Holistic and dynamic concepts in design

Format: Papers, RSD3

Author: Birger Sevaldson

How may the inherent abilities of the designer contribute to the development of systemic design?
This presentation will be a rhetoric monologue that will discuss some of the ideas and approaches known in design over a long period of time. It will discuss these in relation to the emerging concept of systemic design. Earlier attempts to integrate systems thinking in design have largely failed. Explanations for this failure have been arguments about systems approaches being alien to designerly ways, or the systems approaches have been too inflexible and dogmatic and the seamless integration into designing has failed. But there might be other additional reasons that so far have been largely overlooked. I will argue that design over time has developed a series of concepts in dealing with complex issues and to generate holistic resolutions. Some of these ideas and concepts are so basic and embedded in the designerly DNA that this might explain why they have not been looked at closer in this discussion. Systemic approaches have faced a resistance when entering the fields of design not only because they misfit but also because they had to compete with already embedded and integrated approaches and concepts. The radical potential of systemic design is that it might create new ways of relating design and systems thinking and hence also these inherent designerly concepts. Understanding the inherent ideas and concepts in regard to systemic design will shed more light on the problems systems thinking has faced regarding the design field. I propose that these designerly concepts to deal with complexity and create holistic solutions are the core of what design brings to systems thinking.

One of the central features of the designer is the ability to create harmonic wholes. Confronted with many demands, briefs, complexities the designer aims at generating one holistic response that solves some or many of the contradictory inputs in the shape of a more or less esthetically beautiful and elegant form.

In resent debates in design research this ability to design has been regarded as less important compared to the effort to move design closer to scientific research. If this shift comes at the cost of the mentioned central ability it will be catastrophic on several levels. First this designerly ability is truly the hallmark of design work and it is a genuinely specific activity that is particular to designers. We might find seemingly similar activities in other neighbouring fields like art and engineering, but none of them have the complete and versatile version as found in design. There is a danger that abandoning this root competence will destroy design. The core competence of composing holistic solutions will erode and we will see lesser solutions. Even as we speak discussing beauty, elegance and aesthetics in the context of systems thinking seems problematic.

Presentation & paper

Citation Data

Author(s): OCTOBER 2017
Title: Holistic and dynamic concepts in design
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Article No.:
Symposium Dates:
First published: 28 September 2014
Last update:
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Copyright Information

Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (ISSN 2371-8404) are published annually by the Systemic Design Association, a non-profit scholarly association leading the research and practice of design for complex systems: 3803 Tønsberg, Norway (922 275 696).


Open Access article published under the CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License. This permits anyone to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or form according to the licence terms.

Suggested citation format (APA)

Author(s). (20##). Article title. Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design, RSD##. Article ##.

Publishing with RSD

Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design are published online and include the contributions for each format.

Papers and presentations are entered into a single-blind peer-review process, meaning reviewers see the authors’ names but not vice versa. Reviewers consider the quality of the proposed contribution and whether it addresses topics of interest or raises relevant issues in systemic design. The review process provides feedback and possible suggestions for modifications.

The Organising Committee reviews and assesses workshops and systems maps & exhibits with input from reviewers and the Programme Committee.

Editor: Cheryl May
Peter Jones
Ben Sweeting

The Scholars Spiral

In 2022, the Systemic Design Association adopted the scholars spiral—a cyclic non-hierarchical approach to advance scholarship—and in 2023, launched Contexts—The Systemic Design Journal. Together, the RSD symposia and Contexts support the vital emergence of supportive opportunities for scholars and practitioners to publish work in the interdisciplinary field of systemic design.

The Systemic Design Association's membership ethos is to co-create the socialization and support for all members to contribute their work, find feedback and collaboration where needed, and pursue their pathways toward research and practice outcomes that naturally build a vital design field for the future.


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