Dialogue: Ability to design in complexity


Berit Godfroij and Remko van der Lugt

Research Group Co-design, Research Institute Learning and Innovation, Utrecht University of Applied Sciences, The Netherlands

Complex societal issues – like how to live independently for young people with disabilities or how to stimulate energy transition in neighbourhoods – cannot be solved by a linear design process (Dorst, 2015), but takes place by means of value creation that unfolds over time among a whole host of actors (Vargo, Koskela-Huotari & Vink, 2020).

Recently, there has been a spate of interest in processes in which designers together with other actors transdisciplinary create value, and in applying co-design methods for complex societal issues. This study refers to the application of co-design methods in transdisciplinary value-creation for complex societal issues as ‘Co-design in Complexity’. Recent literature indicated that in co-design in complexity, actors often iteratively create and communicate design interventions – like prototypes or other tangible artefacts – to investigate a potential future (Zimmerman, Stolterman & Forlizzi, 2010; Roggema, 2017). According to Calabretta and colleagues (2017), design interventions “should drive the project […] until the completed implementation of the outcome” (Calabretta, Gemser & Karpen, 2017, p.224-225). However, project actors with different backgrounds may not be on the same page when it comes to prematurely building and testing design interventions (Godfroij & Van der Lugt, 2020). For example, some view the role of design interventions in the light of eventual implementation, and others as research artefacts for eliciting responses by the target group (Zielhuis, Van Gessel, Van der Lugt et al., 2020). From a Research-through-Design perspective, design is a practice-based activity aiming to generate knowledge (Stappers & Giaccardi, 2017) that is transferable (Durrant, Vines, Wallace et al., 2017) and communicable (Roggema, 2017). It focuses on ongoing discussions and negotiations of sense-making and scope refinement (e.g. by means of a LivingLabs-approach (Higgins & Klein, 2011]), rather than focusing on improving design practice (Roggema, 2017). From this perspective, design interventions, tangible artefacts, “boundary objects” (Star & Griesemer, 1989), etcetera support the knowledge generation process and contribute to a larger complex system.

Research Group Co-design has recently (2020) shifted in focus from creating tangible solutions and design interventions, towards generating knowledge on the role of design interventions in complex, dynamic and networked collaboration processes. The research group is interested in the integration of design interventions and domain-specific knowledge, skills, and attitudes from non-design actors. Knowledge on collaboration between various professionals (design and non-design disciplines) and future users has great importance for embracing complexity and inclusivity in systemic design. However, it is not completely understood how professionals from various disciplines (e.g. design and health) learn from each other and integrate their knowledge and competencies, while jointly develop innovation in complex co-design projects. This study hypothesizes that the integration of design interventions and domain-specific knowledge, skills, and attitudes from non-design actors is required to develop the “ability to design” in complexity. It addresses the question ‘How do designers and non-designers in collaboration transdisciplinary develop and integrate the ability to design in complexity?’

Conversation format

The aim of the dialogue session is to work with members of the RSD community towards an initial conceptual framework on “the ability to design in complexity”.

First, moderators of the dialogue session will share findings on this topic as identified in projects of the Research Group Co-design. The context of these research projects are sustainability, healthcare, and education, in which professionals with various backgrounds (e.g. engineers, physiotherapists, teachers) bring in domain-specific knowledge, skills, and attitudes (e.g. practice-based, theory-based, etc.), and designers bring in design tools, methods, and attitudes (e.g. explorative, problem-solving, etc.). After the presentation of initial findings, a round table discussion (three rounds) with participants of the dialogue session starts to generate knowledge and new ideas with regards to the meaning of ‘ability to design in complexity’, from various perspectives and with input from other complex co-design projects.

Two researchers of the Research Group Co-design (Utrecht University of Applied Sciences) will take the moderator roles in a dialogue session. We invite a maximum of 18 participants (the minimum number of participants is nine), and panel members are very welcome to join.

10 minutes

Presentation initial findings on ability to design in complexity.

30 minutes

3 x 10 minutes
Three rounds of table discussions.
Three groups of participants, amongst them one host.
Three groups, each offering space to (max.) six participants.

15 minutes

(3 x 5min)
Hosts present new ideas and examples from various perspectives.


Calabretta, G., Gemser, G. & Karpen, I. (2017). Strategic design: eight essential practices every strategic designer must master. BIS Publishers.

Dorst, K. (2015). Frame Creation and Design in the Expanded Field. The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 1 (1), 22–33.

Durrant, A. C., Vines, J., Wallace, J. & Yee, J. S. R. (2017). Research Through Design: Twenty-First Century Makers and Materialities. Design Issues, 33 (3), 3 – 10.

Godfroij, B. & Van der Lugt, R. (2020). Change and Novelty for Industrial Designers in Complex Design Projects for Healthcare. In Christer, Kirsty, Craig, Claire & Chamberlain, Paul (Eds.) Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Design4Health, The Netherlands, 1 (1), 186-193. Sheffield: Sheffield Hallam University.

Higgins, A., & Klein, S. (2011). Introduction to the Living Lab Approach. In Y.-H. Tan et al. (eds.), Accelerating Global Supply Chains with IT-Innovation, 31 DOI 10.1007/978-3-642-15669-4_2.

Roggema, R. (2017). Research by Design: Proposition for a Methodological Approach. Urban Science, 1 (1) 2, 2-19.

Star, L. & Griesemer, J.R. (1989). Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrete Zoology, 1907-39. Social Studies of Science, 19 (3), 387–420.

Stappers, P. & Giaccardi, E. (2017). Research through Design. In Soegaard, M. & Friis-Dam, R. (Eds.), The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, 2nd edition.

Vargo, S.L., Koskela-Huotari, K. & Vink, J. (2020). Service-Dominant Logic: Foundations and Applications. In Eileen Bridges & Kendra Fowler (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Service Research Insights and Ideas, (1st ed., pp. 1-21). London: Routledge.

Zielhuis, M., Van Gessel, C., Van der Lugt, R., Godfroij, B. & Andriessen, D. (2020). Grounding Practices: How researchers ground their work in create-health collaborations for designing e-health solutions. In Christer, Kirsty, Craig, Claire & Chamberlain, Paul (Eds.) Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Design4Health, The Netherlands, 1 (3), 142-152. Sheffield: Sheffield Hallam University.

Zimmerman, J., Stolterman, E. & Forlizzi, J. (2010). An Analysis and Critique of Research through Design. Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems, Denmark, 310-319.

Posted Sep-2021


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