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  • GK VanPatter

What is Progress?

Updated: Mar 27, 2023

So many posts and so little time! Welcome back NextD Journal readers. This week we are sharing a few observations related to a recently appearing post by systems thinker Rajneesh Chowdhury entitled “Systems Thinking Vs Design Thinking”.

Clearly the design community is never in one place at a time and this makes it difficult for many to get a handle on its forward motion evolution. Even if one is using more targeted terms such as strategic design there is never one right answer to the questions; where is it exactly?... and what is inside it? This is part of the complexity of this subject, this community, that now has many diverse participants and unconnected moving parts. Being in multiple places simultaneously is the messy cross-disciplinary, cross-generational community norm.

Somewhat oddly there often seems to be a misperception floating around that no one is strategically at home in the design community so anyone, regardless of background, can move into the living room and start insisting on depictions and overhauls from their arriving perspectives. This tends to occur in waves on a recurring basis. Take it as entertaining, useful or disturbing it is part of the fabric of the community at this point and with everyone now publishing, unlikely to change.

You may have noticed that seldom are the redepictions/suggestions lacking in presumption or forcefulness…often dumbing down design while placing themselves in the drivers seat.. :-)

We noted this suggestion in the Chowdhury post: “Enter systems thinking – the approach beyond design thinking.”

Huh? Yikes! Good to have a sense of humor in this business! Welcome to the subject(s) of design / design thinking such as they are today…this week!

Ten Observations March 2023

1. We published this screen below and many others similar to it ten years ago. Designed to highlight/share, from a changemaking practice perspective the 10 part Think Blending we were doing and needed to be doing to be helpful to organizational leaders in the face of the complexities emerging. It never really occurred to us that a movement would be arriving a decade later suggesting that adding just one element was going to be enough, in the face of rising complexity. Nor did we think of these as competing approaches.

2. It seems unlikely that those of us in real world practice who have operated with systems thinking and other thinking modes on board for more than a decade will be wanting to wind back the clock to adopt the perspective of heralding the rearrival of systems thinking as a savior for design / design thinking in 2023..or conversely design saving systems thinking…:-)

3. While systems thinking has been on the train for at least a decade, not everyone in the emerging practice community subscribes to the notion of having systems thinking drive the train. In part this is due to its underlying roots orientation and important missing elements, found elsewhere, particularly around systemic challenge framing which is missing from both conventional design and systems thinking but found elsewhere.

4. It is no secret that while systems thinking has indeed been around the block a few times it has, on its own, largely failed to ignite widespread uptake. Clear boundaries on what it is and is not seem to be elusive which has not helped it’s adoption. If clarity is part of a new currency, systems thinking seems to be in short supply. Clearly there is more than holistic consideration inside systems thinking so there is considerable irony in seeing it narrowed to holistic consideration, something already inside strategic design. This just one of numerous head twisters that are floating around. If holistic consideration is Systems Thinking 101 it seems reasonable to suggest the immediate explanatory arrival of Systems Thinking 2,3,4. That might help warrant a celebration in the context of design.

5. We did notice that the “design thinking” process being referred to in the “Vs” post is that of the dSchool circa 2009, not Herbert Simon (1916 – 2001) as mistakenly pointed out on the Interaction Design Institute site. With steps of “Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test” it’s probably a good fit to product design as the “Vs” post makes numerous references to. Its often useful, however, to be aware that many practitioners would not be comfortable with that process serving as representative of what all designerly folks engaged in strategic design and or the emerging practice community are doing. The same stereotyping presumption can be seen on the Interaction Design Institute site unfortunately. To be clear, many other process configurations now exist, some geared to upstream contexts and some to downstream contexts.

6. Contrary to what the “Vs” post author proposes there is no evidence to suggest that systems thinking is bigger than design thinking. It is true that design thinking lost its way in the last few years, narrowing to product, service, experience at a time when the challenges of the world were expanding not narrowing. The boom of interest in “design thinking” served as blockage for change recognition in much of our own community particularly in graduate design education. With many graduate design schools content to sell design thinking workshops not much forward motion occurred during that period that is finally being awoken from. The good news is that the emerging practice community did not fall into that rabbit hole and has been making steady evolutionary progress in the real world. Hopefully that hic-up in mainstream graduate design education was temporary and does not distract from what design in the big picture sense has the intention and responsibility to become…no pressure there..:-)

7. We updated the Think Blending picture below in the context of depicting needed graduate education programs and included it in our last book Rethinking Design Thinking, Making Sense of the Future that Has Already Arrived. Again Systems Thinking is present along with numerous other modes and considerations. The notion that graduate design education is going to be fixed simply by adding Systems Thinking is a bit of a speculative fairy tale that flies in the face of what is already known in changemaking practice.

8. In the design community we do notice that there seems to be, not surprisingly, considerable interest by some, in bolting systems thinking onto deeply engrained, assumption-boxed methods of product, service, experience design as if it is going to somehow magically make those methods broader, more upstream and strategic. From a methods perspective it’s a suggestion that presents numerous, head twisting perplexities juxtaposing narrowing with in take a wider view of something already narrowed..:-) Huh? Is that common-sense sensemaking or strategic confusionmaking? You decide. Is systems thinking the magic elixir that makes downstream assumption boxed methods upstream and assumption free? Such are the complexity contortions visibly in motion in the community at this time as the shift wave recognizing rising complexity takes hold.

9. It appears that the author of the “Vs” post seems to be doing the often seen two step dance of referring to design thinking as if it is an exact equivalent to design and then laying out assumed attributes of the stereotype mainstream design thinking most often seen over on the now huge Design Thinking LinkedIn group. The rather odd comparison served up in the “Vs” post is a bit of a systems thinkers fantasy regarding how the world (and the consulting business) should work..:-)

10. What the “Vs” author does not take into consideration is that such a depiction does not represent where strategic design is, where the emerging practice community is presently….The comparison in the “Vs” post comes across as comparing a global perspective to subservient navel gazing. Presented there, evidently with a straight face, was hardly a fair comparison. Nice try. Who said this topic was going to be an easy walk in the park? Not us.


Our readers will know that we introduced the term OpenFrame Design in our last book: Rethinking Design Thinking: Making Sense of the Future that has Already Arrived. Happy to share what it looks like inserted into the comparison exercise seen in the “Vs” post.


Quote: “ST – Driven by a motivation to understand the big systemic picture

DT – Driven by a motivation to address parts of an identified system to arrive at a product/solution” Unquote.

OpenFrame Design – Driven by a motivation to make sense of complex messes in order to drive towards cocreated change in organizations and communities.


Quote: “ST – Adopts a stakeholder-led approach

DT – Adopts a customer/user-led approach” Unquote.

OpenFrame Design – Adopts a stakeholder-informed, participatory cocreation approach.


Quote: “ST – Focuses on satisficing and empowerment

DT – Focuses on optimization and solution delivery” Unquote.

OpenFrame Design – Focuses on empowering inclusive multidisciplinary cocreation, driving to practical outcomes.


Quote: “ST – Focuses on problem structuring

DT – Focuses on problem solving” Unquote.

OpenFrame Design – Is inclusive of cocreated Open Challenge Framing that creates systemic pictures informing multiple tracks of changemaking possibilities.


Quote: “ST – Considers every situation critically embracing the issues of values and power dynamics

DT – Considers an objective as given and has a tendency to bypass issues of values and power dynamics” Unquote.

OpenFrame Design – Understands that there is more to innovation, adaptation, changemaking then convergent thinking (critical thinking), thus rebalancing teams and ultimately organizational power dynamics to better address the shifting sands of continuous change.


Quote: “ST – Offers a range of methodologies for different kinds of problem situations

DT – Offers a set of indicative stages that can be used iteratively to arrive at customer/user solutions” Unquote.

OpenFrame Design – Understands that methodologies are navigation tools, not scripts and need to be accompanied by high levels of process skills mastery. Having an encyclopedic methodologies and techniques “playbook” does not constitute high mastery.


Quote: “ST – Participation in a systems thinking intervention process is considered from a critical angle

DT – Participation in a design thinking intervention process is considered to be problem-free” Unquote.

OpenFrame Design - Participation in an OpenFrame Design intervention process is considered to be an opportunity to extend beyond just thinking critically. Generative thinking is equally valued.

OpenFrame Design Additions:

OpenFrame Design connects organizational strategy to innovation strategy to adaptive innovation process to innovation behaviors to inclusive culture building…Systems Thinking does not.

OpenFrame Design powers organizational and societal adaptability by enabling Behavioral Ambidexterity…Systems Thinking does not.

OpenFrame Design champions both imaginative, generative thinking and analytical convergent thinking …. Systems Thinking does not.

OpenFrame Design reflects the Neurath/Wurman, Weick/Dervin school of SenseMaking …. Systems Thinking does not.

OpenFrame Design separates content knowledge from process knowledge … Systems Thinking does not.

OpenFrame Design tackles counterproductive shadow culture dynamics … Systems Thinking does not.

OpenFrame Design enables cognitive inclusion/psychological safety… Systems Thinking does not.

OpenFrame Design is inclusive of Visual SenseMaking, Life-Centered Ethnographic Empathy and Strategic Cocreation…Systems Thinking is not.

OpenFrame Design shows how to maximize diverse brainpower… Systems Thinking does not.

OpenFrame Design becomes the foundation for inclusive culture building… Systems Thinking does not.


From Humantific perspective, systems thinking remains inside OpenFrame Design as does Visual Sensemaking, Ethnographic Research and Strategic CoCreation. In its broadest sense systems thinking is part of a human-centered, life-centered orientation at the core of OpenFrame Design. It remains on the train and is as important as any other empathetic, strategic, spiritual, sustainable or community considerations. In the context of OpenFrame Design systems thinking is more about people, challenge landscapes and complex adaptative system considerations and less about input and output calculations. In short we want systems thinking to be humanized in order to sync up with the orientations and intentions of OpenFrame Design. Left to its own devices that is unlikely to occur.

OpenFrame Design was created for the context of Design for Complexity and is a conversation in progress.

Hope this is helpful NextD Journal readers. Happy Thursday from NYC.

PS: Happy to have a conversation with you Rajneesh Chowdhury.


Terminology Note: OpenFrame Design was introduced by Humantific as part of the Rethinking book as a general term to describe an approach to Design for Complexity. Other terms, some proprietary/branded and some not, also exist including Complexity Navigation, Meta Design, Strategic Design and Systemic Design. Part of their purpose is to signal a move away from the limitations of conventional design / design thinking.

Some have existed for more than a decade, while others are just now appearing, taking form. Some are singularities, some dualities, while others are multi-dimensional. Some contain behaviors, some do not. Some have up and running skill-building programs, some do not. Some are being directed into academia, others towards organizational leaders. This too is part of the complexity of the community of communities around this subject. All are no doubt works in continuous progress.

Opportunity: For Complexity methods related opportunities see Innovation Methods Mapping: Book 2….Design for Complexity Methods.

Corporate Sponsor: Humantific has been the corporate sponsor of NextD Journal and its various Design for Complexity activities since 2005. To become a sponsor write to us.

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