pragmatic outcomes. They avoid hubris, they acknowledge there is no ‘right way’ to organize design and its known methods to the deliberative alignment of system-oriented design toward societal change. But they take a good aim at developing a framework for a house application of systemic design. I think they did a bang-up job.

I like the reframing of design thinking toward a competency or skills-based approach, by proposing soft skills for the systemic designer of integrative thinking, abduction, perspective, and reflection. These are non-obvious skills and powerful in their own right.

They selected an interesting range of case studies reflecting participatory practices and (mostly) interventions within public services and requiring citizen engagement. These reflect the kinds of cases we see in public value tracks in RSD, and they are valuable to learn from. I would have liked to see a framework here reflecting their positions at different domains (public sector AND industry, citizen-led AND institutional). Also some distinction of their levels of leverage, potential for lasting change, and the range of actors affected. Links would have helped answer my questions about these short pieces.

The system-shifting principles present a more definitive formulation of work previously shared in RSD9 (“Not the Venn”) in 2020. This demonstrates a continuity of design-and-test cycles within a practice community. The result is a confident orientation to systemic design that is decidedly non-derivative of the other streams of work developed over the last decade. From the interdisciplinary perspective of this emerging field, that’s a helpful contribution as we can mix, match, compare, and blend between preferred approaches and learn and develop more. In service design, has there been any similar breaking away from the standards of practice that have become foundational? There is originality here.


The roles proposed for new systems practice are clearly well-considered, original – perhaps not yet practical for design firms, but these are new tasks and functions that can be seen within the emerging field of systems change. These could be tasks defined from the transformation design era – and rather than the labels, I’d consider the tasks. These are new functions within Design 4.0 contexts, and they do not submerge or preclude design craft and product-service excellence.

The proposal is clearly not attempting to define a methodology, it doesn’t tell us what to do and how to do it. It’s meant to be read as an inspiring proposal, the framing of new practices, not to steer systemic design in a single direction. Systemic design, as you can see from their references, is a broad and creative emerging space. There are many practical tools and methodologies in the field, and a vision from the UK’s Design Council is a welcome direction. I can say this would be inspiring for the young designers I teach in several systemic design courses in our MDes programs – most of their research projects in the last five years are moving into this direction.

This is perhaps the best-articulated and most contemporary policy document on Systemic Design I've come across. I have no doubt that being authored by three non-old, non-men and non-academics has a lot to do with this.

For one, it contains a categorical critique of 'the West' in bringing the world to the state it is in--and still opposing fundamental change. Coming from the heart of the 'establishment' instead of the usual 'woke' fringe, this is a first.

In another first, it also acknowledges the absence of non-Western and diverse views and voices in shaping the discourse and posits itself as an 'invitation' rather than a declaration or prescription.

I heartily recommend this as a must-read for anyone interested in saving the Earth and our humanity from certain destruction or dereliction--oh, and/or also the future of the design professions.


However, the document also reveals some limitations that emanate from its context - of being a policy document for the British establishment at this point of history, by invoking the holy values of today's neoliberalist trinity - (economic) sustainability, scalability and replicability. The 'stories' section illustrates this intention vividly.

It also reveals the 'whiteness' of its authors in terms of the rather superficial acknowledgements to Western hegemony - without creating the space for alternative views or voices within the document itself.

It urges us towards but studiously refrains from using the three R-words - reduction (degrowth), revolution (non-incremental system transformation) and radical (non-conventional ideologies) - that typify any major systemic shifts that have occurred in the last century: be it colonial assertion (Gandhi) or dismantling sanctioned racism (King or Mandela).

According to me, those should serve as exemplars of systemic change and methods, much better than those from the Western Design pantheon - who operated in the realm of 'stuff' and not 'systems'.

Postscript: These may also point us towards transformation processes in natural systems - such as fractals, virality or entropy - that we can learn from and contrast with human/societal transformations.

I found it refreshing that the report has been “put out as an offer, or an invitation, for others to build upon [our] ideas, and as a provocation for designers to experiment with new approaches and for the western design ‘system’ to consider how it needs to shift.”

Full marks to the authors for their modesty, a rare virtue in our self-aggrandising culture.

The call for participation echoes Steve Jobs: “So when a good idea comes, you know, part of my job is to move it around, just see what different people think, get people talking about it, argue with people about it, get ideas moving among that group of 100 people, get different people together to explore different aspects of it quietly, and, you know—just explore things.”


The overall direction works for me as a framework to get from where we are in the world of design to where this approach can take us. Elevating design to take on a more comprehensive role makes eminent sense. Whenever there’s a change in the environment (as we will see in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic), there will always be new opportunities for better ways of solving the same problem.

The Integral Design Framework (IDF) based on Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, developed jointly with Jeff Smith, co-founder of Lunar Design, in 2018 (below) is a useful resource. See my previously posted comments "Leading from Design."

Our pattern-seeking minds push us towards a reductive approach: we have a tendency to reduce the scope of any challenge to one of the four quadrants. IDF forces holistic approaches by acting as a governor. In short, each quadrant represents a fundamental, irreducible dimension. What’s more, the quadrants aren’t disjointed and unilateral – all four always act together in concert. So any truly comprehensive approach needs to take into account factors from all four quadrants, at a minimum.

This report is a good start to an emergent and generative design paradigm. The following comments build upon the ideas presented by the authors.

Report Page 24: "What it means to design for systems."

Background reading on systems and design thinking is a useful start but needs much more meat to be of value. Conflating systems thinking and design thinking can cause more harm than good. Designing for systems is a worthy goal which is easier said than done.

Here’s an early systems view of design thinking I visualised in 2016.

Report Page 30: "We are in a liminal space. The new practice we need is still emerging."

Being in a liminal space cuts both ways. The stories presented here are powerful in terms of setting a direction for the core propositions laid out. It would be interesting to track how the ideas and suggestions play out. Ideas around how practitioners will be supported would be a key success criterion.

Report Page 38: "Using prototyping to probe and to form. Prototyping is often reduced to a means of testing preconceived ideas or validating assumptions. Here, designers are using it initially as a means of sense-making–probing and provoking a system to reveal where there is resistance or energy for change. Possibilities are formed, not in the studio, but in real-time, in relation to people’s responses."

Prototypes are what we use to talk to our ideas. Michael Schrage, in his book, Serious Play shares this powerful insight, "...innovative prototypes generate innovative teams. The prototype plays a more influential role in creating a team than teams do in creating prototypes."

Contrary to conventional wisdom, prototyping should ideally be used as a means to find out what isn’t working. The answer to “Why prototype?” is “To fail.”

Report Page 42: "Working at different levels of a system to drive change: In addition to developing new, tangible products, services and business models at the micro level, designers are finding ways to contribute to or reinforce broad changes happening at the macro level, for example by shaping new narratives, paradigms, and values (which some call ‘meta’ design)."

This is a relevant inclusion in the responsibility matrix of the design community. The idea of meta-design could go a long way in redefining the role of design at systemic levels. What remains to be seen is how design education and practice might prepare design professionals to fulfill this.

Report Page 54-55: "Implications for design practice. Through observing designers working to shift systems, we can see that they are finding different positions from which to act. These allow them to put new approaches into practice. This is helpful for other designers to see how they can act, and for the ‘design system’ to understand how they need to facilitate this type of action."

Visualising new ‘specialist’ roles runs the risk of detracting from the idea of system-shifting. Here is where old thinking habits have crept back into an otherwise bold approach to paradigm shifting. My advice to the authors would be to stay clear of labels, which have an odd way of sticking.


Good overall effort although there is a tendency to limit opportunities by falling back into old ways of thinking. It is a slippery slope when you start putting themes into categories; breaking down goes against the grain of holistic thinking while stymying the prospects of emergence. That’s something to be alive to and cautious of.

If the attempt here is to foster ecosystems within ecosystems, there must be a conscious effort to catalyse value rather than guide the process. Especially since the spirit is one of democratisation, and designing while ‘the engine is running’.

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea." - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Reference Links:

Pascal Wicht (Switzerland)

With an intro making bold promises about a system approach that transcends design, I was first quite puzzled. Is this taking us back to the golden days of design thinking promotion? When magical narratives were making promises to change everything wrong with design and business? I was wondering if systems were becoming the new empathy.

But after some reading and figuring out the document structure, this publication started to nicely resonate with me. It first rightfully calls for expanding both design knowledge and practice, as the authors understand the need for working at different scales and stepping away from traditional outputs of design production. And as well, they focus on the fundamental aspect of crafting the supporting conditions and transitional activities required for systems to shift.

But my favourite part is how the authors recognise how much intelligence and intangible design assets are lost, falling off the edges of briefs and scopes, uncaptured, unrecognised and uninvested. As a design researcher, this reality I call design waste has always fascinated me.


We also definitely need to talk about ethics and how it often lingers as an optional nice to have in commissioned design work, making it difficult for designers to challenge and reframe briefs. The invitations for exploration and the speculative ideas to collectively reimagine the design system are interesting prompts to shift our practices. Especially about power.

As the publication correctly notes, we need to invite designers to focus on managing tensions. Most commissioned work may come from actors that are deeply part of the problems they attempt to address, halfway between wicked problems and the Shirky principle.

“Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”

—Clay Shirky

Indeed, systems regularly present themselves as fuzzy shapeshifting monsters that can bite back really hard. The systems we work both with and from within, are networks of invisible hybrid alliances and interdependences below our immediate radars, requiring careful system tactics, attention to system diplomacy and system patience.

Despite the most noble and purpose-driven intentions, key stakeholders regularly protect the current systems states and ensure designers remain limited on the surface of their usual isolated design outputs.

This emerging practice exploration from the Design Council is a clear sign of design practice maturity and is a valuable effort to support this growth. In this direction, we need to be more attentive to the reality of designers commissioned to step into the system space to design and engineer deep system shifts. My experience shows that designers must be equipped to face and absorb system frictions, system pushbacks and system power games.

To conclude, I will answer a question from the document: “What can you design that creates properties, relationships or values that allow other interventions to emerge?”

The most important aspect of provisioning the system shift is to work on reward mechanisms. Because no amount of good intentions and relevant intervention will survive if the old reward structure remains in place, pulling the system back into its current state, cannibalizing efforts and reinforcing power dynamics.

NextD Journal has for more than a decade been journalistically covering a change phenomenon underway across multiple channels, moving at different speeds, inside the emerging practice design community. Some channels have been prescient, active early and moving rapidly, while at the opposite end of the continuum, others were late arriving and slow moving. It's a diverse, mixed bag of community changemaking.

In this regard I might begin here by pointing out to our NextD Journal readers that the channel focused on adding a version of systems thinking to design, described in the Design Council report entitled; System-Shifting Design is just one of several streams within the broader Design for Complexity Movement. To keep it simple; The Design Council document is not a picture of the emerging practice design community but rather a picture of one channel within that community. It is a community of communities that has existed for some time, largely flying under the mainstream radar, with much knowledge already codified and in forward motion.

Honestly, I had to walk around the block a couple of times after reading the Design Council document. For seasoned veterans of the complexity arenas it's a bit of a head spinner. While walking I said to myself: No wonder so many folks find these subjects confusing and confused!

Clearly the Design Council report is a well-meaning document. Lots of work went into it. The problem is it contains a rather odd mix of dueling tonalities, truths, untruths, misinformed criticism, forceful false straw man arguments, substantial omissions, presumptions and optimistic, adventuresome speculations, all mixed into one bundle being packaged under the banner of “emerging practice”.

To be brief, suffice it to say the Design Council document does not reflect where the emerging practice community is, but rather where the Systemic Design channel is or at least where the Design Council folks think it is.

There are many things I could say about this Design Council report, however in the interest of your time and mine I will share five, hopefully helpful mini-perspectives here. For methods-oriented practitioners there are more than a few head-scratcher moments in the Systems-Shifting Design report. The continuing mission of NextD Journal is community sensemaking.


Over the years we have noticed that “The State of the World” messaging in the design community typically has two central parts to it: Part 1: Messaging that the world outside is changing, is seriously broken and challenges facing our organizations, communities and planet earth are becoming more complex. Part 2: Questioning what internally the design community is going to do in response? Response Option A; Change nothing as design / design thinking is in fine shape. Response Option B; We need to change our ways, create alternate tracks through the forest.

Since 2005 we have seen numerous versions of this two-part dance messaging pop-up and either be embraced or ignored. Response Option A remains wildly popular in the mainstream design community and certainly in many graduate design academic circles. The arriving Design Council Report is a 2021 version of that two-part dance, leaning towards Response Option B. It is Option B that underlies the Design for Complexity Movement.

The reports depiction of the external world in a brokenish dysfunctional state is not exactly a breaking news flash but is probably the one aspect of the report that most could agree on. I found this high-altitude part of the report to be constructive, well written and clear.

It is typically in the second part of the dance that problems arise. Strong on the front end it is when the Design Council report wades into methods commentary that its tonalities change and its strengths dissipate.

Journalistically speaking, the one puzzling, close to community aspect that is not contained in the report introduction regarding the messy world and its relationship to design is why it has taken so long for the design community, the design education community in particular, to acknowledge need for methods change.

It is no secret that all during the design thinking popularity era many high profile graduate design schools have been engaged in a rather forceful narrative, often heavily defended, insisting that design thinking is all one needs to address any kind or scale of problem. A high profile 2015 article appearing in Harvard Business Review as Design Thinking Comes of Age played along with that narrative. In many, not all neighborhoods, that depiction went on and on for years. Some are still at it.

In the design community, particularly in design education, it seems to be easier to point out what’s problematic in the big bad world outside then it is to approach the subject of what is problematic inside with current designerly methods. When it comes to the latter, lots of confusing spin-shifting tends to appear.

Journalistically speaking the change of heart and the now in progress, wider waking up to need for change emerging into view is an important part of the bumpy community changemaking story. Unfortunately, this part of the story is largely missing from the Design Council document as is rendition of who the folks were pointing out this need for change in the direction of complexity more than a decade ago. A little more authentic community context would have helped readers place the ambitious Design Council report in realistic context. Many shades of we don’t know what we don't know seem to be present in the Design Council document.


If I had to choose one odd, head-scratcher depiction that exemplifies, from a methods perspective, the confusion in the document it would be this highly critical, misinformed concoction aimed at creative problem solving methodology:

Design is billed as creative problem-solving, delivering workable solutions to discrete problems. This means the design process is most often taken to be a process of defining – or isolating– a problem and resolving it through a product or service solution.”

Huh? Holy mixed up methods! What is that doing there? First up, I hope our readers recognize that CPS (creative problem solving) is an entire, super active community of practice outside of design, with a deep methods R&D history that predates the design methods movement.

Since it is well known that it is design / design thinking methodology, not creative problem solving methodology that has baked-in assumptions regarding product, service and experience, let’s get our brains around what telling readers the exact opposite in this Design Council report does to the sensemaking around this subject, to the credibility of that document, to the Design Council and even to the subject of Systemic Design itself.

Anyone attending even an introductory CPS workshop would know this. One might wonder how could a panel of 40+ design experts be so misinformed? I have my doubts that the miscasting of CPS seen in the report came from the three primary authors. It does however sound very much like a well-known, uninformed differentiating effort published by one of the “Designer Contributors” in 2015. It was and is a mixed-up, upside-down, false straw-man argument construction detached from reality. I was surprised to see it imported into the Design Council document.

To be clear to our readers: Unlike what is stated in the Design Council report: CPS does not jump off from “briefs”. That's design / design thinking. CPS is not about “delivering workable solutions to discrete problems.” That's design / design thinking. CPS is not about “isolating a problem and resolving it through a product or service solution. That's design / design thinking.

CPS methods make no upfront assumptions regarding challenge or outcome paths. In high contrast, design / design thinking methods do contain upfront challenge and solution path assumptions regarding products, services, experiences baked right into the process.

To be clear: Current conventional design thinking, based on design methods, is assumption boxed downstream methodology. CPS is assumption free upstream methodology. I’m referring to not the philosophy, but rather the actual methodology.

With such upside-down misinformation being broadcast by the design community itself no wonder these subjects are confused. It is no secret that consuming misinformation is how communities and their clients get confused. Why would such a high-flying Design Council report be down such an upside-down, gas-lighten path? How did that happen and what are the implications?

Many of our readers will know that if the factual realities of design / design thinking methods are missed in design community problem finding, a key building block in design for complexity awareness is missed. To keep it simple: the complexity that must be faced is on the other side of product, service and experience assumptions that are deeply embedded in design and design thinking methods. In NextD Journal we have been talking about, writing about the need to make that jump beyond product, service, experience for years and years. For this Design Council document to be presenting in 2021 a false picture, depicting CPS as stuck there is bonkers, a complete misrepresentation.

Truth be told: Upstream in its basic orientation, most leading innovation practices have long since integrated aspects of CPS into their hybrid methods, especially on the front end. Since CPS contains numerous strategically useful gold nuggets, including open systemic challenge framing, not present in design or systems thinking what a shame it is to see such an unenlightened false straw man argument injected into such an important design community document.

While the report points to well-known societal problems it misses the crucial point that most of the challenges facing changemakers in everyday practice are not defined, waiting on a table to be selected and worked on. What that means is that the tools and skills for working downstream on defined challenges are rather different from the tools and skills needed to work upstream on undefined, fuzzy situations. It is in the CPS toolbox, not the design / design thinking toolbox, not the systems thinking toolbox that you find the tools and skills to undertake upstream systemic challenge framing, so you see how tragic it is for the Design Council document to be miscasting CPS. Talk about shooting oneself in the foot and so unnecessarily!

It’s certainly a bit of a head twister and rather tragic to see that miscasting others is how the design community tackles its own problem finding around its own methods. One might wonder: How the hell did that misrepresentation get out the Design Council door?

For seasoned methods-oriented practitioners this kind of stuff grows weary.

Seeing the false constructions, one might wonder if it is possible for Systems-Shifting Design, Systemic Design to build a differencing approach without having to utilize uninformed false, straw man arguments.

False straw man arguments work only if your audience is isolated, engaged in narrow casting and inter-tribal Kool-Aid consumption. Recognized as signs of weakness, not strength, false straw man arguments become instant red flags, dead on arrival when posted into the cross-community collective.

Talking up the future, while depending on old tribal false argument constructions is a formula, not just for confusion making, but for advancing no real progress. Such dynamics do not belong in emerging practice.


Remarkably, rather oddly, sadly, a similar unenlightened head scratcher miscasting can be seen in the Design Council reports depiction of Complexity Navigation. WTF? The report authors seem to be unaware that Complexity Navigation is an already present, already operating approach inside the emerging practice community, inside the Design for Complexity Movement, with much upstream knowledge already in codified form.

Since Humantific has been engaged with Complexity Navigation for more than a decade, teaching organizational leaders upstream sensemaking and changemaking skills we know the Design Council depiction to be not just amateurish and misinformed but flat-out wrong. In Complexity Navigation it is already known that adding one ingredient to design is not going to be a magic elixir for the complexities of Design Arena 3 or Arena 4.

Complexity Navigation has already integrated and codified, not one, but many ingredients, from outside of design, including systemic challenge mapping, cognitive inclusion, psychological safety and inclusive culture building which are not found in design / design thinking, systems thinking or Systemic Design.

To be clear: The terrain that Complexity Navigation is preparing changemaking oriented folks to work in is not the terrain where the challenges are sitting on the table. The skills we have been teaching organizational leaders for a decade in our Complexity Navigation Program are far beyond those being depicted in the report as needed for Systemic Design.

Unfortunately presented in the report was a complete misrepresentation of Complexity Navigation in real world practice. How do such mistseps happen? Why the Design Council would embark down such a misinformed, amateurish depiction path is a bit of a mystery. Why rain into methods related subjects that the assembled report team clearly knows nothing about? Again, false argument constructions tend to not hold water when posted into the cross community collective. The believability of the Design Council report was not enhanced by the hurtling of those rather naive, unenlightened miscastings.

Considering the pressing issues that many of our communities are facing, we believe the design community owes the rapidly arriving future, the next generation in our own community better, more enlightened, more useful, more honest insights.

Again, the Design for Complexity Movement is bigger than the Systems-Shifting Approach.


Our long time readers will know that before we wrote the book; Rethinking Design Thinking: Making Sense of the Future that Has Already Arrived we not only studied and worked the subject for many years as practitioners but we conducted considerable community research published via NextD Journal. All of that gave us a detailed understanding of the current state as well as the challenges facing design in the context of rising complexity, from a methods perspective. Since sensemaking is the focus of that book we included 10 Secrets of Design Thinking depicting current problematics as well as 25 Suggested Change Avenues.

Swimming in those waters for many years we have noticed that there seems to be two schools of thought, two approaches to problem finding/acknowledgement regarding what is depicted in the Design Council Report as “The Design We Have & The Design We Need” and “Characteristics of Current Practice”.

One often appearing approach is known to us as the Avoidance School of design methods problem finding which tends to differ significantly from the Authentic School of problem finding.

The Avoidance School tends to approach design related problem finding as a dance-around, often taking into consideration the academic politics of tenure track, etc. The practice-based Authentic School of problem finding/acknowledgement is sensemaking oriented and tenure track considerations are not in the mix there.

We view that two schools picture as common in a complex world. It’s good to have choices and so be it. Readers of the Design Council report can decide for themselves which school of problem finding is present in the depiction that appears in “The Design We Have & The Design We Need.”

What we do know from a real world practice perspective is that dance-around problem finding/problem acknowledgement tends to provide a foggy foundation for charting meaningful change. Poor problem finding, poor problem acknowledgment might be great for egos but leads to lack-luster, misdirected changemaking and alternate path creation.

Of course someone might ask: What does it mean to be miscasting alternate approaches already operating while miscasting the current problems with designerly methods? What does that picture mean and what are its implications?


The Design Council document suggests: “Many have embraced systems thinking as a tool to understand the nature of these complex systemic challenges.”

That is the view from the Systemic Design channel. While that is true, it is at best an over-simplification. We might point out the broader picture is that not everyone in the Design for Complexity Movement has placed the same emphasis on systems thinking, not everyone sees it as a new ingredient capable of driving the train, not everyone subscribes to the idea that systems thinking contains tools that will help overcome current shortcomings of designerly methods for use in the context of the complexity arenas, not everyone embraces the often stiff, hubristic, engineering oriented systems language and logic.

In addition, some in the community believe that the thinking holistically part of systems thinking has been inside strategic design and transformation design for more than a decade. Not one, but rather many perspectives on systems thinking exist within the Design for Complexity Movement.

Certainly seasoned veterans well know that as a stand-alone offering systems thinking has been around the consulting block a few times already in the organizational change arena without strong/broad uptake.

In the big picture sense, the jury remains out on the calibration of systems thinking, as just one of numerous dimensions being added to conventional design / design thinking. Diverse perspectives on those questions and on that calibration have already resulted in other approaches outside the Systemic Design logic including Complexity Navigation and Meta Design.

If we take the report literally and look at the “Systems Innovation Capabilities” suggested in the Design Council document which include: “Integrative thinking, Abductive Reasoning, Perspective-Taking, Proportionality, Reflexivity, Synthesis”, none of those are exclusive to systems thinking or to design. Most would be considered Level 1 skills in Complexity Navigation. To be clear to our readers, those skills alone are nowhere near enough to be operating in the arenas of fuzzy organizational and societal complexity.

While the report encourages engagement with so-called wicked problems, there are a few key distinguishing features of the opportunity space missing. We would, from a practice perspective be happy to share that there is a lot of operational possibility space between world peace size problems and the current state of design / design thinking, fixated on assuming everything is a product, service or experience problem.

Vast quantities of fuzzy complex problematics exist there in the complexity arenas of organizational and societal contexts. Not everyone is going to be working on world peace. The reality is that most of the emerging practice community will be working on that in-between complexity space for decades to come.

Since the challenges are not all framed up sitting on the table in the form of design briefs or systems to be selected in those arenas, the ability to work in that in-between space of high complexity upstream from outcome assumptions is extremely important. Truth be told: Upstream open challenge framing originates in the CPS community. Root cause analysis (The 5 Whys) does not create systemic pictures of challenge constellations.


The reports states “It is not yet clear if we have the right ways to address complex issues.”

With this statement we would agree and thus see the Design for Complexity Movement as having multiple channels running, not just Systemic Design. The giant presumptuous misstep of the Design Council report was to position its Systems-Shifting Design/ Systemic Design as the self-proclaimed parent. Too much work has been done by too many others for that narrowing presumption to fly.

In fairness to all parties, all channels and in consideration of the timeline, it is not so much about everyone building on the Design Council's Systems-Shifting perspective and more about all parties recognizing that others are already involved in these arenas across more than one approach.

Once we understand and acknowledge that multiple channels already exist within the emerging practice community and the Design for Complexity Movement, then numerous outstanding questions tend to appear.

Currently Complexity Navigation, Meta Design, Transition Design, OpenFrame Design and Systemic Design are all present in differing stages of development and codification. Some are based in and originate from academia. Some in and from practice. Some have longstanding skill-building programs built on codified knowledge and some do not. Some are geared towards teaching students in academia, some towards teaching organizational leaders. Others are likely percolating somewhere. What the similarities and differences are, what lessons have already been learned and how they might apply to various complex situations is not yet clear. The movement is now maturing and transitioning to the era of such questions.

It’s a good moment for NextD Journal to be clear that from our perspective, the foundation of the movement that we have been covering and will continue to cover is the condition of perceived complexity and not the single solution option of adding systems thinking to design. It is certainly conceivable in the present and emerging that some approach variations might construct in ways that result in design and systems thinking being on the train, but not driving it.

As we work on Book 2 of Innovation Methods Mapping focused on Design for Complexity the question we ask is not whether an approach in review centers around systems thinking or not but rather simply; Is it operating beyond the assumptions of product, service and experience in either the organizational or societal complexity arena?

In close reading of the Design Council report it was noted that not one but rather two tonalities are present there. The rather forceful tonalities of the miscasting seemed to be at odds with a later appearing in the document, warmer invitation to somehow collaborate, share knowledge in the future.

While there is no formal community mechanism in place for cross-channel sharing and learning from each other, it seems rather obvious that such possibilities necessitate the respectful jettisoning of false straw man constructions and miscasting. Working across communties in hybrid form is already the way most leading innovation practices operate. It requires an open, cross-community mindset.

All considered, it seems likely that multiple channels of changemaking are going to be present in the emerging practice community and the various complexity arenas for some time.

Last month, I was invited to speak at the dSchool Africa Conference where the positioning of the shiny new school remains steadfast on Design Thinking and the terms “Reframe, Rethink, Resolve Real World Problems” and “Practical Problem Solving”.

Suffice it to say that the graduate design academies are going to need all the help they can get to deliver on such promises and more beyond in the age of complexity recognition.

Most of us are well aware that the clocks are ticking.

Hope this was helpful NextD Journal readers.


Image credits: Rethinking Design Thinking: Making Sense of the Future that has Already Arrived, Humantific 2021.

Previously Published in this NextD Journal series:


The overall current state of design related journalism is not great and we are here to hopefully make a small difference, creating new forms of sensemaking oriented content on this bare-bones site. Not sure why, but right now it seems to be difficult to find knowledgeable thought leader women contributors with knowledge of any one of these subjects: design, design thinking, innovation, sensemaking, changemaking, systems thinking, transformation, creative problem solving, innovation methodologies, design research, cocreation, strategy, design history, innovation history, particapatory design, meta design, strategic design, systemic design, organizational transformation, societal transformation. If you have considerable knowledge in one or more of these subjects and can write well feel free to send us an email.

Cover Image credits: Design Council Report: System-Shifting Design, 2022


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